Something struck me when seeing the new commercials for the Apple watch, you know, the ones promoting the device as an exercise monitoring, vitals taking, step counting and personal motivating all-in-one super device. Much like the other big brands by Nike and the Fit Bit, Apple promotes the watch as a kind utopian revolution of fitness blessed by the omnipotence of a mass technological culture – it’s finally arrived! – the real answer to solving the body problem, spare tire and all. It’s been promoted as a kind of new technological grail.
The cynical view, and we must have one to balance out all this triumphalism, suggests a further merging of the human with computers, and hence another milestone of cyborgian drift future shock. What I find alarming by this is how increasingly deferential we are in our daily habits, how deferential we are even in regard to our own embodied sense of ourselves, glamoured by technology, furthered all the more by the bedazzled zeal to snatch up every new gadget that, in the end, didn’t do a whole lot more than the last gadget. Imagine if a hypochondriac got a hold of one of these – they would want an app that would tell them the best time to shit.
Yet it doesn’t stop the promotion of that very gadget from proclaiming itself to be the answer to problems that we previously didn’t know we had. (It’s sort of like the cycle of burritos at Taco Bell. Every three months they have to create a new style of burrito, tell you it’s one of of a kind and available for only a limited time, so hurry in! But the burritos are just remixes on the same food product – crunchy or soft, beans or no beans, a taco inside the burrito, the burrito inside the taco, with or without Doritos seasoned salt, nacho or cool ranch, and so on.) It’s the same with the fitness industry, which markets the cycles of fads. Taibo, Jazzercize, pilates, yoga, aerobics, Zumba, and then cycling through again in a new trademarked form. The same with devices and gadgets from the hula hoop to the shake weight, or which proclaim that you can finally get eight minute abs of steel with the new Ab Roller. You know, because planking, planching, lifting, and good old high school gym coach sit-ups just won’t do. (Turned out there were two problems – no one can, unfortunately, spot reduce, and second, no one can buy the gadget that motivates.)
But the zeal for the gadget continues because we’ve been taught that we need these gadgets and technics to tell us how we’re doing. We used to look at ourselves with shame and doubt anxiously over the bathroom scale. Now that same anxiety is in every step and heartbeat. Rebecca Solnit, I believe, coined the term mansplaining to describe the cultural habit of men talking authoritatively over women. But the cyborgian drift offers us the next step. This is techsplaining: where we all defer to the analytics of machines.
The Techsplained “Workout”
The entire training regimen has gone through an enormous revolution in technology. It’s par for the course in an activity that is taken so seriously that we call it “working out.” We’ve equated kinesthetics with all the drudgery of a job, and have applied the metrics we’ve been subjected to in the workplace with all its time management, sales measures and performance quotas, to the exercise space. These days, to take the “workout” seriously is to be initiated into an evolving fad-obsessed technological language. Like taking on a new job, some might say a religion, one must acquire a language of rules, procedures, ingredients, and everything is to be measured in these “workouts” – time, space, weight, body fat, macros, micros, fiber, protein, carbs, calories, heart rate and blood glucose. There have emerged a whole industry of calendars, calorie counters, scales, devices and heart monitors.
In the past, the inscribing machines of language, culture and religion could be at turns liberating or iron cages. Kafka’s torture machine of the “Penal Colony” etched the implacable law in the skin of its victims. Now our torture machines are in gyms – palaces of a new bodily asceticism – decedents of Dr. Kellog’s Road to Wellville. The hardbodies on magazine covers become inspirational icons held above us, their sculpted traps and lats and abs and dedication to caloric deficit become our flaggelistic conscience to get motivated and get onto a machine contraption in a gym. There is a kind of technological asceticism about the “workout” in which the person subjects themselves to the scrutiny of measurements and numbers, and begins to deny themselves anything tasting good, turning the “workout” and its “diet” into a revolving shame quest. At the end of which, if successfully strong and lean, one can point to others and shame them for their dieting and “workout” deficiencies.
It became part of our protestant workout ethic – if only Max Weber could see us now! In an industrial age as laborers, we tended to machines in the workplace and then began to think of ourselves mechanistically. And in our so called “workout,” we got onto more machines, sitting between levers, cables and push-pull devices, where the free activity of the body was committed to the formal rules of the “workout.” And there was this sort of group shame in it, all these daydreaming sweating penitents congregating at the gym, hopping on these nautilus machines, scrutinizing their bodies in the mirrors, huffing and puffing, silently sweating side by side in what might also surreptitiously be a meat market.
Mark Grief in his essay “Against Exercise” likened this type of scene of people doing these sweating and grunting private physical act together to the unseemly activity of public masturbation. But I think the seedy part of this is the kind of forced alienating pornospectacle of the corporate gym, its own impersonal injunction to make fitter, happier, more productive laborers part and parcel of the capitalist work ethic culture as moral arbiter of daily life.
Of course, the fitness industry has always flirted with dubious methods, odd contraptions, fad diets, pills, supplements and gadgets which gives the impression that getting fit and trim is somehow mystified, making one think “if only I could get the right supplements and gadgets and measure my kilocalories, I could get that beach body.” It makes our entire relationship with our own bodies somehow circumspect, which tells us more about the self-insistent nature of capitalism than it does about the body.
There seems to be a polar opposite trend to all this talk of technology in fitness and nutrition though, a counterculture of the techsplained “workout” by individuals taking to the internet under terms like Rogue, Rugged, Raw. These trends buck the machines and the traditional gym and take fitness outdoors, or in private spaces that are not subject to market injunctions, public spectacle, or high technology. Their answer – if it was good enough for Conan, it’s good enough for me.
A number of fitness gurus, including notoriously violent English prisoner Charles Bronson, (made famous by the fabulous 2008 Nicolas Winding Refn movie Bronson), have written books around the theme of convict conditioning – getting fit with no gadgets and a dirty diet with nothing but the bare accouterments of solitary confinement. Charles Bronson has no use for Apple watches in his eight by ten. He doesn’t measure his weights, but gets fit by cracking skulls covered in melted butter. Luckly, you don’t have to be incarcerated to develop a seasoned brawler’s body in your studio apartment or garage. Bronson’s tagline to his Solitary Fitness – “You don’t need a fancy gym or expensive gear to be fit as me!” Despite his lack of freedom in the outside world, he has found a private existential freedom in his fitness with the basic tools of body weight calisthenics and gravity.
Strength trainers have probably been making their own equipment for ages long before the industrial revolution – where they lifted rocks, tossed logs, hurled axes, carried heavy bundles on their head. The preindustrial human in fact was really fit from a surplus of walking, running, pulling, lifting, and so on. We have vestiges of this in the highland games and lumberjack competitions. Underground strength trainers are in a sense peeling away time, along with the corporate mass media culture, taking matters out of the gym and into their own hands where there is no corporate middle man, no mediation by a whole self-insistent industry of gadgets, supplements, hormones or funky juices.
One place that could be inspirational for the DIY strength trainer is Reykjavík, not just the capital of Iceland, but the capital of the Icelandic strongman. There you will find the legendary Magnús Ver Magnússon who you may remember from those old ESPN “World’s Strongest Man” competitions and currently runs an establishment called Jakaból training other strongmen (like 6’9″, 450 lb Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, who plays Game of Throne’s Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane) with a bunch of homespun equipment – welded steel bars, prowlers, giant tires, sledgehammers and hearty ropes. These guys have always been constructing their devices of significant mass, following simple rules like “lift big, eat big.” And when running – if winded, slow down – don’t need a gadget to tell you your heart rate is high.
Of course, not many people are that big – nor do they need a 10,000 calorie a day diet like “The Mountain” – but strongman techniques are borrowed by others who bail on the gym and start tricking out the garage. A pullup bar, maybe some gymnastic rings, a jump rope, a box and a couple of big old sandbags and you’re set. Total cost – fifty bucks tops.
So there are all these websites popping up with folks giving advise on going rogue with practical, free and unalienated training. My favorite of these websites is Rough Strength, by a fella in Ukraine named Alex Zinchenko. He takes a sprinkling of scientific know how, does count protein and caloric surpluses or deficit, but focuses more on physical techniques and psychological aspects of strength training. His philosophy – focus on the lifts and don’t eat like a bonehead. Zinchenko never uses the word “workout” – but rather words like strength, skills, awesome, fun, achievement. The weights are simple – kettle bells, sandbags and bodyweight. Maybe some pullups on a tree branch. He finds extended cardio plain boring, but does skateboard. But what Rough Strength does is simply this complexity, takes it to Rocky IV Siberian montage level – lifting wheelbarrows, chopping wood, barn calistetics, sprinting up a snowy mountain.
The underground of fitness has this kind of salt of the earth retro quality. It’s the equivalent of the food movement towards farm to fork cooking with all of its rustic artisanal local organic wholesomeness as a refuge from the deluge of mass media future shock. Kettle bells are the exercise equivalent of a cast iron skillet. What it restores is a sense of personal embodied freedom that the corporate fitness industry seeks to take away when it promoted itself as the only solution to the body problem. But the problem itself was the sedentary life engendered by the technics of the postindustrial age that promises a Wall-E future of corpulent humans. The solution to restore the body’s fragile dignity – returning to its preindustrial roots.