Why Top Athletes Don't Look Like Fitness Influencers (Usually)

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Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, or the Kansas City Chiefs' tight end—depending on your interests and allegiances—is in his “dad bod era,” according to InStyle. This nugget of insight originated from a story published in The Daily Mail last week, citing an exclusive insider source who said Swift was “enjoying” Travis Kelce’s new figure, which has apparently gained 30 pounds since his Super Bowl victory earlier this year. It is good to love your body and your boyfriend’s body. But many people—myself included—were confused to see a key piece of the NFL team that won the last Super Bowl described as having a dadbod.

In fact, this is an instructive moment where we can take a step back and think about the difference between how a body looks and how it performs, because the two are often conflated online.

Top-performing athletes don’t look like fitness influencers. When you don’t have a scoreboard to co-sign your ability, influencers often have to rely on their appearance. Massive lats and visible veins are used to bolster claims about their exclusive workout programs and proprietary supplement blends. And if your Instagram feed and FYP are filled with fitness influencers, you might have a warped perspective of what performance (and health) look like.

Ben Carpenter, a personal trainer, author, and fitness model, makes this abundantly clear. Addressing a professionally lighted image of a ripped six-pack, he said, “This isn’t fitness. This isn’t healthy.” It was a photo of his abs from his time as a fitness model. “Being really, really lean fucking sucks,” he said, as he was perpetually exhausted, constantly hungry, and devoid of libido—which shows that optimizing for a good photo can have major compromises on your performance, in multiple ways.

And those hulking influencers curling in the squat rack of your mind often have some help. Winning a bodybuilding competition without steroids is impossible, as one expert told the Washington Post in 2022. And these steroid regimens can have devastating long-term effects, “especially in the heart, the reproductive system and the brain.”

Athletes like Kelce, whether on- or off-season, benefit from having much more mass than a bodybuilder with single-digit body fat. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, athletes like football players “can benefit from mass increases in either form (fat included)” because this additional mass can increase their stability. These athletes might reduce their weight to increase agility, but that’s going to look far less dramatic than a “cut” you see on Instagram.

It’s a personal decision on whether you want to go all-in on performance or how you look on the beach. Obviously you don’t have to choose between trying to look good and trying to get stronger (see: any gym, basketball court, swimming pool, etc.). But we should be honest about what’s what. Visible abs means little more than works out a lot and probably very hungry. If you touch grass—perhaps a rec soccer pitch—you’ll see that performance will look different on every individual.

Originally Appeared on GQ