Western Strength is an unofficial community that believes in three overlapping principles:
- it's time to democratize strength training
- it's better to be an inclusive community than an exclusive one
- critical thinking is awesome in its many scientific and philosophical forms
1. "democratize strength": what does this mean?
Glad you asked! Democracy is a form of people-power, and historically, true physical power was clearly not available to all people: the pursuit of physical strength was denied to massive swaths of the population. In various times and places, notable groups who were forbidden or discouraged from pursuing physical strength include women, children, the physically and mentally disabled, the elderly, the poor, and so on -- indeed when you add up all excluded groups, the only people routinely encouraged to do strength training were able-bodied, financially-supported young men about to engage in warfare, sport, or manual labour. Whether barred from training due to a misguided urge for protection or for more sinister reasons, the end result was that physical strength was not for you and for all.
After decades of incomplete progress, today strength training is theoretically but not wholeheartedly or effectively accessible to everyone in North America (let alone elsewhere). And even if each gym here was a perfect representative sample of the population (and they currently are far from it) there is still the matter of the fitness industry's quasi-stranglehold or monopoly on strength training. This industry comprises a range of insightful-to-ignorant characters who call themselves 'experts' or are deemed such by others. But they are perhaps less fitness experts and more fitness oligarchs, the leaders of system where power is concentrated into the hands of the few. Trust us, they say. We're certified, they say. We know best, they say. Some do, of course. Some don't even pretend to have deep expertise; they are mere celebrities enjoying insta-fame. Yet collectively, these fitness oligarchs left behind a legacy of spectacular failures and myths that haunt us to this day. These include specific myths like "squats are bad for your knees" and "lifting makes women bulky [or should be afraid of muscle]" and "do X to tone [and not build] your muscles". More importantly, these experts are complicit in the systematic failure to strengthen and inspire an increasingly sedentary population which is forgetting the feeling of physical strength -- and perhaps the other virtues emerging from it. Somehow, it came to be that the strengthening of your own body became regulated, commodified, supervised, or prohibited by other people. As a society, we have yet to realize the perversity of this twist, the extent to which one's own body and muscular might are not entirely our own domain.
The best alternative to fitness oligarchy, where power rests with the few, is fitness democracy, where power rests with the many. Democratizing strength doesn't mean rejecting experts outright, it means critiquing, revising, and synthesizing their knowledge into an accessible format that all people can use on their own bodies. Western Strength believes in, and tries to cultivate, more democratic ways of strength using the tools of critical thinking, philosophy, and science. We can appreciate a good anecdote, but demand references and and reasoning. We can appreciate expertise, but recognize an appeal to authority when we see one. We can appreciate lifting so hard you can't think straight, but reject the anti-intellectual attitude rightly or wrongly associated with lifting culture. Strength training is quite literally empowerment, the physical development of power, and we believe this leads to empowerment in its more figurative senses. The people who most need empowerment often find strength training inaccessible, and we aim to change that.
2. Inclusive > exclusive: a media analysis
There are, roughly speaking, two types of communities, websites, and mindsets in the lifting world: inclusive and exclusive. Whereas the inclusive ones are marketed towards – and are populated by – a reasonably wide range of human beings, the exclusive ones have a narrower demographic and more tribal mentality. Each features its own drawbacks (such as being overly general or too specific). But we’re going to explain why Western Strength strives to be an inclusive community, and why almost nothing of value needs to be sacrificed to make it so.
What we’re trying to achieve will be very clearly explained by analyzing what we’re not trying to achieve. Though to its credit the infamous muscle website TNation has often featured the writings of the best strength gurus of the last couple decades, when you visit the page you are visually bombarded by a veiny assault of striated men in every shade of leather, plus an all-caps motto that reads TESTOSTERONE: DANGEROUSLY HARDCORE SINCE 1998. TNation's worst and sometimes best content is wrapped in the rhetoric of inadequacy. TNation has gotten better – more women writers, less overt sexism – but it clings to a dated 90s niche and a dangerously lurid design that either reinforces (or attacks) the reader’s (non)masculinity at every possible opportunity. Is this truly part of the "intelligent" pursuit of muscle that their site professes? Many of their older articles start by declaring some sort of epidemic of weakness and then proceed to sell you some product -- conveniently from their own company, BioTest -- which yields might & masculine prowess for $89.99 (but realizing that women are a lucrative market, they've scaled this tactic back a bit). We’d like to ask TNation what’s more hardcore: actually lifting ridiculously heavy things or pandering to and reinforcing the reader’s insecurities while selling them ridiculously overhyped products promising better-than-steroid gains? To counteract TNation's false equation of men=testosterone=strength, women like the powerlifter-trainer Nia Shanks have realized the potential of encouraging women to lift heavy while debunking fitness and diet myths and mindsets that predominantly affect women.
While gender-specific messaging is still necessary to the extent that each gender has been taught radically different things about their bodies (eg. too big versus not big enough), the ultimate imperatives of quality strength media end up being pretty much the same: get strong, make sure you squat and deadlift, don't overdo isolation exercises, don't annihilate yourself with cardio, eat protein and whole foods, and so on. Since today fitness culture is still plagued by a skin-deep, beauty-oriented mindset (made worse by instagram), we need women like Nia Shanks (lift hard and heavy & focus on long-term performance goals) to correct the Kayla Itsines (lift baby weights to achieve short-term "bikini body"). And regardless of gender, it's crucial to be skeptical of any quick-fix, infomercial-esque solutions to real or imagined problems. We believe in loving the process of training. Though various miracle programs may deliver X body goal in Y weeks, most people will regress to where they started because they failed to form habits and enjoy their training. Just as these insta-programs often fail to overcome the homeostatis of our bodies and habits, fitness media struggles to overcome its status quo.
Fortunately, some accomplished “thinking lifters” like Greg Nuckols (whose demeanor and countenance resembles a bearded teddy bear) have scaled back the machismo and hype of the TNation era while simultaneously increasing the intellectual quality of strength articles. Despite the legitimate gems of lifting knowledge buried in TNation, to say that its presentation is ugly and alienating to many potential readers is an understatement. A newer generation of websites like Breaking Muscle appeal to a much broader audience than those trapped in the TNation mindset, successfully reaching women, older athletes, non-strength athletes, and beyond. Aside from losing a bit of focus on intense strength training, Breaking Muscle sacrificed very little in reaching out to crucial new audiences.
Disability is an obvious area where fitness media needs to improve. Though strength sports are well suited for a range of disabilities, and we find disabled athletes competing in wheelchair bodybuilding, powerlifting in the paralympics and special olympics, and strongman, they are sometimes featured in fitness media for the wrong reasons. Chiefly, disabled athletes are often co-opted to inspire able-bodied people, which may achieve nothing for the disabled athletes themselves -- or disabled people in general, especially ones with invisible disabilities. For instance, an amputee (almost always someone with a visible or 'relatable' disability) might be featured in an advertisement or piece of so-called "inspiration porn", with the implied message that able-bodied people are simply being lazy about fitness since this amputee has run a marathon (in her Nikes, no less). Besides doing nothing to normalize or represent invisible disabilities, this kind of "fitspo" pretends that mere inspiration is going to get our society moving again. How is this possible when the fitness industry has actually desensitized us to inspiration while co-opting and commercializing all of the knowledge and equipment we're supposed to buy once this all-too-elusive inspiration finally strikes? Instead of the quaint notion that it might be fun to get stronger with some pushups each morning, we are (collectively) watching Nike commercials of quadruple amputees climbing snowy mountains, buying shoes to free (or 'Freerun') ourselves from inactivity, logging our progress with fancy FitBits, and then somehow sliding back into our sedentary ways. Inspiration ain't enough. Certainly, though, creating inclusive media is a prerequisite for a fitter and stronger society after the aforementioned fitness oligarchs specified, regulated, or prohibited the ways we move our bodies, splintering us into tiny niches while capitalizing on our differences -- a special informertial gimmick, gadget, or DVD for each age, gender, and bodypart.
After reflecting on the state of fitness media, being inclusive for us is ultimately pretty easy today: try to reach wide audiences, alienate a minimum number of people, and treat everyone like human athletes instead of hypersexualized and hyperspecific niche groups that need to be isolated from everyone else so they can be marked specific ideologies and products. This isn’t say Western Strength is catered for everyone; we hope you already think lifting heavy things is cool.
We want people whose work ethic matches their curiosity, and who think that strength in itself is a form of excellence or virtue. We want people who believe that strength training doesn't necessarily need to serve a purely practical (and often futile) goal such as increasing physical attractiveness. Aesthetic goals can be part of the big picture, and are the picture in competitive bodybuilding. Yet fitness culture can become a dangerously visual culture, a realm of pure appearances, a phantasm of instagram. Certainly many people, serious athletes and fresh amateurs, have left this cave of shimmering images that pretend to be reality itself. Fitness media visually communicates that looking fit equals being fit, which is of course not true. Western Strength is attracted to strength training in part because it can (sometimes) free you from the subjective, aesthetic, and visual realm of how bodies look, and reacquaint you with how bodies move. Barbells are kind enough to never berate you on your appearance yet mean enough to ignore your feelings about moving them.
But wait, perhaps you have one final objection to our inclusive vision of strength media, because you consider yourself part of a hardcore demographic. Perhaps you say “I’m an aspiring freakbeast who dreams of being too wide to fit through doorways, and even though I have yet to LEAVE HUMANITY BEHIND by achieving veiny massmonster status, I am highly offended that you’re not specifically catering to my insecurities and/or ambitions.” If that’s the case, then don’t worry. We’ll still be here for you when you’re so inhumanly jacked that you require veterinarians instead of doctors for your increasingly urgent medical needs. We’re inclusive like that. Inclusive communities aren’t opposed to including some pretty ‘exclusive’ groups, such as elite lifters. We love training heavy with many different types – but would probably prefer feline athletes to actual green monsters.
3. Critical thinking: a disclaimer for this and all websites
We urge you to apply critical thinking to all things, including all things written on or linked by this website. Even though weight training is many orders of magnitude safer than schoolchild soccer, and inactivity itself is dangerous (sitting is the new smoking), one should (at least) consult experts when embarking on a new program of exercise, especially sports medicine doctors when you have pre-existing injuries or conditions. When reading internet material, you should be relentlessly skeptical, ask for sources, evaluate ethos and logos, and realize that the wisest people admit the limitations of their knowledge. In trying to become stronger, fitter, and healthier, numerous nefarious or less-than-altruistic companies will try to 'sell you fitness', but this is impossible, because you have agency over your body and that is where fitness resides. Even when there's no money on the table, you will be sold 'inspiration' in the form of 'fitspo', which has little-to-nothing to do with actual strength or fitness—and instead involves glistening, lean, and attractive people overlaid with insipid texts that encourage you to do good things (exercise) for bad reasons (shame), perpetrating a vicious cycle that makes people afraid to exercise. Caveat emptor et lector.
The best thing about critical thinking is that it belongs to everyone and no one at the same time; it is shared by many vaunted disciplines including philosophy, science, and critical theory -- plus everyday people who just want to avoid getting ripped off in life. And, if you're interested in strength and fitness, the risks of you getting ripped off at some point are staggeringly high. Sometimes training programs and supplements lack efficacy; sometimes they're efficacious but unwise morally or philosophically. For instance, a diet pill might be scientifically proven to drop 5 pounds in 4 weeks, but if you were coerced into taking it by your romantic partner, that's a moral failure outside the purview of science. Thinking critically about fitness helps us understand why (in fancy terms) there is too much instrumental rationality and not enough value rationality in this field. Put simply, we already know plenty about how to change our bodies, but when it boils right down to it, we're bad at explaining why and the values we're using to get there. Health is of course a worthy value, but merely "being healthy" doesn't explain the most fascinating, extreme, dangerous, or ridiculous aspects of strength and fitness cultures. For instance, consider crossfitters needing post-workout IVs (and crossfit HQ needing an aggressive team of lawyers), extreme bodybuilders dying before their 50s, the abuse of injectable oils for inflating muscles, and the transformation of strength & fitness into a fashion/lifestyle/brand with entirely optional strength & fitness. All of these phenomena are based on certain implicit or explicit values, yet none of them is mere 'health.' With critical thinking, we can slowly uncover the values driving these trends, and subject them to the criticism that they desperately need.
Yet even in the realm of everyday, instrumental questions-- how to get jacked and/or lean -- fitness culture is in a sorry state. In large part, this is because 'BroScience' runs rampant: BroScience is the old wives’ tales of the gym, its locker-room lore, or as UrbanDictionary puts it, “the predominant brand of reasoning in bodybuilding circles where the anecdotal reports of jacked dudes are considered more credible than scientific research." Now, there is something to be said to experimenting on yourself (indeed the most valuable kind of anecdote). But the BroScience argument that X strategy worked for person Y and should therefore work for you is fundamentally nonsense when that person might differ from you by five or ten years' of training and potentially thousands of dollars of drugs. There is a tension between our desire to copy strategies that worked or appeared to work for other people -- since we're all fundamentally similar human beings -- and our desire to be unique, solipsistic snowflakes who reject the experiences of others because "only I can know what works for me". All forms of knowledge about training, nutrition, and strength must negotiate these two tendencies, spanning the universal (what works in general and for others) to the particular (what only works for ourselves).
Though BroScience perpetrates some of the worst gyms myths around, real peer-reviewed science (even best kind, not paid for by supplement companies) has some annoying tendencies. Training principles that are intuitively (and demonstrably true) to many athletes and coaches took decades to find support in science (or at least science as implemented in policy statements and recommendations regarding strength training). Or, in another common outcome, a valid scientific study is misinterpreted and bastardized as people attempt to implement its conclusions. There is a massive chasm between showing there's increased EMG activity of the trunk muscles when you squat on an unstable surface (eg. a bosu ball) and actually coaching people to perform bosu ball squats as a staple of their training (which is a laughable idea outside of rehab or hyper-specialized athletic contexts). To become stronger and wiser, we need to critically evaluate all claims coming from the academic-scientific world, the anecdotal-broscientific world, and everything in between. Only critical thinking allows us to fluidly switch between these worlds, hopping between our personal observations in the gym, the scientific language of pubmed articles, and the mythic tales of your friend's cousin's One Weird Trick that added 2" to his biceps in two weeks.