I read this article recently about how strength training is seen as a lower class pursuit. (Okay, so I’m three years late, but to be fair, I wasn’t on social media when it was published.)
To quote the article:
“Upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood.”
The author goes on to present mostly anecdotal evidence that educated urban professionals tend to snub lifting weights and prefer to partake in less brutish activities like endurance sports.
“The so-called dominant classes…especially those like my friends and myself, richer in fancy degrees than in actual dollars—tend to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports that display moral character, self-control, and self-development, rather than physical dominance.”
Basically, if you lift weights you’re a dumb meathead. But if you do triathlons you’re a disciplined athlete.
I can see how this perception historically came to be. Those who needed to be physically strong were laborers or slaves. With no class privilege, they had to rely on their strength to provide and protect. But these days, lifting weights has become a much more inclusive sport. Gender, age, and even class are no longer limiting factors. I see everyone from grandmothers to high school students in the gym. At 5 p.m., you can see both tradesmen and professionals making their way to the locker room to doff their blue or white collars for athletic wear.
But even as more and more people learn about the benefits of strength training, stereotypes still endure. What the author failed to recognize is that strength sports require just as much “moral character, self-control, and self-development” as any aerobic sport. Strength training is more than just physical dominance. I’d argue that strength training and lifting weights have become the thinking person’s sport.
Strength training is as much a mental pursuit as it is a physical one.
Anyone who thinks that that lifting weights is purely physical has never experienced the mental gymnastics that happen under the weight of a one-rep max. (The absolute heaviest weight you can lift one time.) It takes concentration and grit to push yourself to the limits of your strength. Given that training has been consistent, a missed lift is often a failure of the mind more so than the body. It takes courage to place yourself under a weight you’re not sure you can lift and mental hardiness to silence the self doubt. Even for submaximal loads, there is a complex dance between our mind and body as we learn to balance and maintain our form and push for one more rep.
Strength training is a science.
Yes, old bro’s tales of lifting persist, but our understanding of exercise science has vastly increased in the last decade. There are lifters who geek out over the complexities of form and programming as much as others do over technology or the discovery of a new planet. Trips to the gym are no longer about curling for the biggest guns or debating the best protein powder. Instead, disciples of strength are more interested in figuring out which style of deadlift fits their anthropometry. They pore over programs to find the right one for their goals. They understand the importance of identifying and fixing muscular imbalances for optimum performance. This new wave of lifters seeks to learn and apply principles, which brings me to my next point…
Strength training requires research.
To excel in strength training, one must seek out at least the basic information, as it’s nowhere near as intuitive as running or riding bike. There is so much nuance, so much variety, and so many factors to consider. Rep range, weight load, and exercise selection are all variables that can be manipulated for different outcomes. It’s not just lifting heavy shit and grunting. There is a learning curve.
Strength training requires mental and emotional discipline.
It takes effort to show up to the gym and train consistently. Bodybuilders and powerlifters are disciplined the same as marathoners and triathletes. It takes just as much dedication to build strength and muscle as it does endurance and stamina. In the emotional realm, cardio-based sports are seen as requiring a calm focus that lends itself to nimble grace, while strength can come across as aggressive and overtly testosterone fueled. There are people who harness anger to lift, but for many others (myself included) it is almost a zen-like activity. Emotion often hinders performance and the ability to clinically assess the situation. I realize that I can only speak for myself here, but I know there are those like me out there who do their best lifting when they are emotionally composed.
Strength training is a form of self improvement.
This is not just from a physical standpoint. The discipline and skill it takes to build physical strength begets mental strength. No, it won’t make you smarter, but it will make you more resilient. It will teach you that the way to learn anything is through repetition and practice. When you become proficient in one skill (such as strength training), you realize there are many parallels that you can apply to another area.
It’s one thing to not lift weights because you simply don’t enjoy the activity. But anyone who cares about their overall wellness would be remiss to not practice some form of strength training. It’s no longer for the brute or the caveman or the meathead. Strength training is for anyone who wants both a mental and physical challenge.
In part 2, I’ll discuss the evolving culture of women and strength training. Keep your eyes peeled!