Even the hottest romance starts out with something small: a gesture, a look . . . in aerobics, it’s called the warm-up.” These are the opening lines of the workout in Muscle Motion, a 1983 home exercise video, available on both VHS and the higher-definition laser disc, featuring the “Men of Chippendales.” Historical analyses of the 1980s video fitness boom often emphasize Jane Fonda’s best-selling Workout, but the strange, sexed-up Muscle Motion, which sold 80,000 VHS tapes alone, confirms the depths of that demand and reveals a deeper story that anecdotes about America’s wholesome desire to “feel the burn” can obscure.
If it seems strange that a male strip club act would release a workout video, it makes perfect sense given that Chippendales men were a mainstay of 1980s material culture. You could buy Chippendales calendars, greeting cards, and logo-embroidered jeans. When “the fitness craze” and ownership of VCRs and laser disc players became two defining aspects of this era’s consumerism, it was clear that Chippendales could profit handsomely. After all, the mediagenic men were known for their muscled bodies, and many were recruited at gyms. Plus, the sweaty intimacy of exercise could easily slide into eroticism: Olivia Newton-John’s hit song “Physical” frames fitness as foreplay, and a 1983 Rolling Stone cover story declared health clubs the “new singles bars.”
Fittingly, Muscle Motion is as much the product of the fitness phenomenon as the “porn revolution,” also centered in Southern California and one of the most popular home video categories. The mainstreaming of porn meant Chippendales could sell surprisingly racy content, while keeping it just clean enough to promote on daytime TV and to stock in the mall. Choreographer Nancy Gregory insists Muscle Motion was fundamentally a great workout, but the “gorgeous men” tucking and thrusting before strategically positioned cameras made it feel suggestive. So did her narration, which was breathy and full of double entendres about keeping the men’s “hands busy” and “wasting” champagne splashed across their bare midriffs. After a “cool down” winkingly intended as the opposite, Gregory sighs that “had to be a good workout.”
Chippendales insiders doubted women purchased the video “for the exercise,” but the virtuous pretense of health gave them license to something more titillating. Doubling down on their appeal as gorgeous but accessible guys, the dancers went on tour, demonstrating the workouts in malls and aerobics studios, posing shirtless for pictures with women after class. The overlap of sex and on-screen sweat had precedent, but usually men watching women: when home fitness pioneer Debbie Drake taught exercise on television in the 1960s, men were known to tune in for her tight leotards and bullet bras rather than the instruction. By the 1980s, incarcerated men prohibited from receiving pornography could order exercise videos instead.
Muscle Motion wasn’t entirely uncontroversial. A midwestern physical education teacher who showed the film to her high school class was fired, but she maintained the workout wasn’t even “mildly erotic,” especially compared to “provocative” tapes featuring women. In 2021, the eroticism of exercise—from pole dancing to bordello-lit boot camps to seminude YouTube trainers—is undeniable. But in 1983, a product that provided the sexiness of a night at Chippendales and the virtuous sweatiness of aerobics at home was understandably exciting.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is associate professor of history at the New School, host and co-producer of the podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy, and host of the podcast Past Present. She tweets @nataliapetrzela.
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