It’s time to end the stigmas against weightlifting

Revenge of the Nerds.

If you’d met me growing up — any time before 24, really — you would’ve never pegged me as a future weightlifter. My primary hobby was PC games, and I was barely into physical activity, much less spending hours in a gym. My biggest athletic achievement in childhood was winning a 50-meter dash. By my teen years, I couldn’t run more than a lap around my school’s outdoor track without chest cramps.

I still play games, and I’m still uninterested in sports — siding with Chomsky’s take that pro-league fandom is “training in irrational jingoism” — but by my mid-20s, I realized I’d have to engage in some sort of exercise to take pride in appearance or strength. Until then I’d always been the skinny-fat weak guy, prone to bullying until that late stage in high school when teens mature enough to leave each other alone.

I began with martial arts: first the pacifist style of aikido, then the more brutal world of Muay Thai. I loved Muay Thai. I’d be doing it now if I had the time and money, and the closest I come to caring about sports is when boxing or UFC airs on TV.

Muay Thai forced me to improve my overall fitness, and while the money for it dried up, my commitment to fitness increased. By around 2013 I’d started on serious strength training, and now at 40 I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been.

In retrospect, part of the reason I’d avoided exercise in the past was because I imagined a false dichotomy: either people were intelligent and weak, or dumb and muscular.

It’s not hard to imagine why. That split has been a subtext — or sometimes, uber-text — of pop culture for many decades. Think of how many ’80s movies alone referenced it: Revenge of the Nerds. The Breakfast Club. Conan the Barbarian. Add to that a legion of similarly-themed TV shows, and it’s no wonder people might associate weightlifting with idiots.

There’s a grain of truth in there. I have run into real-world gym rats who give lifting a bad name, whether through shallowness or a bad attitude. There seems to be a disproportionate number of ultra-conservatives in the weight room too — the sort who wear a Trump hat during their workout, and/or climb into a pickup with Punisher and Thin Blue Line stickers when they’re done. (Never mind the fact that the Punisher is a vigilante who sometimes shoots corrupt cops.)

As a whole though, the myth does not match the reality. Some of the nicest people I’ve met have been lifters, going out of their way to be polite, spot someone, or offer advice. Perhaps muscle inspires the confidence needed to be outgoing and generous.

Serious weightlifting requires a level of thought and commitment that’s seldom acknowledged. On a basic level, for example, you need to find or build a plan for optimal growth, which means doing extensive research. Which exercises will hit every muscle? How many sets and reps of each do you need for the days you have available? Should your goal be bodybuilding, or raw strength? How quickly should you increase the weight you’re lifting? All of these things must be balanced for maximum impact.

Commitment may be the most undervalued aspect. It means dragging yourself through workouts when you least feel like it — rain, snow, heat, depression — and keeping that up for years. It means pushing through aches and weakness to get one last rep. It means adapting your diet permanently, saving burgers and desserts for special occasions, and being perfectly content with that.

It’s about time we make these things common knowledge. It’s simply not true that brawn comes at the expense of brain, unless perhaps someone chooses that path. Socrates himself is often quoted as saying that “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training,” since “it is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

In that sense, how are we not as a society making weightlifting a central part of high school Phys Ed? Do we not want everyone to be stronger, healthier, and longer-lived? It may even be a great substitute for football, which we now realize carries an inherent risk of brain damage — though I dislike the idea of bringing Friday Night Lights levels of hype to weight meets.

Lifting isn’t without its own risks, of course. But in my experience these can be negated with proper form, which is all the more reason to coach teens. There’s nothing inherently dangerous to a barbell or dumbbell as long as people respect personal limits.

We should be striving especially hard to end stigmas against women lifting. There’s a popular conception that it’s un-feminine, or even that it automatically transforms you into the Hulk in a matter of months, nothing but bulges and veins. The former is just needless bias, and I almost wish the latter were true — in reality it’s generally actors, athletes, and models that have the time to become that shredded, and most would rather (and do) stop a notch short.

I certainly don’t expect any changes overnight. With any luck however, growing awareness and progressive social tides will carry us in the right direction.

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