Part II of “Before Buff.” (Please find Part I here.)
You travel back to 1900 and ask Americans, “Show me your most splendid specimen of manhood!” Beaming, they present John L. Sullivan, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. “Behold!” they exclaim, beaming. “The newspapers proclaim him ‘the physical superior of all men!’”
Stripped to the waist, you reckon, the Gilded Age’s greatest GigaChad and physique star would tie for fourth place in a beauty contest for Walmart shoppers at the superstore in Fort Wayne.
What excites men’s admiration, you see, is his energy–he exudes vigor and hardihood like a scentless musk. It’s contagious. He makes you feel sanguine and strong! Again you consider taking up wet shaving, with a strop and a horsehair brush.
* * * *
Around 1900, America’s muscle men were boxers and wrestlers. Americans didn’t yet lift barbells and dumbbells, which were bleeding-edge imports from Germany, the ground zero and mecca for “heavy gymnastics.”
Outside of German enclaves, few Americans even had access to gymnastic apparatus or coaching, which was in German anyway. (Sorry, kein Englisch!)
For rough-and-tumble fun, Americans took after the British cousins, who enjoyed wrestling and led the world in pugilism. So when they talked of “fine athletic physiques,” they thought of wrestlers and boxers.
And what kind of physical development did wrestling and boxing create? Well first we have to distinguish look from feel from ability.
“Um, I’m more of, like, a tactile learner?”
It’s a funny thing about men: In my experience, when you hug a dude, you have no idea what’s coming. He might feel like he’s carved out of wood, made of ground beef, or big as two gorillas. Sometimes you put your arm around a lanky guy and he feels like a washer-drier combo wearing a t-shirt. (Straight women, gay men, massage therapists: am I right about this?)
For some reason, it’s hard to know what any given man is “made of” until you clap hands on him. Trainer Rory Miller writes somewhere about his first tussle as a young corrections officer with an intimidating inmate. The guy looked tough as a bowl of razors, but when Miller grabbed him, “the guy felt like he was made out of cheese.” Beneath appearances, the man was crumbling from a lifetime of drugs and hard living and he’d been all hollowed out.
As a lousy high school wrestler, I wrestled a kid from the neighboring industrial town whose arms looked no different from mine, but they felt like steel cables. He pushed me so hard that I tumbled into the wall. If we’d been cartoon characters, I would have flown right through it and left a boy-shaped hole.
In English the word physique skews visual. We borrowed it from French, the language of Descartes, where it just meant “the body, as opposed to the soul.” But in English it connotes “how fit a body looks.”
But I’ll bet that, before modern people got our brains rewired as image-sophisticates, when people did more physical labor, they felt a physique as much as saw it. If not by actually touching it, I bet they “felt” with their eyes. (Think of the way you can look at sandpaper or ice cubes and feel their texture in your fingers.)
I think we need a word for what a thing visually feels like. Heck, I’m inventing that word right now: I’m calling it “look-feel.”
So after just a little first-hand
trauma experience, you too may “look-feel” what I look-feel in this wrestler’s photo: me getting double-legged and dumped on the ground. Because as an under-athletic 14-year old, this sight was often followed by the rapid acceleration of my butt toward the mat, hard enough to crater it.
I’ve only sparred in boxing gloves a tiny bit, but I cover myself worse than a blind man addicted to codeine. That’s enough operant conditioning that I see this other picture and feel my left eye stinging. Seriously, I can feel the disinfectant from his glove in my cornea right now, because I backstop a lot of light jabs with my face.
Some guys my same size and age can clinch me casually and I’ll feel like I’m being rag-dolled by a chimpanzee. But when I clinch my teacher back, he feels absurdly wide, like an inverted pyramid that you can’t get your arms round.
So around 1900, I’m guessing, men rough-housed more than enough to look at these boxers and wrestlers and light up with kinesthetic memories right down in their brain stems.
As for “physique,” i.e. buffness, they ran the gamut from fatback to beef jerky, though not too much prime rib. That is, there were more plump guys and wiry guys than buff ones. There are lots of reasons, and they’re all highly instructive.
Buffness: The Anatomy of a Rare Bird
What ingredients make for a buff physique? It’s a very specific formula of just two ingredients:
buffness = muscular hypertrophy + low bodyfat
It’s tricky to combine the two. For muscular size (hypertrophy), your body must build tissue up, but for leanness, it must pare tissue down. Your body can’t do either one without some effort, and doing both together is much harder.
When does buffness help a lot athletically? Only in those few events that reward high endurance right around the anaerobic threshold and high “relative strength” in the whole body. In short, you benefit from a jacked physique in sports where you must (1) outmuscle somebody, (2) at a fast pace, (3) using all the big muscle groups, (4) for about 2-5 minutes, (5) at a low bodyweight.
In other words, certain gymnastic events (e.g. rings and pommel horse) and some combat sports, especially modern wrestling and (to a lesser extent) modern boxing.
Even then, there are still plenty of variables. As fighters say, “styles make fights,” and some athletes’ styles and game plans benefit more than others from the jacked athlete’s capacity to a unleash few short minutes of Tasmanian devil. Muscly Mike Tyson excelled at terrifying power output that KO’d people in the first round or two. That’s our formula, right there. But Muhammad Ali frequently fought for an hour and his physique matched his style: light for his weight class and height, with no use for excess muscle, because it’s exhausting to dance on your toes in tropical heat for an hour. The worst thing would be to add on the equivalent of a weighted vest. So it’s not even all boxers who gain by being jacked. Tyson was like “the perfect storm” that way.
Weightier still are your sport’s rules. Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s rule set doesn’t reward power and strength as much as wrestling’s rules, so BJJ players sensibly devote less training to them and are less jacked. Sumo rules reward huge bodyweight and absolute strength, and they don’t incentivize even short-term endurance, so sumo physiques reflect that.
And as it happened, around 1900, wrestling and boxing followed pre-modern rules that selected less for the peculiar combo of attributes that make men look jacked.
Wrestling grows more muscle than boxing, as a rule. It generates more power (i.e. foot-pounds per unit of time) and more time under tension, and therefore more hypertrophy. In other words, boxers throw hands, but wrestlers throw bodies, and that makes bigger muscles.
However, a century ago, wrestling matches lasted far longer than under modern rules. In the 1896 Olympics, the final bout lasted 40 minutes, was suspended at nightfall, and continued the following day. At the 1912 Olympics, two middleweights set an unusual record when their match dragged on nearly 12 hours! And the light heavyweight finalists lasted nine hours with no winner and both got sent home with silver medals.
If you train for events lasting even 15 minutes, you’re already well past the sweet spot for the fickle, elusive combination of mass and leanness. Don’t fret, you can still rock a great mankini, but face it: you’re an aerobic athlete.
As an activity, boxing stimulates less muscle growth than wrestling. Once again, think of it as “throwing hands vs. throwing bodies.” I’ll skip the meathead physics and physiology, but it’s the same reason you can’t grow huge biceps throwing javelins or baseballs, things of scant heft that fly away too fast to load all your strength into them. To throw them fast, you depend WAY less on muscle than on speed and coordination. In boxing, you’re slinging just 16oz. of leather (450g). Add the weight of your hands themselves and that’s still 50 times less than an ice dancer doing one of those overhead crotch lifts. Don’t get me wrong, boxing blowtorches the lungs and tires the muscles! But in terms of hypertrophy, you’re basically in Jazzercise class.
Furthermore, old-time boxers fought under older rules that slowed down the action and didn’t favor the tornado-like attributes of a buff physique.
To begin with, prize fighters fought without time limits. They also fought without gloves, which meant they actually had to slow way down. They couldn’t throw many hard head shots, lest they break their unprotected hands on somebody’s dome.
So instead of head-hunting, they went for the body. The old-time prize fighter wore you down slowly, in a long stalking match. He might beat on your arms, head-lock or hip toss you (legally!), and whale on soft targets until you tired and ached enough to expose your solar plexus carelessly. And then THUMP!
Against a competent opponent, such a bout was a long, tiring grind. In his 1889 title defense, John L. Sullivan savaged his rival handily in 100-degree heat, but it still took over two hours. That was only a little longer than average.
We’ll speak again of Sullivan, the “beautiful specimen of manhood” who looks to our Instagram brains like an East German factory manager enjoying the beach in exotic Poland. Because believe it or not, his training methods will make you wish you were a bare-knuckle prize-fighter!