Making powerlifting more popular: do we want or need it?

My friend, great athlete and coach Lynne Boshoven, asked me the following question, which triggered a stream of thought that I decided to share with everyone. Here you go:

“What do you think is the most successful approach to bring new people into the sport?”

Well, Lynne, this is a great question, not only because we don’t have an answer to it, but because it makes us ask ourselves whether we do want or need to bring more people into the sport.

Addressing the first part of the issue, we could think in analogy to weightlifting (and now Strongman) in relation to Crossfit. Let’s not go into the whole “I hate crossfit” debate, which is long, full of misunderstanding on both sides and far from consensus, but just look into what happened to WL as a result of Crossfit popularization. Never before has WL been such a popular activity, not to mention the growth of the competitive sport per se. As thousands of new crossfits began to introduce WL and its partial accessory exercises to millions of people, some of them, naturally, fell in love with the sport.

Yesterday I saw Derek Poundstone’s post about his seminar  at a crossfit facility. The fact that it is happening inside a CF with one of the world’s top strongman athletes indicates that even Strongman, which has orders of magnitude more popularity and glamour than WL, benefits from this route. There are already a few well established powerlifting-CF initiatives, such as Laura Phelps Sweatt conjugate-crossfit approach (). We could say that Laura is for PL what Poundstone or Brian Shaw are for SM and that popularization comes from their reputation, and not from the “crossfit – cross-fertilization”. I don’t think so. All the exceptionality of these athletes’ achievements wouldn’t do for their sports what the formatted inclusion of their repertoire into a massively successful program is doing. I’m not making a case here to promote Crossfit or any other brand, just discussing what route can lead an apparently unpopular activity to massive popularity.

Two days ago I taught another powerlifting seminar/workshop (we call it a “program” here and students receive certificates for an 8 hour course – all my seminars are taught at crossfit facilities WITH crossfit trainer partners). My approach to teaching about powerlifting to physical educators, physiotherapists and other training and health science professionals is discussing strength as a general issue: its nature, its development, its loss and re-acquisition. I present powerlifting to them as a repertoire from which the basic human movement alphabet may be derived in a well systematized form. Human movement may be decomposed into basic elements and different authors offered different typologies to do so. The three common denominators for everybody are squatting, pushing and pulling. I present the squat, the bench press and the deadlift as such systematized elements. The response I get from my students in every workshop I teach is quite positive. I believe my associates and I are contributing to a better understanding of powerlifting’s relevance to training in our regional context. If this will eventually contribute to bringing more people into the competitive sport, I have no idea. I stress the fact that I am not forming athletes: my goal is to allow people to use the lifts as better training tools. Some of them are fascinated by powerlifting, of course, but without a decent competitive structure, which we still lack in Brazil, I don’t think this type of teaching activity can feed back into the sport itself.

I guess the second part of this question is whether we do want or need PL to become more popular, or to bring new people into the sport. One of the things that happens to us when we fall deeply in love with something is that we believe in a sort of “objective and independent awesomness”. We, passionate powerlifters, in spite of our rationalizations, deep down in our souls believe that there is no way a person can NOT find PL the most interesting and awesome sport in the universe. It is just natural that at some point (sometimes during our whole lives) we think we must “take the word out” and tell everybody what fun they’re missing by not devoting their lives to PL. It’s natural, we believe this even though we know it’s not really that true (there are plenty of awesome things out there, too). So we need to add a grain of salt to the claim that PL must be popularized, considering our own biased look.

There is, however a very candid and concrete argument: if more people come into the sport it will eventually attract MONEY. Everything could be easier for all of us if we had more money into the sport. But would it? We could reason that yes, some of us would get nice sponsorship contracts and our meets would be supported by sound investment. I ask again: do we really, really, need that? I don’t have an answer. I’ve been answering “yes” to all of this for years, but I confess I’m not that sure anymore.

My auto-critique started with the question about who would actually benefit with the growth of powerlifting beyond what it has always been. Society at large? Society needs strength and people in every segment of it need to re-acquire their lost strength. In this sense, all of us who are engaged in helping people to accomplish this goal are contributing to “the greater good”. Would the growth of the sport, itself (its organizational structures, championships, etc.), contribute to this? I don’t think the feedback is that linear. The sport may well become super popular and nobody besides sponsors, the media and maybe (just maybe) half a dozen athletes will actually draw any real benefit from such growth.

Growth can actually stimulate the opposite of what we want: the perverse aspects of sport. The construction of idols, stupid fans who never lift anything but derive a scary sense of pleasure from watching lifters (just like football or soccer fans), dangerous nationalistic manifestations in international competitions, which we are very proud NOT to have today in powerlifting, among other unwanted expressions of “superstar sports”.

So, before I have a clear answer to my own doubts, addressing what good exactly we expect from the growth of powerlifting, I don’t feel ready to answer the question of whether I want it or not.

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