Written by: Cornelius Parkin
The fitness industry has changed hugely over the past ten years. In some ways it has been very positive, such as the insurgence of females into the weight lifting sections of the gym. In the early 2000s it would have been very rare to see a woman doing deadlifts or building her emphasis on building muscle in general as it seemed more acceptable for women to stay in the cardio room and leave the weight training to the men instead. Popular female figures, both within the fitness industry and regular mainstream society, encouraged a whole generation of women to get off the elliptical and get on the lifting platform; however, in other aspects the whole going-to-the-gym-to-get-big-and-strong culture has diminished, and that's what I'm going to focus on.
Before the onset of social media, the only way to become known was to build your body up to superhuman levels and then dominate your chosen field. That used to mean that in order to be a known powerlifter, you would have to prove yourself on the platform in front of your strength peers. The only lifts that mattered were the ones that involved at least two white lights. In bodybuilding, the only way to make your mark was to painstakingly build your body up to mammoth proportions and then diet down to the leanest levels possible before walking on stage to be judged by your peers. If you did really well in either field, you would make it into Powerlifting USA or FLEX Magazine. If you only did OK then you may have become a well known name in your home town, but further than that no one had any idea who you were. This former reality bred a special kind of attitude; it was all or nothing because if you gave any less than 100% the chance of you ever succeeding was nill. You literally started on the ground level and hoped that you were strong enough (or could train hard enough to get strong enough) to stand out and be recognized.
When I first began lifting in a gym I had already trained at home for a few years and had, for today’s standards, a pretty good base. For the first few weeks I stayed back in the area between the women’s cardio section and the men’s free weight section. This neutral area was filled by the selectorized weight machines. The free weight area was dominated by extremely muscled men wearing bandanas and screaming as they heaved superhuman weights up and down. I wanted nothing more than to be part of the group, but I had to earn the right to be there. After a few weeks, I arrived to the gym one day when it was pretty quiet, and I ventured into the free weight section. There was a younger man, only a few years older than myself, that I had talked to briefly in the locker room a few days prior. He was doing an exercise called a “deadlift”. When I had trained at home, I mainly did body weight exercises and some dumbbell work. Although I was the most muscular guy in my high school class, all 160lb of me with ripped abs and not an ounce of back muscle to show for my efforts, I had never performed any free weight compound lifts. I joined in with him, slapping plate after plate on until there were five plates per side. He tried to lift it but couldn’t even budge it, so I gave it a try; to his amazement, I pulled the weight up relatively with ease. This young man was so surprised at my strength that he must have told several of the other guys that frequented the free weight area about my lift because the next time I came in I was ushered over to the free weight section, and a couple of the established lifters decided to give me bits of advice on training and nutrition. From then on out, my goal was simply to start climbing up the ladder of gym rankings in regards to strength and size. Every workout, every meal and every decision I made going forward had to push me closer to that goal or I would not do it. Not once did I think about building a fan base or even being a winner at contests. In fact, at the first powerlifting meet I ever went to I fully assumed I would lose, so when I achieved best lifter I was dumbstruck. Then months later after I had been fully coached up by some of the best powerlifters to ever set foot on the earth and I had won overall in the world as a teenager. I pulled up 734.8lbs at only 19 years old, and I still didn’t consider myself special in anyway. This was because I was still not the strongest or the biggest in my gym, and if I couldn’t be the most dominate male in Limerick city in rural Ireland, I was far from anything special. Since those days, I have never stopped lifting even though I have had grievous injuries unrelated to lifting. Although I have yet to lose a strength or muscle contest, I am fully aware that my body is only average, and I will never be famous for my muscularity or strength. Instead, I continue to train for the same reason I started all those years ago: because I love muscle and strength!
It was around 2010 that I saw the change start to take place. Facebook had been a thing since around 2007, and by then pretty much everyone had one. New divisions had started to appear throughout the bodybuilding world. These divisions had a new criteria. No longer could you win by being the baddest, most dedicated person in the gym. Now other aspects that were not trainable began to have importance. Looking like a cartoon character was no longer desired. Instead, looking like a bulked up Calvin Klein model, including have natural born beauty, was sought after. In the strength world, there was a movement away from the all out brutality that was equipped lifting and it was replaced by raw lifting, which was apparently in some way better. Although a strong argument could be made that equipment created unnatural strength, was that not the point the whole time? The point was to move superhuman weights, and along with that came the extreme risks of bones snapping mid-lift. Raw lifting certainly evened the field out, but it also took away from the extreme element that made powerlifting great to from the start.
All of this was fine enough in my eyes. If guys wanted to build what they called aesthetic bodies, which I still can't for the life of me see as anything other than smaller, toned down muscles. The problem is, if you’re not born with a tiny waist and round muscle bellies you can never train for that look no matter what you read on social media. If powerlifting was going to become more popular because now all the CrossFit "gyms" could send half their members for raw meets, then that was great too; however, soon after that, it began to change in a way I found sickening.
Suddenly the need to compete to become well-known dwindled away. Why bother getting up on stage to show the world your flaws when you can pump up in the gym then take 100 selfies before slapping a filter on the picture to make yourself look more perfect than any human body will ever look? Why go through the extreme psychological pressure of lifting weights on the platform while being judged by the audience, your peers and, of course, the judges when now you can film your lifts at your own familiar gym and then post it up online? Competing really began to lose its appeal because on social media you could have a world wide audience all from the comforts of your own home. From this a new breed of hero emerged: the social media warrior! Through smart promotion and, in many cases financial investment, anyone could be turned into their own brand. Now people with bodies that wouldn’t turn heads walking shirtless on the beach and lifters that wouldn’t even make it onto my gym's record board could develop followings far greater than any high level lifter that lacked the desire to whore themselves out on social media could ever dream to achieve. I cannot see this trend ever stopping for the same reason social media will never end: it’s easier to do things from behind a computer screen. This trend applies to many aspects of life including dating, applying for a job or trying to make a name in the fitness industry!
So where do we go from here? Well, the vast majority will continue to embrace this online movement. The desire to compete in the hardcore divisions will continue to drop. The average physique will continue making itself "Instafamous"; however, there is that small minority (which you probably belong to seeing that you’re on this site reading this article) that certainly will use social media as a tool to stay in contact with family and friends, and you may even post your latest PB lift or progress picture up. BUT you do so for a different reason to most people: you do this because you want to show your friends and you want real feedback. Unlike the majority that only post to increase their “likes” which in turn gets them “sponsored” (which is a different subject altogether), any criticism, be it constructive or not, is not wanted because that’s not why they’re posting! You, people who love the sport and strength in general, will continue lifting not because it’s cool or you see some “opportunity” in it! Instead, your reason comes from deep within... that primal urge to be the biggest and the strongest or to look like a superhero and battle your way up the competitive ladder for no other reason than the love you have for it!