The Modest Proposal

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Muscles & Fitness: Self-Improvement, one body part at a time Robert V Aldrich

Like many 80s kids, I grew up comparing my life to comics and video games and, later, role-playing games.

I always liked the larger-than-life characters who did amazing and heroic things, and who were capable of doing cool stuff most people could not. In middle school, with the discovery of White Wolf, Palladium, and other tabletop role-playing games, I engaged in the extreme act of vanity everybody denies doing and everybody did: I made myself as a character. I took a blank character sheet, put my name at the top, and started going through the charts. It was just too easy; how could you not? How could you look at those statistics and not try to figure out where you actually ranked? And like everyone else who did this, I discovered my own stats were woefully lacking.

But looking at that stat sheet of myself, some weird combination of ambition and geekery struck and I resolved to do something about it. I resolved to change my character, to improve my stats. And thus entered Muscles & Fitness.

Founded in 1936 by Joe Weider, Muscles & Fitness (originally Your Physique) helped to transform a tiny corner of the physical culture scene into a mainstream phenomenon. Before Weider, bodybuilding was one event of competition in a spectrum that included power lifting, gymnastics, feats of strength, and strongman-like events. But with Weider's support and the help of stars like Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Weider and his many periodicals would grow bodybuilding as an industry unto itself until it had become the gold standard of modern fitness.

It's important to understand that the reason I so revered Muscles & Fitness, and still respect it today, is that it was never about the muscles. The muscles were ancillary. It wasn't about the strength or the endurance, either (at least not directly). And it certainly wasn't about the vanity that often accompanies such bodybuilding pursuits. It was the goal to improve; not to impress others but to better myself. The reason I read Muscles & Fitness was because it was a step-by-step guide to self-improvement.

Other magazines existed that talked about and addressed topics I wanted to be better at. National Geographic and Popular Science were two personal favorites. But these were never geared at better understanding anthropology or robotics or any other topics. They were current-events magazines, geared at keeping those who were already in the know up-to-date. They assumed you already knew so much about their respective topics. But if you wanted to know more, if you were looking to actively improve your knowledge, then you were better off looking elsewhere.

Muscles & Fitness was very different. It was my first exposure to clear-cut, no-nonsense learning and self-improvement in the form of 1) define the goal, 2) breakdown the goal into manageable steps, and 3) monitor improvement. I had never encountered such a simple and concise approach to doing anything. And yet, here in the glossy pages of each monthly tome of exercise, I was given just that. Do you want to add fifty pounds to your deadlift? Do X, Y, and Z. Do you want to increase the size of your shoulders? Do A, B, and C. Do you want to control your insulin spikes when eating? Then blah, blah, blah. On and on. Absolutely anything you might want pertaining to physical improvement was right here and clearly laid out. Do this, not that; achieve this.

In time, other magazines would follow suit with self-improvement. Maxim magazine had a one-page spread on 'How to Be Better at Everything'. As fascinating as it was, overly simplified five-step breakdowns of often very complex issues paled compared to a whole magazine devoted to one whole category of goals. Men's Journal and similar periodicals were likewise lofty in their ambitions, but their goals and/or skills were often poorly defined ('how to dress better' or 'how to be a great dad') and even more poorly laid out.

Muscles & Fitness was a one-stop improvement manual. It made being like those larger-than-life characters in the comics and video games seem just a little more attainable and made them just a little more believable because I could look at their impressive bodies and great feats of strength, endurance, and/or coordination and say 'I know how to become like that'. I had the goal, and then Muscles & Fitness gave me the route to achieve it.

To call it 'empowering' seems like an understatement.

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