The Cult of Strength. Part 1: Beginnings

It is May 2nd as I write this. Hafthor “Thor” Björnsson has just deadlifted 501kg or 1104lbs. This feat broke the previous World Record set by Strongman Eddie “the Beast” Hall of 500kg. Hall in describing that lift stated he had blood pouring out of his nose, ears, and eyes. It was four years ago and he said it nearly killed him. Hafthor, by comparison made 501kg look relatively easy. This event will be talked about and tweeted about across the spectrum, from gym bros to dadbods people will hear about this lift. It is the perfect example of how the Cult of Strength has imposed itself upon the modern world.

There is a quote posted with some frequency by acolytes of the Cult of Strength. It’s from the musician Henry Rollins and was actually part of an essay he penned way back in 1994 [1].

“The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go.

But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”

Rollins here cuts straight to the heart of why weightlifting has generated such a cult following. Every man who lifts knows what 200lbs feels like. There is nothing political in the weight. There is only objective Truth. The pursuit of strength is a pure one. It is inherently masculine in nature and there are studies that indicate stronger men are less egalitarian. This, however, is not an essay on why you should lift, it is an examination on the birth, nature, and growth of the Cult of Strength.

One of the meme’s that will never die is that of Right Wing nudist bodybuilders, but they only make up a tiny part of the wider Cult of Strength that has established itself as a force in society. Bodybuilding and strength sports for a long time were seen as fringe hobbies and interests. If you ever have the privilege of visiting an old school gym you’ll immediately understand that. These places aren’t tidy  and the equipment isn’t new. They are cramped places where intimidating groups of big men gather and lift with a religious fervor. If you’ve never been asked to help spot someone attempting a 600lb bench-press you may sneer at my comparison with religion. Let me assure you, it is a ritual moment, and there is a deep religiosity in what happens. This is the inner sanctum of the Cult of Strength. Few will end up there, most acolytes will remain in the outer circle and yet they are bound together in this very real cult pursuing strength.

I would argue the Cult of Strength really began in the era of CrossFit. Yes, Arnold and bodybuilding had been popularized in previous decades but their image was still part of something unattainable for most. The ‘Church of Iron’ had not yet opened its doors to the masses. Similarly, ‘ The Worlds Strongest Man’ was a hallmark of Christmas time television, but it too was always somewhat mysterious and out of reach. It was really CrossFit that burst through and opened the doors. CrossFit drew upon a martial background. It was the regimen of elite Special Forces, it operated itself in a very cult like fashion. The WODs, the group training, the elitist mantras: “My warm up is your workout”. Other writers have written about CrossFit as a cult in depth, but that is not only what CrossFit did. It really brought the barbell and the iron to the masses. The squat, the deadlift, the OHP, cleans, etc all were being taught to people. Some may laugh at the kipping pull-ups yet they ignore that through CrossFit many were introduced to the iron.

CrossFit also produced highly aesthetic male physiques. The competitors looked good. Strength was part of that, muscles mattered, yet it was accessible. Bodybuilding had become dominated by the ‘Mass Monsters’ for some time. Frank Zane is the archetypal bodybuilder for me, Arnold for others. The Golden Era – the focus on the flow of the muscles versus the size, this was long gone by the 2010s. Bodybuilding had become dominated by mass and size. It was not aesthetic, nor where the shows in any way interesting. The Cult of Strength gained more power at this juncture. ‘The Worlds Strongest Man; as a television event always had an entertaining quality. These behemoths of men might appear fat but they were pulling planes/trucks, and carrying fridges. This was fun to watch, people at the limit. Phil Heath, practically naked, posing on a stage on the edge of dehydration to some music is simply not exciting. There is nothing tangible there. No entertainment, and a disturbing lack of vitality.

It was out of this CrossFit moment that I think the Cult of Strength truly appeared. It was then that the masses were inducted into cult like workouts that used real weights. From that so many became interested in strength. It was not Crossfit alone that propelled the Cult of Strength to what it is today but I do think it offers the best explanation for where the beginnings of this modern day phenomena came from. In the subsequent essay we will dive deeper into the Cult of Strength and what it says about the wider society. Too often lifting is viewed through the narrow lens of Ring Wing bro self improvement.  In reality strength has diversified outwards. It is present all around and is a social force to be reckoned with.

1: Unsurprisingly in the essay Rollins also mentions Yukio Mishima. Another hero of the nudist Right Wing Bodybuilder.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. jrebwestex says:

    Yet it’s rather neutral unless it’s combined with training in fighting arts. Our people need this.

    Like

  2. Caleb says:

    Contemporary strength and weight lifting culture is a reaction to decades of sedentary lifestyles, androgynization of the workplace, rising obesity and falling testosterone levels. The cultural, political, economic and physical degradation and displacement of masculinity sends desperate men in search of totems, symbols and habits that imbue them with a sense of vigor and accomplishment.

    The weight room is where they can hammer their bodies into the shape of an ideal. Everywhere else, they are criticized and condemned for attempting to impose their will on anything, especially when it endangers the delicate well being of women and minorities.

    But it is not just men who have been captured by this preoccupation with fitness, with functional strength and cosmetic improvement. Society generates schizoid tendencies in its members, filling them sickening foods that distort the natural human form, and then drilling into them an obsession with bodily health, longevity, youth and attractiveness. Much of the population sinks into sloth and gluttony, feasting on easily accessible frozen meals, fast food and snack cakes, while others flit from diet to diet, sampling routines, gyms and fitness ideologies in a desperate bid for sex appeal and a feeling of vitality. These two tendencies then interact in convoluted and unhealthy ways, with some viewing the attempt to get in shape as disempowering towards those who remain fat and unhappy.

    In general, an industrial society in which the bulk of its population has no natural physical economic role will struggle to manage the health and beauty of its subjects, and will appear to support both the explosion of obesity as well the health, strength and wellness trend directed against it. We will continue to see deranged efforts to recapture lost physical proportions and dismiss the idea of physical health and beauty as fascist. Snacking yourself to death and meticulous, nitpicking bodybuilding routines both illustrate a social and physical environment seriously out of scale.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. muunyayo says:

    Reblogged this on Muunyayo.

    Like

  4. LargeinCharge says:

    I would track the mainstreaming of lifting back to the emergence of Bodybuilding.com in the mid 2000s, it’s inclusion of a forum, particularly the inclusion of a “Misc” section allowed for the creation of memes, behaviours and characters that spread like wildfire.

    Zyzz was a creation of this environment and the steady increase of the idea that success follows physique was enabled by Facebook’s emergence into the mainstream around 2006. All of this predates Crossfits emergence into the mainstream by a few years which remained fringe and ridiculed until the mid-2010s.

    Just my perspective

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    1. R. Landry - Editor says:

      Great observation. Internet of early 00s also had sites dedicated to reviews of steroids and procuring them. Bodybuilding.com emerged as the best forum and supplement review site

      Like

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