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Adam Cole, Body Shaming, and Physique in Pro Wrestling

Watching pro wrestling has inspired me, and many others, to get myself in better shape and to focus more on building muscle and strength. I have many times picked up the weights while watching Dynamite, being motivated by seeing these elite athletes and the results of their hard work. Seeing the variety of body types, even the “imperfect” but still athletic physiques, and their evolution throughout the year as compared to the idealized window of a single peak day photo was helpful. Adam Page’s Full Gear Challenge, which resonates very closely with the criticisms Adam Cole is experiencing, was especially inspirational. Strangely enough, I viewed Cole’s physique as an intermediate goal to aim for during the process of building muscle, until the body-shaming narrative started. Back in February, I remember vividly reading tweets about it, then taking a look at my body, and thinking “if Cole is what being out of shape looks like, then I am really screwed.” To be honest, it motivated me a small bit, however it also demoralized me about my meager progress, which the evidence seems to indicate is the more likely outcome.

None of what I am stating in this article should be construed as opposing constructive criticism between an athlete and a competent expert, as license for Adam Cole or any athlete to neglect their training or nutrition (not that I believe such is occurring in Cole’s case), nor to promote the idea that one should not aim to improve their fitness because such would be “fatphobic,” a strawman argument used to insult those advocating for inclusion. In fact, I have seen much benefit in my mental health from making progress with my body and am a big believer in using fitness to develop mental strength. I am fully confident, for the reasons I will explain, that Cole is making effort in his training and diet in keeping with his position as an elite-level athlete in AEW, even if fans do not see what they feel is adequate visual “proof.”

As I am not a strength and conditioning coach, I will leave open the possibility that Cole needs adjustments to his routine to either build muscle or lose fat, but I feel it is more likely he is already taking appropriate action and the fruits of such are just not immediately visible. Logically, I am sure that if any of us had to be in shirtless on national TV, we would be training and dieting harder than ever, so there’s no reason to doubt a professional like Cole feels the same. Some of the discourse I have seen on this topic in the wrestling community seems to lack understanding of fitness or the physique development process, with comments saying things like Cole just needs to “pick up a weight sometimes” or “do more crunches” (spoiler alert: crunches alone do not get you abs). Most recently, Booker T stated that Cole should build more muscle, while some fans have said he needs to lose fat, again leading us into the “skinnier and bigger” dilemma Page explained in the Full Gear Challenge. Again, I am not an expert in fitness nor do I play one on TV (but I would have wanted a Stu Grayson Hotel Gym review for the Holiday Inn Express when he was still around). However, from my albeit limited experience and excessive reading there are some important lessons that I believe we should consider.

  1. Physique appearances are fickle and deceiving

Bodybuilders and trainers joke about “10 minute drastic before and afters” on social media, which involve merely changing the lighting, getting a pump, posing, and flexing as opposed to sticking their stomach out and slouching, with results that look so good you’d call to order whatever product that person would claim to use. Even not acting intentionally, variations in time of day, setting, whether or not you did a workout beforehand, and what you ate that day can change how you look. This is why you look different in your beach photos this summer, after stopping at the Waffle House in Nooorth Carolina (like Kenny does) on the road trip down to the beach, than you did in the mirror the night before. More specific techniques like water and carbohydrate manipulation, which are not as feasible for athletes needing to perform at their highest level (or would need to be “reversed” prior to competition, as is done in MMA), are used by bodybuilders and models. The reverse has been done in dialogue about Cole, with a screenshot of him from a Being The Elite episode from months ago used instead of photos at recent shows or official photos, to show how “out of shape” he is. Cole also posted a rebuttal photo in February. Would he be materially in better shape because he got a pump before a show or in worse shape because he ate beforehand? No, but it sure looks that way.

I’m signing up for the Adam Cole coaching program, bay bay! (Being The Elite screenshot to the left, Cole’s photo from his Twitter to the right.)

2. An athletic physique isn’t necessarily an aesthetic physique

This is also commonly known as the difference between “show” and “go.” The training styles needed to develop improved aesthetics can be far different from those used for athletic performance, and the focus on “mirror muscles” that may have limited functional utility (I have heard this argued often about developing large biceps, for example) can sometimes be a detriment to sports performance. As one example, the TV at my gym had UFC on and as I watched for a bit, I noticed that not every fighter was totally shredded. Even the ones who were in great shape would be told they looked too small if they appeared in a pro wrestling ring. Now, I do understand there are differences between the sports, and especially as other types of manipulation are used to make weight in MMA. And in the sport of professional wrestling, it is undeniable that developing a physique that looks good, aligns with the athlete’s character, and their move set, while balancing performance needs, is important. I’d even say, and as wrestlers like Steve Austin have said, that there is crossover between pro wrestling and bodybuilding, which can extend to the training approach as compared to other combat athletes.

However, in the bodybuilding and fitness modeling world, it is well-known that when these athletes look their best, they often are at their worst in terms of physical performance and even mental functioning. There are many Instagram models who look like they are in way better shape than Cole, but at their peak aesthetics, many won’t even have the energy to run a mile nonetheless endure a wrestling match. It’s possible Cole feels way better, performs better, and can keep up his schedule in a healthier way at his current body composition than at a more aesthetic level. He has a fit, athletic body, even if not deemed perfect aesthetically.

3. Change takes time.

“I’ve been exercising and dieting hard for two whole months, why don’t I look jacked?” This is something almost everyone who has gotten into fitness has thought, if not said. Just because you are gaining strength or even losing fat, doesn’t mean you are going to look drastically different right away, as there are areas of fat which take longer to lose and muscles that take longer to grow. If Cole were to take the advice given by Booker T to build muscle, even with optimal training and nutrition, it would likely take as much as a year to see a major difference while training naturally (sans performance-enhancing drugs). And in that process, I am sure fans will criticize him for looking “fat,” as even with a well-designed bulk, he will gain some body fat. From what I have seen of Cole, it looks less like he is slacking off and more like he is actively working toward a goal which he will achieve in the near future.

4. There’s no offseason in pro wrestling

In other sports or if even training to look good in a photo, you can take the time to bulk up or slim down in the offseason without the pressure of balancing training load with competing and you can take for granted that you maybe don’t look great for the time since you are not playing your sport or showing off your body to others. (Winter = bulking season, Spring/Summer = cutting season, am I right?) Adam Cole is one of the most utilized talents on the AEW roster, which means he has a hectic traveling and match schedule. Recovery and rest are as important as the amount of training stimulus when building or seeking to maintain muscle. The schedule is not ideal for training or nutrition, though the athletes try their hardest and definitely do achieve results with time and exceptional levels of discipline. For example, Adam Page has stated he packs containers of prepped meals in his luggage whenever he is on the road, and Stu Grayson in the Evil Uno vlog has indicated “all the boys” on the roster who he is friends with pack food in their bags. If you or I struggle to get to the gym and eat healthy after working sitting at a desk, imagine how much progress you’d lose recovering after being suplexed or thrown through a table. Further, you would not want to be sore from your volume hypertrophy training or drained of energy and glycogen in your muscles from being on a low carb diet before going into a match, so there is a delicate balance to strike to create an improvement in physique without a detriment to performance.

5. Physique expectations among many fans have changed

Having seen “real” fighters in MMA or deciding to follow a wrestler for their storyline, many fans have decided to not put as much emphasis on the large bodybuilder look WWE often aimed for with their talent. This change in preference is not shared by all, but it is an opinion that is widely held, and a matter of taste.

In conclusion, though there is certainly value and a necessity for pro wrestlers and athletes of all kinds (yes, even e-sports athletes, so stop blaming video games) to achieve an ideal level of strength and conditioning for their sport, and there is value in building a body that makes them athletic role models, it is likewise important to know that this can appear in multiple ways physically. This understanding can help fans to have reasonable expectations and hence keep going on their own journeys. If Cole needs to make changes, he certainly knows it and is equipped to do so. The best transformations come not from reacting to the criticism of others but from the desire to unleash the warrior in you.

Greyson Peltier is the host of The Fixerpunk Podcast, a communications consultant specializing in social impact and political advocacy, and founder of Laguna Beach, CA-based consulting firm Off Speed Solutions. He recently won an online fitness competition, in spite of not being remotely full gear ready, largely because multiple participants dropped out, and feeling guilty for such invites marks to body-shame him by following his TikTok. Peltier holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Southern California with honors and has been featured by media outlets like Vice, ESPN Radio KLAA, USA Radio Network, and Street Fight Radio.

This content is for entertainment and general informational purposes only. The viewer should not rely solely upon such and consult a competent professional before deciding to follow any course of action.


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