The Politics of the Barbell
Since everything is political now, let's consider fitness
Watching the corporate media’s campaign against vitality has been simultaneously fascinating and boring. What once were normal, innocent pursuits are now deeply politicized—fitness being no exception.
Some notable results that come up in a quick search: A Vice headline declares, “Gym bros are right-wing jerks.” One from MSNBC declares, “The intersection of extremism and fitness leans into a shared obsession with the male body, training, masculinity, testosterone, strength and competition.” A columnist for the Guardian declares, “I’m not sure what exercise does for your body, but I do know what it does to your personality. And it’s not pretty.” So, in other words, getting strong and fit is P-R-O-B-L-E-M-A-T-I-C, to use their favorite fake-sophisticated word. My single favorite line comes from the Vice article mentioned above: “Under those rock-hard abs lie the rock-hard souls of men who doesn't believe in spreading their riches around.” That’s not parody, apparently.
(One wonders, if these attempts fail to properly stigmatize fitness, whether we can count on new “studies” finding that exercise is indeed bad for the planet—thus making personal health a threat to public health and requiring Bill Gates and his friends to intervene.)
I don’t really wish to answer any of the claims of the corporate media, but they do prompt one to reflect on the political implications of fitness.
Here are my reflections on a few of the things that the gym teaches a man about life. These notes will focus specifically on weight-lifting, which is probably the most offensive to lefty journos and professional outrage artists. Are these the characteristics that make fitness a right-wing pursuit?
The forces allied against human flourishing are so formidable and so grand—Big Tech, Big Finance, Big Food, Big Entertainment, Big Administration, and so on—that a man is liable to feel helpless. What can a normal man do in the face of such enemies? Where does he even begin?
If nothing else, he can begin with lifting. That might sound rather trivial to some, but there is no activity which shows a man that he can take action and have effect quite like moving heavy weights. The man who lifts (correctly) will experience an undeniable transformation in his body, as he becomes stronger, more formidable, more handsome, and more confident. Just as importantly, he will see the difference, very obviously. This is less about becoming a supersoldier who can singlehandedly take on the evil perverts and sinister forces of the world, and more about learning that a man isn’t so helpless in the face of those forces as he might imagine. Doors open to such men of agency.
We've taken to paying so much lip service to human equality that no one knows what the term means anymore. The gym is a reminder that the world is hierarchical: some can do a lot more than others. What’s worse: this superiority is easily visible. We can see with our own eyes—and thus don’t need an elite class of experts to tell us—that he who correctly squats 315 lbs exerts more force than he who squats 155 lbs. This makes those who obsess over equality, whatever that means, very uneasy.
This probably sounds mean to many who have grown up on the warm, mushy sentiment of equality, but it also isn’t the end of the story—for the gym provides a perfect complement to hierarchy.
Despite the obvious display of inequality made at every gym every day, lifting allows for fraternity among unequals. When you hit it hard, you show dignity and you earn respect from your fellow lifters, regardless of your place in the hierarchy. Almost all gymbros nod in approval when the least among them make gains. Of course there will be vain jackasses, but such is the case with any domain of human life.
Respect offers a surer alternative to equality. We all know what respect means, and we’re all capable of showing it. And this reconciliation of respect and hierarchy offers a model for a better politics—sharply contrasting the approach of our current elites, who spout pieties about equality at the same time that they disdain actual people. Ultimately, they’re not against hierarchy; they just want one designed by them.
On a related note, the gym is where ideological fantasies go to die. Reality prevails. One such fantasy of recent decades is that “girls can do everything boys can do—only better.” Again it’s not entirely clear what this means or how far it extends. Perhaps it is true that women can equal men in their performance of most of the tasks demanded by the modern paperwork economy. But can girls do athletics and combat as well as boys? Countless movies show Charlize Theron or Angelina Jolie or some other slim beauty beating 200 lb henchmen to a pulp with her bare fists. People kind of start to believe it. You hear the lie repeated often enough and start to wonder about the nature of reality—but then you go into a gym and are instantly reminded that such fantasies are just that.
Even in the rough world of gymbros, etiquette reigns. Unwritten rules require observance: about space, sharing, reracking weights, etc. Even a man’s lifting form is a matter of etiquette. The way a thing is done matters, and has social implications. The lifter who loads the squat bar with plates but only squats halfway is guilty of bad form—bad lifting form and bad social form; in his attempt to claim unearned honors, he disrespects the accomplishment of the man who does that much weight and does it correctly.
In a cold and commercialized world, the gym is one of the last bastions of friendship, where old friendships can be strengthened and new friendships made. It is a third place of sorts—not the home, not the office, but somewhere a man can go in between and be one of the guys.
And though one can be a lone wolf in the gym, so much more is possible with a lifting buddy—not just for reasons of spotting, but also for accountability, competition, new ideas, among other things. My lifting buddy and I much have our best conversations at the gym.
Looking back on this list, maybe there is something to fitness as a right-wing endeavor. A politics of agency, hierarchy, respect, realism, etiquette, and friendship doesn’t sound like the regime of the managerialism, consumerism, resentment, fashionable theories, and social atomism that the other side currently offers.