How Hardcore Punk Musicians Learned to Love the Gym

How Hardcore Punk Musicians Learned to Love the Gym

Illustration by Michael Houtz; photographs by Getty Images
Henry Rollins created the archetype of the extremely jacked hardcore frontman, and new-school bands like Turnstile are pumping iron to follow suit.

Brendan Yates and Daniel Fang of the hardcore band Turnstile had crossed paths at shows growing up in Maryland’s hardcore scene, but it wasn’t until their first year of college, in 2009, that they became good friends. Drinking was the default activity at Towson University, just north of Baltimore, but neither of them were partiers, so, outside of listening to hardcore records, they found another hobby: lifting weights.

A mutual friend showed them the basics, and soon their time was divided between going to hardcore shows around Baltimore and working out. “That whole era of our lives was formative because we were just changing every day, in the actual physical transformation of exploring lifting weights and the progress of becoming a different person physically, and then consuming so much music and meeting so many people in Baltimore,” Fang tells me. “We were just living for lifting weights and being as creative as possible.”

Yates and Fang, who both played drums, proudly put on the Freshman 15, but in muscle. By the end of their first year, Yates was filling in on drums for Baltimore hardcore legends Trapped Under Ice. In 2010, the pair started their band, which went on to crack mainstream charts, sell out shows around the world, earn three Grammy nominations, and generally led a hardcore renaissance in pop culture. Yates and Fang are also carrying the flag for another time-tested hardcore punk tradition: being incredibly jacked.

Hardcore punk’s reputation as a literal stomping ground for muscular dudes started sometime after 1981, when Henry Rollins took over vocal duties with legendary Los Angeles hardcore band Black Flag. Today, Rollins’s yoked, shirtless physique feels like a piece of hardcore history. Other punks followed and cemented the aesthetic: Misfits’ Glenn Danzig, Gorilla Biscuits’ Anthony Civarelli, and The Cro-Mags’ Harley Flanagan all looked like they spent more time in the squat rack than the studio.

At first, the physical build seemed at odds with punk’s outsider status. James Pligge was lifting weights long before he founded Chicago hardcore band Harm’s Way in 2006. His father was a weight lifter and played in a metal band, passing his love for both iron and heavy metal onto his son. But Pligge says that punks have a tendency to label weightlifters like himself as jocks. “That [term] is affiliated with homophobia, sexism, toxic masculinity,” says Pligge, who now works as a physical education teacher outside Chicago. “No matter what I do, even to this day, I always get put into that category because of the way I look.”

Stereotypically, the jock caricature is a football-playing, hair-gelled sexual harasser, whose love of sports is only matched by his hatred of nerds. The only thing Pligge has in common with it is a shared affection for lifting up heavy things and putting them down. But he says because punk culture historically squared up in opposition to the jock crowd, it stayed hostile to anyone with muscles. “‘Oh, you lift weights? You must be this way,’” he says. “When I first started going to hardcore shows, I was the only person who lifted weights and was into sports. That was kind of unheard of in my hardcore scene here in Chicago.”

Over time, the scene shifted. Sports were no longer wholly unwelcome in punk circles, and by the early 2000s, lifting weights was a staple subculture activity in some hardcore communities. When Trapped Under Ice frontman Tripp and his friends saw Pligge performing shirtless, in a ski mask, they all wanted to look like him. “I remember seeing him play for the first time and I was like, ‘That guy’s a murderer,’” laughs Tripp.

Tripp had been lifting casually since middle school, when the ripped Russian immigrants who lived with his family took him under their wing and taught him about weights. When Tripp got deeper into hardcore, he says he saw a lot of people like Pligge, “people you don’t wanna mess with.” That didn’t mean they were aggressive assholes. “They were very welcoming and way more progressive than a lot of people in other parts of my life,” says Tripp. 

Yates, of Turnstile, agrees: the most heavily-muscled dudes in Baltimore’s hardcore scene were also often the gentlest. “When I started going to shows, I felt like the strongest or most intimidating physically, were also the nicest and most welcoming and caring,” he says. “I think even that was just an attractive quality.”

When Trapped Under Ice toured Australia between 2009 and 2011, kids there picked up on Tripp’s physicality. One of them was Jem Siow, who now fronts Sydney hardcore band Speed. Siow describes himself as “a fucking nerd in school, a straight up Asian nerd” who played classical music, listened to punk, and thought going to the gym was for assholes. “That was the opposite to what I thought hardcore was at the time,” he says. “I had seen going to the gym as this hyper-bro thing that only is for aesthetic purposes.”

Then he met Dennis Vichidvongsa, Speed’s guitarist. Vichidvongsa lifted with Tripp when he toured Australia, and later introduced Siow to the sport of powerlifting. “That was the first time that I saw that lifting weights was a sport and a way of personal development,” says Siow. “I was never really great at team sports, but this was just you against yourself.”

Before long, hardcore and lifting were connected for Siow. Hardcore flattened the hierarchies that surrounded him and welcomed everyone to participate, and it seemed like working out could be a similar equalizer. “Just like anyone can pick up a bass guitar and start playing or a microphone and start singing, or just mosh and be part of the show, anyone can pick up weights and do that too,” says Siow.

Tripp agrees that both creating hardcore music and working out gave him ways to flex authority over his own life. “I never felt in control of myself when I was a kid until I got into weight training,” says Tripp. “For a lot of us people who are outcasts or nerds or small or skinny, it’s a way out of that and a way to reclaim control of yourself. It’s not a way to be better than anybody, it’s just a way to be better than yourself.”

Besides originating the popular archetype of the chiseled, sinewy hardcore singer, Rollins wrote one of the most well-known essays on the common ethos shared by hardcore and the gym. “Iron and the Soul,” a sharp, influential piece that conceptualized working out as an intimate philosophical journey, was published in a 1994 issue of Details Magazine. While reading everything he could get his eyes on at age 19, Daniel Fang came across the piece, and it changed his life. “There’s a line in there where he says, ‘Strength is kindness and sensitivity,’ and that was a paradigm shift to me,” says Fang. “There’s definitely the perception of someone who lifts being someone who is aggressive or might wanna bully someone else.”

That perception holds true to some extent for hardcore music in general, too. To people who don’t listen to it, hardcore and its offshoots can sound abrasive and unsettling, and hardcore shows are notoriously physical spaces, with lots of moshing and stage-diving. But the genre’s aesthetics are just one piece of the culture. “It’s not in a way that’s meant to be aggressive toward someone else,” says Fang. “It’s this introspective practice of feeling hurt or frustrated or angry or reflective, that you express in this celebratory way in front of a bunch of people, which is such a unique thing to punk music that I’m sure looks pretty bizarre to other people who aren’t accustomed to what that ritual is.”

Siow isn’t afraid of what people think of Speed’s music or his physique. “People might identify Speed as a lifting band or a gym band,” says Siow. “I’m not afraid to show a little bit of muscle. It’s actually important that we’re championing being strong physical Asian males because I don’t think that’s been seen much. I just wanna be me, and I’m proud of that.”

Rollins’s essay and those who hold it close share an interest in the inner existential and spiritual connections between hardcore and working out, but it’s true that not every weightlifter is a gentle giant, and not every hardcore musician is a sweetheart offstage. “I’m not saying hardcore is a perfect place where it’s bodybuilders taking care of each other and paying their bills and stuff,” says Tripp. “There are big, strong people who are assholes. There’s bad people in the world.” 

Yates and Fang can’t spend days on end lifting in gyms anymore. The lifestyle demands of touring have prompted them to find new active practices. When Turnstile gets to a new city on tour, Fang will track down the nearest rock climbing gym, and Yates has taken to long-distance bike rides, swimming, and a nightly stretching routine. “The goal has always been the same for me: how do I feel as good as possible?” says Yates.

As he gets older and feels the creep of mortality, Fang says his relationships with his body and his music continue teaching him new lessons about patience and opportunity. “You learn what you’re willing to sacrifice for someone or something, because you know that exactly what you put into something is what you’re gonna get out of it,” he says. “I think that just applies to everything in life.”

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