Marcus Jecklin is fucking gorgeous. His body comes at you like an old Batman fight: Biceps, BOOM! Pecs, KABLAM! Abs, POW! Glutes, WHAMMO! And his traps… if FettyWap hadn't already claimed it, people would call Jecklin the Trap King.
But let's be clear about what we're looking at. Yes, his endless capacity for bicep curls and lat pulldowns earned him the nickname "Powerthirst." Yes, he's six feet and 185 pounds of beastly brawn, with 8% body fat. Jecklin, 26, is often tapped to join pick-up games of basketball, beach volleyball, flag football, soccer, or softball. But he has a secret: he's terrible at those sports. "I never live up to the expectations people have of my body," he told VICE. "I'm constantly disappointing people. It's more embarrassing than anything else. I'm not as fast as people expect. Not as strong. Not as anything. I'm basically average. Secretly average."
By contrast, John Baranik, 22, is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who regularly runs a mile in under five minutes, works out with the Penn cycling team, does 25 pushups like it's nothing, and pops high-rep bench presses of his own weight (at 5'8", he's 150 pounds). He can do sit-ups "until the cows come home," he told VICE. Baranik is gorgeous too, but he describes his body as "medium build" because he doesn't have abs. Well, not visible abs.
When Baranik worked as a mountain hiking guide in Colorado, he regularly had difficulty with the Jecklin types. "Those are the only guys who struggled in our hikes," Baranik said. "This was right by the Air Force Academy. These were military guys. And I'd be forcing fruit snacks down their throats to get them through it. They just had no idea how their bodies worked outside of a gym." Their giveaways, he said, are their protein bars and shakes, their endless peacocking about "chest days" and "leg days," and their disbelief at the fact that rock climbers need not bother with pull-ups, a gym favorite that has surprisingly little real-world application.
These men are known colloquially as facade-bods. They are second-generation Schwarzeneggers, contemporary iterations of the chicken-legged meatheads of yesteryear. Despite the current talk about centeredness, health, fitness, self-respect, their main goal is, as one gym's slogan puts it, to #lookbetternaked.
Facade-bod types are missing the point by developing muscles that do little other than please the eye. Take biceps. "Bulging biceps are required by almost no sport. You don't need them to throw a ball, swing a bat or a racket or a punch, swim, or climb," Nic Berard, 32, who runs a physical therapy practice in Los Angeles, told VICE. "They get in the way. And yet guys want those big biceps because they want to look good in a shirt. Or without a shirt."
A glance (or glare) at underwear-model pro athletes—David Beckham, Rafael Nadal, Hidetoshi Nakata—reveals they're not that built or ripped. True athleticism, Berard noted, comes from muscles that are more hidden.
A sculpted physique can even be dangerous. "Having six-pack abs can make you as vulnerable to spine injury as having a gut," Berard said, "because what we call 'six-pack abs' are the most superficial muscles, the rectus abdominis, but real strength and stability comes from the transverse abdominis and the multifidus, which are closest to your spine, and obliques for rotational strength." He added that bench presses are "not healthy" and sit-ups are "the worst exercise you can do because they're spine-crushing." Men who build up only their pecs and biceps often develop serious shoulder damage because of a lack of "scapular stability," he said, adding, "If you want to look good, that's easy. But then that's all you get. I see a lot of injured personal trainers [in my practice], actually."
There are unexpected, ineffable consequences of pursuing a body that's more, um, eff-able than functional. "I hear the worst things from girls about those guys in bed—sex with a statue, basically," Aaron Copeland, 27, a trainer in Houston and cofounder of SwoleSquad Apparel, told VICE. "I've been that guy," admitted Sanders Omoshebi, 29, a trainer in Miami who has worked as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's body double. "Sex for me was over in ten minutes," he recalled, "You're doing shitty cardio. Your hip muscles are too tight. You can't thrust. I felt sorry for the girls."
Basketball and bedroom hustle alike, Copeland noted, involves "fast-twitch muscles that don't pop when you build them. A lot of muscle that pops is unnecessary. That's for ego lifters. I can train those guys for months and never hear them talk about their actual health."
Noah Neiman, 32, a New York-based celebrity trainer with Barry's Bootcamp and founder of his own brand, Noah Neiman Fitness, laughed: "We call these guys 'all show and no go.'" Neiman, who regularly leads fitness camps with Nike, stresses benefit over brawn, which means he rarely talks with clients about how they'll look. "I keep it real. I don't talk about aesthetics. I talk about emotional benefits," he told VICE. "That way you never get frustrated because you're leaving every exercise feeling good. And, honestly, the six-pack will come quicker and stronger if you feel good. It's a tougher road when you're focused on looks. Feeling good is wealth. Looking good is new money. It gets real stupid real quick."
For his part, Jecklin, of BOOM-POW splendor, now laughs at the days he craved attention and validation so hard he'd "wear short shorts and ripped, stringy tank tops, basically being naked at the gym," he said. He segued to CrossFit until a herniated disc forcibly segued him into gymnastics. "Gymnastics is more injury-preventive," he said. "Spine, hamstring, glute, groin, shoulder flexibility. It's all better for your back." Now his goal isn't measured in pounds; he wants to be able to do the splits.
"I wish I'd been doing gymnastics my whole life," he said. "Now I can do more than I ever could." He still avoids pick-up games, though.
UPDATE 9/6/16: An earlier version of this story stated that rock climbers often "can't" do pull-ups; it's been edited to better reflect John Baranik's perspective on the subject.