I always thought bodybuilding culture was BIZARRE, when I thought about it at all, and in many ways it is. But I helped my partner Nick with his competition prep, last year, and watched him go on to win Men’s Classic Physique as an actual first-time amateur. This experience, in combination with my own almost daily strength training over the last year-plus, has caused me to have a shift in perception around bodies and body stuff, and one which I think is worth sharing.
So here’s something basic: human bodies are more or less muscular, with a higher or lower percent of body fat. Aesthetically speaking, it really comes down to muscle and fat. Literally just that. Muscle. Fat. Not even muscle versus fat. More muscle versus less muscle; more fat versus less fat. Two spectrums we negotiate, which combine to express how our bodies look, and both of which are malleable.
We have ALLLLL kinds of emotions and judgements and blame and sensitivity about our own bodies, other people’s bodies, how everyone looks, how everyone should or shouldn’t look, but I’ll tell you who has a straightforward handle on this: the bodybuilding community. It is a meritocracy in the truest sense and frankly, it’s refreshing.
It’s just a given, in that world, that everyone has the ability to manipulate their own degree of muscularity and their own percentage of body fat. Not that it’s easy, and not that it’s even healthy — simply that it’s controllable. That’s your ticket to ride, and there’s no faking it. I saw with my own two eyes, at the competition, that even when there’s a “prettier” competitor on stage versus a more homely one, the judges preference “composition” — evidence of the successful manipulation of muscle and fat — every single time, plus posing (ie flexing) which is its own art. Now, if it comes down to two or more competitors whose body composition and posing is equivalent, then the genetic grace of that compositional excellence will break the tie. At the amateur level, composition is king. The more pro the show, the more of a “given” this compositional excellence becomes, and the stakes get higher in terms of genetic grace.
This was astounding to me on a level I’ll try to convey: like, I wanted to turn around in my seat, at the show, and ask people — are they allowed to just…judge people’s bodies like that?
I’m so accustomed to this assessment of physical conditioning as being all wrapped up in self worth, reflexive sensitivity, anger, apologetic passive-aggression. I mean, we live in a world where everyone, everywhere is “just” trying to lose ten pounds. “Just” trying to tone up. “Just” trying to fit in their jeans from two years ago. Just trying to stay within a really wide set of guardrails of physical okay-ness. And in this world, you’re something of an asshole if you admit to caring about bodies, your own or anyone else’s, outside the boundaries of tacitly approved health markers. Like, we’re not supposed to look like we’re at risk for adult-onset diabetes, so it’s okay to think and feel things in response to that, but barely — and even there, we’re on thin ice. We also feel a lot more comfortable with athletics, in the sense of judging people, ranking them, *in terms of* what their bodies can DO, relative to a physical challenge — strength and grace and economy *as applied to* a sport, or acrobatics, or dance.
It was pretty crazy, honestly, to sit in this huge auditorium of observers who’ve come together to literally rank men and women in terms of their physicality and only that. It felt almost like a “fourth wall” was being transgressed — that’s a theater term which means, all the actors on the stage are supposed to pretend the audience isn’t there, while at the same time obviously cavorting for that same audience. And that’s an apt analogy because that’s what we’re all doing, in a sense — pretending not to care about body aesthetics, outside of certain conceptual gestures, when really we do. We care a lot. And that’s what I want to unpack here.
First off, I want to salvage personal aesthetics, period. We all look different, so we can just stop roasting that chestnut. The fact that you look different from everyone else, and always will, is not under attack, here, and neither is self worth. This blog is about the possibility of a personal trajectory from where we are to where we could be, aesthetically, without a scrap of self-worth involvement. And it’s important to note that most of us fuss over our appearances anyway, and yet we suffer from an unconsciously inverse relationship in what we fuss over versus how much it actually moves the needle.
For instance, I’ve fussed with hair, makeup, and clothing quite a bit, over the years. And I’ve made some good discoveries. There’s nothing wrong with surface-level fussing. Ironically, though, we’re usually fussing over the wrong thing. We’re semi-blind — we know something’s off but we can’t “see” what, in the mirror. The improvement we need to make is the one that everyone around us can plainly observe, but they’re too polite to mention. I fussed with hair and makeup all through my teens while having a uni-brow it hadn’t occurred to me to tweeze; all through my 20’s while having really thick forearm hair it hadn’t occurred to me to epilate; all through my 30’s while having a markedly asymmetric jaw and a smile that begged for orthodontic improvement.
I’m glad these variables, and others, finally got onto my radar *as variables*, over the years. I like looking like a better version of myself, if I can. To this day, I’m amazed at the number of women fucking around with makeup tutorials and scads of products — that’s just not the closest alligator to the boat, you know?
I guess what I’m saying is, you can learn a lot about art from artists; you can learn a lot about music from musicians; and you can learn a lot about body aesthetics from bodybuilders, if you can get over your initial outrage. What I’ve learned is that, as lay people, we’re terrible, just terrible, at visually assessing physical composition — spectrums of muscle and fat — but we still really care about it, and internalize and suppress our emotions about that caring — and so instead we assign bizarre signifiers to arbitrary aspects of body-ness (ie fetishized abs), and consider the whole thing to be nearly on the level of witchcraft. Things feel like witchcraft when we’re fussing around with a bunch of maybe-connected variables without benefit of a unifying principle. Like, okay — maybe this corncob, and this bundle of sage, and this particular chant — fuck, I don’t know, let’s give it a shot.
The bodily unifying principle I’m suggesting here is muscularity, and all the other variables — including body fat, athleticism, to some extent health — will naturally organize themselves around it with balletic grace. Everyone’s trying to lose weight and that’s the first mistake. Just give that up — that corncob is causing you to do crazy things. Muscularity is what gives our bodies their most ideal shape. Not everyone’s genetic expression of muscularity will win a show at the pro level but for sure, everyone’s genetic expression of muscularity will optimize their body better, faster, and more easily than any other variable.
And I’m not talking about a bodybuilding level of max muscularity + minimal fat, which seems to be the only thing we’re able to “see” around this concept. Adequately muscled bodies don’t look “muscular” per se, they just look good. Adequately muscled bodies are attractive with really any level of fat on board. Adequately muscled bodies shed fat easily. Adequately muscled bodies demand nutrition, movement, and deep slumber. Adequately muscled bodies express any form of athleticism more easily. Adequately muscled bodies both resist and withstand illness, injury, and debility better than their frail counterparts. Adequately muscled bodies “eat” body fat, all day long — nibble nibble nibble, while you sit on the couch — and instead of aging out of economy, they age into it! Age is the enemy of the great fat struggle, but it’s no enemy to the adequately muscled body.
Enhancing your own muscularity is like establishing a stream of passive income — the more work you put in on the front end, the more effortless the entire rest of your life becomes. An adequately muscled body is not political, or gendered, in any way. It’s your right and, I daresay, your responsibility to cultivate an adequately muscled body — not because modern lives are physically demanding but because they aren’t — and even more so if they are! No matter who you are, what you look like, what race or religion or creed or socioeconomic status you have, it’s right and good for you to have an adequately muscled body.
There’s a lot of confusion about how to cultivate an adequately muscled body, the least of which is admitting that it’s an okay thing to have. This is an especially big leap of faith for women, and for older folks of both sexes. Let me just be clear, here: when you (anyone) stand in front of the mirror, and examine your own not adequately muscled body, and make various judgements about its appearance, you are no different than young Hannah, standing in front of the mirror with her full blown unibrow, making various judgements about her eye makeup. You’re barking up the wrong tree, is what I’m saying, and it’s only our poorly developed sense of physical aesthetics that allow you to perpetuate this blind spot. You do not have an ugly body or a pretty body. You do not have a good body or a bad body. You have a body, and every single thing that you want for that body can be first and most easily approached through cultivation of adequate musculature.
Why do women avoid strength? Because they want to be small, soft, and feminine. Newsflash: strength training makes women smaller, and then if they want to become bigger after getting smaller, they have to put in some real heroics. Estrogen and higher baseline body fat keeps us looking soft, so once again — an adequate musculature just puts all your stuff in the right place, and then you’d have to undertake some real heroics to not look feminine.
Why does everyone generally avoid strength? Because we think we’ll get hurt (as we shove Big Macs into our faces). Sedentation is what will hurt you. And strength doesn’t work the way you think, with sudden wrenching lower back disasters. It’s just like Milo of Croton, the ancient Grecian wrestler: he lifted a newborn calf every day until it became a cow. No matter what your current state of affairs, there is some weight it’s comfortable for you to lift now, and strength training means you just add a little bit to that, every time.
Because we’re so certain strength for strength’s sake is an outdated or irrelevant or gauche pursuit, we do a bunch of other stuff instead — namely, we obsess about body fat. So let’s talk about that. In terms of bodies, there are really four options: fat-fat, skinny-fat, muscular-fat, and muscular-lean. Muscular-lean is what we’re all able to successfully interpret as an ideal body, but since muscularity itself is such a blindspot for us, we see muscular-lean and *think* we’re seeing just lean. So we try, really fucking hard, to be lean, but we never look the way we think it should look because we can’t lean our way to what our brains are misinterpreting in the first place, which is muscular-lean. So most of us move between points on the spectrum from fat-fat to skinny-fat, and anything beyond that seems like witchcraft. So we bypass, and obsess about stupid shit like abs. Abs, abs, abs — if I only had some abs. Fat people (this is no comment on self worth) working on abs and biceps is just crazy. It’s just crazy. Again, that’s me, putting on makeup when I have a full grown caterpillar of hair across the bridge of my nose.
But, we all agree that fat people need to lose weight, right? So then we get fat people jogging, fat people on the treadmill, fat people dieting, fat people doing keto. I tell you what — you get off that treadmill and eat a single fucking M&M and you’re back to square one. What are you gonna do, run your life like it’s Auschwitz every day? Stop “burning calories” — it’s the biggest scam of all time. “Calories in, calories out” — NO. It turns out the thing that’s going to make you look the way you want to is the same thing that’s going to make you feel the way you like, and eat big meals whenever you want, and relax about the entire subject of your body, and free you up to enjoy every other subject in your life a lot more.
Become an adequately muscled person, and then have whatever proportion of body fat you’re up for right then. If you want to do a cut, do a cut, and you’ll look great. If you want to just chill and eat however, you’ll also look great, but your abs will disappear some, which is completely fine. The only reason you care about abs and biceps in the first place is because, when you look in the mirror, you’re blind to what everyone else sees, which is a skinny-fat, or fat-fat, person. Abs and biceps are the hair and makeup of the fitness-bewildered. They just don’t matter much at all.
Here’s another thought on why strength for strength’s sake is such a game changer: there’s a guy named Jon Gabriel who talks about our bodies and their extremely primordial vocabulary of interpreted stress. According to him, and despite everything everywhere escalating our cortisol levels (fight or flight response), our bodies live in this world where they’re still trying to survive one of three things: a famine, a winter, or a predator. Historically, winter and famine have informed our metabolic adaptations far more than predators, of the animal or human variety.
Our bodies will not allow us to lose weight under any circumstances, if they are under the impression that we need fat to survive, as is the case with famine and winter. And most of the ways we try to lose weight are interpreted by our bodies as exacerbations of famine or winter. So it’s really not about willpower, any more than staying awake despite fatigue is about willpower. Eventually, your body will put you down and make you sleep, and that’s just a fact. If your body thinks you need fat to survive, it’s gonna win that fight.
What you need is a predator. Your body needs to start receiving a new memo — organize resources in response to a different kind of threat…or else. There are many reasons why the metabolism and hormones of an adequately muscled body will partition nutrients differently from an inadequately muscled body, but the last thing we need to do is obsess about minutiae when we’re not able to trigger our bodies to make this switch. The metabolism shit will take care of itself. Your job is to introduce a predator, and I’d suggest that predator be strength training, sprinting, or both.
Another thought: fitness paradigms and equipment sales and personal training services are absolutely for-profit, so the more of a buck can be made, the harder that thing will be pushed. When you walk into a gym, don’t think: “Oh, here’s all the shit that must be effective, or else it wouldn’t be here.” Instead, think: “Here’s all the shit that was most successfully marketed to the least capable and most vulnerable segment of the fitness population.” As is the case with so many things in this world: if someone’s trying real hard to sell it to you, then you probably don’t need it. Also, when you walk into a gym, look at where the least fit people congregate, and where the most fit people congregate. If you do, then you won’t need me to tell you that the squat racks, the barbells, and the free weights TEND to be surrounded by the fittest people. I mean, really pay attention to that. Also please know: that stuff I just listed *is* the cheapest equipment. Each one of those single muscle isolation machines — the bicep curl machine or the calf extension machine — costs between 1 and four grand. You can get yourself set up with an entire barbell gym for like a grand and a half. The good shit isn’t expensive, and it’s what the fittest people use, and we’d pay more attention to this if we didn’t have our blinders on.
Another thought: I totally get that some people love to pick up heavy things and, for others, it’s off putting. I totally get that we each gravitate to our own styles of exercise, if we gravitate there at all. Nick and I were just talking about this the other day. He’s really found his personal niche, with barbell lifting, and in a way I’m jealous. I love it, it’s really fun, and I’m planning to continue because it’s a super effective way to hack all my other physical goals, but I don’t crave that kind of suffering the way he does, or at least not as much. My perfect form of exercise, probably, would have been dance, but we moved to the reservation so early on in my life, and dance just did not exist there, that I wasn’t able to continue my fledgeling trajectory. In another life, I would have been a dancer, and that’s probably why I’ve been so angry at having to do all this other bullshit, occupationally, and why I’ve been so pissed at how modern life makes it hard to meaningfully include your own body. And that’s sad, but oh well.
But meanwhile, I really love the way strength training has informed our relationships with our bodies, individually and as a couple. We’re both currently working on adding more muscle mass, this summer, so neither of us is cutting calories. We have some fluff on us, and that fluff is important because, without it, our bodies won’t have the raw materials they need to build more muscle. We both know we can titrate calories and add a little cardio, at any time, and look “shredded” and great, but it would be counterproductive at this moment in time.
I love the level of this dialogue, which is so markedly different from…you know…where the woman asks, “Does this dress make me look fat?”, and the man is totally fucked no matter what he says. Or the woman subtly encourages the man to grow a beard to hide his 2nd and 3rd chins, or whatever. I mean, because we have this shared, straightforward, non-self-worth-based approach to strength for strength’s sake, our bodies are just are bodies and that’s that. There’s no witchcraft to it. We know we’re works in progress. I loved the way he looked at 5% body fat for his competition, and I love the way he looks now with his little layer of sleek seal fat and his slightly thicker neck. Most of all, I love that he’s able to manipulate his variables so deliberately, and has increasingly demystified this process for me. I don’t worry about the shape of my ass or menstrual bloat or any other damn thing. Not because I’ve magically risen “above” such base concerns, but because I’ve put my body work squarely in front of me in an actionable, rational way, so it’s just no big deal. It’s just not a deal.
A final thought: what would you do if someone held a gun to your head on the subject, and only the subject, of getting stronger? I mean, if a fucking assassin was going to come to your house and kill you in your sleep, one month from today, if you couldn’t demonstrate that you’d become measurably stronger — the only rubric for improved muscularity — and you had thirty days to save your own life, what would you do? Would you go the gym and dick around on the treadmill or the bosu balls? If so, you’d better put your affairs in order. I hope that you’d pick up something heavy, preferably a barbell, and make it even heavier the next day.
I know this is a crazy extreme ask, but this has become a crazy extreme blindspot for everyone. We want to focus on everything but strength for strength’s sake. That’s why bodybuilding seems so bizarre, and why having a beautiful body seems like witchcraft, and why I was so shocked to sit in the audience and watch people get literally judged on their bodies. Strength for strength’s sake is this foreign concept, and it shouldn’t be, because it’s the unifying principle that hacks the code of all the other variables. And if we truly didn’t care, then it would make sense for us not to approach the subject of fitness with any cohesion, but the fact is we do care, and we’re really really frustrated that we can’t seem to arrange our corncobs and our sage bundles and our chants in just the right order to ever look the way we want.
We just can’t seem to see the forest for the trees, or the unibrow for the hair and makeup, here. We’ve all got old injuries, we’ve all got fat to lose, we’re all worried about aging, we’re all confused about what to eat, we all have limited time and resources to devote to fitness in whatever form. I’m just encouraging you to identify the fittest people in the gym (even if they aren’t your same gender or age), do what they do, pick up increasingly heavy things, convince your body it’s up against a predator and not a famine, stop obsessing about weight and fat and abs and biceps, and most of all: pursue strength for strength’s sake. Changes to body composition are actionable, they take time, they’re not a quick fix, absolutely none of it is witchcraft, even less of it is about your self-worth, and not a single fucking thing is going to happen in seven minutes.