“Musclebound, slow, inflexible, and clumsy,” Iron Culture Podcast, Ep. 140–Squats Are Bad For You (The Origin of This Fitness Myth)

I love listening to Dr. Conor Heffernan. I wish I could run away, go back to college, and study the history of lifting from him. Honestly, I’m a terrible history student; my somewhat dyslexic brain doesn’t hold onto dates and names very well. But big cultural eras and patterns of thinking make sense to me, and as Dr. Heffernan rattles off historical facts, he’s always able to contextualize those facts within larger cultural movements, illustrating how the details fit into the bigger picture. It makes me feel like maybe if he had taught me American History in high school, I’d have done better than get a 45% on my final exam. (1)

In any case, I plan on relistening to this one a few times, in hopes that I can hold onto some of the details, because there’s so much gold here to help us understand where fragility narratives come from, in particular around squats and the knees. As the story unfolds, what we learn from Dr. Heffernan is that this is a tale of two researchers, Dr. Peter Karpovich and Dr. Karl Klein, both of which started with similar preconceptions that lifters were musclebound idiots. The first of these researchers was exposed to modern weightlifters, collected data and eventually rethought his assumptions and the other one held firmly to his beliefs and sought out that data which confirmed his biases. Unfortunately for us, it’s this latter researcher whose ideas have been repeated and supported by everyday people, popular media and fitness gurus.

And that’s where the conversation gets really interesting. Dr. Heffernan points out that very early in the world of fitness and physical culture, those selling fitness-related products found a winning strategy to promote what Omar calls “the path of least resistance,” promoting lighter weights over heavy resistance training in order to gain results. And the fragility narrative, promoted by the low-quality research of Dr. Klein, gave credence to this approach–telling people they were being safer by staying with lighter weight exercises and avoiding certain exercises. As Omar puts it, the profit motive was stronger than the motive to help people accomplish their physique goals. And of course, we still see that today.

And that’s the context that I find so valuable when learning more about the history of physique sport and popular culture. It helps me identify the patterns we see today of using pseudoscientific justifications to sell ineffective fitness strategies as a part of a longer history. That impulse isn’t new, and it comes from a rational place–the folks selling those products don’t need them to work, since so few people keep with a fitness plan long enough to see results. But of course, that’s a self-perpetuating cycle since they’re reducing the chances someone will see results by selling them ineffective strategies to begin with. Sohee Lee recently shared a post on how 90% of folks just need to move regularly, and that we don’t need to focus on doing what is best or optimal. And she’s right. But I think we also need to be honest about what can be accomplished with that sort of training. We get the health benefits of a more active lifestyle, but it won’t likely change the appearance of our bodies. And like it or not, that motivates a lot of people.

I really loved this conversation, and I look forward to learning more about the history of physique sport and lifting culture from future conversations with Dr. Heffernan, that is, until I get up the gumption to run away and take a few classes.

What are your thoughts on the episode? Does understanding the history help you interpret common conversations in the lifting world? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment here, or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook.

(1) Or maybe my teachers would have done better to connect history to my interests, which at the time included the Seattle alternative rock scene, vampire novels with queer undertones, and mural painting.

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