Enemy Bodies

Fitness boot camps put you at war with yourself

There’s a scene in George Butler and Robert Fiore’s 1977 documentary Pumping Iron where the narrator asks Arnold Schwarzenegger, then 28 and already a former Mr. Universe and five-time Mr. Olympia, why he lifts weights. What, in other words, is all this physical effort for? Schwarzenegger, having just finished filming a sequence where he showed off his strength by doing push-ups with two giggling women straddling his back, is feeling equal parts frisky and philosophical. He answers that “the greatest feeling you can get in the gym is the pump.” The film cuts to a shot of a shirtless Arnold doing bent-over hammer curls, then standing to admire his own physique. Veins are popping out across his arms and chest, his pectoral muscles are bulging. “It’s as satisfying to me as coming is,” he says. “As having sex with a woman and coming. So can you believe how much I am in heaven?”

For Schwarzenegger, the purpose of weightlifting is as self-evident as a paycheck: the thrilling, narcotic sensation of his body swelling to take up more and more space. He does it for the sheer sensual, egotistical pleasure of it. It’s not hard to imagine how Schwarzenegger felt validated in this sentiment. After all, he had the collective evidence of his fame, his trophies, his place at the center of the camera’s frame to reinforce his conviction that the pleasure he took in sculpting his physique was justified, or at the very least rewarded.

Fitness, a concept as nebulous and flexible as its parent category, “health,” allows us to think of our bodies as projects

But does this apply to the rest of us, we who have neither the inflating attention of a documentary crew or a shelf of bodybuilding trophies to show for gym time? How can we justify the self-absorption of time spent chasing “the pump”? Is a particular kind of body so sure of an achievement that it can justify the endless weight lifted, the numberless miles run, the $19 billion spent on gym memberships last year alone?

Fitness, a concept as nebulous and flexible as its parent category, “health,” allows us to think of our bodies as projects, sites of investment. For those who experience work as sedentary and abstract, it’s a place to channel the capacity for physical labor, make it seem valuable and productive. Considered positively, it’s a way to reclaim the energy typically spent in service of others; less positively, it brings the mind-set and language of capitalism into our bodies. “Serious” working out separates itself from the recreational by mirroring the accumulative language of the market, requiring one to think in terms of gains, plateaus, metrics, and goals: the lingua franca of the capitalism. Exercise becomes serious when it’s treated as a process of transformation or a mode of self-production, a constant effort to generate physical capital and measurable growth, not to mention the value that accrues to attaining ideals of conventional attractiveness.

Our body, seemingly a self-evident border between ourselves and the world, becomes instead a threshold that exercise, the advice of trainers, fitness discourse in general, and the organization of the gym itself, can take us beyond. We pass through that boundary, and our body dissolves into systems of classification, measurement, and competition. In his essay “Against Exercise,” Mark Greif writes that gyms have come to replace the factory as the space where we subject ourselves to impersonal repetitions of mechanization, marrying ourselves to machines in search of the quantifiable metric of excellence in a perfectly calibrated instrument. Exercise, says Greif, “expresses a will, on the part of each and every individual, to discover and regulate the machine-like processes in his own body.” The gym has come to function as a surrogate for both the workshop floor and the laboratory, a space where we are free to self-operate in atomized freedom.

Historically, fitness has been seen a solitary undertaking distinct from team sport. The milieu that Pumping Iron explores, the bodybuilding craze of the 1970s, offers a clear and influential example: The film depicts participants working their muscles in isolation, aided by a plethora of machines and equipment that make the involvement of other bodies unnecessary. In weight rooms around the world, you’ll find crowds of bodies jostling for space around flat benches and squat racks, ignoring one another, separated by the privacy that earbuds can afford. It evokes self-supervision, self-tracking, and self-discipline. The practice is celebrated as a steep masturbatory climb of self-involvement that culminates in so much heaven right now, as Schwarzenegger suggested.

Such self-involvement can be challenging to monetize. It’s an old truism that anything undertaken alone is doubly likely to go unfinished, and gyms know that individual people are easily discouraged. Greif wrties, “No doubt the unsharability of exercise stimulates an unusual kind of loneliness.”

The fitness industry has historically gone to great lengths attempting to supplant the loneliness of the long-distance runner with the promises of a social experience, which, as social media companies have learned, can be an effective way to both capture data and make their products “sticky.” Perhaps the most profitable example are fitness apps like Nike+ and Strava, which allow exercisers to publicly record their workouts and interact with other users in a virtual approximation of community, allowing them to feel less alone in their laboratory of self while giving fitness companies access to vast reams of data about how, when, and even why users exercise. These output of these apps resembles the scientific concept of “boundary work,” where certain types of research are used to demarcate divisions between professional and non-professional participants in a field of knowledge. Exercisers who willingly analyze and share their workout data with experts operating behind an opaque wall of non-engagement are akin to citizen-scientists, who work in hopes of attracting the legitimizing gaze of scientific institutions.

While the workouts themselves may vary wildly, the essential conceit of fitness “boot camps” remains: Without them, you will never know what you’re truly capable of

But not all fitness enterprises can capitalize on this diffuse, scientific objectivity as apps can. An alternative model for steeping exercise in the ideals of community and productivity can be adapted from the military. Fitness “boot camps” portray themselves as something more than conventional gyms: Whereas the local YMCA has overly complicated machines that require endless repetitions in depressing gymnasiums, boot camps offer dynamic, full-body workouts set to top 40 hits in renovated downtown spaces or, even better, as guerrilla actions in a local park. Boot camp instructors, many of whom advertise their own military experience, set customers through their paces with a kind of benign, charismatic tyranny, pushing them to work harder and faster with the enthusiasm and volume of carnival barkers. Often they brag that they offer workouts of an intensity and rigor that individual exercisers couldn’t hope to achieve without the “motivating” presence of the setting. And while the workouts themselves may vary wildly, from Olympic lifting to metabolic conditioning, from crossfit to high-intensity interval training, this essential conceit remains: Without the boot camp, you will never know what you’re truly capable of.

Fitness boot camps entice customers with a way to pursue fitness outside the competitive zone of mutual isolation in the typical gym: The dangling carrot of physical transformation may be more attractive when packaged with a social transformation — when the self-centered fantasy of wanting a different body is tempered by a community of like-minded strivers. A gym in my city describes itself as dedicated to “growing community through physical culture and mindful living”; another one a few blocks away fashions itself as “a room where the impossible becomes possible.” They advertise an experience that melds military discipline with the gratification of social media, the transformative potential of shared hardship with the FOMO-inducing prospect of discovering your new best friends and sharing mutual appreciations of how great we all look.

The superficial trappings that fitness boot camps use to liken themselves to the military creates the sense that exercise can be both a journey toward holistic health and a war waged against a recalcitrant body. The phrase boot camp in its demilitarized form has long served to attach martial disciple to more quotidian forms of transformation: CEOs attend workplace boot camps to become better managers; web developers attend coding boot camps to buff up their HTML. These trade on the popular belief that intensive military training methods are irresistibly hardening, providing a time-tested regimen of “basic training” that can extract potential from even the most resistant materials.

But military boot camps in the U.S. have historically provoked more anxiety than confidence about national health. In 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act established criteria for evaluating the physical health of draftees, but as conscripted men began reporting for duty, military experts were dismayed by the rate at which they were turned away. This has remained a problem. In 2010, as the U.S. Army announced it was overhauling its Physical Readiness Training program, one lieutenant general lamented, “The majority of civilians we’re receiving from our society that we must build into soldiers are increasingly out of shape. Kids aren’t playing as much, they’re not taking PE courses in schools, and they’re not eating right. Video games and social-networking sites keep them in front of computer screens for too many hours.”

In the exhausting project of attacking our bodies we look for allies, and for communities where our self-ministrations fit

As a result, military fitness experts sought to create a standard for shaping up recruits that can applied to any body: a “systematic approach to training, consisting of an ordered, comprehensive assemblage of facts, principles and methods for training soldiers and units for full-spectrum operations.” In practice, these methods are fairly basic. The Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) consists of timed sets of push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. As a system of exercise, it invokes less the scientifically sophisticated, holistically minded physical technology the army touts it to be, and more the archaic PE recommendations of a Boy Scouts manual. The simplicity of the APFT establishes its requirements of strength in the most reductive terms possible, rather than the much more complicated process of educating civilian bodies into a nominal soldierhood.

These simplistic metrics belie the true core of military training: learning subordination. One of the elementary components of military discipline consists of the loss of individuality as one learns to operate as a team under the direction of a commander. The military has generally stressed that the key to unlocking recruits’ deepest potential lay in removing their personal agency and exerting complete control over their individual subjectivities. Personalities must be peeled like onion skin in order to find the high-functioning soldier that lies beneath them.

The techniques to achieve this are often highly ritualized: enforcing the uniformity of appearance, the hierarchical patterns of language that determine who can address whom and under what conditions, the physical intimacy brought on by shared quarters. But the fundamental experience at the core of them is one of shared hardship. The small humiliations of military indoctrination can only be understood by other individuals who have experienced them, who have felt their own individual subjectivities being broken down and refashioned in a common direction with their comrades-in-arms. What is experienced in boot camp, recruits are told, is just a taste of the experiences that will bond them during wartime, a litany of hardships that will give them a sense of cohesion both ideological and biological: from pain in the body comes love for the other bodies that suffer it.

Fitness boot camps embrace the saber-rattling ornaments of the military, but it also understands that hardships, in a commercial context, must be mediated. As far as I’m aware, no fitness boot camp has gone so far as to shave customers’ heads or demand they clean the floor with their toothbrushes. Instead there are mandatory post-class fist bumps and the shared experience of being yelled at by charismatic trainers driving you to do one more push-up or burpee stand. Fitness boot camps rush to fill the gap between the sustained inculcation of military training with affirmations that community is really and truly being constructed. A reminder email over a missed class, or a complimentary piece of merchandise can easily convince one that they have passed some litmus test for entry onto the team, and as long as one keeps attending and keeps paying a monthly fee, that reinforcement will be readily available.

Commercial gyms are saddled with the imperative to keep participants engaged and spending money, and this requires resolving the contradictions between achieving physical improvement through subjugation and the pleasures of consumerism. Fitness boot camps address this concern, presenting militaristic self-actualization and bonding as something that can be bought like a monthly gym membership, a branded water bottle. Branding stands in as a shallow version of the army’s esprit du corps. Even the U.S. Marine Corps is now warming to this model of eligibility: Rather than using exclusivity as a draw, as in its old ads (the few, the proud), it now implies that anyone is capable of transforming themselves and secure the branded seal of approval.

The physical technologies that boot camps, both military and fitness, come with the implication that social cohesion awaits at the end of the process of personal transformation. We are conditioned to believe that the circumstances of our daily lives make poor laboratories for exploring what our bodies can do, that we require special sites and the expertise of others to access our real potential. So we go to gyms, or we enlist, to fix our blubbery and overburdened bodies and find others who are trying to do the same.

What boot camps, both those that occur on Parris Island in refurbished gyms across the country have in common is this underlying implication: The body is a site of opportunity, but it is also an enemy. Unlocking our latent potential comes at the price of a constant campaign waged against the biological reality of a physical selves that tends toward entropy. The sheer vigilance it takes to police our borders, to discipline our flesh is overwhelming. So in the exhausting project of attacking our bodies we look for allies, and for communities where our self-ministrations fit.

If our individualism, the excesses of selfhood that weighs us down, cannot be fully rooted out, then at least it can be sublimated into shared experience. Fall into lockstep with our fellow recruits, wearing the same clothing, repeating the same gestures, washed in the same admonishments and encouragements, we drill ourselves into a notional togetherness, transforming our individual efforts into a team effort.

Because when the enemy is in our bodies, it’s effectively everywhere. And it always helps to have someone to watch your six.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of TEAMS. Also from this week, Vicky Osterweil on how YouTube has weaponized the pleasures of hanging out, and Robert Minto on fear of becoming a bot.

Tom Thor Buchanan is a writer and researcher living in Toronto. His work has appeared in Joyland, Cosmonaut Avenue, and Metatron.