Even now, still, it’s ‘Brad Pitt in Fight Club’. That’s the body blokes ask for,” says personal trainer Tim Walker. “He looks great but he’s not massive. He’s just got really good abs, good arms and an alright chest. And that’s what people want: to be lean, have a six pack.” Walker, 34, from Essex, has been a personal trainer since 2003, and for the last 12 years has specialised in transforming men’s physiques in 12 weeks. “My clients tend to be from 20 to around 50 years old,” Walker says. “I’m training one bloke who’s 57.” The programme is intense and comprehensive, consisting of four weekly one-on-one sessions with Walker plus “homework” (think sprints, press-ups and cardio) and a complete diet overhaul. It’s a schedule I have agreed to undertake.
I’m embarking on Walker’s three-month Warrior Workout because I’m investigating men’s bodies. That is, ahem, I’m investigating the trend of men getting increasingly… ripped. Jacked. Pumped. Whatever you call it, it’s a certain type of “fit”. “There’s this big thing now called ‘physique training’,” Walker says. “It’s all about having abs, looking like a fitness model.” It’s a look that has come to prominence in recent years. “It used to be bodybuilding,” Walker adds, “but that look’s unattainable — you have to take steroids. With physique training, instead of spending 10 years trying to build mass, you just get really lean.”
This tendency towards buffness is a cultural phenomenon defined by author and journalist Mark Simpson as “spornosexuality”. The term, denoting men who strive to look like sportsmen or porn stars, marks the next stage in the evolution of the preening, mediated “metrosexual” (a word Simpson introduced to the public consciousness in a 1994 article in The Independent, then popularised in a 2002 piece for US news site salon.com).
Simpson first began writing about “sporno” culture in 2006, noting the rise in hypersexualised, homoprovocative imagery of sportsmen: Dolce & Gabbana’s fashion shoots featuring the Italian national football team in the shower in 2006; Freddie Ljungberg on the cover of Attitude magazine; the French rugby players of the Dieux du Stade nude calendars. The concept appeared as one of the New York Times’ 2006 Ideas of the Year. In 2014, Simpson pronounced the metrosexual finally dead — superseded by the spornosexual.
The spornosexual is a more extreme breed of man than his metro forebear. He is just as plucked, tanned and moisturised, but leaner, buffer, more jacked and obsessed not just with “looking good” in the abstract, but with the actual physical proportions of his frame: the striation of his abs, the vascularity of his biceps, the definition of his calves.
He defines himself less by the clothes he wears than by his HD-ready body, which is perpetually ready to be ogled on the beach, admired on the high street as it bursts out of a skin-tight plunging V-neck T-shirt, or rubbed-up-against under the flickering strobe of an Essex nightclub. He was defined as the “modern British douchebag” by writer Clive Martin in Vice, who described him as “an erection in a vest. A walking, preening monument to the British masculinity crisis, a sports science Übermensch with an indecent exposure charge to his name.”
Do I want to become one of… those people? A tattooed, deep-tanned, skin-tight-V-neck-T-shirt-wearing, fist-pumping #lad? Well, no. Definitely not. But do I want to shake off the soft, doughy outer layer that working life and indolence have led me to develop? To acknowledge and then do battle against the stringy arms, appalling posture and incipient gut that I must have privately decided to ignore at some point in my mid-twenties? To devote myself, shamelessly, to the cultivation of my physique, radically change my lifestyle and try and look like (or, at the very least, feel like) some completely unattainable combination of Cristiano Ronaldo in an underwear shoot and Chris Hemsworth as Thor? To attempt to spornolize my body? Yes. Yes, I do.
Partly it’s just vanity, obviously. A desire to find out what it feels like to be lean, strong and muscular. To walk around with the swagger of someone who is no longer in denial about their waist measurement. To show off to my mates, to impress my girlfriend. But there’s also a different sort of curiosity. A slight case of Fear Of Missing Out that stems from the worry that, at 27, I only missed out on being engulfed by sporno culture by a few short years.
I mention this to Walker. “Yeah, it’s not my generation that’s properly into it, but the one below. The guys in their early twenties,” he says. The creeping awareness that being hench now seems to be de rigueur for lads a few years younger than me was what prompted my investigation into the phenomenon in the first place. I just want to know what it feels like. Is that so wrong?
The night before my Warrior Workout programme begins, I go to a restaurant with my girlfriend and eat my last unhealthy meal (cheeseburger, thick-cut chips, two glasses of red wine, a side-order of dread). While I am dimly aware of what might lie ahead, I am acutely aware that Walker recently helped Men’s Health writer Jamie Millar achieve an extraordinary, cover-model physique. The bar has been set high (and loaded with weights). It begins.
The next day, Walker measures me. I’m out of shape. Not fat-fat, but deeply unremarkable. The weak, soft, shapeless frame of a 27-year-old man with a career involving zero physical exertion. Walker documents my not-particularly-vital statistics in a Google spreadsheet, and then we get down to the business of lifting weights. It’s absolute hell. Throughout my first session with Walker — a punishing, non-stop bombardment of squats, chin-ups, dead lifts, press-ups, shoulder presses and rows — I spend the hour attempting not to throw up. After our second — a leg-obliterating succession of squats, lunges and dead lifts — I take 20 minutes to walk to a destination Google Maps tells me is approximately 500m from the gym.
Very gradually, though, I start to adjust. Dormant muscle fibres begin to flicker to life. My lung capacity starts to improve. The workouts become almost… enjoyable? I start to get into a rhythm. I keep pumping iron and attempt to trace the sporno movement back to its source.
Hugh Jackman tweeted, “If the bar ain’t bendin’, then you’re just pretendin’,” when he was preparing for 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. The tweet is accompanied by a picture of the actor deadlifting 180kg and looking, as many online commentators noted, both huge and jacked. The most impressive thing about Jackman’s transformation is not just how stacked his Wolverine has become, it’s how much more stacked his Wolverine has become since the first time he played the character.
Look at the evidence. In 2000, Jackman’s physique is athletic but not otherworldly. Over the course of the subsequent six films in the X-Men franchise, he grows increasingly lean and muscular. By the time he appears in last year’s outing, filmed when Jackman was some 44 years of age, he’s an absolute beast.
At this point, it’s worth clarifying the nature of “metrosexuality” as Mark Simpson originally meant it, that is, not as shorthand for “bloke who uses moisturiser”. “Metrosexuality is, in a paradox that Wilde would have relished, not skin deep,” he told The Telegraph. “It’s not about facials and manbags, guyliner and flip-flops. It’s not about men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’.” Rather, it’s about the young-man-as-mediated-individual.
A product of the myriad pressures exerted on him by gleeful marketeers pumping aspirational imagery of men into pop videos, fragrance adverts, TV shows, films and magazines such as this one. Simpson says, “It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. Just as women have been encouraged to do for some time.”
Spornosexuality, then, places further pressure on men by requiring them to not only tick all of the metro boxes (ie, looking groomed, smelling good, dressing exclusively in branded clothing) but also to adhere to a specific physical ideal. It’s an improbable, sporty, porny, ripped-to-shit ideal, and means that men are increasingly beholden to the same unrealistic body expectations that have long plagued women, with the abdominal “V-line” becoming as fetishised as the “thigh gap”.
With the spornosexual movement in full flight, men are now constantly bombarded with potent imagery of celebrities with improbable physiques: some of the most potent and pervasive are from Hollywood. Which leads us back to Wolverine and his deadlifts…
Jackman is not alone: Hollywood’s leading men have been getting buffer for some time. The strapping, athletic physique of Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman looks puny in comparison to the extraordinary proportions of modern Man of Steel Henry Cavill. Michael Keaton’s Batman got by in a plastic muscle suit, as did Val Kilmer and George Clooney, but not so Christian Bale, who in 2005 debuted a Dark Knight who looked as pumped without the suit as he did with it (your move, Ben Affleck).
That same year, Daniel Craig signed up to inherit the role of James Bond. The spy, an enduring archetype of aspirational Hollywood masculinity, never needed a six-pack before, but in the modern, sporno era it is as essential a tool in Bond’s arsenal as the hover-gondola was to Roger Moore in Moonraker. Daniel Craig, in unveiling his eye-popping physique as he strode out of the sea, gave us the first Bond who required that his protein be shaken not stirred. Or, as Simpson puts it, “With Craig, Bond finally became his own busty Bond Girl.”
That’s not to say Hollywood hasn’t been plying us with images of muscular men since the year dot, from broad-shouldered swimmer Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan in the Thirties to bodybuilder Steve Reeves’ Hercules in the Fifties (and subsequent identikit sword ’n’ sandals heroes).
Arnie, of course, dragged bodybuilding into the mainstream with his star-making turn as Conan the Barbarian in 1982, but he, too, was an outsider. Despite lacing many of his roles with wry humour, Schwarzenegger remained an unknowable freak attraction: his Olympian frame forged from superhuman Austrian willpower and futuristic robot technology. He did not seem mortal and was rarely presented as such.
In the modern era, however, the spornolized Hollywood star has a body like a Greek statue as a matter of course. Matt Damon, 44, is reprising his role as pumped-up secret agent Jason Bourne, Brad Pitt is still lean at 51 and Channing Tatum has retained the body he first monetised when working as a stripper. Even Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation’s very own bumbling man-child Andy Dwyer, transformed himself from cuddly to chiseled for his role in Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite superhero movies’ copious use of CGI, the real-life transformation of an actor’s body is inevitably one of the most crowd-pleasing special effects it is possible to achieve.
Hollywood, however, is losing ground to a faster, more democratic means of distributing body-image-warping content — social media. Indeed, in a society where nearly everyone carries an internet-enabled HD camera in their pockets, the internet provides the perfect platform for spornos to broadcast their achievements to the world at large. A pioneer, in the fields of both online peacocking and the cultivation of a spornosexual physique, was Australian bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian, popularly known as Zyzz, who died in 2011 aged 22, the result of a congenital heart defect.
Zyzz, who resembled Tom Daley as drawn by a Manga pornographer, truly embodied the sporno ideal. After his death, his catchphrases — “You mirin’?” and “You jelly?” — have been taken up as sporno slang and placed alongside, “Do you even lift, bro?” and “Friends don’t let friends skip leg day” in the hallowed annals of internet fitness meme culture.
Though Zyzz is no longer with us, many others sharing his philosophy have become Instagram celebrities. Leaders of the pack include Yugoslavian fitness model Sadik Hadzovic (150k followers), former coal miner Cory Gregory (305k followers) and aptly-named Canadian model Marc Fitt (490k followers): men comparatively unknown to the world at large, but with a growing and appreciative online fanbase ready and willing to fawn over their “big ass lats and shoulders”, “awesome chest pump” and “clavicle width” whenever they post a pic (which, fear not, is regularly).
Among the most successful of the online sporno generation is Lazar Angelov, a Bulgarian personal trainer who commands a vast audience on both Facebook and Instagram (7.8m likes and 1.2m followers, respectively). A man of unerring symmetry — in both his fat-free physique and his facial hair, which appears to have been painted on — Angelov’s feeds are a constant klaxon-call to the world’s spornosexuals, mainly via photos of him working out and motivational phrases, generally superimposed over photos of him working out.
On Instagram, an unapologetic snap of his stomach, captioned simply “#Monday #AbsCheck”, accrues 43.7k likes. Over on Facebook, Angelov bellows “WORK HARD STAY HUMBLE” in capitalised Impact typeface over a black and white photo of his naked upper body, to 124,748 likes and 3,602 shares.
Two-thirds of the way through my training regime, I am constantly exhausted, constantly sore, and constantly going either to or from the gym. My whole life becomes governed by an immutable set of weekly edicts issued by Walker. I buy Tupperware containers and begin to weigh each of my five daily high-protein meals, then log them for his approval on the My Fitness Pal app, as per his orders. Walker tells me I “no longer eat breakfast. From now on, think of it as ‘Meal One’.” On some days, my ‘Meal One’ consists of chicken and spinach. Alcohol is verboten in this new world, as are carbohydrates. As is sugar. As is fruit. I am restricted to one coffee per day. My strict adherence to the times I must eat means that I find myself hastily consuming meals while on the bus, outside in the street and, on one particularly low occasion, standing on the eastbound Central Line platform at Oxford Circus tube station.
I want to quit. But I’ve made the commitment, and categorically refuse to back out — what would Lazar Angelov think of me? I check his Facebook page for inspiration. There’s a photo of a lion’s head, accompanied by the phrase, “Your state of mind is a magnet that creates your reality”. I’m not sure what this means. I make myself a protein shake (Monkey Nutrition, strawberry flavour). Onwards.
I write to Mark Simpson, the sporno daddy himself. I explain that I’m currently in the middle of my programme, and that I have found myself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by sporno culture: the enthusiastic pursuit of a physical aesthetic and, particularly, the documenting of your bodybuilding achievements via every available social media outlet feels somehow un-British. Vulgar.
“Of course,” Simpson counters, via email. “That’s one of its great virtues. Vulgarity, like sex, is never ironic. Which is why hipsters, the anti-sexual wing of metrosexuality, hate spornosexuals. Which shades into the general, historical English (middle class) problem with bodies and pleasure. And the particular discomfort with the ‘open’, ‘passive’, neediness of today’s male’s desire to be desired.”
I mention to Simpson my theory that Hollywood’s men are becoming increasingly stacked. He doesn’t disagree, but notes, “I also think that Hollywood still has problems with red-blooded spornosexuality, and its full-on sensuality and shameless tartiness. Hollywood often feels the need to justify all that male voluptuousness with dead bodies — he’s no spornosexual, dude! He’s a warrior! In that I think that they’re way behind much of Essex and the North East.”
Simpson’s not wrong. In fact, one of the great get-out clause words driving the male fitness push seems to be “functionality”. It’s the prevailing ethos behind CrossFit, the über-popular, organised workout system, a variation of which Daniel Craig used to carve his 007 physique. It is also the raison d’etre of Gym Jones (yes, named after the cult leader) the austere, private, near-mythical training facility in Salt Lake City run by world-class alpine climber Mark Twight. Twight’s severe methods recently transformed Henry Cavill’s frame and Gym Jones first achieved notoriety for training the cast of 2006’s 300 (a seminal cinematic moment on the sporno timeline).
The genius of the word “functionality” is that it allows closet-spornos — those who are secretly exercising to attain a pumped, aesthetically-pleasing physique but are too grown-up to admit it — to pursue their goal with impunity. Take Simon Waterson, Daniel Craig’s personal trainer for the Bond films. “Aesthetics were never on the table”, he sniffed in an interview with bodybuilding.com. “It wasn’t about creating a certain look; it was about creating a certain performance, being functional, and being able to look like you can do shit. The aesthetics was just a byproduct.” And as for those light-hearted souls over at Gym Jones? “Our objective is functional fitness, and not merely the appearance of fitness: actual capacity strengthens confidence, a facade is merely physical.” But of course.
The end is in sight. For better or worse, in two days I will have “Evolved”. Something that strikes me about the process is that no-one in the gym — not Walker, nor any of the other trainers — has made any passing reference to steroid usage. Not in passing, not as a joke, not at all. I ask Walker about them. “Steroids get used more by people who’re looking to get massive,” he says. “There just aren’t as many of them about at the moment. But what the young lads, the 19, 20, 25-year-olds, are jumping on at the moment are the aggressive fat strippers. Things like ephedrine, clenbuterol, ECA.” As a shortcut to staying trim, presumably? “Yeah, lads feel they have to be massively lean, and that they have to go out on the piss. It’s not possible to do both, but they do. It’s Geordie Shore’s fault.”
Yes, so-called “scripted reality” shows Geordie Shore (and its New Jersey predecessor in the US) and The Only Way Is Essex are obvious bastions of the sporno ideal. “It’s fitting,” says Simpson, “that in a post-industrial landscape, the lads in these programmes work on their own bodies in the gym instead of someone else’s property/product down the gym or the shipyard. The ‘structured’ reality is their own hyper-real bodies.”
Simpson goes further, providing a socio-historic explanation for the Geordie attraction to sporno. “The North East was carpet-bombed by Thatcherism in the Eighties,” says Simpson. “Coal and shipbuilding disappeared and were replaced by shopping, service industries, gyms and tanning salons. Metrosexuality and then spornosexuality both took root in the North East because a new generation of young men had to adapt to the wreckage around them, while their fathers’ traditional ideas about masculinity were as redundant now as they were themselves. The post- industrial North East ended up being on the ‘coalface’ of metrosexuality and then spornosexuality.”
After 12 weeks, 48 training sessions, 64 protein shakes, four “cheat meals” that spiralled wildly out of control, 316½ chin-ups and at least four mental breakdowns later, it’s over. I am delirious with exhaustion and have developed a pathological aversion to chicken breast, but Tim Walker really does know what he’s doing. The “after” photos are taken. I feel relief, more than anything else. I have achieved what I set out to — I have transformed myself as best I could — but I realise the thing that makes me happiest of all is that very soon I’ll be allowed to eat some bread. It’s a good feeling.
And what comes next? What happens after spornosexuality? I ask the man who, if past form is anything to go by, is likely to be leading the pop-culture vanguard when the next zeitgeist-capturing phrase is coined. “The eager male self-objectification that spornosexuality symbolises is only likely to continue,” says Mark Simpson, “in a world in which the sexual division of labour and loving has broken down. Not only have men discovered that they like — no love — being looked at, traditionally a ‘feminine’ pleasure, they have also learned that in a visual world if you aren’t noticed you just don’t exist.”
Or, as Walker succinctly puts it: “People love it. There’s no top or pair of shoes you could wear that gets as much reaction as a six pack.”
Training by Tim Walker at Evolution of Man Fitness, eomfitness.com. Training gear by Nike, nike.com. Protein by Monkey Nutrition, monkeynutrition.com. Grooming, hair and tanning by The Refinery, therefinery.com