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Comparative Physiques
(L) Scott Helverston, Navy SEAL among Navy SEALs; (R) Hafthor Bjornsson, world's strongest man

Comparative Physiques

Trends seem to cycle with the body as much as with clothes. The 70’s sported a slim, hippy frame. The 80’s and early 90’s brought back the macho physique of the body-builder, thanks in part to the various incarnations of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The mid-90’s through the 2000’s saw a popularization of futuristic, “normal” builds — think Neo from the Matrix, or Tom Cruise’s generally fit but unremarkable body. These, in fact, were the more fit archetypal builds of the era, which also saw the popularity of the skinny-jean wearing hipster (a build more popular in TV shows than in movies).

Now that we’re in the late 2010’s, a new trend is emerging: the strong-man physique.

There are several things which make this emergence interesting. The strong-man physique is not the same as the body-builder. The latter is seems geared towards physical beauty, and the associated strength and power are side-effects of the acquired appearance. The strong-man, however, aims directly for strength and power; any benefit to appearance is secondary, and tends more towards intimidation than physical beauty anyhow.

There is also a subtle political dimension to this trend. While pop-culture exemplars of this type exist (Hafthor “The Mountain” Bjornsson from Game of Thrones comes to mind), the movement is primarily philosophical in origin, arising on the fringes from men rejecting the modern nu-male ideal. Writers like Nassim Taleb and Jack Donovan have championed strength not merely as a matter of health and beauty, but almost as a psychological prerequisite for authentic intellectual development (the intellectual-yet-idiot does not deadlift, according to Taleb). Many men seemed inclined toward the power-lifting community for personal, apolitical reasons; perhaps as an outpost of explicitly masculine culture in an increasingly androgynous world. Nevertheless, as a cause or as an effect, the power-lifting world and its strong-man physique has a distinctive right-wing orientation. If I had to guess why, my assumption would be that the numbers-oriented meritocracy of the strong-man’s gym is inhospitable to the empathetic, equality-oriented mindset of left-wing egalitarianism. This numbers-oriented, meritocratic culture actually differentiates power-lifting from body-building, which, being aesthetically-inclined, is inherently more subjective, despite having an objective ideal at its peak.

Different people will pursue different physiques for differing reasons, and so it is difficult to say with absolute finality what is “best.” However, some trends age better than others, and some seem not to age at all. A certain physique is among these “immortal” trends, and it is not that of the strong-man, but closer to that of the body-builder.

I believe the justification for this difference lies in the purposes for which these physiques developed. Contrary to the classical strong-man criticism of the body-builder’s narcissistic and functionless form, the more balanced and chiseled physique actually does have a practical function… or rather, did have a function, which modern body-builders attempt to emulate (and, separated from that original function, to exaggerate). But what is that function?

“Form follows function,” as architects say, and the reason for the superior appearance of the body-builder is the archetypal role and job of those who held this physique. That role was the warrior.

While the strong-man may, in fact, be stronger than the body-builder, his fitness is not actually suitable to the life and requirements of a soldier, which does not merely involve swinging a sword, but also marching, running, climbing, building, throwing, and any number of other challenges which the battlefield may impose. It requires a lithe dexterity and agility which the strong-man does not develop. The reason that the body-builder’s physique is attractive is not intrinsic — that would be to mistake the cause for the effect. Rather, the role is attractive, and so the build associated with that role becomes attractive.

As it happens, the strong-man’s build also has a role association. While many men seem surprised that the strong-man is not seen as attractive by women, its role-association makes this counter-intuitive female reaction make sense. The strong-man’s build is that of the laborer.

The laborer generally does not need to run long distances or fight enemies for hours on the battlefield. Instead, he needs to lift heavy objects, perhaps bricks, or stone, or timber. This leads to a physique that is immensely powerful; stronger than the warrior, but lacking his agility, endurance, and well-rounded athleticism.

Many men get caught up in the metrics of progress (“I benched 225 yesterday; I benched 230 today: better!”), and this can happen with traits other than strength. Ultra-marathon runners run further and further, usually with very little interest in developing upper body strength. And these metrics are good. But one can easily lose sight of the purpose for which those metrics are desirable pursuits in the first place.

Again, different people pursue fitness for different reasons. Some men just want to get strong, perhaps to see just how strong they can get. Other factors simply do not concern them. There is nothing wrong with this.

But many men pursue fitness to feel better — physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally, spiritually. In this regard, the female attraction to warrior-like athletes, rather than to laboring strong-men, can be seen as a clue to deeper aspects of these relative physiques, rather than mere expedients for getting laid — rightly viewed as a superficial and short-sighted motivation by many strong-man types. If female attraction to this build is hard-wired into the XX brain, might it have some correlates in the XY? The natural assumption would be ‘yes,’ and further, that that correlation would be positive towards the warrior physique. We would expect men who look like athletic soldiers to feel better and healthier than strong-men, independent of female opinion. The warrior attractive because he is high-class, which precedes — rather than follows from — the opinion of women. Similarly, the laborer is socially lower-class, which likewise precedes the relative attractiveness of the physique.

I have no empirical support for this hypothesis, and it would be interesting to see studies done on this subject… though given value-laden nature of the hypothesis and the broad range of relevant variables, we might not see such studies for some time. But it is well known that both cardiovascular and strength training are highly valuable to both the body and the brain, and there are strong associations between dexterity-related physical qualities such as reaction-time, or hand-eye coordination, and cognitive qualities such as intelligence. Neurologically, it makes sense to assume that a more balanced physique which does not neglect any of these beneficial aspects of body-training will produce the healthiest mind and the most positive subjective experience of life. This last quality, in fact, might be the primary attractive quality in the body-builder physique, the build itself being only a path to and indicator of this mindset.

From personal experience, I find that my internal temperature regulation functions best when I am running or swimming regularly; these also have a very slight calming, perspective-holding effect on my emotions. Strength imparts a predictable, raw feeling of power, which is intrinsically pleasurable. And the dextrous abilities (agility, hand-eye coordination, etc) have been primarily responsible in winning team-sports events, which can hardly be over-emphasized in its effects on feelings of confidence and overall well-being.

Unfortunately, the reliable superiority of the body-builder physique seems to stem in part from its reliable difficulty in acquiring. Speaking of broad groups in today’s world, only professional athletes and soldiers have the requisite leisure time to build such a body, which requires a balanced composition of exercises with enough down-time to avoid injury. Desk-workers usually exhaust themselves without exhausting their body, while blue-collar workers will exhaust their body over the course of a day without doing the composition kinds of exercises that lend themselves to a body-builder’s physique. For most men, the warrior-athlete body is a difficult prize to attain, one which requires serious thought (esp. regarding nutrition) and dedication. By comparison, running or deadlifting require a comparable amount of time, but less variation and resources to acquire.

Of course, this brings into focus the harsh fact that all fit physiques require time and effort to develop. But given a choice between the waning runner’s body, the waxing strong-man’s body, or the classical warrior-athlete physique, the last looks and feels the best.

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