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Which Muscles Make Men More Attractive?

In what way are athletic men attractive?

Key points

  • What precisely is it about athleticism and physical fitness in men that women might find attractive?
  • Upper body strength was more useful for our male ancestors in accessing and subsequently defending resources.
  • Men and women universally responded that upper body muscles were important to male attractiveness.
Attractive man and woman
Source: Maridav/Shutterstock

There are numerous facets to heterosexual male attractiveness. For example, having the desire to have and invest in children, having high social status, and good earning potential to provide for offspring, and genetic potential evident in displays of intelligence and athleticism.

Athleticism in men is displayed through shows of stamina, endurance, speed, and physical strength. What precisely is it about athleticism and physical fitness in men that women find attractive and what are the most reliable outward indications of this? For example, do developed muscles provide a good indication, and is it the case that the development of some muscles provides more reliable indications of male fitness than others?

In our evolutionary past, male upper body strength and muscles would have been more advantageous for acquiring and defending resources such as food and territory. Based on this reasoning, women’s attractiveness ratings of men should be influenced more by upper body strength compared to lower body strength.

It is also the case that some muscles take men more effort to build, and therefore we may ask whether these muscles provide clearer cues to male fitness? Of course, it is possible to build strong muscles through training and exercise, yet it is unlikely that men who spend effort and time in the gym would be perceived by women as more attractive.

Furthermore, physically attractive women with high mate value should have the ability to select stronger and more athletic men. If men with developed muscles are attractive to women, then women with higher mate value should be more attracted to men with more developed muscles.

Researchers from Spain and the US examined preferences for certain muscle groups in men, by showing participants a diagram of a male and asking them to rate size for 14 different muscle groups. More specifically, participants in the study were asked: “How do you find this muscle?” From "highly muscled" to "not muscled at all." They were also asked to answer "yes" or "no" to the question: “Does this muscle affect men’s attractiveness.” Finally, participants were asked: “How attractive do you consider yourself?” From "not at all attractive" to "very attractive." A selection of participants who had experience as sports trainers was asked an additional question rating the difficulty of building each muscle from "extremely difficult" to "not at all difficult" (Durkee et al, 2019).

When participants were asked the question: “Does this muscle affect men’s attractiveness," both men and women universally responded that upper body muscles were important to male attractiveness, whereas muscles in the lower body were rated as important by only about half of participants. This finding gives support to the evolutionary psychology perspective that developed upper-body muscles indicate greater mate value in men, as such muscles would be beneficial in acquiring and defending resources.

The researchers also found that the preferences given by men for larger muscles were higher than the size preferences indicated by women, and the same pattern existed across all muscles. Several reasons are suggested for this. First, larger muscles would be advantageous in aggressive competition between men, which also makes men with larger muscles more desirable as allies. Second, men generally report wanting to be more attractive to women as a reason for developing larger muscles. Third, in the media, males with larger muscles are portrayed as more successful and attractive, which might motivate other men to try to emulate this type of appearance.

Finally, the researchers asked: “How attractive do you consider yourself?” They found that self-rated attractiveness measured with this question, from "not at all attractive" to "very attractive," was related to preferences for muscles that were rated as hardest to develop. More specifically, attractive women preferred more developed muscles in men, which means that women higher in mate value are likely to be choosier and select men who are physically developed. This is consistent with the fact that attractive women are generally more selective in their mate choice overall. However, the relationship between self-perceived attractiveness and preference for muscle size in males was not evident for certain muscles such as obliques, abdominals, glutes, and quads, which are lower in the body compared to the other muscles assessed in this study. This again illustrates that muscles in the upper body are more pertinent in judgments of male attractiveness.

The general take-home: Upper body strength was more useful for our male ancestors in accessing and defending resources and women still view men with developed upper body muscles as more desirable. However, developed muscles are only part of the story in terms of male attraction, so before you rush to the gym to start working on that upper body strength, remember that there is a multitude of other factors that influence male attraction. Upper body strength is simply one part of what makes men attractive.


Durkee, P. K., Polo, P., Munoz-Reyes, J. A., Rodrıguez-Ruiz, C., Losada-Perez, M., Fernandez-Martınez, A. B., Turiegano, E., Buss, D. M., & Pita, M. (2019) ‘Men’s Bodily Attractiveness: Muscles as Fitness Indicators’ Evolutionary Psychology, April 1–10.