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From Dad Bod to Greek God (Part 1)
Everybody wants to look like a Greek statue, but nobody wants to work out like the Greeks
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition briefly regained relevance this year when it featured an overweight model on the cover, eliciting both praise and blame from the respective fat-accepting and fat-shaming cohorts. It would be easy to dismiss this as another case of trendy corporate virtue signaling, but it’s been noted that the images glorify an objectively unhealthy condition – metabolic syndrome.
It could be countered that fitness magazines rarely model the ideal of physical health. Roided-up bodybuilders and rail-thin supermodels merely promote a different kind of body dysmorphic disorder. In my view, neither fat shaming nor fat acceptance is the appropriate response to the obesity epidemic. There is an objective ideal worth upholding when it comes to health, and it’s not overweight. However, it also is not the look we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on fitness magazine covers.
The modern cult of bodybuilding is a perfect illustration of GK Chesterton’s definition of heresy. It is a truth gone mad. The noble pursuit of obtaining ideal bodily proportions has given way to an emphasis on growing ever-bigger muscles. Hypertrophy über Alles. Despite the inherent dysfunctionality of having biceps thicker than one’s neck, this is considered normal in the competitive bodybuilding world.
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Bigness has not always been the physical ideal. The birth of contemporary bodybuilding can be traced back to Prussian showman Eugen Sandow – one of the original “strongmen” who competed in feats of strength that later morphed into the modern bodybuilding competition. Sandow also founded the magazine Physical Culture, which shared scientific new techniques for perfecting one’s physique.
The word “perfecting” suggests an ideal that one can work towards. Despite his modern methods, Sandow took the ancient Greeks as his model. He popularized the term ‘the Grecian Ideal,’ to refer to a harmonious proportionality of the parts relative to the whole. Compared with the frighteningly bulky bodybuilders of late, Sandow’s physique more nearly resembles the proportional forms enshrined in statues of antiquity.
How close did he come to the ideal himself? We know the answer, thanks to Sandow’s somewhat narcissistic tendency to publicize semi-nude images of himself (the original “Post Physique”). Here he is mimicking the form of Hercules resting.
To my untrained eye, the Hercules figure is much more harmonious. It looks stronger, while the right merely pretends at strength. Despite the fig leaf, there’s something immodest and embarrassingly self-conscious about Sandow’s whole appearance.
The effect is even starker in Sandow’s imitation of The Dying Gaul. While the right image depicts death’s sting in earnest, in Sandow we see a showman and a parody of suffering. He is posed to exaggerate his biceps, whereas the ill-fated Gaul emanates stoicism – even on the cusp of death.
Sandow’s shortcomings compared to the ideal were not due to a natural deficiency or genetic difference, but because of an error in his approach to training and the philosophy beneath them. Instead of striving for virtue, Sandow sought fame. Instead of true strength, he sought to play the part of a strongman on a world stage.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Sandow organized the first-ever modern bodybuilding competition. Among the judges were English sculptor Charles Lawes-Wittewronge alongside writer and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame. In addition to their impressive professional accomplishments, both of these judges were consummate sportsmen – Lawes-Wittewronge, a rower, and Doyle a soccer player, rifleman, boxer, golfer, and skier. Their keen minds and artistic sensibilities were matched by equally keen bodies, and an appreciation for the human body as such – with all its versatility. Indeed, they were the embodiment of the Latin dictum “Mens sana in corpore sano” – a sound mind/soul in a healthy body.
Sandow’s love of self-improvement, likewise, was inspired by his travels to the cities of antiquity and his respect for the Greek’s “insurmountable knowledge of the body’s form and developments.” Frustrated that his pursuit of physical perfection was not shared by many of his peers, Sandow set about to systematize an approach for obtaining the Grecian ideal, based on weightlifting exercises that targeted specific muscles with the aim of achieving the proportions found on statues now housed in museums.
Although Sandow inspired millions to improve their physical condition, he also laid the foundation for the modern heresy inherent to modern body-building and fitness generally – that is, the focus on body parts, rather than the whole person. Despite his study of the Grecian Ideal, he misunderstood the core of ancient physical culture that gave it its vitality – namely, the pursuit of manly virtue, from which comes the bodily form found in their statues.
Today – thanks in part to Sandow’s misguided legacy – it is virtually impossible to find actual living replicas of the Grecian Ideal. We now have more resources at our disposal to pursue what was once an aristocratic lifestyle of education, sport, and leisure. It’s also generally assumed that we have better nutrition and exercise science (although this is questionable). And yet we still do not hold a candle to the Greeks when it comes to the implementation of their ideal.
A few years ago, GQ Magazine featured a lenticular cover that displayed an image of either Michelangelo’s David, or the Italian model Pietro Boselli, depending on your viewing angle.
Boselli is very fit and good-looking – maybe in the 99.99th percentile when it comes to approximating the ideal. He is clearly genetically gifted, and yet he also falls short. Compared to the chiseled symmetry of the statue of David, Boselli appears somewhat uneven, lumpy, and out of proportion.
We might think that perhaps Michelangelo and his ancient forebears were simply exaggerating, like superhero comic book artists – sculpting the contours of perfection surpassing what any human can actually achieve. But I think this is wrong. We can still obtain the results of the past if we study their methods and philosophy.
Eight-time Mr. Olympia Winner Ronnie Coleman once said, “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights.”
Contra Coleman, you don’t necessarily need to lift no heavy-ass weights. To build a divine Greek physique, you simply have to be willing to train like a Greek.
Kalokagathia – The Noble & Beautiful
“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. (…) What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
– Socrates, as quoted in Memorabilia
If the problem with the modern bodybuilding cult is a narrow-minded focus on the individual and its individual parts then the remedy comes from the classical understanding of kalokagathia – an ideal of gentlemanly conduct, born of martial virtue. The word is derived from the roots for “beautiful” (kalós) and “noble” (agathós). It is a teaching of an ethical aesthetic. Beauty is viewed as a byproduct of virtue. When Socrates praised physical training as a prerequisite for citizenship, he recognized that a beautiful physique was both a reflection of hard work and motivation and an enabler of other kinds of civic virtue – from capability in battle to discipline and restraint more generally.
In Socrates’s time, the Euexia was a kind of proto-bodybuilding competition in which young men were awarded honors for displaying the outward, physical signs of a well-ordered life.
“They do not display idle flabbiness, or the white and overly thin bodies of women quivering in the shade... these young men, their bodies reddened, are darkened by the sun, and bearing masculine faces they reveal great vitality, fire, and courage. They are aglow with such splendid condition (euexias).”
– Lucian, Anacharsis 25.
Among the criteria for judgment in the Euexia were symmetry, definition, tone, bearing and possession of a generally fit and healthy appearance. Of course, genetics play a large role in appearance, but modern men are rediscovering that their looks are in fact quite malleable – for better and for worse. Even facial expression, or physiognomy, is influenced by the way one lives.
With discipline, we can achieve Eutaxia - the visible evidence of a love of training and discipline. Trimness corresponds to dietary restraint. Strength implies effort. Darkened skin tone suggests hours logged in the outdoor Gymnasium (i.e., nature’s gym). An upright posture signifies something inwardly good that a righteous person must carry with him throughout his daily affairs.
Philostratus was a Greek teacher of the Roman imperial era who emphasized self-control or sophrosynē in his treatise on physical training – Gymnasticus. He also linked modesty and chastity with the virtues (aretai) of gymnastic beauty and blamed a lack of training for the physical decline of the population in his own time. The Pax Romana had made warriors less relevant. Men had become sluggish and soft. And, just like today, Italian food was making everybody fat.
For Philostratus, gymnastics was no mere training method – it was a form of wisdom, worthy of study alongside philosophy, rhetoric, and the like. It involved the application of knowledge for the production of the good. Human nature hadn’t changed — rather, it was a shortcoming of wisdom in the training conventions that led to the decline in men’s strength in his time, as in ours.
Physis, Nomos, Technē & Sophia
Someone looking to get fit today has a bevy of modalities and methods competing for their time and dollars. From CrossFit to SoulCycle, these training conventions or nomoi have their own rules, norms, and even dogmas that give structure to their trademark workouts and build a sense of community and identity in the process. All of them aim to reform the human being somehow, but they mostly leave the question of our physical nature out of the equation. Or, they assume certain facts about physiology, cardiovascular endurance, muscle hypertrophy, etc., and put stress on the body’s systems to enhance their fitness.
Many modalities offer metrics to chart improvement, with some substituting the growth in these numbers for a more holistic tracking of progress based on observation. The extreme of this is what Chip Conrad calls the 800 lb. squat syndrome, in which obtaining an arbitrary metric begins to crowd out all kinds of vital movements that do not serve the goal. The same, however, can be said of obsessive tracking of heart rate, oxygen uptake, steps taken, repetitions performed, or calories burned. These techniques, or technē, found in various training conventions can be ordered toward the good, but we see how often they lose their harmony when their importance is blown out of proportion.
Harmonious bodily proportions are the natural result of aligning our training methods with our inborn nature, in order to bring about the good. Wisdom consists of knowing this.
Even training conventions (nomoi) that emphasize all-around fitness, like CrossFit, still tend to silo exercises into compartments. Strength is separated from metabolic conditioning. Legs are compartmentalized from arms. For the ancient Greek warrior who had to march in his armor and spar with his comrades, the idea of a “core workout” would have seemed absurd. Of course, man’s nature is not strictly to war. He labors peacefully in countless other ways for the good of his fellow man, and training methods ought to reflect that. He also moves for enjoyment, such as in athletics or outdoor recreation: swimming, hiking, climbing, and the like.
With wisdom, even something as mundane as doing the dishes can be done better, with a mindful direction of one’s energies toward the efficient completion of the task.
But how can we rigorously train for the general and varied demands of life, including potential cataclysms and wars, plus child-rearing and graceful aging? Enter the Natural Outdoor Workout, or how to train like the ancient Greeks.
The Natural Outdoor Workout
Fittingly, formal exercise in classical Greece was performed in outdoor Gymnasia.
These temples dedicated to human perfection featured wide open spaces and long stretches for functional locomotive exercises.
There would likely have been a ring to host sparring practice for the Pankration – a hybrid boxing/wrestling competition whose name means “complete victory.”
In the absence of barbells and well-oiled Cybex machines, the Greeks lifted heavy and awkward objects like rocks. They also carried and threw these objects – not just lifting weight but moving it. The Hoplitodromos was a 400-meter race in full armor carrying one’s shield. They also sprinted in the sand, dug holes, ran uphill, shadow-boxed, and climbed ropes.
While these methods may seem primitive, they worked! Records of the specific exercises are somewhat scarce, but depictions on Grecian urns reveal impeccable form and precision. The image below, for example, shows exquisite back-chain dominance and spinal rotation in a contralateral bounding exercise. Given that P.E. was considered a discipline every bit as important as ethics or rhetoric, there can be no question that great care was taken to learn the correct form to optimize the efficiency of movement – something that doesn’t get enough attention in most fitness modalities.
Most essentially, the Gymnasium toughened the body through its rough outdoor environment. The ancient Greeks used the harshness of the elements to their advantage. Their methods reflected an understanding of the human being as an organism that can only develop within a forcefield of stresses – heat, cold, iron, rock, and the aggression of other humans. Sparring and military training wasn’t about aggression for its own sake, but the defense of a culture in which democracy, the arts, and other forms of education were able to flourish.
Art like this inspires in its viewer less of a desire to look like the figures as to embody their vigorous virtue.
There are no franchises yet offering ancient Greek workouts in full-fledged outdoor Gymnasia. Perhaps the closest thing available is the Spartan Race obstacle course, but participants in these races must train independently and find their own path to victory. Natural movement modalities like MovNat, Ido Portal, and Functional Patterns offer training in a much broader spectrum of human movement than your average box gym or group fitness class. However, for the most part, they still remain rooted in a framework of basically stationary exercises in a controlled environment rather than locomotion in rugged and varied terrain.
Parkour also comes close. While it defies institutionalization by its nature, Parkour has its roots in Hébertismé – the “natural method” pioneered by French Naval officer Georges Hebert. Hébert based his method on his observations of the inherent fitness of island natives in less developed parts of the world, but was also influenced by the Grecian Gymnasia in crafting his world-renowned athletic college in Reims.
My own tribe of natural outdoor movers has been working on a “method” that we simply call the natural outdoor workout, which borrows a great deal from surviving descriptions of the Gymnasia regimen. We run barefoot, often shirtless. We lift logs and throw rocks. We swim in San Francisco Bay’s frigid winter waters at high tide, and then sprint to warm up again afterward. We climb trees, hurdle over obstacles, and race through the uneven paths of nearby parks.
Every year, our numbers grow a bit, but few modern people seem capable of wrapping their heads around the natural outdoor workout. It’s too hot, too cold, too dirty – in short, it’s too “primal.” Indeed, it may be all of these things, but it also works.
While our initial inspiration was the “paleo” workouts of MovNat, we are evolving into the neolithic.
The Grecian Ideal and outdoor Gymnasium sharpen our minds and bodies while connecting us to our local habitat and imbuing a love for our small corner of the world.
Restoring the conversation around body image to sanity requires taking responsibility for our health and aiming for this ideal while accepting the deficiencies bred by so many generations of confusion. After several years of working out this way, I am closer to my ideal physique than I ever was going to the gym or counting calories.
In future posts I will examine various modern methods and modalities (technes & nomoi) to see how they might be blended and incorporated into a holistic movement practice to bring about a revival of the Grecian Ideal.