The strength of "Physical:100" is in what it has to say about our view of the perfect physique

The latest hit from Korea is a "survival competition" that tests the meaning of what ultimate fitness looks like

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 20, 2023 3:30PM (EST)

Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)
Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)

Answering the putative question at the ripped core of "Physical: 100" should be simple: what defines the ultimate physique? Scan the room where contestants gather at the competition's start, and you may postulate that the correct response rests in hulking muscles, low body fat and protein shake consumption.

That's not entirely wrong . . . but it's still incorrect. In demonstrating this, the Korean hit is continuously surprising and, in a real way, motivating. 

Granted, inspiration isn't what's attracting people to this survival gauntlet, marketed as a melding of "Squid Game" and "Survivor," with a few whiffs of "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" tossed in. "Physical: 100" runs on action, but it's really about sizing up whether the players and their impressively corded builds can handle the challenges hurled at them. 

The show's "quests," divided into elimination stages, are efficient, effective and merciless. Any competition with nine episodes to narrow the field from 100 contenders to a single victor must be.

Further augmenting the tension is the production's escalating theatricality. A plaster cast of each player's torso greets them as they enter the massive stage where they initially gather, rendering them awestruck at the sight of this cross between a colosseum and a museum. They're impressive tributes to the sweat and effort they've put into sculpting themselves. And if they lose, they're required to shatter their likeness with a hammer.

With a 300 million won prize on the line (approximately $240,000 USD) there's no room for much everyday sentiment from either producers or the gladiators. That said, the show does have a flair for the epic, as seen in a semifinal inspired by Greek myths, specifically their divine punishments.

And yet the show's theory of what constitutes the so-called perfect body is thrillingly oblique, which is what truly makes the show smashing. Most of the competitors are convinced they are prime beefcake, and may even have the credentials to validate that opinion. Soon we'll have the season's finale, and let's just say that the overall evaluation favors neither Adonis nor Hercules. That would be too easy.

"Physical: 100" lures the viewer into believing the jacked have an advantage. Most of the eponymous 100 have rippling musculatures, but a few are downright puny. That's what opens the show's appeal to a broader audience than merely gym rats. Barbell bros are legion, but are vastly outnumbered by those of us who are too intimidated to step into a weight room with power lifters comparing notes on creatine.

This season's "perfect" physical specimen won't be revealed until Tuesday, but what that person's victory tells us about the show's aim may be less important than what it has already taught us by way of certain outcomes.

Here are some observations of how "Physical: 100" defines true fitness, and fitness competitions, for better or worse.

True fitness is functional 
Image_placeholPhysical: 100Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)der

Since the production attracted top athletes, many of them knew each other by reputation. Those who lacked notoriety made themselves known by their hulking stature, and all of them ignored the scrawny.


They and the audience soon discover that in a competition to hang from a metal structure using only upper body strength, having pythons for arms doesn't get you squat. Instead, it is an ice climber and member of a mountain rescue team, Kim Min-cheol, who outlasts competitive bodybuilders, Olympians, mixed martial artists and, yes, CrossFitters. 


When Kim says, "My muscles . . . weren't created in a gym. They were made in my everyday life while saving people," we should have taken the producers' hint. Swoleness is meaningless if you can't hold up your weight in a real-world scenario. If your job or passion cultivate strength, endurance and flexibility, that may be all the edge you need.


Out of the four spots that have already been claimed for the ultimate quest – the last finalist will be revealed in the ultimate episode – none is held by anyone some might have predicted would be there as the show began. That's telling.

Size matters, but not as much as than technique and strategy 
ImagePhysical: 100Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)_placeholder

As Kim's early victory proves, diminutive folks shouldn't be counted out. Conversely, woe to those who bet on hulks being slow, only to be mowed down by their speed.


But in a head-to-head battle between people of comparable size, strategy will always have a leg up on pure strength. This was proven several times in combats set in one of two "arenas," one that favored agility, the other power. When weightlifters tangle with wrestlers or mixed martial artists, the smart money should always be on the technicians.


Technique conveys an advantage in team matches too. In a game requiring players to finish a rope bridge before carting a bag of sand across it within a time limit, the most valuable player turns out to be the "safety first" stuntwoman, Kim Da-young, who took time to make sure every slat was properly attached. The other team finished their bridge first, but their lack of care lost them half the bridge and, therefore, the whole game.

Real power comes from fortitude
Image_placPhysical: 100Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)eholder
One of the greatest lessons the show conveys is that stamina and will are as vital to a well-rounded athlete as physical ability. Social media star Shim Eu-ddeum, aka "Gangnam Apple Girl, wallops that point into the wood during a survival round giving eliminated contestants a chance to return.
All they have to do is grip a rope holding their plaster busts (weighing 40% of the contestant's body) tens of feet in the air for as long as possible.
Shim, a slender woman with pink hair, is surrounded by monstrous biceps and redwood-sized thighs and does the only thing a woman in her position could do: dig deep and ignore all the doubt and insecurity around her. As other people's plaster busts shatter around her, she doesn't budge or change her gaze, outlasting 20 others to rejoin the competition.
Ingenuity can be the shard that separates victory from loss 
Image_placePhysical: 100Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)holder

The season's most heartbreaking challenge is also a backbreaker, as the surviving competitors are divided into three teams of 10 and tasked with dragging a 1.5-ton ship over sand and across a dock with an upward incline, and in the shortest time possible.


Naturally there are obstacles, in the form of heavy barrels that must be unearthed and loaded onto the ship, including one sealed inside a locked crate that could only be accessed by smashing it.


While his muscular teammates go about hucking wine casks onto the deck, baseball player Dustin Nippert grabs the sledgehammer and makes quick work of the box. Other teams have more trouble with that container because they don't use Nippert's tactic of smashing the hinges instead of the wood. "It's just, not that I'm strong, I need to be smart," he says. "Work smarter, not harder."


What would have happened if he applied that logic to the tops of the loaded, heavy barrels and emptied them? The game's rules say nothing about loading their contents, after all. Alas, we'll never know.

Competitive athletics is still a sexist game 
Image_placehoPhysical: 100Physical: 100 (Courtesy of Netflix)lder

Following its mission statement "to study the most perfect physique, regardless of gender, age, and race," "Physical: 100" allows men to challenge women and vice versa, even though male contestants outnumber female ones by a vast amount. Even so, an admirable percentage of women defied expectations, none of the more inspiring than wrestler Jang Eun-sil.


"The Underdogs" episode is named for her saga, highlighting her determination and skilled leadership. Jang is respected enough to be named one of 10 team captains voted into their positions by the 50 first-round survivors. But it's also a popularity contest, and in a room full of worshippers at the altar of hugeness, she is the 10th name called, and the only woman. In a ranked scenario, the No. 1 selection, Olympic gold medalist Yun Sung-bin, receives his choice of the crop.


Everyone picked last dejectedly falls in with Jang creating a team of three women and two men that her opponents assume is weak. They arrogantly tell her she's going home, but she is undeterred.


"Once the game begins in the arena, we'll show them what we got," she said. Damn right. In the bridge challenge, her team buried their doubting adversaries. Their impressive strain and effort weren't enough to survive the brute-strength battle of the ship-dragging round, however. If all things were equal every team would have a balance of players with speed, stamina and strength. But since the world beyond "Physical: 100" is not, there is no way the contest in its current form could be.


The oxen on other teams condescendingly declared that it would be victory enough if Jang's team finished the ship challenge. Even in that respect, she surprised them by leading her group to a finish that was a mere two minutes slower than the second-place finishers. She may not have won, but she refused to go out defeated. That makes her one of this season's most beloved heroes . . . if not a finalist.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

"Physical:100" sprints to the finish having served everything one could want in an addictive reality competition, including brawny godlings, heroic underdogs, a cybernetic eye surveying the meat and carnage and a disembodied voice devoid of sympathy. But its disinterest in pageantry or simple strength feats is enthralling.

One can only pray it doesn't get adapted by American producers, which is probably wishful thinking. "Physical: 100" embodies everything our culture admires – testosterone, hardbodies, and ferocious competition. It's reminiscent of  "American Ninja Warrior"  while reminding us that the original Japanese "Ninja Warrior" had a lot more heart. Something always gets lost in the translation.

Besides, we understand what "Physical: 100" is saying. It may award someone the title of "ultimate physique," but in the end, the real definition is gloriously open to interpretation.

The first eight episodes of "Physical: 100" currently streams on Netflix with its finale on Tuesday.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary K-drama Korean Drama List Netflix Ninja Warrior Physical 100 Squid Game Survivor Tv