When someone says, “I want to get in shape,” it’s usually either for visual or practical reasons. I usually assume that the individual wants to lose some excess fat and add muscle tone (visual) and/or increase their cardiovascular endurance and strength (practical), but I dare say that most I know tend to lean towards simply wanting to look better. Even then, though, what sort of aesthetic are these individuals looking for? It’s easy to just say that one wants to “be healthy” or “look better” or “get super-sexy-buff,” but when that person goes to the gym or tries the latest diet fad, they may not be sure what it is they really want. Usually, people tend to look to others for physical inspiration, but even that can get really tricky because there is a huge variety in what it means to be and look “in shape.”
There are two factors that determine what that phrase means, I think: purpose and genetics. With the 2016 Summer Olympics underway, I was inspired to write this by taking in the large number of different body types these different athletes have. While few would argue that each of these fantastic competitors is not in peak shape, they’re also in peak shape for their particular field! These individuals train with specific purpose. If we were to dump Simone Biles into the swimming pool and let Katie Ledecky hang from the uneven bars, I doubt either one would be coming home with all of the gold medals that they are. One is a tiny gymnast, the other a tall swimmer. Each one trains for her specific sport, and while both are in great shape, their athleticism is specified. Congruent with that is the fact that it’s much more difficult to be a tall gymnast or a short swimmer, simply because of the physics involved with each sport.
What does this look like, though, since most folks just want a hot bod? Well, let’s take a look. I exercise, myself, and since I’m a fella, I’ll be using other fellas as examples. Besides, my most regular readers are all female, so… why not give them a little somethin’ somethin’ to look at, eh? 😉
I used to watch strongman competitions when I was young, simply because it was so much darn fun. These huge mountainous men threw trees and flipped tires and expressed insane feats of strength like they were superheroes. Fellas in these competitions are rarely lean — this is actually one of the leaner strongmen I’ve seen — but that’s because their goal is high-level strength, and with greater mass comes greater strength potential. That is their purpose. Genetically, of course, these men also tend to be a bit bigger than yours truly. Due to my smaller frame and shorter stature, it’d simply require a LOT of effort to pack on as much mass as would be required for a sport of this nature… and even then, I’d likely be at a disadvantage compared to someone who is naturally larger.
While seemingly similar to a strongman physique in size, bodybuilders are less focused on strength and more so on appearance. For a bodybuilder, the goal is to sculpt one’s body into its “perfect” form, so a lot of time and effort is placed on exercising individual muscles, as opposed to a strongman who would benefit more from simply lifting heavy things. Notice Arnold’s waist compared to the strongman above. One is sculpted into a leaner v-shape, to be more aesthetically pleasing, while the other is simply a tree-trunk of mass, in order to afford more stabilizing power. Also note the larger size of Arnold’s biceps, which are a very “showy” muscle, compared to the strongman’s larger triceps, which offer more strength-capability. Since bodybuilding is purely visual, this is a field which I, with my smaller frame, could more easily enter than a strongman competition… not that I really want to ;).
Ah, gymnasts. If there was an athletic physique with which I could most easily identify, it would be this. Not that I actually look like this guy at all… yet ;). Of course there are exceptions in all fields, but the best gymnasts tend to be shorter simply because it’s easier to maneuver a smaller, more compact package of human than a longer, heavier one. It’s physics! Shoulder and arm strength is exceptionally important for these athletes, as is having a strong grip. While the bodybuilder spends hours in the gym crafting each muscle into its most ideal shape by weightlifting, many gymnasts rarely, if ever, lift weights.. and if they do, it’s generally more for their lower body. This isn’t a case of one being better than other, simply a matter of different purposes accepting different methods of strength-training.
As it should be of no surprise to anybody, while a gymnast’s upper body is in fantastic condition because they spend so much time hanging from their arms, a sprinter’s strength is all in their lower body. Massive upper legs and a strong ol’ butt are the goal if one wants to run faster than all, because that’s where the power comes from. As sprinting is an anaerobic exercise (consider it like using “muscle strength” compared to “lung capacity”), sprinters are hardly thin and without development in their upper body, though, but certainly their goal is to strengthen their legs above all else.
I dare say that most of our ideal bodies come from the entertainment and modeling world. We’ve taken a recent cultural shift towards a focus on more practical athleticism as a physical ideal, but still… the hottest actors are more than just their in-shape bodies, and I think that carries a lot of influence with it. What makes Brad above so darn dreamy is his coy smile and mischievous smile, and add on top of that a well-toned body and BAM… sexiness to the max. Since folks in the entertainment business are the ones that most of us drool over on a more regular basis, it goes to follow that they would also be the most common bodies to aspire to, as well. As with bodybuilding, this goal is without practical purpose and is simply aesthetic.
Michael Phelps has extraordinarily strong back muscles and a very slim waist, with a lung capacity that I can currently only dream of. The gold-medal-winning power-lifters will have an exceptionally strong back and legs. These individuals are not only genetically gifted to a certain capacity, but they also train very hard to obtain the best abilities in their field — and with that comes a very wide variety of physiques. That follows into the world of us average Joe’s, where the desire to get into shape really depends on what one wants to be able to do better. A mechanic who’s worked with his hands his whole life is likely going to have some fantastic grip strength. A young mom who focuses on the flexibility and core strength of yoga is going to have a different set of skills than her friend who spends most of her exercise time jogging.
Additionally, all of our bodies are shaped quite differently, and I don’t just mean in the sense of body size. Brad Pitt and I could follow the same exact workout routine and eat the same foods, but our muscles are shaped differently and attached to our bones in slightly individual ways, so our bodies would never look exactly the same. Cast in point, his visible ab muscles are very flat, while mine tend to be smaller but more round. So, even if one’s interest in getting into shape is purely cosmetic, there is still a lot of variability to consider.
Personally, I think most of us should simply strive for an overall daily-life level of health — to improve and maintain our bodies in such a way that it benefits the lives we lead and gives us the best chance at living longer and mostly injury free. What that means for you will likely be a little different from what it means for me.
But, then again, if you want to get all ripped and muscley, I won’t stop ya… you just have to figure out what kind of muscles you want to have :).