“Physical: 100” Proves There’s No One Way To Be an Athlete

This review of Physical: 100 includes some spoilers of the reality competition series.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been strength training and powerlifting for the last few months or what, but lately, I’ve been drawn to media that showcases the myriad physical challenges people put their bodies through just to achieve some personal goal. Most of the stuff I’ve consumed has been more along the lines of documentaries, docuseries, or essays on the subject until this past week when I blew through the episodes of Physical: 100 at a speed that is very unusual for me. I rarely binge-watch shows in the way a lot of other people do, but from the minute I put on Physical: 100, I simply couldn’t stop watching it. I needed to know who was going to win. And more importantly, I wanted to know how.

Physical: 100 is a Korean reality competition series produced by Netflix that begins with literally 100 people competing for the chance to win 300 million Korean won (a little over 220,000 U.S. dollars). They participate in competitions designed to test the absolute shit out of their physical and mental strength. The challenges range in difficulty, but they mostly seem hard as fuck to both the participants and to us viewers at home and usually require a variety of skills — from strength to agility to endurance — to complete. They compete in person-to-person combat, form teams to complete tasks like filling a large tube with pounds and pounds of sand and moving a 1.5 ton pirate-style ship, and do a gauntlet of exercises that were inspired by Greek mythology. People who cannot beat the other participants are eliminated each round.

Maybe that doesn’t sound exactly like the kind of thing you care to watch, but let me tell you, there is something about Physical: 100 that feels distinctly different from any American reality competition show I’ve ever watched or seen a little bit of. While the participants in the show are all highly or somewhat decorated in their sports of choice, they are representative of many different kinds of athletes and, as a result, have many different kinds of bodies. The show features not just bodybuilders and YouTube and Instagram exercise/wellness influencers but also Olympic lugers and skeleton racers, Korean national wrestling champions, mixed martial arts fighters, gymnasts, members of the Korean armed forces, stunt people, crossfitters, choreographers, professional strongmen, a mountain rescue ranger, and ssireum wrestlers (like my favorite participant and ultimate babe of the show, Jang Eun Sil). The show features both men and women competing equally in these battles of strengths and wills, and although the men on the show are sometimes a little too confident in their abilities to beat the women, they don’t always win against them.

Some of the participants are jacked beyond belief, some are tall and lanky and a little muscular, some have a stereotypical athletic build (not exactly jacked but not super thin either), some of them are middle-aged, and some are even fat by our societal standards. I’ve been joking that the show is a great example of what happens when YouTubers and Instagram fitness influencers are asked to test their mettle, since many of the types of bodies we’re used to calling “strong” and “fit” aren’t the ones who do well in the challenges. Many of these kinds of people are taken out in the first couple of challenges, leaving the actual athletes — with their various body types — to win over and over again. While it isn’t shocking for me, personally, to see these people fail to meet the promise of their muscle-y physiques, I know that the outcomes of the competitions will be a shock to many viewers of the show.

Actually, one of the greatest joys of watching the show all at once for me was seeing the progression of the female participants, especially in the many instances where they had to compete directly with male participants. Since the challenges were designed to be played by any person who felt they could handle them, the women in the show truly held their own. The performances by Jang Eun Sil, Seo Hayan, Miho, Shim Eu-ddeum, Shin Bo Mi Rae, Song A-reum, Kim Da-young often not only matched but actually exceeded the performances of many of the men on the show, with some of them even making it into the penultimate challenge. Throughout the show, they had to deal with not only being severely outnumbered by the men but also had to contend with the men doubting their physical capabilities at every turn. Instead of cowering away or letting these doubts impact their focus, the women just worked harder as result and surprised themselves and the other participants in this process. I can’t lie to y’all, witnessing the moments brought me to tears a few times because Physical: 100 gave them the ability to remind audiences, over and over again, that you shouldn’t underestimate anyone based on how they look.

In a world where we’re conditioned to believe that the bodies of people like The Liver King and Jillian Micheals and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are the standard for strength and athleticism, the reality of who is the strongest and why they’re so strong is actually starkly different than what we’ve been trained to believe. Physical: 100 is the newest and best example of what I mean when I say this, which makes it stand out among the crowd of American competition shows that often feature one or two types of bodies competing for the same prize. By the time the participants are whittled down to the final five, it’s not at all who you expect to be there. The fat strongman, Jo Jin-hyeong, makes it, and so does the mountain rescue climber, Kim Min-cheol. The other three men in the final five are a luger, Park Jin-yong; a cyclist, Jung Hae-min; and a snowboarder turned crossfitter, Woo Jin-yong. (Yes, sadly, Jang Eun Sil doesn’t make it to the final five, but I still think she could kick all these guys’ asses if she really wanted to.)

Throughout the show, the computerized host tells us multiple times that the show is a “study” to see who has the best body in the world. If the show’s participants are any indication, then the “best body in the world” could belong to literally anyone you see in your daily life, and it often belongs to the people you’d least expect. While Physical: 100 also disrupts the American idea of competition and what it means to be a good competitor, I think its most significant contribution is this: sports, strength, athleticism, and everything in between are for anyone and everyone who wants to be part of that world, and here in the U.S., we should learn to let them.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. The group dynamics are also SO different to an American reality show! I’m sure there’s cultural cues that I was missing, but overall the competitors were so much more collaborative, agreeable, and, well, not assholes to their peers. Even when the men had pissing contests they were pretty respectful to one another, and mostly everyone was just rooting for each other / whomever the underdog was. It was a delight to watch.

  2. My cousin who never recommends anything because we do not have the same taste recommended it anyway and I gave it a chance, thinking I wouldn’t like it because I don’t like competitions and I don’t like realities.
    In the end I binge-watched the whole thing in one siting and I wanted more.
    So I remembered there was a similar competition on Netflix, Ultimate Beastmaster, so I gave it a try and after 5 minutes I remembered why I dont like realities: too much hype, too much narration, the narrator’s voice, the sad “I’m a cancer survivor, father of 7 kids”, the public overchearing everything and I’m sure there are more things to hate about it.
    Anyway, just to say that Physical 100 felt real, the human interactions felt sincere, the admiration and respect they had for one another was beautiful to see, no-one on the top 5 had abs, it was an overall very surprising experience, I hope they make more seasons, as well as adaptations and I hope the americans don’t ruin it with overhyped male narration.

  3. I started this last night and I am obsessed????? Also I have QUESTIONS. Like I am currently in the episodes with first real challenge and how do they wrestle like that without killing each other? I think years of television has convinced me that necks snap MUCH more easily than they actually do.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!