Gym bro culture lets young men share the weight of workouts

UCLA student Eric Wang, 20, right, and his workout bro Eric Neufeld, 20, lift weights at the John Wooden Center.
UCLA student Eric Wang, 20, right, and his workout bro Eric Neufeld, 20, lift weights at the John Wooden Center.
(Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

Eric Wang dropped the bar. Three hundred thirty-five pounds bounced on the floor. He let out a tired breath as he turned toward a mirror hanging to his right.

It was his third set of the deadlift.

Chady Gemayel, his workout partner, pointed out Wang’s mirror-checking.

“Bro, don’t hate on the aesthetics,” replied Wang, as he chuckled while flexing in the reflection.


A junior at UCLA, Wang works at a chemistry research lab and is studying for graduate school entrance exams. One of his life goals is to become “the most jacked chemistry professor of all time.” His prospects look good: He bench presses more than 300 pounds and maintains a 3.5 GPA.

Wang is a self-described “gym bro” — a man in his 20s who works out with other young men recreationally to build muscle. Often associated with fraternities and the surfing subculture in Southern California, gym bros travel in packs of two or three to the gym, egging on one another in lifting routines.

According to Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, people began using “bro” to refer to male friends in the 1970s. Over the last decade, it’s become associated with more of a “conventional guy’s guy” and included subcultures like preppy bros, frat bros, surfer bros and gym bros.

The bro “is relatively affluent, he has been to college but is not too intellectual, he is lighthearted and likes enjoyable pursuits, and he hangs out with other men of the same ilk,” Martin said.

Of course, that definition is not always a rule: Chemistry is not often associated with bro culture.

Gym bros are defined by their intensive cycles of muscle-building “bulking” routines, characterized by lifting heavier weights and eating a lot of calories, followed by “cutting” routines, which involve more cardio and eating lean proteins to burn the fat left over from a “bulk.” They often take supplements, such as creatine and whey protein powder, but he explained that his is a natural routine, meaning he takes no steroids. But what makes their workouts particularly “bro” is the presence of other bros, with their advice and friendly competition.

“Realizing that having a partner — one of your boys — who’s looking out for you like you are looking out for him, you guys can accomplish more and have that time be more enjoyable,” said Ben Conlin, a Pepperdine senior who works at 24 Hour Fitness. He says he has seen many bros come by his gym, most of them working out together.

“You like to check out other dudes, in a sense that you like to compare yourself to other people,” Wang said. “I think in a male culture, that’s more frowned upon. But I think in the gym bro culture … it doesn’t matter whether you are straight or gay, you can check out other dudes and it won’t matter. You can admire the qualities of other people.”

Protein and dietary supplements populate the countertops of Wang’s small Westwood apartment, next to scraps of completed chemistry homework. From the walls hang a photo of astronaut Neil Armstrong — an alumnus of his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta — along with an American flag and a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he walks to the UCLA gym, a trip he makes five days a week, he occasionally wears a replica of the yellow “Gold’s Gym” tank-top Schwarzenegger made famous in the film “Pumping Iron” — one of Wang’s favorite movies.

“It’s this competitive culture with lifting, where you like to go to the gym and make your muscles look big and get that ‘pump’ in, when you do curls and your veins are popping,” said Wang. “It’s kind of the aesthetic lifestyle.”

In high school, after being “the skinny guy” for years, Wang said, he began his first bulk. He started lifting and drank a gallon of milk every day. The result: He added 25 pounds of fat and muscle in one month. After more regulated cycles of weight gain and fat burning, the 6-footer now weighs 183 pounds. Only 8% of that is body fat. He hasn’t yet competed as a body-builder but is considering it.

“In high school, I wanted to get big and impress the girls and impress my friends,” said Wang. “But then after I got into it, working out became more of a lifestyle because it just made me feel really good ... now I just do it for myself.”

For him, being a bro means leading a “balanced lifestyle” between his studies, his health and his social life. He said that a lot about being a bro is not taking it all too seriously.

“Academics come first,” said Wang. “I think it’s a great kind of lifestyle to have to try to be fit in many ways. But if you’re studying chemistry or studying math, that is your foremost job in college.” But being a gym bro has its benefits.

“Look good, feel good and live a good life in general,” Wang said. “That is the core of the culture: to live the best possible life.”


How to bulk up like a true gym bro

If you want to get big, you need to do what workout bros call “bulking.” These routines involve lifting heavy weights over the course of many sets until you tire out different muscle groups. Each day, Eric Wang targets certain muscle groups, with two days off a week. Often such workouts focus on expanding muscle size rather than purely building strength or developing good form. In a more professional setting, these workouts would be used by bodybuilders rather than Olympic powerlifters who want to lift as much weight as possible. without a need to “look big”).

Diet is also a key component of any bulking routine. When lifting, bros often refer to and repeatedly look at their “pump,” which is the swelling of a muscle when blood rushes to it during a workout. A good bulking diet has about 4,000 total calories a day, with 250 grams of fat and 200 grams of protein. One day a week, Wang eats as he pleases, with the calories still adding up to about 4,000. Bros often gain whatever they want and a lot of it during a bulk, building a lot of both fat and muscle during the process. After about three months, they then start a “cutting” routine, with about half the daily calories, to burn off the fat.