We live in the age of Internet selfies. Of steroid-bloated bodies. Of big booty bikini competitors… In short, the world of health and fitness is awash in a sea of vanity.
Yet, at the same time, we’ve seen the rise of “functional” exercise: CrossFit, stability balls, athlete-centric training. Overall, quite a positive trend, I’d say.
These appear to be two ends of a spectrum—“form” versus “function.” Do they have anything in common? More to the point, is there anything wrong with training to look good?
Function is obviously important, especially for the elderly, injured, and weak. Due to lots of driving and hunkering over electronic devices, people in this modern age tend to develop poor posture, weak backs, tight hamstrings, and weak legs in general—at a certain age, many can’t even push themselves off the floor or out of a chair.
Yet there’s undeniably a cosmetic side to these same issues. When we become weak and imbalanced, we end up with poor posture, forward head carriage, slumped shoulders, and so on. We simply don’t look good with our weaknesses and imbalances!
What’s Wrong with Looking Good?
So is there anything wrong with training for appearance? The short answer, in my opinion, is “no.” We do many things in life for appearance sake, such as fixing our teeth, styling our hair, shaving, wearing nice clothes, driving a nice looking car, and so forth. So it’s pretty natural that we’d also seek to improve our physical appearance.
My caveat would be, that there’s nothing wrong with training for appearance… as long as we train for function too.
We want and need to function well in our lives—to be able to easily do the physical things we need to do, whether it’s moving furniture, working in the yard without pain, playing with the kids, or playing sports. So why not have function AND looks?
Overcoming My Weaknesses and Imbalances
Looking back, honestly, I think the main reason I started training was for strength and bulk–for the purpose of defending myself. I was a skinny kid and had an older brother who at the time was quite chubby. And on a regular basis, he’d wrestle me, pin me to the ground, and taunt me like older brothers are want to do. Funny thing–he wouldn’t let neighborhood bullies mess with me, so I have to give him props for that!
We grew up trying to make ourselves strong with plastic and concrete weights, hitting a heavy bag, and sparring with our friends in our backyard, in addition to playing the traditional sports.
By the way, fast-forward to fifty years later, and I’ve trained my older brother and his wife; and was able to help them get into tremendous shape. Of course, they did the work, and have kept going since with regular glowing updates. At almost sixty years old, my older brother is now down to his high school weight with body fat in the twelve percent range! His wife is in amazing shape too, and focused strength training has sent her bone density through the roof! They have built exercise, good nutrition and other health habits, and (most important) play into their daily lives!
So I did start lifting weights to bulk up, and so that I wouldn’t look so thin and wimpy! And beyond that, once I started to get hurt playing sports and lifting incorrectly, I had to learn to overcome injuries, and it kept going from there. I eventually became a Certified Personal Trainer, learned about the importance of smart training, good nutrition and sound lifestyle habits, and here I am, nearly 58 and in the best overall shape of my life.
Overcoming My Anatomy
I started with a lot of anatomical disadvantages, such as being skinny, narrow and rounded shouldered, had forward head carriage, a long torso, shallow chest, and the most glaring—a bony sternum that has no muscle at all in the middle chest plate area.
Bodybuilding, Bodywork and Self Confidence to the Rescue!
There are a number of available tools to help overcome the cosmetic defects of the body, my favorite being “old school” bodybuilding (primarily compound lifts with barbells). The pushing and pulling muscles need to be kept in balance to achieve proper function—AND to look right. An example would be balancing the pushing muscles used in a push up with the pulling muscles used in a pull up. Or matching a muscular upper body with a lower body of proportional size. How many times have we seen the guy at the gym with a big chest from lots of bench pressing, and bird legs from little squatting?
Another great tool to help balance the body are various forms of bodywork. I’ve used a number of these tools over the years such as yoga, Pilates, various martial arts, Egoscue, Callanetics, and others. These have been especially useful to me after I blew my lung out (twice!), which required surgery, and turned my body posture from an “exclamation point” to a “question mark.” I have to work regularly to keep my posture as balanced as possible.
The third type of tools—and really the most important—are spiritual tools. They have developed my self-worth and confidence. The two primary tools I speak of are prayer—for me, silent prayer has been of immeasurable benefit. Letting go of the fear of seeing reality and expressing myself when necessary is what has helped (and continues to help) the most.
Growing up distant from my “distant” father; and fighting for my freedom from my over-protective mother (I’m not knocking them or diminishing all they did for me, I just want to give you an understanding of my journey toward freedom), I lacked confidence, and it showed in my body composition and posture. It has taken me years to overcome but the release I’m finding has revealed itself in many ways—not the least is improved body posture—in other words, my posture is transforming from “closed” to “open.”
The Return of “Old-School” Bodybuilding
In the “Golden Days” of bodybuilding, which I consider the 1940s and 50s (prior to the advent of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs), classic ideas of proportion and symmetry were appreciated and practiced regularly by the top competitors, the late Steve Reeves being the “poster boy” for this ideal that goes back to the ancient Greeks.
Reeves’ body was also quite functional, and he engaged in calisthenics work, powerwalking, water skiing, horseback riding, and other healthy activities. He also stuck religiously to a healthy diet that was surprisingly low in protein consumption (according to Steve, he consumed just twenty percent of his calories in protein; twenty percent in fat; and sixty percent in carbohydrate) in comparison to the gargantuan amounts of protein typically consumed by today’s bodybuilders.
Many other bodybuilders of the classic era combined form and function, such as the legendary Sig Klein, who at a bodyweight of 150 pounds, could press heavy dumbbells like they were made of paper, and regularly practiced handstands, tumbling, Tiger Bends, and other feats of strength and balance.
The legendary John Grimek, who many consider the greatest natural bodybuilder ever, had an amazingly functional body: he competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in weightlifting, and was capable of performing strong man stunts, backflips, splits, and more. In the 1948 Mr. Universe competition, at 38 years of age, Grimek beat a much younger Steve Reeves in a thrilling event that was decided in a climactic “pose off,” where Grimek—ever the showman—thrilled the crowd with “stunning poses, muscle control, and gymnastic displays including a split, handstand, and roll-over…”
Unlike most of today’s bodybuilders, the bodybuilders of old were highly functional; and performed without the “performance enhancing drugs” that have ruined modern professional bodybuilding.
My personal training and consulting company, Greek Physique™, LLC, employs the timeless connection between form and function, using progressive bodyweight calisthenics, barbells, kettlebells, bands, and Greek Yoga™ so that the right tool is used to create an aesthetic, yet functional body, equally ready for the beach, Saturday morning chores, or a friendly pickup basketball game.
We use our Bodysculpting Blueprint™ as a foundation for our instruction in bodybuilding. It allows the trainee to build a muscular, symmetrical body, without having to live at the gym, and with plenty of recovery time built in, which is a God-send, particularly for the mature athlete who needs to maximize his or her recovery time.
And take a look at my book–just $2.99 on Amazon.com: GREEK PHYSIQUE™: The Simple, Satisfying Way to Sculpt Your Body–Even if You’re Old, Weak, or Broken Down.
Bottom Line: Don’t be embarrassed to train for aesthetics–for looks–while you’re training for maximum function. Function and aesthetics are more closely related than meets the eye. It’s a balance I’m quite happy with, and I believe you will be too.
Patrick Rooney is the Owner of GREEK PHYSIQUE™, LLC a Personal Training company located in Middle Tennessee, which specializes in body sculpting for men and women. Patrick is certified through the National Association for Fitness Certification (NAFC). Patrick is available for Personal Training and Lifestyle Coaching, both in person and via phone and Skype. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.