I first heard the term strength sports—referring to football, weightlifting, and any other sport dependent upon sheer muscular force—in my early 40s. I’d spent half a lifetime dedicated to athletics more common among urban liberals like myself—jogging, cycling, swimming, pursuing cardiovascular fitness instead of brute force. But then somebody told me that these so-called endurance sports do little to counter the muscle-wasting sarcopenia and bone loss we all suffer in middle age.
One way to slow that slip into frailty, it turns out, is by lifting weights, forcing your body to increase bone density and muscle fiber. So I bought a book by a Texas gym owner named Mark Rippetoe titled Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. I learned to squat, deadlift, and bench press. I came to love the emotional catharsis of channeling aggression into the bar. I made new friends: A former Force Recon marine chatted with me between lifts, describing the first Gulf War and how he’d nearly died falling from a helicopter; a massively muscled, bald kickboxer, who happened also to be a handsome gay biotech lawyer, stood behind me during bench press sessions, fingers under the bar, making sure I didn’t hurt myself.
I adored lifting with these men. It was the happiest I had ever been in a gym. A faster runner abandons you; a stronger lifter hangs out, kindly critiques your form, and waits his turn. My strength numbers shot upward, and so did my body weight: 190 pounds, 200, 210, 215. I bought baggy pants and shirts. Walking down the sidewalk, I felt confident. At parties with my wife, I saw men who ran marathons, and they looked gaunt and weak. I could have squashed them.
Upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood.
Soon, however, I suffered a creeping insecurity. Looking into the eyes of a banker with soft hands, I imagined him thinking, You deluded moron, what does muscle have to do with anything?
One day, a skinny triathlete jogged past our house: visor, fancy sunglasses, GPS watch. I caught a look of yearning in my wife’s eyes. That night, we fought and she confessed: She couldn’t help it, she liked me better slender.
Friends came for dinner. A public-interest lawyer, noticing I was bigger, asked what I’d been up to.
“I’m really into lifting weights right now,” I said. “Trying to get strong.”
The lawyer’s wife, a marathoner and family therapist, appeared startled, as if concerned about my emotional state. She looked me in the eye and said, “Why?”
Sociologists, it turns out, have studied these covert athletic biases. Carl Stempel, for example, writing in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argues that upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. The so-called dominant classes, Stempel writes—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. By chasing pure strength, in other words, packing on all that muscle, I had violated the unspoken prejudices—and dearly held self-definitions—of my social group.
For a while I fought back, cursing the moronic snobbery that, at some self-hating level, I shared. I thought of doubling down by entering a powerlifting competition.
Rippetoe visited my gym one day. I liked him immensely—funny, eccentric, a brilliant technique coach. He told me that to become competitive, I would have to get vastly bigger—to something like 275 pounds. But I didn’t want to be 275 pounds. I love my wife dearly. I didn’t want to become less attractive to her, and I was already too heavy for the running, biking, and swimming that I’d long enjoyed and now missed. For a short time I tried to have it both ways: I signed up for the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon; bought a visor, fancy sunglasses, and a GPS watch; and told myself I would somehow maintain my hard-won muscular strength throughout triathlon training.
Jogging up our block, however, for that first run, I discovered that heavy weightlifting makes endurance workouts deeply unpleasant. My legs felt like dead tree trunks. The next day, when I tried to do squats, I learned that running undermines strength gains. It turns out that these two physical adaptations—like liberal and conservative political leanings, or elitist and working class cultural affinities—do not easily cohabit inside one human being (despite the excellent exception embodied by my kickboxing, bodybuilding, tech-lawyering gay friend).
I mentioned this to a legendary strength coach named Dan John, who’d once deadlifted 628 pounds. “I trained for a triathlon once,” John said over lunch. “I’ll never do that again.” He shook his head as if still emotionally traumatized by the loss of muscle and strength he’d suffered during all that cardio work.
In the end I made the same basic decision that Dan John had made, defaulting to the familiar sports I’d grown up with. In my case, that meant adopting what Stempel calls “the most class exclusive approach to strength-building,” one that “moderately incorporates strength into a sporting lifestyle.” Backing off the weights and ramping up the running, biking, and swimming, I lost 30 pounds of muscle in three months. I loved Escape From Alcatraz so much that I’m still doing triathlons three years later. My wife does seem to like me a little better, and sometimes I think our friends even respect me more. But I can’t stop thinking I’ve betrayed Rippetoe, and I dearly miss the Force Recon marine. I miss the biotech lawyer, too, and no matter what I’m supposed to feel about physical dominance or moral character, I dearly miss feeling huge walking down the street.
This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue of Pacific Standard as “How the Other Half Lifts.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.