“The shift from human to superhuman,” Iron Culture Podcast Ep. #133- The Shady History of Supplements (ft. Dr. Conor Heffernan & Ben Esgro)

Very happy to be back for another episode of Iron Culture, especially when it includes Iron Game historian Dr. Conor Heffernan! I LOVE the context he provides to help us understand the trends and changes in lifting culture. I often dream he will come to the show to specifically discuss the history of women, queer folks and other outsiders to the lifting world. He has hinted at understanding these histories in previous interviews, and I would be over the moon for Omar and Eric to take the bait!

In any case, today’s conversation is NOT about outsiders but about supplements, and what I think is the most wonderful and interesting is how the trends in supplement marketing that began in the early 1890’s can still be seen today. I kept a list of these threads as I listened. Here’s the dominant ones that come up in the conversation:

Protein powders with over-the-top claims of getting bigger and leaner
Providing recipes for the use of the product
Transformation photos
Extreme statements like “I lived off of nothing but this powder and here’s the results!”
Direct marketing, using publications and mailing lists to promote their own products
Sponsored athletes
Aesthetic goals being more successful to attract buyers than performance goals
Sciencyness, lab coats and the illusion that it’s formulated in a lab
Mega-dosing (if a little is good, more is better!)
Stacking (multiple products, supposedly formulated to work together)

What I love about this list is we can see examples of all of these marketing strategies today, and I guess I would hope it would help us all become more skeptical consumers. If an athlete sponsors a product, do we assume they actually use it and that it actually helped them to achieve? Does a picture of someone in a lab coat go unresearched, and we take their word for it that the manufacturer is holding themselves to a scientific standard? It’s worth it to develop an eye to these strategies to hone our bullshit-meters.

Later in the conversation, they switch to how bodybuilding goals changed in the 1970’s–the no pain no gain era–and how that has impacted marketing. When the goals went away from at least the illusion of general health towards the “mass monsters,” marketing for supplements went all-in on their extreme messaging, working to convince us that it was worth the risk to get as big as possible. I think we’re still seeing the fallout of this cultural message. Folks seem to assume that those of us who call ourselves bodybuilders are seeking out something extreme. I have no doubt that there are folks who are–clearly there are enough to keep the Olympia stage full of contenders–but I wonder to what degree that represents the goals and aspirations of our community at large. Frankly, it’s easier for me to imagine this messaging being effective towards a 15 year-old boy than towards an adult in their 30’s.

What kind of messaging inspires and speaks to you? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below, or find Progressive Strength on Facebook!

Photo credit: HowtoGym via Unsplash

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