Christmas has come early at Containing Multitudes. We are very proud to announce that as part of the Guest Post Ultra-Marathon that he undertook earlier this year, Josh Hanagarne, World's Strongest Librarian, has kindly agreed to write something for us.
Action Heroes and Huge Arms: Misguided Strength in American Culture
By Josh Hanagarne, World’s Strongest Librarian
Recently I watched the latest installment of the Rambo series. An increasingly elderly Rambo was hiding in the bushes, watching a group of monstrous Cambodian thugs torment some peasants by making them walk through a minefield. Finally, as always happens with good old Rambo, he had had enough.
Suddenly, one of the Cambodians gets an arrow through his leg. He screams and reaches down to grab it. Another arrow flies through his head, knocking him off his feet…and then he falls onto a land mine and explodes. Rambo emerges from the tree line and notches another arrow, his biceps flexing in slow motion with the effort.
This is a truly American moment in an action movie.
Strength, size, and fitness
Many Americans equate physical size with strength. Our image of a “strong” man is often that of a puffed-up bodybuilder posing on a stage. These bodybuilders go to great lengths to make themselves more muscular. Many of these methods are unhealthy; some are illegal, such as steroid use. And yet, many of these 300 pound monsters wouldn’t be able to do five pull-ups if their lives depended on it.
Too often, the American concept of strength is to make a body look more athletic, while actually reducing its athletic abilities. What we call “fitness” is often perceived as having abs that would be at home on the cover of a magazine.
As one of my coaches has said over and over, fitness is the ability to do a specific task. That task could be throwing a discus, swinging a hammer, pushing a truck out of the mud, or any other number of things. But real fitness is not about appearance. It is about being cultivating strength that can be used.
People were getting stronger long before the invention of fancy exercise machines. But walk into most gyms in America and your eyes will glaze over as you look at rows and rows of useless machines. Everything must be “cutting edge” and “new wave” and “hydro-this-or-that.” Argh. Nothing is necessary to get strong besides a barbell, some plates, and something to do pull-ups on.
Actually, not even that. There are people who have cultivated extraordinary strength with their own bodies alone. But it’s hard for anyone to make money doing bodyweight training, so they create products, the gyms buy them, and the people by and large accept them because they do not have the knowledge to sift the good fitness information from the bad.
The Heart of the problem
We worship action heroes instead of the guy who can do 30 pull-ups. We want to fight in the UFC instead of correcting our own posture and strengthening our bodies so that we can age gracefully. We prefer big arms to strong hearts and lungs, and six pack abs to a body that works well as a unit.
And the people at the top of the strength industry pretend that getting strong and healthy is confusing and esoteric. The normal American couldn’t possibly improve themselves without their help, and so they make a fortune selling magazines full of garbage information and supplements that do nothing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Rambo, Conan, The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rocky, John McClane, and GI Joe. But with the possible exception of Arnold, I don’t rely on any of them for my health needs.
Most Americans think that they need help to figure this stuff out. As long as they think that being on the cover of a magazine is the best proof that they are in shape, they’re not going to make much progress.
About the Author: Josh Hanagarne is the twitchy giant behind World’s Strongest Librarian, a blog about living with Tourette’s Syndrome, kettlebells, book recommendations, buying pants when you’re 6’8”, old-time strongman training, and much more. Please subscribe to Josh’s RSS Updates to stay in touch.