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 .
“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.