The image is one of those vintage magazine shots, where the muscular dude on the cover is posing like a Greek statue. It was shown to me by an athlete, and I was captivated.
"This," I thought. "This explains what The Next Level means when we say there's no difference between solid bodybuilding and solid strength lifting."
These images always captivate us when we come across them. Glimpsing the past is always fascinating. But when it comes to the retro muscle magazine images, there is another message being declared that we do not see so much in our own media any more. And this message holds an important lesson for you.
We often arrogantly consider our current standards for what constitutes "muscular body" as somehow more advanced than what came before us. Yet when we look art this dude from 1938, he looks very much like many of the guys we might see pursuing bodybuilding. Or trying to accomplish a powerful lift. Or eagerly diving into CrossFit. The thing that makes his body so compelling is not that it is better or worse than our current standards; it is that it is so much the same as our standards.
Now, this guy comes from 1938. He didn't have supplements. He didn't have gyms and training facilities and CrossFit boxes and yoga studios. Heck – this dude didn't even have our precious (hear the sarcasm?) fitness industry. He only had what all humans have: the resourcefulness of his mind and the focus allowed by his interests. No doubt he had mentors and help, but he was mostly improvisationally working; his amazing physique relied more on his observational discerning than his aggressive demand for a fix.
Now, I hate that I don't have a name for the guy. However, he is here standing emblematic of all the physique athletes of this era; more specifically, emblematic of physique development in a non-industrialized format. He didn't have mags, internets, powders and chrome machines to make this work. He had food and effort and intelligence.
This perhaps proves a point that many find radical, but that you must consider seriously. The body's aesthetics can be recreated without the supplements, brand names (sorry CrossFit – you're a brand first, a program second) the D-list, self-celebrating celebrities (read: Zyzz), the science wonks that "tell you exactly how it is scientifically, without hype" (yet isn't that statement the definition of hype?) – without any of the million trappings of the industry. His body was not reliant on anything but his own resourcefulness, open-mindedness and drive for a remarkable goal.
In short: the fitness industry is completely unnecessary for your success. It is incidental. It is an add-on. It's solutions are always ever ad hoc to what you can do of your own patience and peer-engagement.
In fact, the fitness industry has complicated the matters, hasn't it? It has created all these points of focuses, and calls them all "solutions." And each focus is refined more and more specific to an end; each point of focus is separated further and further apart from the bigger landscape from which is was derived. In the name of "clarifying," it only adds confusion. By trying to convince you of a specific direction – a supplementation program, a training regiment, a scientific application – it only makes us more aware of the clutter.
Now I am not sitting here saying "it was better in them good ol' days." But what I am suggesting is you look at how the fitness industry creates separation between practices. Yet, when you choose your practices, you need to integrate them. Diet with training; rest with work; healing with attack; you have to choose your plans and make them work together, not as discrete, separate entities. You are an integrating machine, yet the fitness industry is a separating machine. You see how the two are at odds in their end-goals?
And this is seen so often with the obnoxiously harsh delineation between the pursuit of strength excellence and and pursuit of aesthetic excellence. They have been separated far too severely by the industry – so effectively separated, in fact, that many people just believe them to be fundamentally different. They are not. They are one and the same. Our buddy from 1938 knew that. In fact, he may not have even thought that the two pursuits – aesthetics and strength – needed to be separated at all. The likelihood was that he saw it as one, integrated process, which is a perception we can barely wrap our brains around today. The two sides have been so divorced from one another by the machinations of a force seeking to industrialize profits that we are confused when we try to see them as the whole that they were prior to the industry.
Oh, quick side note: the industry is only about a hundred years old, yet the pursuit of physique excellence is at least 3500 years old – give or take a millennium. That means the beliefs that came out of the fitness industry are not only new, but gravely misleading. If man has been kicking ass for almost four millennia, don't tell me that bumper plates and neon-green powder is what we've all been missing all this time. Man has been achieving aesthetic excellence and exceptional performance as one single agenda. The only thing that cleaved that agenda into various parts was a greedy industry that figured out it could sell more if it divided and conquered.
But the data supports (adopt 3500 years of data) that the vast majority of physical achievements that bear any mark of superhuman or legendary had nothing to do with the fitness industry, and were not achieved through the separation of pursuits.
So when did you get so much smarter than the millions of awesome warriors before you who got way better results on far less? When did you realize that separating the pursuits into discrete practices of "power," "strength," aesthetics" and "performance" would yield the best results? Such separations are a distraction, friend. They will not avail you the results you want until they are combined in an integrated system.
This is actually a founding principle in The Next Level; that our teams are not just pursuing bodybuilding versus just pursuing strength sports, but rather seek to pursue physique sports as an integrated whole. You are not only inadvertently pursuing one when you pursue the other, you are made more effective in the pursuit of that one if you conscientiously integrate the pursuit of the other.
This is not to disparage specialization. Of course the demands of sports require an athlete to specialize in certain capacities. But specialization is not a "long game"; specialization is a medium- or short-range practice.
Think of it this way: just because a violinist learns a complicated tune does not mean she stops playing other kinds of music. And to play other kinds of music, she must continually engage a broad form of practice; practice that is general and allows her versatility with her instrument. Who learns an instrument just to play one song? You do not specialize in a song just to then never learn to play others. In fact, if she learned a pieces of classical music, then took a break and played a cheerful reel, she may be more agile when she returns to that original classical piece. The pursuit of all the forms makes her better when she has to specialize in just on in a concert setting.
Your body is the same way. Specializing in an area can help you in other areas. Dieting strategies and their effects on the body's hormones can influence strength gains. Unique lifting forms can help evolve movement capabilities for bodybuilding contest posing. Heavy, powerful lifts can help develop the speed and performance used in functional training competition. They are all different tunes, but the goal is not to master only one song, but rather to be a master musician.
Perhaps the musical analogy can be pushed further by comparing your work to a symphony. While you may like the sound of clarinet the most, there is no doubt that a symphony is more versatile than just the clarinet alone. The whole symphony can create more sounds, play more songs, and undulate between intense and soft better than just one of it's instruments could do alone. So it is arguable to say that a clarinet-player who is also capable of conducting a symphony would be a better clarinet player.
You want to be a conductor, my friend. You want to direct all the instruments and all their power in one triumphant symphony. What songs you specialize in is up to you, but no one masters a symphony to play just one song.
And no physique athlete can be said to have truly mastered their body if they stubbornly stick to just one pursuit. Specialization in a pursuit is not the same as isolation from any others. That is what the industry wants you to believe; that to specialize means to separate your thinking from other pursuits absolutely. Then, as you get less and less gains from your pursuits that you have mastered, they will "sell" you more of their precious "solutions."
The dude from 1938 never separated his pursuits. And that body is pretty impressive – even by today's standards. Now, he had it lucky because he didn't have an industry with an agenda preying on his passions. We do. And that industry's messages – both overt and subtle – can undo our best efforts.
Specialize from time to time, but make sure you are not neglecting other pursuits for the sake of one. Explore the options and integrate them. They are not separate by design; they are separated via marketing. Put them back together.
Let's return to 1938. It was a far more captivating time.