When comparing our fitness and physiques to others can be useful, and how to do so like a scientist
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
The idea that it’s always a bad thing to compare our fitness levels and physiques to others is BS. Comparing yourself to others can be extremely useful, if you challenge yourself to think like a scientist. I’ll show you how in this article.
If you'd prefer to listen to this article, here it is as a podcast episode!
One of my clients came to me recently and said, “The gal who does my hair has a stunning physique. I want to look like her! What do I need to do?”
My client wasn’t making an overt, she’s-better-than-me comparison, but she’s still using someone other than herself to set fitness and physique goals. And she’s implying that her stylist’s physique is of a higher caliber than her own, and that it’s something she wants to have for herself.
Many coaches would’ve told their client, “It’s not very useful to compare yourself to others. Let’s try working toward the best version of you.” And they may have sent along one of the many articles called “How To Stop Comparing Yourself to Others” that litter the internet (seriously, there are tons of them).
While they might have their client’s best interests in mind, I call bullshit.
The idea that we should never compare ourselves to others is BS. You might hear it from someone who has good intentions, but there are 2 problems with this:
1. We’re wired to compare ourselves to others, in various ways. There are useful and not-so-useful ways of doing so, of course, but we can’t just not do it at all.
2. If you never compared yourself to anyone else, you’d be missing out on the potential benefits.
So, I’m making the assumption that everyone compares themselves to other people at least occasionally, even if it’s just seeing a physique you admire and telling your trainer you want to look like that.
What I’m sharing here is how to compare yourself to others so it benefits you, rather than undermines your self-worth.
Four important points before we begin:
1. Comparing ourselves to others is optional. I’m not saying it’s something we should do. I’m saying that it’s absolutely natural to compare ourselves to others, and there are positive and negative ways of doing so. So if you’re going to compare yourself to others, you might as well do it in a way that benefits you.
2. It’s possible (and preferable) to be happy with your fitness and physique now, and want to change something about your fitness or physique. These things are not mutually exclusive.
3. In this article - and everywhere else! - I want to make it clear that I celebrate all types of healthy bodies. I’ll be mentioning specific types of bodies when I give examples, but know that healthy bodies come in absolutely all shapes and sizes.
4. Every body responds differently to training. I could have 20 clients on the exact same training program, and after 3 months, we’d have 20 different results. Just because someone is training a certain way doesn’t mean that you training that way will get you the same results.
When comparing ourselves to others is not useful:
I’ll concede that, in many cases, it’s probably not useful to compare yourself to others.
In the age of social media, we’re seeing highlight reels, not real life. We’re often comparing the worst we know about ourselves to the best we see in others. For certain individuals, making comparisons can negatively affect their self-esteem. Instead of being inspiring, it can be demotivating.
Also, we’re often comparing ourselves to people in entirely different situations, with entirely different body types to our own. (More on this later.)
When comparing ourselves to others can be useful:
It can show you what’s possible.
It can inspire you to try new things. Things you hadn’t thought of, things you’ve been afraid to try, or things you didn’t think you could do.
It can give you insight into what you might change about your health and fitness habits to get you improved results.
It can help you appreciate others, including the hard work they’ve done, the challenges they’ve overcome, and the goals they’ve achieved.
How to compare yourself to others like a scientist
We’re going to use the critical thinking and research skills used by scientists when they conduct literature reviews, and apply them to comparing ourselves to others - especially when we’re doing so in order to set fitness and physique goals.
Obviously in many cases we make split-second comparisons and aren’t consciously thinking our way through them, but I’d like to challenge you to take the following 3 steps into account when you find yourself comparing yourself to someone, or when you’re about to actively seek out people to whom you’re going to compare yourself. (I.e. going down an Instagram fitspo rabbit hole.)
1. Look for trends across many data points whenever possible
In scientific literature, we shouldn’t make conclusions about anything just by looking at a single study. What we want to do is look at the literature as a whole. In health, fitness, and nutrition research, you’ll find lots of studies with conflicting results. You need to look at all of them in order to get a sense of what’s most supported.
Ever notice that elite, competitive athletes within certain sports all have similar physiques? Runners have a certain physique. Swimmers have a certain physique. Gymnasts have a certain physique. Rock climbers have certain physiques. Bodybuilders have a certain physique. Obviously there’s a ton of variation within each of these, but again we’re looking at trends across many data points.
I think there are two factors at play here:
1. People with body types genetically well suited for certain sports often gravitate toward those, especially in elite athletics.
For example, famed Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s arm span is 3 inches longer than his height. Normally our arm span (a.k.a. “wingspan”) is equal to our height, so this anomaly was a huge advantage for Phelps, helping him to achieve immense pulling power in the water.
2. Training for a certain sport will change your physique and make it more and more adapted and specific to that sport.
If you take up long-distance cycling, you’re probably gonna lose body fat. If you take up powerlifting, you’re probably gonna gain muscle.
Let me give you a general example when it comes to physiques that isn’t necessarily based on a specific sport: people with visible ab muscles (something many of my new clients say they want).
People with visible ab muscles all have achieved a certain level of leanness (low body fat level). They will all train at least once a day, often more. They will all heavily focus on their diets, to the point where social situations can become difficult. They will all prioritize de-stressing on a daily basis, and getting enough sleep every night.
Different people will have entirely different workout programs or macronutrient ratios or de-stressing techniques or sleep schedules. But the point is, people with physiques at a certain point of leanness will all do basic things similarly. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re comparing yourself to others.
So, let’s say you want to lose fat. Instead of finding one individual who’s been successful at fat loss and copying their exact plan, look for 10, or 20, or 30 people who have successfully lost fat, and find similarities.
Some of those people probably followed keto, some may have gone vegan, others may have been doing paleo or intermittent fasting, and others followed diets that didn’t have labels. All these diets potentially work. There’s nothing magical about any one of these diets in creating fat loss. What’s the similarity between them all? Being in a calorie deficit. So that’s what you need to do - in a way that works for you.
The same goes for performance goals. Let’s say you want to do your very first pull-up. It’d be useful to check out others who have achieved their first pull-up to see what they did. Don’t look at just one random Instagram model doing pull-ups. Find as many people as you can who’ve achieved their first pull-up, and look for similarities. You’ve gotta have a decent amount of data to work with!
Actual training programs will most definitely vary from person to person, but you’ll see similarities. People who can do pull-ups typically:
- followed a program (they didn’t just jump up to the bar one day and find that they can pull themselves up).
- are fairly lean (relatively low levels of body fat).
- have practiced pull-ups (or pull-up progression exercises) on multiple days of the week for quite a long time. Of course the actual time frame will vary from person to person, but the theme is that they’ve put in consistent work.
If you want to nail your first pull-up, you’d need to make sure you’ve got these similarities figured out. Then use them to create your own plan of action that contains those basic parts. For pull-ups, that means having a program to follow, being at (or getting to) a relatively high level of leanness, and putting in consistent work over a long period of time.
Exactly what program you follow or exactly how you lose fat (if necessary) is secondary to these main points.
Just like when you’re doing research and looking at peer-reviewed journal articles, you need to look at more than one data point. Rather than looking at one Instagram model who has a physique you admire, find 10. Or 20. Then look at what they’re all doing similarly.
2. Make sure you’re not comparing apples to oranges
In scientific research, one of the most important questions you can ask is, “Compared to what?” Was there a control group in the study? Did they compare two (or more) different interventions and see which one performed better?
Also, who were the study subjects? Can we apply the results found within a certain group of people to the population at large?
You need to ask similar questions when you’re comparing your physique and fitness levels to someone else’s.
What situation, exactly, are you comparing yourself to? And how similar (or different) is it to your own?
If you work in an office 65 hours a week, don’t compare yourself to a sponsored athlete who trains 5 hours a day. Find a colleague at your company whom you admire, and see if you can learn something from him or her.
If you’re naturally lean and you find it extremely hard to add muscle, find someone who was formerly skinny and bulked up, rather than some muscle dude who puts on weight by just looking at a squat rack.
I’m gonna use myself as an example for a sec. I absolutely love Crossfit athlete Tammi Robinson’s physique. If I could choose a physique for myself, it’d be hers. She’s built, she’s got absolutely shredded abs, and just looks incredible. I’d love to look like her.
However, I’m comparing apples to oranges. She’s a competitive Crossfit athlete. I don’t do Crossfit, and I’m not a competitive athlete. She’s quite a bit younger than I am. She trains twice a day, every day. She probably doesn’t have scoliosis and asthma and food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis like I do. She coaches people in a gym all day. I sit on my ass coaching people online.
So it’s pretty pointless for me to compare myself to her.
What I should do - for inspiration, or just to see what’s possible - is look for people in similar situations as mine. Or, you know, just work on being the best I can be, with no comparisons necessary. That’s an option too, of course.
If I were to compare myself to someone in a similar situation, it’d be someone like my friend and coach Meghan Callaway. She also does a lot of online coaching, she’s got a similar body type to me, she’s built her strength up from scratch after being in a car accident (kinda similar to my ongoing low back issues that’re still being figured out), and she’s an absolute beast when it comes to pull-ups. To me, that’s super inspiring and gives me some useful ideas to apply to my own training!
3. Watch your language
The way we talk about things and the words we use matter. Language can affect how we - and those we’re speaking with - perceive something.
Social scientists often find that they get different answers to the same question when they slightly change the wording - even just one word.
When comparing yourself to others, the point is not to endeavour to look like her or look like him. The truth is, you’ll always look like you. It’s completely fine to want to work toward a different version of yourself, but it’s still always gonna be you.
When you find someone whose shoulders you admire, for example, rather than saying, “I want her shoulders!”, you could try, “I want to train like her for 2 months and see how my own muscles will respond”.
Be mindful of the language you use to describe your own body, as well. Shaming, guilt-tripping, or hating your way to fitness is not a psychologically healthy - or fun! - strategy.
Instead of saying, “I hate my love handles!”, try, “I’d like to challenge myself to get a bit leaner.”
Instead of, “My upper body is so weak!”, how about, “I’d like to set some exciting strength goals for my upper body”.
Same goes for the self-talk you engage in about nutrition. Rather than, “I can’t eat that” or “I shouldn’t eat that”, how about, “I’m working on eating more veggies and more whole grains”, or, “I’m eating more lower-calorie, higher nutrient density foods”.
This way, you’re operating from a more positive mindset of abundance, rather than a negative mindset of deprivation or avoidance.
Bonus tip: turn aesthetic goals into performance goals
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with training because you want to change how you look. Who doesn’t want to look awesome?! I’m not in the business of imposing goals on anyone, so I won’t suggest not training for looks.
However, I am going to suggest adding in some performance-based goals - or even training entirely for performance if that suits you better.
In an article by the awesome Jordan Syatt, he describes what happened when he started training for performance rather than aesthetics. It’s precisely how I feel as well. Here’s what he writes:
It wasn’t until I stopped training for aesthetics and started training for performance that I truly built a body of which I could be proud....
For the first time in my life I actually loved how I looked naked...
Through training like an athlete I began to train with a purpose which not only helped me get stronger and healthier, but actually helped to decrease my body fat and increase my muscle mass.
In other words, I started to look like I actually lifted weights.
Best of all?
Training for performance helped me get rid of all lingering psychological issues with my body. No longer was I concerned with how I looked; instead, I was focused on how my body performed and nothing – I mean nothing – feels better than performing like an athlete.
I love that. I think you can combine training for aesthetics and training for performance in a way that works for you.
I train so I can do a ridiculous number of pull-ups and lift heavy shit. And I want to look like I do a ridiculous number of pull-ups and lift heavy shit.
When it comes down to it, it’s probably best to compare yourself to only one person: yourself. Did you do better today than you did yesterday? Are you happier today than you were yesterday? That’s really the only thing you can be certain about.
However, it’s only natural to compare ourselves to others. If (and when) you do, make sure you look at many different data points so you can find trends and similarities. Make sure you’re not comparing apples to oranges, and take note of the language you use.
Calories and macros on a vegan diet: A free e-book for you!
Download Karina’s free 32-page ebook that shows you how to track your food, calculate calories, and set macro goals on a vegan diet. You’ll even get step-by-step instructions – complete with a printable grocery list – for how to prep a week’s worth of delicious Buddha bowls in 60 minutes or less.