A riveting cultural history of fitness, from Greek antiquity to the era of the “big-box gym” and beyond, exploring the ways in which human exercise and physical ideals have changed over time—and what we can learn from our past.
"Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story"
From "Lift" by Daniel Kunitz
Chapter One: The Inner Statue
Note: This is only an excerpt from Chapter One.
Popular or stereotypical images of gym rats are not hard to conjure: the meathead, bulky in his sleeveless T-shirt; the lithe lady in Lululemon who alternates yoga with running days; the chiseled Greek god. Few, I think, would imagine this other, arguably more common type: the fiend (muscles optional) hunkered at his computer gorging himself for hours at a stretch on "workout porn." No, little beast is not putting himself through any single-handed exercises, he's just watching workout videos with the same obsessive attention usually reserved for porn. His or her (and there are many women) interest is not especially prurient although the videos do pack a certain erotic charge. Rather, devotees compulsively click through these videos in search of inspiration and the beauty of the accomplishments of the athletes in them.
Today's online workout porn videos are direct descendants of the VHS aerobics tapes made by women in the 1980s - most famously Jane Fonda - who were the first to employ the new technology to disseminate the gospel of exercise. Back then entrepreneurs like Judi Sheppard Missett began making tapes as training tools for aerobics instructors, though it was Fonda, marketing the tapes to average women so they could follow them along at home, who caused the phenomenon to blow up. In the years since the turn of the century, the ease of producing and accessing videos has allowed fitness practices in the New Frontier to spread faster, more extensively, and in many more different forms than their predecessors did. And though many of these videos are instructive, most workout porn depicts training or competition at a level the average viewer couldn't hope to achieve. They are friezes in motion, picturing an ideal. Yet the models they present for us, the models we strive for, are only at times and incidentally perfect physical specimens - sometimes they are and sometimes not, and often they're too covered for us to know. We watch these videos for the beauty of the athletes' performance, not necessarily for their bodies (although that undoubtedly happens, too).
For example, one evening as I wallowed in the video stream, I came across a short film with a sequence of CrossFit athlete Ben Smith practicing snatches in his parents' garage, which he and his brothers had transformed into a gym. A boyish young man of about twenty, Smith crouches down, grasps the barbell with a wide grip, and explosively stands, heaving the barbell up; then, at full extension, he drops his torso down again to catch the weight in a full, deep squat before standing with it to a fully locked out position overhead. Although Smith performs his lifts with the easy grace of an elite competitor, one who, several months after emailing with me, won the CrossFit Games, there's nothing dramatic or titillating about this experience, nothing to immediately explain why it's been viewed more than 350,000 times, including several by me. Smith, a recent college grad with a degree in chemical engineering, is quiet and unassuming on camera. He does not display his muscles; instead, he wears a black Rogue Fitness T-shirt and red shorts; and the space he's in is undistinguished - a white refrigerator, a pull-up bar, some weights and racks - except perhaps for the word areté spelled out vertically in large black-tape letters on the wall behind him.
When I first noticed it, the word made me straighten up a bit in my chair: classical Greek ideals aren't usually the preferred inspirational slogans for 21st Century kids. But it makes some sense for an exemplar of New Frontier Fitness like Smith. Although in ancient Greece the meaning of areté changed over time, at the high point of Athenian democracy it signified an excellence combining nobility of action and intellect - with noble in both cases carrying distinctly moral overtones. Areté, writes the great German classicist Werner Jaeger, "was the central ideal of all Greek culture. And that ideal, Aristotle tells us, could only be expressed through a unity of body, mind, and soul. It might be proven on the battlefield or, more commonly, in athletics.
Areté, in a contemporary setting as well as in the ancient context, is very different than trimming down or looking good naked or even just getting healthier - the predominant goals of exercise since well before Jane Fonda began putting out her videos. Smith put the ancient Greek word on his wall as a reminder, he tells me, to strive "for excellence in whatever you do in your life, whether it be sports, training, work, personal relationships, etc." His use of areté makes explicit a critique of earlier training methods, one that is implicit in all New Frontier Fitness practices: working out ought not to be merely about sculpting the body and making it conform to the dominant aesthetic, but rather it should be about enhancing the mind, soul, and body. This becomes clear in the video, where Smith isn't trying to pump up his biceps of etch his abs into a six-pack (the Snatch being about speed, flexibility, and most important, neuromuscular integration - building the brain and muscles simultaneously); he's exploring what he is capable of physically, how well he can perform.
Ironically, though we might look to ancient Greece as a deep source of this recent, New Frontier notion of holistic fitness, it is also the source of our standards of physical beauty (or, rather, male beauty; the female side is more complicated) that many hit the gym in hopes of achieving or approximating.
A muscled warrior-athlete in midstride, the Doryphoros, a sculpture by the ancient Greek artist Polykleitos, exemplifies an abiding Western physical ideal of masculinity - which is to say, pecs and abs worthy of an armored breastplate and a deep inguinal crease. He wears nothing but a smirk of lofty disdain. The work is a model of contraposto, or counterbalanced poise, his hip cocked and weight shifted to the right leg, while his left hand is raised to hold a spear or javelin. We don't know exactly what he held because the only extant versions of the statue are marble Roman copies of the original Greek bronze, the best one found in a palaistra (a gymnasium) in Pompeii. Doryphoros means spear-bearer, but that name was given to the work by the Romans. Greek warriors didn't fight naked, but athletes were portrayed in the nude by ancient sculptors. Polykleitos' equally famous Diadumenos, known to show a young athlete tying a fillet around his head, was similarly unclad. Athletes were represented in the nude in ancient Greece because male citizens trained completely naked in a gymnasion (gymnos in Greek means nude, and from it our word gymnasium is derived).
The treatment of his musculature - the way the skin sags slightly onto the right kneecap under the weight of the quadriceps, the relatively demure biceps, the thick, doughy spinal erectors on his lower back - in short, the naturalism of the Doryphoros, and of the Diadumenos, too, strongly suggests that Polykleitos used actual men as models. You don't imagine a physique like the Doryphoros's; you encounter a hundred versions in the gymnasion while watching men wrestle, sprint, lift heavy stones, jump, and do other basic functional movements that build such a lean and well-cut body. What is fascinating is that, though the sculpture is likely based on observation, we know too that its proportions conform to a purely abstract, mathematical ideal, which Polykleitos enumerated in a text called Canon.
Because the text itself remains lost, known to us only through citations by later writers, we don't know the exact proportions stipulated by the Canon. Scholars do agree, however, that the Doryphoros was the companion to the work - the teaching model, as it were - from which other artists could learn the principles of sculpting an ideal figure. The Doryphoros was the "epitome of Measure," the archaeologist Andrew Stewart writes. "It's body was perfectly proportioned according to a formula that related all its parts mathematically to one another and to the whole."
That the finest body might have been hewn according to mathematics marks the first known instance in the long history of fitness of the fixation on measure, or data. "Perfection" write Polykleitos in the Canon, "comes about little by little through many numbers." And numbers rule us still, perhaps more than ever. Measurements and data have directed our aspirations through the centuries, from the weightlifter's tallies of kilos, sets, and reps, to the 1970s jogger's concern for how far she can run in twelve minutes in the Cooper test, and on to today's biohacker's fussing over his blood markers.
If for Polykleitos the Doryphoros represented a mystical set of proportions, the average Greek citizen saw in him something else entirely. The work belongs to a long statuary tradition in which victorious athletes were viewed not only as heroes but also venerated as gods or demigods, with Herakles being the exemplar of this shift to divine status. Thus, to our Greek viewer, the Doryphoros was at once an image and symbol of greatness, embodying the qualities to which citizens were urged to aspire: self-mastery, discipline, and strength, all manifested in a proportionate and exquisite physique. He is, in short, beautiful - to contemporary as well as ancient eyes. Yet for the Greeks, beauty had more expansive connotations than it does for us - it entailed goodness. And, as was the case with any statue of a hero-athlete, the Doryphoros would have manifested an exemplary form of beauty, kalokagathia (which combines the words in Greek for beauty and goodness), which Jaeger defines as the "highest unity of all excellences," the peak form of areté.
This is rather different than the way we see great athletes now: though we often worship them, we generally don't credit them with the highest ethical standards.
We also have a much broader - looser, we might say - conception of physical splendor than the Greeks, for whom the body, and the trained body in particular, was central. As Aristotle makes clear, beauty for the Greeks always "implies a well-developed body: i.e. small people can be neat and well-proportioned, but not beautiful." In ancient Greece, hero-athletes became divine, while the gods themselves were always athletes, too, the reason being that the Greeks so revered the perfected human form that they felt it provided access to the divine, that it partook of divinity. Thus to a Greek citizen encountering the Doryphoros, the statue would have spoken to him with the authority of a god, urging him to emulate its perfection. And many did. Among the numerous contests held in Greek city-states was the euxia, a test of "bodily condition" with criteria such as symmetry and muscular definition - and these were not unlike our physique contests (as opposed to bodybuilding pageants, since the steroidal physiques presented there are well outside the mainstream).
The physique of Polykleitos' statue remains very much within the mainstream. For the last five hundred years of so, at least since the Renaissance, the West has set its standard of male beauty in the mold of such Greek statuary as the Doryphoros and the Diadumenos. Still, during the entirety of those five centuries, that standard remained largely an unattainable ideal. Even as recently as 1977, Steward could claim that the Doryphoros reduces us, the audience, to the role of masochistic voyeurs, "who can look and envy, but little more." What a difference two decades makes. Today, explorers of the New Frontier see the statue with something like Greek eyes, as an attainable ideal. So rather than merely gawking in wonder at the statue's physique, as people have done for centuries, a viewer today may very well see it as a Greek citizen did, as an advertisement for collectively held values, one admonishing: Get yourself into the gym.
What changed in the decades since Stewart's remark is that people - both men and women - completely reoriented their approach to fitness, aligning it more closely with that of the ancient Greeks. The most obvious of those changes is that average people, the viewers of exercise videos like Ben Smith's and of statues like the Doryphoros, are training like athletes, many days per week and at high intensity (by which I mean both the fervor with which one exercises as well as the use of heavy weights). But what occasions the rise in frequency and intensity is an embrace of training as the basis of the practicing life, of seeing life itself as a challenge for which one must train, mentally and emotionally as well as physically - and this is a shift I will trace throughout this book.
A section not transcribed here, then:
Every couple of months I find myself in a place few go to willingly: facedown in a spreading delta of sweat after a workout, in so much pain that for a few seconds I actually cannot speak; I twitch and writhe and pound the floor waiting for the endorphins to kick in and the pain to ebb. This type of suffering can be emotional, it can make you want to weep; some people vomit or piss themselves as the waves of ache slap them down.
After the slobbering stops and I'm able to raise myself at least to my knees, I often reflect (thinking at this point being more feasible than moving) on how rare it is for any of us who live comfortable lives to experience such acute agony. Admittedly, this extreme of suffering is not at all a daily experience for me and my tribe. Yet how strange that there are tens of thousands of us in the New Frontier who repeatedly chase this terrible sensation.
We don't do it because it's fun or in any sense pleasant; rather we do it because it's instructive. Not only does this apex level of hurt produce physical changes that make you fitter, it produces mental adaptations that are ultimately more important; you learn that your perceived pain threshold is an illusion, that you're stronger, mentally and physically, than you had believed, an that the normal discomforts of exercise, not to mention of quotidian existence, are laughable by comparison.
But there seems to be in most cultures a deeply rooted aversion to these sorts of experiences: they're seen as dangerous, extreme, and the desire for them weird. Even reaching the routine breathlessness and muscular distress of a CrossFitter completing sets of heavy deadlifts and twenty-four-inch box jumps for time, a free runner's course of cat leaps and backflips off walls, or a playground gymnasts execution of a flag (holding your entire torso and legs horizontally off a pole) is uncommon today for all but a small, though growing percentage of the exercising population.
Suffering, be it just uncomfortable or to a tongue-biting degree, is the result of working the body at high intensity, a notion that, even before the Greeks adopted it, was largely disreputable and since then has been at best controversial. But for the Greeks pain from effort in itself a beauteous thing: the process by which the Doryphoros's muscles was achieved was as valued as the results.
"By means of beauty all beautiful things become beautiful," says Socrates. The beautiful means is training, and the painful labor entailed by it makes training a romantic endeavor, a heroic endeavor. Indeed, one of the prizes an athlete could win at the games was for philoponia, of "love of training."
I can only say I'm enjoying this book immensely, and finding many things in it that are applicable immediately as well over time. Highly recommended!
Table of Contents
Introduction: Into the New Frontier
Chapter 1: The Inner Statue
Chapter 2: But is it Good for You?
Chapter 3: Feeling, Breathing, Going to War
Chapter 4: Bodyweight Politics
Chapter 5: Hercules and the Athletic Renaissance
Chapter 6: Training for the Mirror
Chapter 7: Acrobats and Beefcake
Chapter 8: The Tyranny of the Wheel
Chapter 9: From Women's Work to the Women's Movement
Chapter 10: Practicing at Life
About the Author:
Daniel Kunitz has served as editor in chief of Modern Painters, as well as an editor at the Paris Review and Details, and has been a contributor to Vanity Fair, Harper's Magazine, and New York. He is also an avid CrossFitter and weightlifter. He lives in New York City.