Physical 100: what makes the show so popular in Korea and beyond?

From the thrill of the game to the fierce determination of the athletes, there is something truly captivating about ‘Physical 100’. In recent weeks, the new Netflix show ‘Physical 100’ has taken the world by storm, captivating audiences with its intense and dramatic depiction of the ‘real-life Squid Game’ between 100 competitors with well-developed physical attributes. With dynamic storytelling, engaging characters, and heart-pumping action, the show rapidly rose to the top of its domestic market and soon gained worldwide attention. After its release on January 27th, it topped FlixPatrol’s global chart of the most popular Netflix TV shows on February 9th (KST), coming in at No. 1 and ranking in the top 10 most-viewed shows in 38 countries.

What makes this show so popular? To understand its popularity and appeal, let’s explore the background and factors that have contributed to its success.

1. The cast

The show’s popularity in South Korea is largely attributed to its star-studded cast, which features some of the most famous and talented athletes from South Korea and beyond. 100 competitors, including bodybuilders, a mountain rescue team member, Olympic medalists such as Yoon Sung-Bin, a gold medalist in the Skeleton Winter Olympics, Yang Hak-Seon, a gymnastics gold medalist, mixed martial artists such as Choo Sung-Hoon, a former UFC competitor, Shim Eu-ddeum, a fitness YouTuber with over 1 million subscribers, Hwang Ji-Hoon, a former UDT/SEAL known as “Agent H”, and Hong Beom-Seok, a former No. 1 firefighter, participate in the gladiator-style game for the prize money of 300 million won. The cast also includes a diverse group of athletes from the US, Germany, and Nigeria, making the show a truly international celebration of physical excellence.

2. Breaking stereotypes

The show is popular not only for its exciting competition and athletic achievements, but also for its role in breaking down stereotypes about gender and physical ability. It features a diverse cast of athletes, including women, who prove that physical strength and ability know no gender.

Women from different backgrounds ranging from a bodybuilder trainer to a military officer demonstrate their strength and athleticism and challenge the stereotype that women are weaker or less capable than men.

The same way a show produced by SBS “골때리는 그녀들” gained popularity for its unique take on the world of female soccer. The show features female soccer players from different backgrounds who come together to compete and showcase their skills and has become popular not only for its thrilling football matches, but also because it aligns with current trends and values, such as feminism, inclusivity and diversity. It is a testament to the growing popularity of female-focused sports TV programs and the increasing importance of diversity in media and entertainment.

3. Shift in beauty standards and trends

Fitness and working out have become a worldwide trend, including in Korea. The buzz around the show is also linked to the changing beauty standards in Korea in recent years. In Korean society, physical appearance and body image play a significant role in a person’s social status and personal image and recently the traditional Korean beauty ideal, which was focused on a slender and pale complexion, has evolved to include a wider range of physical appearances and features. This shift has led to increased attention on working out and fitness in recent years. The change could be attributed to the influence of Western culture and increased exposure to diverse beauty standards through social media.

The trend of physical fitness has been further fueled by the influence of celebrities and influencers: many of them promote healthy lifestyles and workout routines, making exercise and physical activity more attractive to young people. For example, actor Lee Byeong-Hun, who may be recognized as the antagonist from ‘Squid Game’, has undergone a significant physical transformation and gained recognition for his toned and muscular physique. This transformation is often cited as an example of the growing emphasis on fitness in South Korean society and has inspired many fans to embark on their own fitness journeys.

Actor Lee Byeong-Hun in his 40’s vs 20’s

The changing definition of beauty has resulted in a surge in the popularity of fitness, leading to a higher demand for workout facilities. Nowadays with the expansion of gym facilities, fitness studios and wellness services in the country physical activities are now more accessible and mainstream than ever, making it easier for people to engage in exercise.

Some newly emerged trends in Korea also are inspiring people to engage in physical activities to improve one’s appearance (given the emphasis on physical appearance in the country, people often see exercise and physical activity as a way to enhance their appearance rather than improve their health). For instance, the “Body Profile” (바디프로필) trend, which emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, involves dedicating significant time to perfecting one’s body for a photo session at a professional studio. These photos are then shared on social media “as a display of personal growth.” – a psychology professor at Seoul National University Kwak Geum Joo comments.

A broadcasting official stated, “Currently, interest in physical fitness is at an all-time high, including taking body profile photos. Programs like “Physical:100″ that showcase muscular bodies in a visually appealing way provide the public with visual satisfaction while also sparking their desire to exercise.”

4. Psychological aspect

One of the reasons the show so popular is that people are drawn to the drama of competition. It’s human nature to enjoy watching the strong face off against each other. The Olympics is a perfect example of this. In general, sports TV programs and physical competitions have always been popular with audiences. They offer a high level of adrenaline and excitement, which can be appealing to many people. Watching athletes perform at a high level can be captivating, especially if there are celebrities involved. For these reasons, Korean TV shows like “Let’s Go Dream Team,” “The Iron Squad,” and “The Soldiers” are among the highly-rated programs, and the trend continues to this day.

People also may develop an emotional connection to certain athletes, and enjoy their journey and watching them compete. It offers a range of emotions through identification with the character, in this case, player, and their experiences.

5. The unpredictability


At first glance, it may seem easy to predict who will win or lose based on appearances or other features, be it age, occupation, or gender of the players, but unexpected events occur one after another. For example, a mountain rescue worker who has built his muscles on the job, rather than through exercise, wins first place in the hanging challenge. Or some female competitors, who were initially perceived as the weakest due to gender-based prejudices, outlast their male counterparts. This is because the game tests a variety of physical abilities, including but not limited to muscle strength, acceleration, balance, and endurance, so a player may have an advantage in one challenge but not in others. This unpredictability and sense of drama add to the excitement of watching the show.

In conclusion, the popularity of “Physical:100” can be attributed to a number of factors. It has become a massive hit not only because of its cast and unexpected twists, but also the excitement and adrenaline generated by watching athletes perform at the highest level and the drama of competition all contribute to the enjoyment of the shows. The changing beauty standards and the influence of celebrities and other trends are also one of the significant factors that added to the popularity. Additionally, the emotional connection that audiences can develop with certain athletes further enhance the viewing experience.

As fitness and health continue to be a growing focus for Korea and beyond, it’s likely that the popularity of such shows will continue to rise as they offer a unique and intriguing look at the world of athletic competition.