Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron - Part Sixteen


I wonder if any other sports have been as misunderstood and as criticizes as the weight sports. Perhaps so. Maybe it is because of my involvement in the iron world that I have been more attuned to hearing these criticisms. And, if I had spent as much time involved with some other sports, maybe I would then have had my interest in them challenged, too. What I do know is that I have heard a great deal of criticism about the iron game and have been personally criticized for my involvement in it. I don't recall having had people challenge my interest in judo, karate, or aikido, when I was participating in each of those martial arts. And, I don't get challenged for my ongoing practice of Hatha Yoga or t'ai ch'i chuan, although these are not considered sports.

I believe that the bulk of the criticism of lifting is based on misunderstanding, often coupled with a feeling of personal threat. With respect to the phenomena of lifting, ignorance abounds. Most people are not well-informed as to the biomechanics, exercise physiology, and nutritional aspects of lifting weights. let alone the psychological aspects. And even the events themselves, posing, Olympic lifting and powerlifting, are often not well understood outside the circle of participants and avid fans. This continues to be the case today, even though more and more people have been exposed to lifting over the past year. But ignorance, by itself does not explain the strong negative reactions which some people show. This, I see, as evidence that something about lifting is experienced as a personal threat. In addition to these sources of criticism, there are also some legitimate criticisms which can be levied against the lifting activities and the lifters. I want to address each of these three areas, one by one.

First, let us look at the legitimate criticisms. Any lifter, no matter how much he loves the world of iron, would surely admit, if honest, that it contains a lot of "hype." In fact, I don't know of any sport which has as much hype as lifting weights. True, professional wrestling has more, but long ago it went beyond any reasonable limit for being considered a sport and into the realm of staged entertainment.

In the weight world the hype comes from the promoters, the equipment manufacturers, the distributors of nutritional supplements and ergogenic aids, and the professional instructors. Promoters, in their enthusiasm to sell tickets sometimes advertise their contests in ways that are gaudy and overstated. This is more often the case with physique shows where there is a potential for large crowds. The titles awarded are sometimes ridiculously grandiose, with the trophies reflecting this grandiosity. there is something absurd about seeing a man standing on stage receiving a trophy which is far taller than he is. I have seen entry forms for physique shows where considerable space is devoted to descriptions of how big and outstandingly "beautiful" the trophies are! The overdone quality of some contests -- grandiose titles with trophies to match -- certainly cheapens the sport. Paradoxically, many promoters put on poorly run shows. I have witnessed regional and even national physique contests where lighting was poor, public address systems have cut out, the master of ceremonies was not well spoken (using poor grammar, not speaking clearly, getting cue cards out of order), and, in one case, a contestant was left standing on stage, befuddled, as the sound system poured out strains of someone else's posing tape! These sorts of things occur with much too great regularity. These two phenomena -- contest hype and shabbily run contests -- certainly do not invite the respect and serious interest of the public. Promoters are also aspparently sometimes lax in setting the ground rules and explaining the procedures to contestants. Several times, for instance, I have seen contestants awkwardly wander about the stage following their posing routine, not knowing where to exit. Worse, still, I have witnessed rude and unsportsmanlike behavior on stage. This occurred in a major contest where I had taken a women friend to introduce her to the world of bodybuilding and physique contests. During a "posedown," with six or eight men on stage, two of the men began elbowing each other and trying to push the other out of the way. The hip and shoulder pushing and deliberate stepping in front of each other became the most prominent activity on stage and continued for several minutes while neither of the two men did any posing. This was, of course, the strongest image my friend took away with her. Adequate briefing of contestants would forbid such displays.

Equipment manufacturers sometimes make claims which cannot be backed up with actual results. When a manufacturer makes a public claim that certain growth in size or strength will result from using its apparatus, and people do not find their progress to match the claims, they are, understandably, disappointed. Often the claim is an implied one, one which meets the letter of the law in terms of fair advertising, but not the spirit of the law. Just consider for a moment your own reaction if in reading a lifting magazine you come across three or four advertisements each claiming that its equipment will outperform all others, producing unrivaled results. Credibility, of course, slips. Certainly, many equipment manufacturers are honest and tasteful in their advertising. There are those, however, who propagate pure hype.

Even more blatant in overstating the value of their products are some of the distributors of nutritional supplements and ergogenic aids. Some of these products are not by the slightest backed by scientific evidence of their effectiveness. Unashamedly, some distributors go right ahead claiming that their product is an incredibly effective muscle builder. Such activities are not limited to the fly-by-night purveyors of snake oil, but are often engaged in by the well-established companies. A few months ago I received in the mail a letter which indicated that one of the major companies was having its wrists slapped by the Federal Trade Commission. The letter started out as follows:

Notice to Customers Who May Have Bought ______ Or ______. _____, Inc. has recently entered into a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding its advertising for "_____" and "_____." _____ has entered into this agreement for settlement purposes only and does not admit that it has violated the law.

This agreement contains four main provisions:

1) _____'s advertising will not claim that the _____ or _____ will cause greater and faster muscular development;

2) _____ will support all advertising claims for its food supplements with competent and reliable scientific proof.

Someone in the company became overly zealous and went the way of the snake oil salesman. My guess is that this caused a great deal of embarrassment, as well as financial loss through purchase refunds, to the members and shareholders of this large corporation. This sort of thing, again, can decrease the credibility of the distributors and reflect badly on the world of iron.

Professional instructors, too, have added their share of hype. Some have place advertisements in magazines which contain explicit implied promises of results which anyone who is knowledgeable of lifting would readily recognize as overstatements, at best. The hype is not limited to the less honest professionals of the mail order training courses. It is rampant among many of the so-called "instructors" in the gym chains. I have known some very good instructors who worked in the clubs, but for the most part, my experience has been that the majority of health club instructors didn't know a French Curl from a Zottman Curl, let alone the purpose or history or each. Too often, these instructors are not well trained. So, they give honest seekers of strength and muscle misinformation, leading to poor if not risky training and less than optimal gains. If they also are expected to sell gym memberships, they may be prone to making up stories in order to close sales.

Several years ago I took a friend with me to the gym where I was then training. It was a moderately well equipped club, a unit of a major national chain. Purportedly for safety's sake, it was required that all visitors to the club had to be taken through their workouts with a one-on-one instructor. So, I went about my workout, naively leaving my friend in the hands of the instructor. Perhaps a half-hour later, I turned to see my friend passed out on the floor, with the instructor nervously scurrying about for help. My friend's introduction to weight training had consisted of multiple super-sets of squats on a Smith machine and inclined dumbbell presses. Needless to say, he never asked to go back to the gym with me.

The point that I am making is that there are a number of legitimate criticisms which can be made against various aspects of the iron game. Certain promoters, equipment manufacturers, distributors of supplements, and instructors, themselves, engage in practices which put the weight sport in a bad light. And, although similar circumstances can justifiably be made against other sports, as well, I believe that there are more legitimate criticisms of the iron game than is true for most other sports.

What is more interesting to me, however, are the illegitimate criticisms. The legitimate criticisms seem rather obvious. The criticisms which stem from misunderstandings of what lifting is about, however, have some subtleties. I want to explore several of these criticisms and suggest some of the misunderstandings which give rise to them.

Since weight lifting, both Olympic style weightlifting and powerlifting, have been minor sports, they are not as well understood by the public as are the major sports. This is simply a result of their limited exposure. The exposure of these lifting sports which is given is often not very representative. If, for instance, a network sports program gives a few minutes to an Olympic weightlifting event, the choice is usually to show the super-heavyweights. Much more time has been given to the heavier than the lighter weight classes. The result is that many people with this limited exposure believe that competent weightlifters are big, heavy, and rotund. They infer, then, that the lifters are somewhat slow and ponderous. The negative attitude which I have heard expressed is, "Who would want to look like that?? The inference is that if one lifts weights, they will come to look like that. It is amazing how ingrained that equation is -- lifting weights equals big, bulky, rotund. I remember a conversation shortly after winning the state Olympic lifting title in the 123 pound class. The boss at my summer job found me writing a training schedule during a lunch break and asked me what it was. When I told him what I was doing and that I lifted weights, he asked, curiously, "Why don't you have big muscles?" To him, a weightlifter was a huge man with very large, bulging muscles. The probability is that the only picture of a weightlifter he had ever seen was of someone along the lines of Paul Anderson.

In the mass media coverage of bodybuilding, there is further promotion of the image that lifters are huge. This comes from the fact that most coverage is of the biggest events, in which world class bodybuilders are the ones seen.

So, because of limited exposure to the weight sports, the general public has the biased view that men who lift weights are huge. They are either developed to the point that the uninitiated viewer would likely see as grotesque, or they are the rotund shape of most super-heavies. The media want to show the most spectacular lifters, and by so doing, create the impression that this is what all lifters must look like. If the person doesn't relate to those two kinds of bodies, then he may well stay away from the weights, and criticize the weight sports as making people look ugly. The obvious fallacy is that these bodies are not the automatic and uniform result of lifting weights. First of all, most of these bodies have been developed over many years of highly specialized, highly intense and dedicated training. Second, there is a certain genetic make-up which is required for the attainment of the muscular size and shape of the world class bodybuilder or the overall size and strength of the world class super-heavyweight weightlifter. Just anyone can not attain that size, strength, and development even if he dearly wants to! It is not generally understood that a genetic potential, plus years of specialized training are both required.

There is another issue, closely related to the one just discussed. There is sometimes a cult-like quality that emerges among groups of lifters. Within the cult there can come to be a shared esthetic, which may be quite different from the more widely held esthetic.

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