What is Considered Strong? Standards and Lifting

Any topic that involves the word ‘standard’ is pretty near and dear to my heart. Strength sports are very consumer-driven; the athlete is not the product like they are in the NFL or MLB but rather they’re the customer. They are they ones paying the entry fee, being sold the equipment and being marketed to by the sponsors. Don’t be mistaken; if you are the one leaving the event with less cash in your pocket, you are the consumer. And we happen to live in the era where the customer is always right.

 Maybe it’s because of the type of personalities that strength sports attract or maybe it’s because promoters have tried to maximize their revenue by getting as big of a turnout as possible. Either way, the increase in the number of divisions and the ridiculous amount of first place trophies that go out at any amateur powerlifting meet reinforced an erroding of standards in a sport that should be holding them as high as possible. 

Without getting on too much of a  ‘get off my lawn’ rant, I will say that I think strength sports would benefit wildly from having a hierarchy type system that you see with sports like martial arts. New lifters should be coming in to facilities where the instructors an authorities are obviously separated by their accomplishments and expertise. In that environment, there is no mistake where the good information is coming from and a lot of the myths and harmful advice that populates most weight rooms goes away. It also reinforces a standard of what good is. Arbitrarily getting a gold medal when you were the only one in your division doesn’t cut the mustard, and neither does calling yourself exceptional because you only compare yourself to people who meet an endless list of qualifiers.

 I know that a lot of people are interested in strength standards because they want to know where the goal post is. Anyone who’s been on Facebook for more than a day has seen some new, low-level lifter post a video on a forum asking ‘is this good?’. Rarely do these posts get made with good intentions; they generally are a thinly-veiled attempt at fishing for compliments. It’s evident by the fact that the videos are almost always accompanied by a bunch of statistics that nobody asked for; body weight, height, age, injury history, years lifting, etc. The implication is that ‘what I just did should be considered exceptional because, out of all of the people who meet this long list of qualifiers (which is about 5), surely I stand at the top’.

I’m not shy about the fact that I think this line of reasoning is harmful. It feeds into the default of human nature, a flaw that looks to get recognition and validation before we’ve done anything that merits it. The problem in society is not that people are working too hard or setting standards too high. In fact, the trend as technology has increased and resources have become more readily available is that people expect to be able to get the same result with less work.  For those of you who disagree, ask someone who was in school before 2000 how much time they used to spend at the library trying to find resources for a paper that they were writing. Now think of the last time you went past page 2 on Google.

 Now this isn’t just to pee in everybody’s Cheerios; everybody starts at the bottom and has to take satisfaction in the things that they do well in order to stay around long enough to do anything really impressive. You should be excited that you hit a 20lb PR on your bench press. You should be excited with that to 225 lb bench or that 3 plate squat given that, at the start, those numbers probably seemed unattainable. Excitement with progress is nothing to scoff at. But the circumstances shift when you conflate the progress that comes with a system that works the way it’s supposed to with genuine exceptionalism. They are not the same and you should not condition yourself to see them as the same.

 If my tone is very ‘angry old man’ it’s because a video that aimed to give some insight into what is generally considered strong led to hundreds of whiny comments; some complained that the standards were too rigid and most couldn’t believe that body weight wasn’t part of the equation. It suggests that you are not allowed to have a conversation about what is generally considered good without creating a sub-category that includes literally every possible environmental circumstance that might present a disadvantage. It’s as if the goal is to give away as many first-place medals as possible. 

 That’s not the goal in strength sports or in any other sport (ask yourself how many divisions there are in the hundred meter dash the shot put or the high jump) and the widespread consumerist mentality that it should be (I’m paying my entry fee so I’m entitled to my metal, right?) has had a similar effect on the ability of lifters to finish what they start as the advent of the Google search engine has had on the  attention span of researchers. 

Let me be very clear, standards for excellence are set by the limits of a population, not by the limits of you, an individual. If you see a standard for excellence, you probably don’t meet it right now and, in all likelihood, won’t meet it in your lifetime. That’s the point.

Now, this is where I have a lot of respect for Eastern philosophies. Your perspective on how to balance the need for ever-increasing standards with the pride that comes from steady increases and new PRs has a lot to gain from the perspectives of other parts of the world.  For any complex system that has to work in real life, there has to be a balance of two contradictory ideas that are held at the same time in order to present a useful and realistic interpretation. These two complementary ideas are a ‘yin and yang’ “a concept of dualism, describing how obviously opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.” That becomes evident in a Zen experience, which is a meditative state that tries to hold what truth is. The fact is that you have to be able to hold a basic amount of complexity in your head when it comes to self evaluation and that means being able to be proud of what you’ve done without sacrificing or lowering the rigid standards that you probably haven’t met yet.

This isn’t just about people arbitrarily performing better (although that is one of the reasons in building a structure that is supposed to produce results). It’s about what is required for a happy, healthy, productive and useful human being. We are not better, more healthy or more useful to ourselves or anyone else if we condition ourselves to believe that our minimum efforts, essentially doing what we’re supposed to do in the first place, are inherently worthy of special recognition. In a society that values standards, those actions become just what you do. It doesn’t get questioned, it doesn’t get made into more than what it is and all of society benefits because finishing your work, brushing your teeth and respecting your neighbors is commonplace. It also gives weight and meaning to the feeling of joy that manifests when you do display something exceptional. It’s like a drug you stay sensitive to because you keep use rare and necessary. I firmly believe that there is room in everybody’s life to experience those moments;  there are no shortage of fields where you have the opportunity to stand out. It can be physical culture, relationships, business, charity work, creative endeavors, management methods, being skilled in a niche trade, being reliable where others are not and on and on. Find what you love and pursue exceptionalism in that. And understand that the day to day progress that comes with pursuing that exceptionalism is and should be seen as run-of-the-mill.

 I can barely explain to you how empowering it is to finally check off a long-term goal that has been chased for the better part of twenty years. It would be nice to say my first 225 squat was just as meaningful, but it’s not even close. For me it came with meeting benchmarks I thought could only be done by the best in the world, standards I surely would fall short of. It was pulling over a 700 lb deadlift as a 105kg strongman. It was pressing a 400 pound log. It was beating world-record holders because I was fast and conditioned and experienced. 

There are only a few moments in 15 years of competing that left me with that feeling. But I wouldn’t want any more than that. Those moments are what frame my sense of  accomplishment and they’re why I continue to push to this day because I’m not done yet. I know there’s more work to be done and I know that there are higher heights I can reach. Those moments are valuable because they are rare and the only reason I have done anything noteworthy up to this point is because I held those standard high and wouldn’t lower them for anyone, least of all for myself.  I’ve been lucky enough to experience what real exceptionalism feels like and I hope the same for you.

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