The more I write (going on over three decades now, if you can believe that – and boy, sometimes I don’t), and the more I exercise (two and a half decades), I realize how much I learn about a character from their training program. You know how some readers and viewers pick up a lot of details about a character by their zodiac or their blood type (that’s more of an anime thing)? I’m like that with training.
It says a lot about a person if they prefer calisthenics (bodyweight stuff like parkour or gymnastics), weights (barbells and dumbells), or more esoteric tools (kettlebells, weighted bats, rocks, etc). Likewise, it says a lot about how they train. Lots of variety? Lots of reps? Lots of sets? Fast or slow tempo? Full range of motion or something partial?
Case in point: the squat. The squat is a cornerstone of just about any good training program and just about everyone does the squat (or they damn-well should). And while the lowly squat may seem like a ‘simple’ exercise, there a million details you can glean about a person and their priorities just by how they work with it.
A character does a barbell squat with a gazillion plates, doing two dozen reps. Okay, cool. Right off the bat, this tells me that the character is not only strong, but also possesses incredible endurance. They’re clearly physically fit and train hard. Yeah, but that’s trivial compared to what else we can learn.
That many reps will build up tremendous hydrogen in their legs. That’s the burn. So this is a person who doesn’t mind pain. In fact, if they’re doing several dozen reps, they enjoy it. They like to feel like they’ve worked hard. They like the physical reinforcement that they’ve given it their all. This tells me they lack confidence. They aren’t completely certain in their abilities and their skills, so they look for their training to give them emotional support.
A possible alternative is that they aren’t training for the burn, and for the emotional reinforcement of feeling like they’ve worked. Instead, they are training for muscle gain. They are training for appearance and the tight bundle of cables that are their thighs. So maybe they aren’t unconfident in their skills; they’re vain. Perhaps unconfident too, but now in their appearance. Other exceptions exist, but they would become obvious with other context clues.
If we aren’t dealing with a literary medium but a visual medium (comics, movies, etc), then the form says a lot. If the knees track forward ahead of the toes, then I can tell this person doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing. They’ve never been trained properly, and instead have been working from enthusiasm and manuals rather than instruction. It also tells me that they lack a fundamental understanding of anatomy. It also-also tells me that they have a limited appreciation for long-term goals (otherwise, they would prioritize the health of their knees). Are there contexts where knees tracking ahead of the toes makes sense? Absolutely, but not using that kind of weight (unless we’re dealing with someone truly super-human).
From there, the question also arises what type of squat they’re doing. Front squat or back squat? If it’s the back squat, is the bar high on their neck or low on their back? Are the feet narrow, standard (slightly wider than shoulder-width), or sumo stance (feet really wide)? It makes a difference. Front squat is usually used by athletes steeped in Olympic lifting, whereas the back squat is more often performed by power lifters and general athletes. Somebody using a standard foot placement could be there for any reason, but a narrow or wide foot placement suggests this person is either a bodybuilding enthusiast or is aware of correctives to address muscle imbalances in the body. Either way, this is telling that the character is studied and pays attention to detail.
There’s still more. Does the character make noise as they lift, or are they silent? Do they gasp, or hiss? Do they breathe in as they descend or as they come back up? What does their face look like? If they shout bestially, it tells me they are pushing their limits to (and perhaps beyond) the breaking point. It also tells me they either rented out the entire gym or they’re an asshole. If they gasp, then their background is likely old-school, whereas a controlled hiss a sign of tactical schools of thought that are beginning to influence modern athletics. If they breathe in as they descend, they come from a power lifting approach to training and/or bodybuilding. If they breathe as they rise, again, you are looking at person trained in a more tactical/military school of thought…or at least has an enhanced understanding of anatomy. And their face. If their face is contorted, whether they scream or not, tells me they are fighting tooth and nail to achieve their goal at the cost of all else. If their face remains calm, this tells me they are concerned about other goals. This tells me that whatever it is they are training for, it is one aspect of a much larger, more pressing concern. This training isn’t just physical; it’s mental as well.
All this from just seeing a character do one exercise.
Training scenes in fiction are a relatively new task. In classical literature, going back as far as Homer and as recently as Sherlock Holmes, training was something done off-screen (either mentioned in passing or something done in the past) if done at all. Training scenes done in present time, or even as part of the narrative, have really only begun to be seen once they were seen in films. And by the time Rocky came along, we had a new type of sequence: training porn.
Training porn, as the gratuitous name suggests, is a protracted segment of training that often serves to show the progression of time and the evolution of the character. Often this serves as a metaphor for the character’s personal growth (see: the Karate Kid, GLOW, Captain America the First Avenger, 36 Chambers, most kung fu movies actually), but other times it is simply a time-filler and gratuitous way to show off the actor’s physique and abilities (see: Doctor Strange, Ant Man, Only The Strong, Rocky 2-5, excepting maaaaaybe Rocky 3). Like most forms of pornography, ain’t a thing wrong with it if that’s your thing, but don’t pretend like Rocky Balboa training on the snowy mountain in Rocky 4 is anything but the exercise equivalent of Weekend at Porky’s.
In literature, we see exercise and exercise routines even more rarely. As I sit here and write this, of modern literature, I can only think of Ready Player One having any reference to training. In that instance, as well, it is less insightful by itself and more intended as a demonstration of the main character’s growing maturity and determination to take care of himself (unlike his guardians from earlier in the tale).
Training often becomes tricky in science fiction. The notion of a robot or a cyborg exercising becomes a dubious prospect, unless the adaptive nature of their mechanical systems is explored in the story. Cyborgs especially are problematic. Going back to the squat for a moment, just because your legs can handle the load does not mean your back can. If your legs are robotic from the thigh down, this also means your hips are carrying the majority of the weight. The cybernetics aren’t actually doing all that much. Just throwing some chrome or gears on a character doesn’t mean they automatically have unilateral superhuman strength.
This represents a further problem if a character has one artificial limb but not the other. The character has to be extra careful to not let the artificial limb carry the load, or they have to do a whole lot of ipsilateral training. Even then, there are problems. The muscles that move the upper arm and shoulder have a lot of backups. What starts with the deltoid gets handed over to the teres and spinatus muscles (IE the rotator cuff), which gets handed over to the trapezius and the rhomboids. If a character’s shoulder is mechanical but their back is not, a load the shoulder can handle may cause them to tear their back muscles right off the bone. And that’s not even getting into what the lower back will have to do to stabilize the body as it performs this lift. Again, this isn’t insurmountable within a narrative. It simply must be addressed, either actively or left as characterization. If I read about a cyborg with a replaced right arm and no additional malformation to their body is evident, that tells me this is a person who spends a LOT of time doing physical therapy to support the artificial arm. This isn’t a short-term thing either. An hour or so of exercise and training and physical therapy is now just a part of who they are.
This isn’t to say every story needs to have a training session. Nor does it mean that the training has to be described in detail. Like sex or eating, it can be hand-waved, done off-screen, or simply omitted entirely. But its inclusion can tell the reader a lot about the character, and often in a very short space of time. Always a handy tool to have available.