(Conan the Barbarian, 20th Century Fox, 1982)
A good place to start. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an enigma. A focussed mind and an exceptional physique provided the eighties and nineties with the iconic build of Europe’s greatest export. Moving from the shadows of competitive body-building and, in time, into the spotlight of Hollywood, Arnold was (and arguably still is) the only body-builder to conquer the silver-screen. While Lou Ferrigno was on par with Arnold, he didn’t quite have the same impact.
The Wheel of Pain (from Conan the Barbarian) was a torturous device of constant manual labour. Pushed and pulled for hours upon hours, this is about the only thing I have ever seen in movies to explain a physiological response as gratuitous as Conan’s sublimely-honed build. But is it accurate?
No, of course it’s not. Conan was a slave child and the calorific effort of moving a mini-forest worth of lumber would be phenomenal. I can’t recall the movie that well but I’m pretty sure there was scant reference to adequate nutrition, let alone the vast quantities of carbs and protein (and other
things) that would be required to facilitate the build of Arnold’s Conan. But that’s Hollywood. It exists to present the audience with heroes and heroines of unobtainable perfection; be it the impossible musculature of Conan, or the sleek lines of every female superhero. And for the record, there is no logical reason for the dimorphism displayed between genders.
And that’s a problem right there. Muscle size. No matter what the load is, whether it’s tossing a car or punching chunks out of a concrete pillar, the strength required would be equal. So, in those films where women lift the same as men, technically, the female would require the same physical attributes as the man. In other words, why are super-strength heroines always dainty little slips? It’s all about image and marketing, which in itself is about gender discrimination and inequality. Which is a shame because it would be cool to see more male heroes that look ‘normal’ (and to be fair, in the post Arnold era, strong heroes don’t need to be massive – unless your name is Dwayne). But when it does come to muscle-men, logic dictates that the same requirement should fall on the shoulders of super-strong females. But that doesn’t fit the Hollywood narrative of what a ‘woman’ should look like. If Marvel ever gets real about making a female Hulk movie (I know she’s called She-Hulk, which is woefully derivative), I hope they CGI the crap out of it and make her as big as a house with really hairy legs. But hey, that’s not going to sell…
If we want to travel further down the rabbit-hole of unnatural selection, there is another problem with obscenely athletic physiques. Food. All too often, our heroes are out and about for 25 Hollywood hours of every day. They rarely sleep, they never poop, and for certain, they don’t eat a balanced diet. Muscles don’t grow out of thin air and hope. They are real physical components derived from adequate training stimuli and created from excess calorie consumption. Carbs and protein are fundamental to fuel our body and repair cellular damage. After that, with enough hormonal stimulus, a body will slowly lay down more muscle-fibre in response to exercise-specific stress. And man, is that process slow. There is a shortcut, namely steroids and growth hormone, but for the sake of litigation, I’m not going to discuss that in this post. Yet the point stands – our heroes appear to be the fitness equivalent of cold-fusion; unlimited power with little input. But there’s the rub; would you watch a film where the awesomely handsome hero stops whatever he’s doing to crack out his 400g tub of pasta and chow down on a tin of dry tuna every two hours? And have you ever had the displeasure of smelling the buttcheek-breeze of someone on a high-protein diet? It’s just not pleasant.
So, if we consider that your average, over-sized chemically enhanced body-builder trains for 2-3 hours and can consume 5000-8000 calories (or more) each day, you can see how Hollywood has it so wrong. But why? Well, movies aren’t meant to be real. At least, not the ones with heroes whose muscles take up more space than the end credits. With mutants and comic-fantasy, Hollywood doesn’t need to obey any laws of natural physiology. And in fairness, many of us love the sheer escapism of watching something so absurd as a man-mountain warrior emerge from a hard-labour camp with one piece of prehistoric fitness kit. As I say, it’s fitness Jim, but not as we know it.