XVII. Skinny-Fat Sparta: Let the Fear Bleed Out

Skinny-Fat Sparta

Some eat to survive, others eat for a comfortable escape from a stressful day. Some move around to build muscle, others move around to dance gracefully. Some play chess for fun, others play chess seriously (and burn boatloads of calories in the process).

These differences are cultural, not genetic.  More often than not, the state of your body is in the same boat — it's epigenetic: how your genetics expressed themselves based upon the environment they've been in.

In last essay, you learned the one thing that creates skinny-fat syndrome: culture (which includes environment). But what exactly does that mean? How can it be fixed?

To answer these questions, we turn to Sparta.

Your culture = yours alone

From top to bottom, you’re a being of culture. Rare be the day that you purposely ostracize yourself. Humans are social animals. You do lots of things to fit in with the flow around you.

The flow around you.

Culture isn’t universal. What’s weird in one culture might be totally normal in another. Regardless, your culture silently shapes your likes and dislikes and your expectations and ambitions.

Beer? Wine? Coffee?

Know of many people that enjoy these things the first go around? I know I didn’t. But now, it’s tough to turn down a solid stout, dry red, or dark roast. How does something like this happen?


Suck it up

skinny fat beer

“Dude, no one likes beer at first. You just gotta’ keep drinking it. You’ll turn around.”

No one is expected to like beer on first taste, but most everyone is expected to like beer eventually. (Or some kind of alcohol, in general.) That’s just the way culture functions. (It can also function the opposite way: being expected to never enjoy alcohol. Either way, the point is made.) If we weren’t expected to like beer, we might never give it a second try after the horrible first tasting. In fact, nothing would probably draw you back to it save for the fact that you didn’t die.

Imagine if your culture took that same attitude towards food or training.

“Dude, no one likes vegetables at first. Just keep eating them. No one likes training. Just keep doing it. Suck it up. You’ll turn around.”

That usually doesn’t happen though. Most of us in Western culture get ideas that food should be easy to cook (preferably microwaveable), that hunger is a bad thing, that snacks should be easily accessible, that everything should taste good—even medicine.*

No, Mom. I don’t care that this little pill might help me stop coughing for 24 consecutive hours. It’s not lemon flavored. How can anyone be expected to drink this unflavored stuff!

Undoubtedly, and despite previous talks of body fat being more than just a storage site for excess energy (which opens up a whole bag of issues to talk to your therapist about), the two biggest cultural factors when it comes to building muscle and losing fat are nutrition and training.

You can handle this a bit reductively and say that all you need to do is eat a bit less and exercise more. Everyone knows this, and everyone also knows this philosophy rarely works in the way people want it to work (longevity is also a factor). The reasons why are saved for down the road, but one is extremely relevant to this little talk: expectations.

And to this I ask: would you have survived as a Spartan?

Lessons from skinny-fat sparta

spartan body armor

Ever since the release of 300, the idea of being a Spartan has been overdone to the gizzards. I'm not here to spam you about the latest Spartan-esque routine though. Instead, I want you to consider the culture of Sparta. Sparta was about more than combat training or being savage. It was about a way of life.

It might be the duty of everyone to read Gates of Fire, which is a book about Sparta written by Steven Pressfield. It’s useful because it shows you how Sparta created warriors. It was more than learning how to fight. It was a general philosophy of how to walk in the world.

For instance, they had an entire disciple called phobologia, which was all about combating fear. Here's a quote from the book:

Phobologic discipline is comprised of twenty-eight exercises, each focusing upon a separate nexus of the nervous system. The five primaries are the knees and hams, lungs and heart, loins and bowels, the lower back, and the girdle of the shoulders, particularly the trapezius muscles, which yoke the shoulder to the neck.

A secondary nexus, for which the Lakedaemonians have twelve more exercises, is the face, specifically the muscles of the jaw, the neck and the four ocular constrictors around the eye sockets. These nexuses are termed by the Spartans phobosynakteres, fear accumulators.

Fear spawns in the body, phobologic science teaches, and must be combated there. For once flesh is seized, a phobokyklos, or loop of fear, may commence, feeding upon itself, mounting into a “runaway” of terror. Put the body in a state of aphobia, fearlessness, the Spartans believe, and the mind will follow.

Under the oaks, in the still half-light before dawn, Dienekes practiced alone with Alexandros. He would tap the boy with an olive bought, very lightly, on the side of the face. Involuntarily the muscles of the trapezius would contract. “Feel the fear? There. Feel it?” The older man’s voice crooned soothingly, like a trainer gentling a colt. “Now. Drop the shoulder.” He popped the boy’s cheek again. “Let the fear bleed out. Feel it?”

Man and boy worked for hours on the “owl muscles,” the ophtalmomyes surrounding the eyes. These, Dienekes instructed Alexandros, were in many ways the most powerful of all, for God in His wisdom make mortals’ keenest defensive reflex that which protects vision. “Watch my face when the muscles constrict,” Dienekes demonstrated. “What expression is this?”

“Phobos. Fear.”

Dienekes, schooled in the discipline, commanded his facial muscles to relent.

“Now. What does this expression indicate?”

“Aphobia. Fearlessness.”

Spartan culture says: we aren’t people that fear. Keep in mind, this isn’t a natural thing. Humans have inherent reflexes to protect themselves. When something is coming towards our head, we flinch. According to a talk given by Tony Blauer, the hands are the most injured part of the body in a car crash. They flinch to protect the face faster than the air bag deploys.

Fixing culture is work. Hard work.

Anti-skinny-fat culture

Ask yourself: what does Sparta look like for you? What would a culture look like in which it’d be almost impossible to be skinny-fat? Answer by saying: people like us, in this culture, do these things, not those things.

Some people like to quibble over genetics. No, you might not have the ultimate bone structure for the ideal muscular build. (In reality, most guys don't. What you see among models and fitness competitors aren't most guys.) But that doesn’t mean who you are is totally genetic.

Throw yourself into Sparta. Imagine you lived in that culture since the moment you were born. Would you still have popped out the way you did? If you were taught to virtue physical training, physical expression, and hardship? If you were taught to eat fresh produce and slabs of animal flesh? Would you be the same?

Probably not. And because of this, your body isn't genetic. Your body is epigenetic. 

But you are not Tom.

To this point in your life, your culture might have changed you, just like it changed me from true skinny to skinny-fat. But the power of change is in your hands. You just have to realize it. You have to create culture. You have to let the fear bleed out.


By the way, did you know you can get daily notifications of these posts right in your inbox? That way, you won't miss anything. It's a sweet deal, methinks. Give it a whirl. After all, you only live once.


Photo Credit: spartan, bottles, armor

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Martin January 17, 2014, 8:01 am

    Anthony, thanks for the inspiring article! Really motivates to shake things up and create my “own” culture.

    • Anthony January 17, 2014, 11:48 pm

      Ah, awesome. Well thanks for reading and replying 😉

  • Joseph January 17, 2014, 5:11 pm

    Wow that book gates of fire … An old friend had it,he was reading it and quoting it all the time. We broke up suddenly some time after those days( he disappeared, but I never called, my fault)
    Thanks for reminding me. I have to know what was going on in his mind.

    • Anthony January 17, 2014, 11:48 pm

      Probably all sorts of things.

  • TimmyM January 17, 2014, 5:27 pm

    YESSSSSSS Gates of Fire!!!!!! one of my all time faves, that’s back on the ‘to read’ list (for like the fourth time)

    when i’m all healed up (irritated elbow and surrounding tendons) my culture will include masses of stewroids and some ‘greasing the groove’ with widowmaker squats

    • Anthony January 17, 2014, 11:47 pm

      Elbow tendonitis: look into voodoo flossing. I heard good things.

      • Timothy Martin January 18, 2014, 7:21 am

        yeah i know, gonna order Kstars voodoo bands, in the meantime i’m popping the glucosamine, i’ve also done some trigger-point/myofacial release with a bar, not pleasant

        • Anthony January 18, 2014, 12:58 pm

          Never pleasant.

  • Vegeta January 17, 2014, 10:15 pm

    Anthony, I honestly don’t think your culture turned you from skinny to skinny-fat. Your face indicates to your naturally low testosterone levels, which impede muscle building and leanness. I think most of your latest articles should be summarized in 2 words : Low Test.
    And by low test I don’t just mean low test levels, I also mean a lower than average number of androgen receptors, a lower sensitivity to testosterone … etc. Just compare the personalities of skinny-fats to square jawed mesomorphs and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I know that some men have masculinized brains and feminized bodies and vice versa, but they are anomalies.

    • Anthony January 17, 2014, 11:47 pm

      I don’t want to say like genetics absolutely don’t matter. They do. But so does environment. If you wanted to get a little more genetic here, you’d probably go into pair bonding species vs. non-pair — the latter being more conducive to the muscular structure to showcase good genes and compete for the lot of women. Perhaps that’s what you’re getting at.

      Even if you’re right, it still makes the case for environment being able to trump genetics. Also, like I said: I was naturally skinny. Like skin and bones skinny, until I hit about 3rd grade.

  • Vegeta January 18, 2014, 2:41 am

    Virtually all skinny fats start out just skinny when they’re young. As they grow into their pre-teen years and beyond, the symptoms become apparent. I’ve never seen a 6 year old kid that looks skinny-fat. It’s either plain skinny or plain fat. Listen man, I’m sharing my thoughts because, so far, your information has been 100% bullshit free. However, these last bunch of posts come off as wishful thinking.

    • Anthony January 18, 2014, 12:57 pm

      What you’re saying is that environment plays 0 role though. That skinny-fat is a destiny and would happen no matter what, and I don’t believe that. Take those destined skinny-fat kids that are currently skinny and put them in a home that values sports or exercise and quality food, and I don’t think a skinny-fat phenotype pops out.

      The fact that people don’t “start out” skinny-fat is just another reason why it’s not an absolute genetic thing, too. Like I said, I’m not saying that genetics 100% don’t matter. That’s not the case. It’s most always nature – nurture and a little chance.

      • Matthew January 18, 2014, 4:08 pm

        To me this seems pretty obvious. Take a “skinny” and feed him enough junk, prevent him from getting exercise, and age him until his naturally high metabolism slows down, and you’ll end up with a “skinny-fat.” How long that takes (whether it happens in the teen years or with middle-aged spread) and where the fat distributes itself (whether it’s man-boobs or just a gut) will depend on BOTH genetics AND how much junk he’s eating and how little exercise he’s getting.

        I’m just lucky enough it happened to me late enough in life that I went from “skinny” to “normal,” at least in clothes and around “average” people. To a gym rat, I’m “skinny-fat,” but to everyone else, I’m just some guy, which has made things a little easier to deal with but probably also let me go a little further downhill than I would have ordinarily.

        • Anthony January 22, 2014, 12:03 am

          I’d agree.

      • rufian January 19, 2014, 5:21 pm

        I like this dude vegeta, I always hated the fact that many people on the internet downplay the importance of genetics, when it comes to EVERYTHING, especially bodybuilding, they believe they can achieve anything with hard work and dedication, this is a good mindset, however it is misleading

        In my opinion, skinny fat, it is in part genetic for many people, I don’t remember one time as a kid, that I didn’t have some love handles, and abdomen, yes I was skinny with clothes, and for many years I assumed my body fat was low, based on that fact, I even had one girl ask me one time, when I was 15, to show her my abs, she said, show me your abs, all skinny boys have them, I already knew I was different back then, I could see my friends with narrow waist, lean abdomen, and many of them, were not as skinny as I was, yet there I was, skinny in clothes, but crap without them, I was ashamed, since that day I have been embarrased of my physique, my genetics, my destiny, on top of that, I got acne on my back, talk about destroying your self esteem, skinny fat, love handles, gut, acne on back.

        I was so embarrassed that I wouldn’t even take my shirt off in front of my family. I would never go the beach or pool, I would decline invitations with friends, saying that I had a skin condition that prevented me from being in the sun. I would see those guys who naturally had v-shape bodies, no imperfections, no stubborn fat, I knew they are different, I was jealous, I envied them, even despised them, I cursed my fated, and decided to get on bodybuilding, saw pathetic results, I read for months and years, I devoured tons of books, guides, pages, forums, I paid for books, training, personalized diets, I tried all methods, results pathetic.

        Spent hundreds of dollars on supplements, food, gym, even though I gained some muscle, and lost some fat, I was still skinny fat, I still had love handles, I still had abdominal fat, I would cut, and despite my greatest effort, all my little muscle mass, would go away, so I would just maintain my weight, at least that way, i wouldn’t look anorexic in clothes

        sick and tired, it was not the lack of muscle that embarrassed me, it was the fat, got the liposuction, now I look better, I’m probably still skinny fat in the eyes of many amateur bodybuilders, nowadays they call anyone skinny fat

        I know now, that unless I use roids, I will never have those aesthetics physiques, all I can hope to achieve is a skinny ripped abercrombie/brad pitt type of look, and that’s all I want now

        such is life

        • Anthony January 22, 2014, 12:05 am

          I have trouble with you saying stuff like this because the reality is you probably haven’t tried everything. Perhaps you’re best to say,

          “Given the level I’m willing to invest…”

          But if you’re talking about BODYBUILDERS, then yeah — most people in that area have bodies that mortal men won’t touch.

  • Kieran January 19, 2014, 10:59 pm

    Awesome! Ordered Gates of Fire. Ever thought about including a reading list on your site? You got me into Sapolsky, this book sounds epic, so I can only presume you’ve got some other gems up your sleeve.

    Could be quite fun to do, too…

    • Anthony January 22, 2014, 12:07 am

      This is a saga in the future, hah.

  • Jay23 January 21, 2014, 9:07 pm

    GREAT observation on culture turning people into beer drinkers. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2007 I read about the insane anti-cancer properties of massive consumption of green tea. Only one problem… I really, really, didn’t like the taste. Fuck it I said…. I’m going to drink it anyway, lots of it.

    It didn’t take long before I started fucking LOVING green tea, just like we all learn to love beer.

    • Anthony January 22, 2014, 12:13 am

      That’s a pretty good reason to start tanking something you don’t like hah.

      But yeah — time does some amazing things to preconceived ideas.

  • Michael January 22, 2014, 3:31 pm

    Saw a preview to the sequel to the movie 300. Looks pretty epic

    Wonder what workout program will stem off of that though…
    Actors from 300 worked out at Gym Jones and everybody and their mother tried the “300” workout…

    • Anthony January 23, 2014, 12:09 am

      Same thing will happen.

  • ATCED January 25, 2014, 4:03 am

    Great lit. and thanks for helping me discover “what works for me”. Since I started the 242, my physique is transforming. I’m actually reaching that next level. I haven’t seen my belly this flat since I was a teenager and I actually have calves and deltoids. It’ll be interesting to see what you write through the years; hell I’ll still read your lit. when I’m 80!

    • Anthony January 25, 2014, 12:03 pm

      Nice man. That book has been buried. I didn’t even know it still existed.

  • ATCED January 25, 2014, 8:31 pm

    Can you suggest another piece of lit that I can consider moving to? Program-wise that is. I’m certainly not a program-jumper anymore, but I have been using the 242 for about 8 months..

    I’ve been reading up on Nate Miyaki and Jason Ferruggia’s stuff as well.

    • Anthony January 26, 2014, 4:26 pm

      I don’t know what you mean by “piece of lit.”