Two decades ago, I was a 15-year-old meathead awash in a sea of meathead jargon. I tipped the scales at 240 pounds of puffy, puberty-powered muscle — big and “swole,” but not quite “buff” and certainly not “ripped” or “cut.” I referred to the pizza slices I downed by the dozens as being part of a “hardgaining” regimen, a “bulk phase” that would culminate when I dropped to 98 kilograms (216 pounds) for wrestling or, to use a simpler shorthand, a “ripped 220” in preparation for a spring-break trip spent at the beach.
In retrospect, I have no idea why I thought in such categories, but for anyone involved in the muscle-building world, the terms rolled off the tongue far easier than even all those slices of pizza. In my case, the lingo was inherited from my half-brother Sam, a star athlete who was eight years my senior, the first teenager I can remember boasting a “legit 400-pound bench press” (it wasn’t, except in the way that sloppily chest-bounced bench presses are counted by over-eager football coaches and scouts). Sam was fond of the somewhat less-used term “yoked,” which referred to the yoke worn by muscular oxen that pull the farm equipment, but he pronounced it like “yolked,” which confused the eight-year-old version of me because we both ate so many egg yolks.
By 1998, I was deep in the throes of the same muscle mania that had once consumed my brother. My corner of the bedroom I shared with a cousin had been filled with muscle magazines and muscle posters. The words from the magazines called out to me, although their provenance remained uncertain — “jacked” was certainly in common circulation then, as were “ripped,” “bulking” and “gaining.” Yet even though this apple-cheeked, double-chinned version of me was probably still best characterized as “swole,” I know I wasn’t using that term.
Fitness journalist Anthony Roberts, who has been reporting on the industry for as long as I’ve been on its distant periphery, confirmed that “swole” and “on swole” were 1990s-era neologisms. “The first time I ever saw ‘swole’ in print was in an issue of MuscleMag International, because they went to great pains to explain the term in the article,” he says. “It was an article about Jeff Poulin winning his IFBB Pro Card. Poulin was a massive bodybuilder who stayed contest-ready throughout the year, and the precise term was ‘on swole,’ meaning that it only took him two to four weeks to prep for a show as opposed to 12 to 24.”
I reached out to Poulin about the article, but he downplayed its significance. “The article was about the 1994 North American Championship that I won, but I remember hearing the terms ‘swole’ and ‘on swole’ in the early 1990s when I living in Southern California. It was just a bodybuilding term to describe someone big, or contest ready. Bodybuilding photographer Jason Mathas wrote that article, and I’d heard him use the term before.”
Long-term participants in the muscle business all know and use the terms. Still, the more mindful and self-aware bodybuilders, like Vanessa Adams, have little use for them. “‘Ripped’ and ‘cut’ refer to body-fat levels,” she says. “‘Swole,’ ‘brolic’ and ‘jacked’ refer to muscularity. All are fairly dumb. I prefer ‘hyooj’ and ‘shredded,’ but that’s just me.”
By contrast, Gilberto Mundo, a long-time fitness industry insider I met at the 2016 Mr. Olympia, boasts an Instagram account in which he revels in the use of this language. One notable post from January features a picture of him from the early 2000s, looking both “jacked” and “cut,” combined with a caption containing nearly every fitness-industry cliche, reading: “GOOD OLD DAYS WHEN WE TRAIN BALLS TO THE WALL, Blood guts N GLORY IS ALL WE KNEW,,HARDCORE WAS OUR DRUG!!,,until next time !!, train insane or remain the same!!, if the bar ent bending then your just pretending!! train insane or remain the same!!”
“When you talk to a lot of these guys, they use the terms you’re asking about almost interchangeably, sometimes in a stream of consciousness, mumbo-jumbo kind of way,” says my cousin Douglas Alexander, an aspiring bodybuilding physique athlete who considers himself “ripped” and “jacked,” but not “swole.” “Many of these people, especially when they get on IG, bombard you with every hashtag in the book, and the result isn’t particularly enlightening. It’s a lot of gibberish, and often quite confused. People are simultaneously ‘hardgaining’ and ‘getting ripped for summer.’ What does that even mean?”
I press Alexander, who is younger than me by almost a decade, about the meaning of the term “brolic,” a word that’s gradually gained currency in the meathead demimonde. “I don’t know, perhaps it’s purely for comedic purposes,” he says. “Perhaps it’s a reference to the Broly character in Dragon Ball, a super Saiyan badass. But you almost throw it in along with the rest of these terms as an afterthought. It’s not like you’re poring over posts and picture captions like they’re going to be around forever. You add a bunch of tags and get some faves.”
“I sometimes use the words,” says powerlifter and Instagrammer @SwoleSarah. “To pay someone a compliment, I’ll them, ‘Damn, you look fucking jacked,’ but usually I’m complimenting friends. I’ll point out a fellow lifter and be like, ‘Holy fuck, she’s cut.’”
Kendra Hester, a fitness Instagrammer and current college student at the University of California, Davis, tells me that among early twentysomething peers, “the words are maybe used by a few people who are really into themselves, but mostly, I think they’ve turned into meme words or sarcastic phrases.”
“I’d be inclined to think that the terms are mixed up in forms of internalized violence,” adds Tobias Wilson-Bates, a lecturer in the writing and communication program at Georgia Tech who had competed on the rowing team at the University of Pittsburgh. “I always think of that quote in Fight Club about one’s body turning from a wad of cookie dough to wood as a quintessential ‘ripped’ idea of intentional self-harm for a kind of beauty. Or about John Berger’s point in Ways of Seeing about the difference between naked and nude: ‘To be naked is to be oneself [while] to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.’ A ‘cut’ body is somehow chiseled out of the vulnerability of being naked because it is ‘built.’ ‘Swole,’ meanwhile, seems like a classic erection reference, ‘jacked’ likewise — the body as an engorged penis.”
Wilson-Bates sees the persistence of this language, particularly in its non-ironic form, as a possible means of allowing heterosexual men to compliment each other without impugning their heterosexual bona fides. “There’s something there in terms of male communicating about male beauty in an era of loud homophobia,” he says. “Hence the persistence of various codes that preserve [socially sanctioned] homosocial forms of looking.”
Samuel Fussell, the son of famous academics Paul and Betty Harper Fussell, renounced the cloistered world of the university in exchange for a career in bodybuilding, a misadventure recounted in his lively memoir Muscle. Fussell’s objective, like my objective and the objective of eager-beaver second banana Mac on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was to pack on so much mass that friends and colleagues would hear him coming long before they saw him. While surrounded by shelves of supplements in a dismal New York apartment he called “the bunker,” Fussell spent all day thinking big. “If I wasn’t reading a muscle magazine, I was riffling through a new catalog from the neighborhood big man’s clothing store, wondering what tent-sized finery I might use to outfit my muscles,” he writes.
All of us — me, Mac and Fussell — eventually got to the point we were dreaming of, becoming “ripped,” “jacked” and “swole.” For me, it happened in brief bursts, moments of “shred”-itude occurring at ages 19, 22, 29 and 32 that accomplished little besides inspiring my young cousin Douglas to pursue a “ripped” 220-pound physique for his own selfish purposes. For Mac, who spent an entire season being overweight, it happened on this season’s It’s Always Sunny…, in which he appears ripped but none of his castmates care at all and a returning Dennis still calls him fat. And for Fussell, it happened after years of diligent training and steroid use. He was “jacked” and “ripped,” and yet, he was nothing but a cartoon character. “I became a bodybuilder as a means of becoming a caricature. The inflated cartoon I became relieved me from the responsibility of being human, but once I’d become that caricature, that inflated cartoon, I longed for something else,” he writes.
My cousin isn’t nearly so conflicted about his never-ending journey toward developing the “tautest” torso and most “stacked” back. “If you’re ‘ripped’ or ‘jacked,’ that’s one more thing you are and one less thing you have to worry about not being,” he tells me. “Like they say, the ‘swole’ is the goal. What the hell else are you gonna do with all this time?”