FOR NEARLY 500 YEARS, Michelangelo’s David stood in tribute to the ideal male form, and it took Brad Pitt less than 20 seconds to destroy it. For the uninitiated, the moment comes about 45 minutes into his 1999 movie Fight Club, when Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, takes a turn in the underground fighting ring he helped create. After pummeling his opponent into the floor, Durden rises, shirtless and bloody, exposing his full physique to the audience. And we haven’t looked away since.
20th Century Studios
Perhaps that’s because while the statue of David is all about perfectly proportional muscles and rippling abs, Durden looked both powerful and degenerate. He was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking antihero with jagged abs shaped like sharks’ teeth and a crazy-low level of body fat.
The film flopped—at least initially—returning just over half of its $67 million budget domestically. And yet the Brad Pitt Fight Club Body has attained near mythological status among men of all stripes. In the early aughts, Pitt’s lean and chiseled look appeared on posters that plenty of guys hung up in their dorm rooms. (I’ll admit, I had one.) A decade later, the movie had become a cult classic and cultural flash point, selling enough DVDs that the special edition was reissued, while in 2013 actor Charlie Hunnam became the first of many leading men to publicly point out how nearly impossible it would be to match Pitt’s physical standard in that role.
Granted, part of Pitt’s ultra-shredded appeal may have been that he was appearing on the heels of two decades of muscle-bound beefcakes like Arnold and Sly, who presented their own unattainable caricatures of masculinity. Unlike the Terminator or Rambo, Durden was a soap salesman who fought against normal stuff—or, rather, our resignation to complacency and (in his eyes at least) emasculating social norms. Sometimes that meant brawling with random guys in a bar basement, although eventually it led to a darker scheme to free others from our cultural fixation on money as a measure of self-worth.
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden during the now classic Fight Club basement scene (20th Century Studios)
But Pitt wasn’t trying to create a fitness ideal like the Hemsworths and Wahlbergs of today, who market themselves as walking wellness brands. It was one part of one character in one movie in a career that contains multitudes. Still, the Durden obsession continues in Hollywood, with stars like Kumail Nanjiani, Dax Shepard, and Rob McElhenney all holding up Pitt’s Fight Club body as their own inspiration or ideal.
“When that movie came out, there was absolutely a shift,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School and a coauthor of The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, who helped coin the term “muscle dysmorphia.” “I started hearing with my patients that the goal wasn’t to look like Muscle & Fitness. It was more around Brad Pitt.” Thousands of people still Google some variation of “Brad Pitt Fight Club” every month, with thousands also searching for his workout, according to Semrush, an analytics company that tracks the popularity of online search terms.
Pitt’s first rule of the Fight Club Body may be that he’s no longer interested in talking about the Fight Club Body. (He did not respond to our request for an interview.) But plenty of others affected by the movie still fixate on it. Once we tracked them down, they confirmed just how enduring and problematic the illusory standard has become. It turns out there are really three main components to the allure, and like the movie itself, each affects our view of a healthy male body image in more complicated ways than you may think.
WHEN McELHENNEY and Nanjiani appeared on Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast in March 2020, McElhenney shared that the Fight Club Body is still “the primo, number-one all-time body” that his own celebrity trainer has told him guys want to achieve. Shepard agreed and even fanboyed out over the now GIF-able basement scene. “Before the shirt comes off, you’re not really noticing very much,” he said. “But when the shirt comes off, you’re like, oh Jesus.” Their entire conversation continued with at least some awareness of the absurdity: At one point, Nanjiani said the actor appears “pretty small” but great, even though that’s the opposite of the superhero idols of today, who are, as McElhenney once put it, “fucking jacked.”
Therein may lie the biggest appeal for normal guys: Unlike the supreme swoleness of someone like the Rock, Pitt’s physique isn’t about getting outrageously bigger; it’s about honing what you’ve already got under the shirt. In theory, that could make his transformation seem more doable to some men—that is, until you consider exactly who you’re watching. “I have a feeling that this motherfucker kind of walks around looking like that,” McElhenney joked on the podcast.
Don Saladino, NASM, a Men’s Health advisory board member who has trained Ryan Reynolds, Hugh Jackman, and others, says many of his clients still show up seeking that look, too. But McElhenney’s jokes may have some truth to them: Saladino calls Pitt an “ectomorph,” which means his lean frame doesn’t carry much body fat naturally. So he’s got a head start when getting chiseled. As Mike Runyard, the film’s stunt coordinator, told Men’s Health UK in a 2016 story about the movie: “Brad just turned up looking like that. That was his deal. I didn’t do anything with him. I saw him using hand weights on set, but that was it.”
In Fight Club, Pitt’s durden is explicitly anti-fitness (20th Century Studios)
Saladino guesses that the actor also likely went through a “cut”—a period in which bodybuilders and other athletes limit macronutrients and water to lose mass, which can create an ultra-lean, muscular look but comes with side effects, including weakness, irritability, even hormone imbalances and/or suppressed immune function. All of which is to say, there’s a level of genetics and stunt dieting that probably makes the Fight Club Body not achievable for most guys without proper coaching, even though plenty have wrecked themselves in pursuit of it.
The exact routine that Pitt used to achieve his Fight Club physique hasn’t ever been confirmed and is pretty inconsequential. If you’re seeking to reshape your body in a healthy way, hard work and consistency are far more important than a proprietary fitness plan, says Duffy Gaver, author of Hero Maker and the trainer who helped Pitt bulk up for 2004’s Troy. Gaver thinks Pitt’s true superpower is his motivation. “People have this desire to feel special. Like I got a special car, I got special clothes, I got special stuff. I have a special trainer that has a special workout,” he says. “The idea that there’s a special workout out there is just a fucking marketing thing for the industry to sell you shit.” Tyler Durden couldn’t have said it better himself.
THE GLARE of Pitt’s own fame likely made both his onscreen physique and Durden as a character seem even more appealing. When the film first dropped, “[Pitt] was this real, kind of god-level movie star you don’t see anymore,” says Brian Raftery, author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever., which explores the landmark films of 1999 as a pop-cultural turning point.
Pitt had become a heartthrob immediately with his breakthrough role in 1991’s Thelma & Louise and by 1995 was displaying range in thrillers like Se7en and 12 Monkeys. Toss in some high-profile tabloid romances, and by the time Fight Club appeared in 1999, Pitt had been named People’s Sexiest Man Alive once already, something he’d repeat in 2000. Today he’s the kind of actor (and producer) who, even in his 50s, can still wow audiences both in serious roles and with his shirt off. He did both in 2019’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, 20 years after Fight Club, to earn his first onscreen Oscar, for best supporting actor. Check out IMDb and you can see that Pitt’s had plenty of other thirsty roles. (Gaver even made Pitt’s workouts for Troy available online and in his book, but the Brad Pitt Achilles Body has never quite taken off.)
Perhaps that’s because Fight Club’s Tyler Durden seems like someone you could conceivably sit next to on a plane and wind up becoming friends with, even if he’s played by Pitt. He has everything an impressionable young man could want—the stylishly absurd wardrobe, marathon sex sessions with Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla Singer, and no scruples about his behavior—but he doesn’t make those things feel beyond the audience’s reach, either. “People walking out of Fight Club weren’t thinking, Boy, Tyler Durden is really a dangerous person to emulate, and Edward Norton’s character’s really not well,” Raftery says. “They walked out thinking, Man, Tyler Durden is cool, and Brad Pitt looks awesome, and that’s who I want to be.”
Pitt as Durden in Fight Club is explicitly anti-fitness (20th Century Studios)
It helps that Durden is no superhero. The character is even explicitly anti–fitness regimen, chain-smoking throughout the film. In one scene, immediately before his shirtless fight, Durden and Edward Norton’s narrator critique a Gucci underwear ad on a bus, with Durden scoffing at the male models. (A nice sentiment, even if it is coming from Brad Pitt.)
Rather than honing his muscles, Durden is more concerned with using them—the same mindset held by adherents of functional fitness, yoga, and MMA training, all pursuits that have since risen to prominence in the fitness industry. A comment Pitt made to CNN in 1999, responding to critics’ complaints about the film’s violent themes, echoed this ethos. “The idea is just to get in there, have an experience, take a punch, more importantly, and see how you come out on the other end—test yourself,” he said.
Pitt humanized that experience so well that Durden became unforgettable. “When people talk about chemistry onscreen, they’re usually talking about two people, how they get along,” says Raftery. “But there’s also chemistry between the performer and the character they play, where it becomes so inseparable that if you were to see Brad Pitt walking down the street a couple weeks after Fight Club came out, would you think that’s Brad Pitt? Or would you think that’s Tyler Durden?”
THERE’S ONE MORE aspect to the Fight Club Body that men may envy, even if it’s not immediately easy to pinpoint. “There was actually something even more threatening about [Durden] than Hulk Hogan,” says Olivardia, the Harvard psychologist, calling back to a longtime body-dysmorphic trigger. “[Pitt’s] body really communicated this message of functionality.”
Especially by the end of the film, when Norton’s and Pitt’s characters finally face off: Durden appears to carry himself like an accomplished fighter, seamlessly switching between martial-arts stances. At one point he holds his arms out wide, as though inviting anyone to stop him.
Pitt reportedly took boxing and taekwondo classes with Norton to prepare for his fights. He’s since continued such hands-on training whenever a role demands it (see: Snatch, Troy, and even Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood). “He put in a lot of time, as he does with all his movies,” says Robert Alonzo, a stunt coordinator who helped Pitt develop the hand-to-hand chops needed to play stuntman and former soldier Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. “He’s very committed, and so obviously the proof is in the pudding. You see it onscreen.”
Onscreen, Pitt’s level of physical comfort and flow comes off as something else. Even way back with Durden, he had swagger (long before that term became overused). It’s like he’s constantly aware of his body and what it can do. I know about that feeling because, years after that Fight Club poster came down from my wall, I took up Muay Thai, training four to six days a week for four years. Over time, the sport taught me that you don’t need to beat someone down to feel stronger. If you can focus on technique and keep your primal urges in check, you’ll gain an almost palpable sense of self-control. That’s something I recognize in Pitt’s performance.
BRAD PITT THROUGH THE YEARS
For those still interested in the Fight Club Body, you should also know that Pitt admittedly smoked as much off-screen as he did in character. How he looked and how he felt were two different things. “Even Brad would tell me he was smoking heavily, which is one of the reasons he was so lean,” says Gaver, who adds that Pitt quit cigarettes when they worked together. “He couldn’t throw more than a few punches till he had to lean on something and catch his breath. It’s funny that probably one of the most iconic physiques that people aspire to was, at that time, wildly unhealthy.”
Don’t forget the biggest irony, which is that Tyler Durden didn’t even exist to begin with. (After two decades, you can only blame yourself if that’s a spoiler.) Toward the end of the movie, we learn that he’s a figment of the narrator’s imagination. The whole film is a satire on the state of modern masculinity, with Norton’s character representing Who We Are and Pitt’s character the dangers of Who We Want to Be. Many people have misinterpreted that—including members of the alt-right and men’s movements, some of whom misread the toxicity as justification for their warped views. But Pitt and Norton famously laughed through most of the movie’s Venice Film Festival world premiere. The Fight Club Body wasn’t supposed to inspire us. It was part of a much darker joke.
This story appears in the October 2022 issue of Men’s Health.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.