Bro, I definitely lift. A decade ago, after years of amateur wrestling, I got into competitive powerlifting. As my form improved, the lean, strapping muscle of my youth thickened into the carapace of a latter-day Farnese Hercules. Now, at 37, I’m 6 feet tall, I weigh 240 pounds, and my entire basement serves as a well-appointed gym. Depending on where I am in my training cycle, I can usually find time to flip 1,000-pound tires and crush small apples in my hands.
Outside of competitions, that strength is a source of relief. It feels like there’s no physical task I can’t perform with ease. I can carry dozens of bags of groceries up many flights of stairs, haul buckets of gravel to and from cement trenches, and easily help people remove their overstuffed carry-on bags from the overhead compartments of airplanes (only if they ask me to!). Socially, that hard, muscular shell has helped me remain as resistant to insults as I’ve been to injury.
For the most part, I’ve always assumed people don’t have any problem with my hulking physique—even if they might suspect I’m a meathead as opposed to a guy with two advanced degrees. Societies have glorified physical strength as the epitome of sturdy masculinity for centuries: People admired the great lifting feats of the ancient-Greek wrestler Milo of Croton and were dazzled by the seemingly impossible lifting exhibitions given by the late-19th-century French Canadian strongman Louis Cyr.
But over the years that I’ve been maxing out, shredded male bodies have taken on some problematic cultural associations. The #MeToo moment, in particular, has drawn attention to the aggression, misogyny, and entitlement all too frequently exerted by powerful men. It’s a problem that pervades not just boardrooms and movie sets, but also the strength and fitness world itself. Shawn Rhoden, the defending Mr. Olympia champion, bodybuilding’s top honor, was barred from this year’s competition after being charged with rape. The powerlifting phenom Larry Wheels was recently accused of abuse by his ex-girlfriend. (Rhoden has pleaded not guilty, and Wheels has denied the accusation.)
This societal shift away from unchecked power and aggression has put the pursuit of strength—and me—in an uncomfortable place. Even the gentlest, kindest male bodybuilders and powerlifters have bodies that now might make many people uneasy. While strength certainly continues to be idolized in some circles, growing public scrutiny nags at a question that’s hard for any culturally sensitive swole dude to simply ignore: Why get jacked in the first place?
My strength, ironically, has always come with a sense of weakness. I hail from a family of people who were all big and strong for as long as any of us can remember—an “O’Doyle Rules” clan from the hollers of West Virginia, as it were. Amid this gaggle of beefcakes and bruisers, I was the runt. I’ve written extensively about how I was on the receiving end of considerable abuse: garden-variety beatdowns, choking and joint manipulation, even sexual violence.
The feelings of inferiority those early experiences instilled in me extended to my foray into the world of powerlifting, where the highly visible top performers bench-press 700 pounds and dead-lift more than 1,000—hundreds of pounds more than I can muster. While I’m big, I’m kind of a big nothing in the context of the strength world. Around veteran lifters, I merely get polite nods and occasional corrections. The professional powerlifter Stan Efferding recently assessed my achievements as “intermediate.”
Social media haven’t helped: There, supremely strong fitness athletes perform amazing feats before an audience of millions. Powerful body after powerful body, often Photoshopped and filtered into an approximation of perfection, conveys strength of the sort few could ever develop. Standing out in this world has traditionally demanded an all-or-nothing approach. In 2016, Mark Bell, a former competitive powerlifter, openly explained to me that he has taken steroids throughout his career because he would be irrelevant without them. Among the strongest people on the planet, those breaking records and turning heads thrive while onlookers and wannabes applaud their superhuman efforts.
That exclusionary dynamic has turned away even accomplished strong people. One of the best-known bodybuilders of the 1980s, Bob Paris, famously quit the sport during what should have been his competitive prime after coming out as gay on Oprah. He seemed like the next big thing, a 2.0 version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, winning the Mr. America and Mr. Universe competitions and appearing on all the muscle-magazine covers. But as he wrote in his memoir, Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Bodybuilding, the chemical demands of bodybuilding and its stifling, cliquish hypermasculinity made him decide to retire for good in 1991.
If this “if you’re not first, you’re last” attitude and overbearing masculinity were the whole story of the strength community, I would have put down the weights years ago. But while the strength world clearly has problems, it’s also changing in positive ways that might not be immediately visible to outsiders who just see a bunch of jacked people doing seemingly impossible things. The shock value of Bob Paris coming out as gay is a vestige of a different time; strength athletes now constitute a wide spectrum of gender and sexual identities. In that respect, powerlifting and strongman and other strength fields have begun to reflect the broadening cultural embrace of diversity. Followers of these fields are getting new exposure to people who challenge restrictive norms.
As a journalist covering these areas, I’ve experienced that positive impact firsthand. When I interviewed the transgender powerlifter Janae Kroc in 2017, I heard a narrative related to Paris’s: After quickly rising to the top of powerlifting, Kroc decided that setting world records was a secondary consideration next to expressing an evolving gender identity. But unlike Paris, whose immediate impact on the strength world would likely have been dulled by the less welcoming climate for LGBTQ folks in the 1990s, Kroc broadcast a powerful message on social media and in a documentary that streamed on Netflix.
Rob Kearney, who is gay and a contender for World’s Strongest Man, has told me he hopes his hard work will make other LGBTQ people feel comfortable pursuing their own strength goals. By being open about his identity, Kearney believes he can help transform gyms into safer places for people looking to re-create themselves outside the trappings of conventional masculinity.
Liefia Ingalls, too, has divorced strength from its staling masculine connotations. She is, quite literally, the strongest woman in the world. Her strength was hard-won over the course of a decade in a way that certain kinds of male strength never could be. She says that being strong is about being “capable and athletic,” and she has no reservations about getting as jacked as possible. “Within myself and when I am within the strength community, I always feel strong and capable now,” she told me.
Ingalls still has to struggle against stigma and shame, but perhaps surprisingly, she says those things mostly come from outside the strength world. “When I’m out in public, I have had mixed experiences,” she says. “I have definitely been ‘fit-shamed’ before, and I tend to feel looked down upon by women in other settings. The more we stand out from the norm, the more we receive unsolicited comments on our bodies and appearance.”
As I’ve been exposed to all these perspectives, I’ve been able to reconsider my own sense of relative weakness. Growing up, I simply saw strength as the absence of vulnerability: I took it for granted that I needed to be big, because if I wasn’t, I would embarrass myself at sports and disappoint my father and get beaten up. But the strength community, for all its lingering baggage, has challenged such a limited outlook. After all my conversations with people who have broken the mold of what it means to be jacked, I’m more attuned to how strength has enriched other aspects of my identity.
Merely being strong led me to studying and writing about the pursuit of strength. Now I want to understand the motivations and feelings of the person choosing to perform those feats, even if—perhaps especially if—that person is dead-lifting 500 pounds in a horse mask and Rollerblades.
Strength is always a choice. As much as we might wish biceps inflated themselves, the nature of being huge is that it demands concentrated effort. How conscious that choice is, however, apparently can vary a lot. People like me who fall right into the strong-guy stereotype often don’t have to think very hard about it at all—and that’s where things seem to get dangerous. So much of the hypermasculine posturing and aggression that accompany strength sports seems to come from people who never once doubt that’s simply how things are supposed to be.
Slowly but surely, those people are being joined by unconventionally swole colleagues who are much more thoughtful about why they’re willing to punish their bodies for hour after hour to achieve such powerful physiques. Their reasons are as varied as they are—but it’s the fact of having a good reason in the first place that matters. “It’s so liberating and empowering to have become strong,” Ingalls says. That’s a lot better than impressing or oppressing others, in my book. And it’s the perfect motivation for me to keep hitting the weights.