T Nation

Fitness and Culture


I am on my last 5 days of a contract that has allowed me to teach English in Seoul, South Korea for a year. Certainly a rich experience with lots of memories, having a health/fitness background what I will remember the most is the difference in fitness culture. I have seen some others post on this site that have been living and training in a place much different from whence they came (Nards is the only name I can remember). I thought it would be cool to start a thread about the differences you have noticed in the fitness culture where you are at or have been, some pros and cons, and some funny things you have seen.

As far as Seoul and Korean culture goes:

  1. weight training for aesthetics is a fairly new hobby only becoming popular with the current generation.

  2. men tend to not want to become to muscular.

  3. it is not rare for me to see women in the weight room, it is rare for me to see them lift anything that is not attached to a machine or the color pink.

  4. gym membership is about triple the price, about 100 USD a month.

  5. nobody wipes up sweat.

  6. the trainers are grossly underpaid about 1000 USD a month.

  7. at 6 ft 185 pounds I have found myself to be the biggest and strongest person in the gym 90% of the time.

  8. weight is a big deal in Korea, they have the lowest obesity rate of any other developed country at about 3.2%

That is far from everything that I have noticed about the fitness culture here but I would really like to hear about some other places any Tnationers have been and some interesting things they remember or notice.



Yeah...one thing I noticed is that because the gym is relatively expensive, you get a lot of upper-class guys who come from a background of academics or doctors or whatnot so you get guys who seem to have no idea how strong a body can be and so they do stuff that will boggle you. As I've said in other threads, a guy almost screaming while doing 20lb DB curls.
I mean there's not much pride in the 45s here. I'll frequently see just a bunch of 10lb plates on either side of a bar or Hammer machine. Why? Because 10s are just easier to carry since no one puts their weights away here.

I should not be both the strongest and fastest guy at my gym in the same day. I'm not the right strength for my size ( not giving out too many numbers, as my squats are poor thanks to a back that's lately been bad enough that I actually try not to sneeze or it hurts, my bench is about 285 for 3X5) but I'll lift heavier than any guy in the gym then hop on the treadmill and do 3 miles in 25 minutes (which is nothing to write home about) and most guys are walking while holding on, and not even at any incline whatsoever.

I mean I've moved apartments here before and the movers are these guys with legs like tree trunks with huge calves and when they're done they have three king cans of beer and off they go to another job. They are completely different from the guys in my gym who wear every accoutrement you can think of and do close to nothing in the gym.

I've even done a half-Marathon and a 10k here and because I'm about 245 to 260 most of the time I'll start easy and just try to complete the run and I still passed so many younger guys much lighter than me. It's not that all guys here are weak, but the kind of upper-class guys that would be the kind that would think running at 7AM on a Sunday are.

There's an older generation that you'll see that goes hiking most every Sunday. That's nice to see.


I am quite frustrated by the modern Chinese culture. Although I'm only 19, I grew up watching movies of Chinese people doing badass kungfu and being strong as hell (although often it's with a lot of cheesy low budget special effects). A lot of the soldiers in ancient war movies looked huge. The fact was that being superhumanly strong was a desired trait. My father would always tell me how he used to farmer's walk hundreds of pounds of hay to the market to sell them for a living while growing up. During college, he would run 10000m every morning in under 40 minutes, sprinting up and down mountains, then training with his makeshift weights at night. The exercise allowed him to be better at school than others who studies much more.

Fast forward to today, a lot of people in the Chinese military can't even do a single chin up or push up. Modern society in Chinese has put a great emphasis on book smarts and completely disregarded everything else that people do. They grow up on anime and ramen, forgetting the ancient epics written about the badass warriors of the old days, or even the Communist era. Muscles and being ripped associate you with construction workers, while a softer, effeminate look with gay looking expensive hair cuts are for the young and popular.

Last year, as a novice lifter at 165lb, 6ft, and ~13% body fat, I was considered 'fat'. When I said I need at least a pound of meat per day, people expected I'd die of obesity and heart attacks in my 20's. After a blood test, it was revealed that my LDL and triglyceride levels were actually below the normal ranges. I was very surprised that I was the tallest, leanest, and most muscular in most situations. I signed up for a gym, and although it was filled with quality machines, it had no squat racks or very few members. The members were all rich, skinny-fat, old people. The trainers all went to government sports academies majoring in bodybuilding and were all very big in the upper body (17+ inch arms), but their quads were actual no bigger than their arms. They were astonished by my strength when I deadlifted 330lbs. All they seem to do are sets of 20 pullups and 20 185lb bench. It was not the China I had remembered as a child. People are only concerned with the outer appearance...but still looked shitty anyway. They care more about their name brand cloths than physique. Modern Chinese culture is now just a corruption of American values. The girls all had nice small waists, which is a nice break from the obesity in America, but most were too conservative for short, casual relationships.


Cool reading about the differences in places, for sure.

Mine is much less extraordinary, but you wouldn't believe the difference in fitness culture between Denver (moving soon) and where I'm from here in Michigan. Being in shape is out of the norm, but being out of shape out there seems to be very much the rarity. It's pretty cool.


That was a great post.


The Japanese are great to work out around in a commercial gym setting - they're quiet, courteous and usually clean up each station after they're done.

Some of them are deceptively strong. One of the trainers was this guy we called Ryu, simply because he always wore karate pants and looked just like Ryu from Street Fighter. Think his real name was Toshi. Really nice guy, probably weighed 165 pounds. Could bench 405 for sets of three, and had no powerlifting experience at all. Guy had some real muscle tone, but in street clothes you'd likely never tell he worked out.

Gym staff here tend to be really friendly and genuinely happy to be working in the field.

Supplementation is a few generations behind in Japan. You can buy whey protein, but it's about 2x the cost as here. Same goes for creatine. Despite living next to the "honbu" for Ajinomoto, BCAA's were priced astronomically. One good thing was that you could buy pure DHA capsules (ie: 100% DHA, 0% EPA) for dirt cheap.

Also, a note on their "genki drinks". Shugart wrote an article that they contain nicotine. I personally have never seen one that does. Some foreigners can read the katakana for "nicotenic" and figure it's nicotine, but its just nicotenic acid (a vitamin). Despite some costing over $20, they really don't do much for you. Ephedrine and several other stimulants are banned in Japan.

Steroids are non-criminal in Japan. Ever wonder why K1 and Pride athletes are bigger than when they move to the states? I could have gotten test from my doctor, but never did.


Something else I wanted to mention is the differences in locker room etiquette. In public Koreans dress fairly conservatively even in the big city. However, when you enter the locker room it looks like a gay orgy will soon break out.

Korean men are very touchy feely and open, male friends will hold hands and not hesitate to grab your thigh if something shocking comes up in a conversation. This same mindset applies to the locker room, the absolute last thing someone will do before they leave is put on clothing. Men shaving naked, brushing teeth naked, doing hair naked, posing in the mirror naked, and having locker room talk naked. When I asked a Korean friend about this he explained that being naked together is like a bonding experience because it is as raw as you can get and shows trust.

This took me by shock when I first got here, a trainer I had become friendly with stands at about 6 ft 5 inches and was always in the locker room finishing up his naked grooming when i would first enter the locker room. Never fail, when i would sit down on the bench to put on my gym shoes he would come over with a big smile on his face and put his hand on my shoulder and start up a conversation with me while his junk was dangling a mere 2 ft from my face. It was traumatizing then, but funny now.

Also agree with Nards that post on China was good insight to their culture. What I have noticed around the world is the women dictate how the men will look. Most developed Asian cultures place a lot of value on what you have done, have, and dress appearance rather than the physical body, here an overly muscular man is viewed as a someone who has had a strenuous life and not an attractive feature to most females.


It's Asia and the genetics are different there for one thing. A muscular Asian stands out like sore thumb and probably doesn't attract favorable attention.


Like SSC, mine is not so extraordinary either. In Spain (I talk about Spain, but I mostly refer to where I come from, but for what I know, it's the same pretty much everywhere), outside the gym, the obesity levels are not so far away from the ones in USA. I'd that over 50% of people are overweight, both men and women. The typical gym-goer is someone with whom I wouldn't want to associate, nor the majority of people, so that makes the environment not very comfortable for beginners or certain people.
The typical gym-goer is someone with low level of education, loud, big mouthed, that after the gym will spend the rest of the evening with this friends in the street, making noise with the bikes or playing some techno music from their tuned car until late in the evening.

This kind of behaviour also occurs inside the gym, so it turns the environment into something a bit hostile, with people lifting with their egos, being loud, looking down at beginners, etc.

For what I remember, it was hard to see someone who obviously lifted weights and wasn't a moron. Hard, not impossible. My uncle and my cousin have been lifting weights forever and they would recommend me to which gyms I could go, the ones that weren't crowded with those morons I spoke about earlier. The better the area, the higher the price, the less of this kind of crowd.

This kind of behaviour makes people think, with reason, that the average gym-goer is always like this, so there's a negative stereotype about it. Sometimes in Spanish newspapers there are news about working out, nutrition, etc. and I end arguing there with people who pull the most amazing ad hominem attacks just because I go to the gym. And for many people, it seems that going to the gym means I spend five hours there or something. I wish I could handle that workload!

Now, in Estonia, totally different. Men and women are, on average, quite thin and skinny. There's less money to spend on junk food and stuff, although it has the second highest rate of alcohol consumption in Europe.
The average gym goer is a quiet guy, who will mind his own business and will gladly help you if you need it. The most experienced lifters will also help beginners with their form if they consider so.

I think it's about culture. Here people are usually quieter and arrogance is not welcome at all.

I want to emphasize that if people here are not overweight is mostly due to an economical thing and because junk food is not so available, not because healthy eating is a norm or something like that.


:o) I'm hungarian, but I train at a gym where you can find people all around the world. From Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Germany, Norway, China, Korea, Japan... etc, etc. Oh, and ofc, Hungarians and Gypsies.

So a little recap:

Japanese have work etique. They are quiet, polite, work hard (no wonder at the med-denistry-pharmacist courses they kick ass with their knowledge) but most of them has incredibly hard time packing on muscle. I've seen quite muscular and cut guys with japanese background, they surely work hard. Both genders included.

Other asian country's members are the opposite. I admit, they're usually perform well at school, and lot of them go to the gym. But, they don't get results. Lot of them are skinnyfat or chubby, they waste time with light machine training and cardio. And heck, they just maintain their appearance.

I generally like asians, they are always very polite, quiet, and you can always work with them on a station when you ask them, though lot of them has quite queer English accent.

Israelis are a diverse group. I've only seen 2-3 of them in the gym. They were skinny to the bone, their elbows or wrists were 2-3 times thicker than their arms-forearms, but they were banging out pullups of 15-20 reps with little rest and with full ROM (from deadstart to sternum 2 bar) and were strong in squats and presses. So great physical shape and strength, but nonetheless, skinny. They're very proud of being Israelis, most of them train in T-shirts with their nation's flag.

Guys from arabian countries: nah, I had bad experience with them in the gym. Surely, they're friendly and chatty, but they have more hair on their chests and armpits than an average wookie. Lot of them just carry their university notes into the gym to "study" between two sets of tricep pushdowns or on the stationary bike. Arabian girls also found, 99% of the time on cardio machines. Most of the guys-gals from this ethnicity has trouble with loosing fat, heck, I've never seen any of them in the gym who were not fat. (Those who are thin are always outside the gym...) Oh, and I hate their clothing. Lot of them train without shoes in socks with huge holes, old jumpers with nasty stains, etc, etc.

Africans: HUGE. Big, strong. Lot of them has wunderbar genetics. Oh, lot of them hasn't. But they are generally quiet and reserved, train solitary.

Germans: Most of the advanced guys who look and lift decent are among them. They are certainly hard working, and actually in love with free weights. They dn't afraid to ask for equipement, always wipe their sweat, even ask for spotting. So, generally, they're just regular hard working folk with calm personality.

Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish: Old clothes, worn shoes, trouble with keeping equipement clean, but at least they speak great English, lift weights and don't do weird stuff. Few of them are familiar with the site, so they know how to lift, and I've seen a weightlifter among them 2. BTN jerks with snatch grip, snatches, oly-squats. Guy was explosive-strong. Complimented my squats and even mentioned Thibs.

Please, keep in mind: these examples are STUDENTS. They're mostly from med-dent-pharm. schools, or engineers. So my examples are not representative for the nations- just for their students.

And now, natives:
Hungarians: diverse. At the town of the university, they tend to be polite, hard working folk. Wipe of sweat, train in adequate clothes. There are some gym-monkeys who do quite weird stuff, but who cares? They're usually office workers at the age of 35-40 without any clue how to train, so it isn't special, I'm sure most of the guys are familiar with their choices of excersises (sternal bounce-presses, pec-dec, horizontal lat pulldowns with momentum, concentrated curls..) Girls in that town are great! Great in shape, they train hard, mostly shoulders-lats-biceps and lower body ofc. But they don't do idiotic excersises. They stick to basics: squats-deads-chinups (assisted), shoulder presses, step-ups, lunges. Their bicep training is ridiculous (/sarcasm: they train it hard!): Most of them are doing cable curls-preacher machine curls-incline db curls with good form. Supersets with triceps (for that: 2 forms of pushdowns (rope-v-bar), dip machine.

I like the back training of girls too. Just like a guy would do them: chins-pulldowns-rows. I won't go into the details of their lower body training, but that is generally great too. Well, they're in great shape, round shoulders, toned arms, round asses, nice thighs, slight V-taper.

Quite the contrast: girls in this town (where my family lives): cardio bunnies. They walk 15-20 mins on treadmill, then do a few sets of abs, adductions-abductions and call it a day. Never seen any of them train seriously. Most of them are obese or skinny, without shape. So the contrast is soo sharp between the two towns (only 90kms from each...) that it hurts. Hard training and work etique there, obesity, half assed efforts and no clue what to do here.

I won't write any further, not from gypsies. Those folks deserve a novel, yet, after years they can still provide surprises.