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Back in the era of communal showers and professional sportsmen who smoked on the pitch, the relationship between fitness and masculinity was quite straightforward. Real man’s men spent an hour or two fighting over a ball and swearing at each other, and then another three hours in the bar drinking approved manly drinks and eating Big D peanuts. Everybody involved was hairy, wore Old Spice and modelled themselves on either George Best or Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. They looked great, charmed the ladies and usually dropped dead at 52 from a heart attack.
These were the days when darts was considered exercise because it was technically a sport. Runners and cyclists did exist (mostly in Africa or France), but if you’d asked a man what yoga was he would have guessed it was a side dish that came with poppadoms. Pre Bruce Lee, the western world’s experience of martial arts involved being punched in the head by an off-duty bouncer in gym shorts, and the only concept of extreme fitness understood by most blokes was those massive bodybuilders who ate thirty raw eggs for breakfast and had competitions to see who could drag a truck across Newcastle using only their wedding tackle.
Male identity is both more comfortable and more complicated than the dark ages of the 1960s, and so men’s relationship to fitness has evolved. Traditional bastions of masculinity like rugby clubs and truck testicle dragging competitions still exist, but blokes who want to cultivate the appearance of being the manliest of manly man’s men are going to need to work a little bit harder than that to stand out. If you want to project an aura of extreme masculinity you’ll need to think of something unique, especially given that you live in a safe, comfortable island that is only marginally tougher than a chihuahua wearing a leotard. You could just do regular exercise, and let the results speak for themselves, or you could adopt a fitness lifestyle and try your hardest to get noticed. If you’re leaning towards the latter, we’ve picked out some places for you to start.
MAN VERSUS NATURE
If you want to get one up on your triathlon mates, and possibly even the mud runners, make sure you tell everybody who’ll listen that you only do these vanilla events as training for an extreme marathon held in a dangerous foreign location. You might look butch running around a muddy field in Essex, but it’s even more manly to sign up to do a similar distance in the Amazon jungle, up a Peruvian mountain or in Death Valley (the clue’s in the name). By surviving these races you can present yourself as some kind of grizzled post-apocalyptic survivor who eats rattlesnakes and sleeps in a pile of rocks, which is a look guaranteed to knock the ladies off their feet.
You might even think that just running is too easy, even if it does involve surviving jungles of poisonous plants, hostile natives and deadly snakes. In this case, you should consider challenging nature more directly by climbing up things (mountains, rocks, skyscrapers), ideally without ropes, oxygen or shoes. There’s also “The Running of the Bulls” in Spain, which is less about actual fitness (or even running) but makes you look manly even if you risk proving Darwin’s point by getting gored to death by a tonne of enraged chilli con carne.
Manliness rating: 8/10
(Bear Grylls has run out of toilet paper)
Have you seen Fight Club one too many times? Have you never recovered from discovering that WWF wrestling isn’t real? Do you have a signed poster of Chuck Norris under your bed? If all of these are true and you aren’t currently serving time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure then perhaps you can become super-uber-mega-manly by joining a dojo, learning some real life Streetfighter combos and getting proper hench by savagely battering a sandbag for three hours a day. Even the softest of martial arts will build core strength and make you at least stand in a hard way, and anything involving sparring or arm bars will cause enough facial bruising to make Philip Schofield look like Tyler Durden after a matter of weeks. Stick at it and eventually you will be tough enough to adopt a daft nickname (Grant ‘the chinchilla’ Runyon) and step into the octagon to test yourself against a 16 stone psychopath who looks like a fairground mechanic and has tattoos on his face. The only downside to all of this is, that despite all the progress achieved under globalisation it has not become any cooler or even socially acceptable for a white man to own a pair of nunchuks.
Manliness rating: 9/10
(Giant Haystacks has got you in a sleeper hold)
Triathlon (also known as swimming for a bit, then cycling, then running) has a long and noble history that allegedly stretches back to the ancient Greeks. However, it came into its own once cunning marketers worked out they could sell participants a special bike, special shoes and a special wetsuit in order to take part. Once you added in a special bracelet that connects to your iPhone and automatically brags about your transition times to your peer group, triathlon was ready to go big time in the world of workplace fitness oneupmanship. On the other hand, lots of women do it now, so if you want something more ostentatiously rugged you’ll need to sign up for an extreme endurance race instead.
If you aren’t familiar with the likes of Tough Mudder or Nuclear Races, try and imagine a school cross country organised by the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, populated by anxious white collar workers in their early 30s but carried out in an environment designed to slightly inconvenience a soldier. You’ll run through mud, navigate treacherous (albeit insurance risk assessed) obstacle courses and occasionally carry heavy objects. If that doesn’t sound enough like punishment, you can also do them in the winter, at night, with no underpants on. The reward is a profile photo of you covered in slime and looking like you’re desperately holding in a rectal prolapse.
Manliness rating: 7/10
(Forrest Gump carrying Lieutenant Dan)
HASHTAG GYM CULTS
Prior to the 1990s, gyms were something most people simply used to lose weight or to get fit for other sports. The only people who visited more regularly were competitive bodybuilders, who were manly to the extent that waxing your chest and being so muscled you need help to use the toilet is manly. Today, chest waxing has spread to the general population, and it’s no longer unusual to eat protein bars whilst commenting totally objectively on another straight guy’s tight glutes and rippling, oily six pack. It’s okay to take pictures of yourself flexing your muscles, as long as you put them on Facebook with a cheesy motivational caption about giving 110%. As a lazy vegetable those certainly motivate me – every time I see a friend showing off his pecs I get one step closer to getting off the couch, putting down the Doritos and buying some steroids off the internet.
If you ever find your gym commitment wavering in favour of more interesting activities, then you might get better results by signing up for something like CrossFit, a.k.a. the fitness equivalent of Scientology. Yes, it works, but you lose manliness points for being obliged to constantly talk about CrossFit, tweet about CrossFit, get married to CrossFit and shun friends and family members who aren’t quite as enthusiastic about CrossFit as you are.
Manliness rating: 6/10
(Dolph Lundgren in a mankini)