Strength Sports: politically incorrect?

Ok, here’s is an abstract I prepared for a conference to which I am no longer going. However, I wish to elaborate on this topic. As always, comments are welcome.


Even considering that sport is more about high performance than about fitness and health, certain sports are more frequently associated to one or to the other end of the spectrum. Thus, certain sports are, in the public imagery, “healthier” than others. The “healthy” sports provide the paradigm for physical activity as the foundation of a “healthy lifestyle”. Such sports are predominantly related to aerobic physical activity: running, swimming, cycling, volleyball, etc. On the other end of the spectrum are the strength sports such as weight lifting and bodybuilding. Even more than the so-called “radical sports”, strength sports are associated to risky and life-threatening behaviors, as well as unhealthy practices, nutrition and mental attitudes. In a time when the promotion of a healthy lifestyle based on “healthy” physical activity and nutrition has become a priority for intergovernmental organisms such as the World Health Organization, strength sports have become not only marginal, but politically incorrect. The stigmatization of strength sports goes from professional sport to amateur and recreational practices in gyms. Peak performance in strength and muscle development is depicted as un-natural and unhealthy, whereas peak performance in running or swimming speed represents the positive expression of limit breaking in human achievement. Running, cycling and swimming on the streets or at gyms is considered healthy and rational, whereas strength training is considered narcissistic and dangerous. Body stereotypes reflect the same polarities: strong bodies are associated to violence, poor intellectual performance, low educational and cultural backgrounds, whereas lean bodies belong to much more successful and socially integrated individuals. Whether present stigmatization stems from social forces that restrict strength sports (and strength exertion) to lower socio-cultural strata or the opposite is unclear. Historically, strength exertion has been associated with manual labor, therefore, with the working segments of society. The dominant classes were largely spared from physical activity at large. The construction of the “healthy lifestyle” ideal has only recently incorporated the daily practice of physical activity. This has been chiefly accomplished through the discourse of cardiologists, the dominant specialty in the medical profession. In this respect, strength, as a component of physical conditioning, hasn’t got the same status as cardio-respiratory resistance or flexibility in the maintenance of health and wellness. Whereas sports associated with aerobic activity are increasingly practiced by the middle and upper classes, strength sports remain the choice of lower social segments.



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