When preparing the previous newsletter article, one thing that often came up, particularly for the women asked, as a reason for getting more into strength sports was the rise of the idea of ‘Strong is the new Skinny,’ which coincided with the banning of size 0 models etc. I felt that this point was too big to confine to one section in an article and needed a whole article to really dig into it.
What I want to get into here is the ‘Average Perception,’ we all have. We never quite feel normal, we could be told that we’re too skinny, too fat, too muscular, too strong, too weak or just plain too much of something. But what are we comparing that to? What is the average? What is normal?
I realise this sounds like it’s bordering on a metaphysical treatise, so I will try to keep it strength and fitness related.
The ‘Average Perception’ is about what it is we are comparing ourselves to, while also looking at how we will either never meet the normal or average, or that they will never meet us. This will include how the average world changes and updates very, very quickly. You only have to look at things like living conditions, athletic world records, music genres and fashion trends to see just how much things change while seemingly staying very similar.
What is the average?
The average is constantly moving along the spectrum. Back in 1954, the average UK male would have been 5ft 7 tall with a bodyweight of just under 72kg. 67 years later our average man would stand at 5ft 9 and weigh closer to 84kg.
Similarly, a 1950s woman was roughly 5ft 2 and 62kg, as opposed to 5ft 3 and 70.6kg.
You can see straight away from looking at these numbers that we are generally bigger these days. When you think about the early to mid 1950s, this makes sense. This was only a few years after the end of World War 2, throughout which our grandparents were surviving on rations, which only ended in 1954. The years of stress and malnutrition will have definitely had an effect upon the health and size of the people at this time.
So this doesn’t mean that the extra 8-12kg you maybe carrying compared to your grandparents is a bad thing - it just means you’ve been well fed.
What about the average athlete?
In the 19th century, sports science wasn’t really a thing. The birth of physical culture with people like George Hackenschmidt and Eugen Sandow led to seeing the body as a medium of function as well as art. The main theories on body types were molded by ideas of philosophy and art - Plato’s theory of forms and Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in particular.
Racism and misogyny also played a part, as the best athlete, regardless of sport was seen to be the white male of average height, average weight and average build. This means that a man of around 5ft 7 would be seen as equally adept in gymnastics as he would be shot putting.
In the 1990s, two Australian sports scientists (Kevin Norton and Tim Olds) wanted to see how body types had changed per sport in the previous 50 years. They found that by 1995, the elite shot putter was 2.5 inches taller and 130 lbs heavier than the elite international high jumper, as opposed to both being of average height and build.
And this wasn’t just across these two sports, they observed what they referred to as the ‘Big Bang of Body Types,’ where most sports had moved towards targeting people who fit the needs of their sports and weeding out those who weren’t as anthropometrically suited.
An example of this would be how Michael Phelps is 6’4 with 32” legs (I’m 5’9 with 32” legs for perspective), which means his wingspan compared to his height is huge and that makes dragging himself forward through the water even easier.
This study also led to the sports scientists developing a way of measuring the probability of a randomly selected person possessing the physical traits of an elite athlete. 28% of men have the height and weight standards to match that of an elite sprinter, while 9.5% possess those of an elite rugby player.
This goes to show that, athletically, there is no normal, no average. In fact, the average or the normal has very little benefit in this way. Our physical quirks, our limbs that are too long or too short, our big feet or small legs, can all be beneficial to different sports or activities.
What about the fashionable average?
For a long time fashion, and the media’s portrayal of it, have been at the heart of changing trends in our clothes, our diet, our music taste, and, most importantly, our view of ourselves and our bodies.
Unrealistic body standards, for both men and women, have been pushed for by the mass media, clothes designers and, more recently, social media.
You only have to attempt to post a picture on social media to see how easy it is add filters or edit the picture beyond its original portrayal. How a person portrays themselves on their own social media is, of course, their choice, but an awareness around the effect they have on others needs to be developed and normalised.
It is easy to look at an influencer’s social media and believe that their life is always 100% good, and that they always look perfect. A person’s social media can be a form of confirmation bias in the sense that they post the message that they want to convey, without considering that what they’re showing is glossing over reality. It is easy to post the subtly, or not so subtly, filtered pictures where everything looks just right - but a more realistic view would be for these same people to post the not quite perfect posts, and show their real life.
The former editor of Australian Vogue, Kirstie Clements, has spoken at length about how the expectations on models has gone from being slim in the 80s, to being smaller and thinner to the point where they are going without food and eating tissues to feel more full by the early 2000s.
I haven’t included this point for the shock value, rather just to show how the ‘normal’ for a model has changed from relatively healthy to an incredibly unhealthy point within 30 years.
The average perception here is definitely skewered. There is no way we can look at social media, or even mass media, and have a clear and defined view of what is actually expected of us - especially as what we are being shown is not actually a real, attainable ‘thing’.
‘Strong is the new Skinny’ - An alternative.
In the above point, social media was looked on with some scorn. However, to be more balanced (just as I suggested social media should be) I would like to add that social media has allowed for an alternative to ‘feminine ideal,’ and that was the wave of the notion that ‘strong is the new skinny.’ Refreshing for women to hear, right? Eh, kinda.
'Strong is the new skinny' definitely opened up a contradictory option for a lot of women in the 2010s. A lot of women - that I know, have coached, or have responded to my research for the previous article - felt that being stronger, or more muscular, or better athletically was a refreshing and empowering alternative to being as skinny and small as possible as they were conditioned to believe they had to be.
I’m not saying the ‘strong is the new skinny’ movement is or was wrong, in fact, that’s my point. It’s not down to me, or a social media wave, to tell women or people how to feel about, or what to do with, their bodies. This movement was instructing women to be a certain way, in the same way that the years of fashion and mass media had been prior to it.
It is a good thing that an alternative has been offered, however, it is another example of the goal posts being moved - what was once average isn’t anymore and your new normal is now different.
I sit here writing this, 5ft 9 and roughly 82kg, being within the perfectly ‘average’ range of the average UK male. However, I know that I have shorter arms than most, which can help with bench press strength, longer thighs than most which leads me more to a low bar squat position - so it is no surprise that when I tried a few different disciplines of training that I stuck with powerlifting.
What I wanted to achieve here is to show that there is no average, nor is there a perfect. Rather, there is a sliding scale. The cultural views of what is normal changes so quickly that we can’t really be expected to keep up.
If you want to get into a sport but feel you don’t have the right proportions for it, there are still ways around it, especially as you will probably find your body composition changes depending upon your training and lifestyle.
Be average, be perfect, or be none of it. You’ll probably find that the accepted normal has changed before you’ve even noticed anyway. It is completely fine to love your body as it is but also want to make changes, there’s no dichotomy there.
When Rocky Balboa was released back in 2006 British supermarkets recorded a massive surge in the sales of boxing equipment - signifying the cultural response to a popular event. Now, this post isn’t about boxing, nor is it about Rocky. It certainly isn’t about boxing equipment sales and their trends.
What I do want to go through is the explosion of powerlifting in the early to mid 2010s and it’s something I spent a good chunk of the initial lockdown (ie, the one from March-July of 2020) looking into. You might be thinking that there wasn’t a Rocky-esque movie out about powerlifting in the early 2010s, and you would be right, but there were various social phenomena, events and spectacles around that time that contributed.
But more on what they are, exactly, later.
Powerlifting today is far more popular today than it was a decade ago. The bigger federations in Britain will have around one competition per month, per region (pre and post Covid-19, that is).
At these competitions it would not be unheard of to have 50-150 lifters for a regional competition and 150-200+ for a national competition.
As an example - British Powerlifting hosted 81 lifters at the Male British Championship in 2019, and 128 at the Women’s British Championship. While the A/BPU hosted a whopping 421 lifters across their competition.
The numbers only get more impressive in America, as the USAPL hosted 1199 lifters in 2019 (I’ve triple checked this).
The number of powerlifting clubs in each city is now at roughly 2 or 3 relatively big ones with a lot of lifters training in commercial gyms or from home without affiliating to a club or team.
Now, if you’re not into powerlifting then all I’m doing here is throwing arbitrary numbers at you. So, allow me to give you some context.
Powerlifting 10 Years Ago.
Using the same examples as the last section, the British Powerlifting Federation, or the Great British Powerlifting Federation as it was back in 2010, hosted 38 lifters for the British Classic that year, with 25 males and 13 females. Massively different to the roughly 50% more women than men in 2019.
The A/BPU didn’t exist in 2010 so there are no numbers for this one - which also shows that the demand for another whole federation had increased between 2010 and 2015, when the A/BPU had its first national competition.
Over in the States, the USAPL hosted 131 lifters, a mere 10% (ish) of the goliath of a competition seen in 2019.
Now that you have the context of where we are now and where we once were, let us take a look at just how we made that journey. Some of you might have been there all along, some of you might have only just joined, or joined somewhere along the way but it’s good to understand the sport and its growth, especially if you’re planning to stay around to witness its future.
I wrote above about various events and occurrences on a cultural level that contributed to the rise of powerlifting. These are things that aren’t necessarily powerlifting related but seem to have led to a substantial increase in popularity for powerlifting, so much so that federations began to be maxed out - leading to an increase/improvement in organisation for many federations on multiple levels - as well as other federations being created to offer a supply to the new and increased demand.
Over the last decade or so a number of major sporting events occurred. These include the London Olympics of 2012 and the increase in popularity of Crossfit, and the Crossfit games.
The London Olympics.
Now, I know what you’re thinking - powerlifting isn’t an Olympic sport, and you’re right. However, Weightlifting is an Olympic sport and the training and competition aspects of it were on show massively in 2012.
The cultural impact of the London Olympics on budding athletes in the UK was monumental. The number of people returning to or taking up a new sport in this time was the highest it has been in years - particularly due to how well Britain did in the rankings.
The advertising, and national pride around the Olympic Games that year led to more and more people watching sports and events that they wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to in their everyday lives.
Many people would watch events and sports and then try to find local coaches or clubs where they could partake in what they’ve witnessed. Sports like boxing or swimming have specialised coaches and clubs, at the time Olympic Weightlifting did, but not many of them.
Olympic Weightlifting is made up of the snatch and the clean and jerk movements. These exercises don’t really cross over to powerlifting but the assistance exercises you will use to get better at Olympic Weightlifting will consist of squats, pulls from the floor and some pressing - which all will help you get stronger for powerlifting.
If you were to look for an Olympic lifting coach now you might find a handful in your city, maybe a slightly higher number in some of the bigger cities of the UK, but that niche of the market isn’t yet saturated - and that’s talking about 2021. Back in 2010-2015 the chances of finding a qualified Olympic Weightlifting coach in a private or commercial gym, or even finding a gym with the adequate equipment was far, far lower.
Olympic Weightlifting is an incredibly technical sport, it takes time, effort, the right equipment, and most of all, knowledge to become proficient in it. To do it without a coach would be highly inadvisable. To do without a coach or proper equipment would also likely lead to damaging the equipment and gym around you, and probably yourself.
When I was looking into why people got into powerlifting around this time, a lot of the answers were similar to “well, I couldn’t find an Olympic lifting coach.” Powerlifting, while still technical and difficult to master, has a much lower barrier of entry. The kit needed doesn’t need to bounce or spin in a certain way.
As well as this the actual movements are less technical to teach, and easier to master. (I really don’t want to undermine my own job here).
At the time of writing, the Crossfit 2021 Games are just wrapping up and it’s had a huge draw on social media. Bringing in Olympic Weightlifting legends like Dmitry Klokov, as well as the regular Crossfit legends such as Tia Toomey, Sara Sigmundsdottir and Anna Thorisdottir.
The days of insulting Crossfit on social media should be well behind us - like any discipline, when coached well it is an excellent form of physical fitness and athleticism, and like any discipline, when coached badly it can be awful for the athlete and spectator alike.
Initially I was unsure about including Crossfit in this article but when I did some anecdotal research, i.e I put up a story on Instagram asking people what got them into powerlifting/why they thought powerlifting exploded in the early 2010s, I found that a lot of people pointed to the popularity of Crossfit.
So, what is Crossfit?
Crossfit aims to combine HIIT with barbell training and it takes a cross sectional view of fitness, hence ‘Cross’fit. The fitness factors it looks to improve are -
The competitions and workouts in Crossfit vary from session to session. It wouldn’t be strange to see a mix of heavy deadlifts combined with sprints, or squats followed by some work on a rowing machine.
How does this link to Powerlifting?
Valid question - Crossfit has become massively popular with the 2020 Games having a viewership of 11,543,983 people over the whole weekend. The 2012 Games had 69,000 competitors, nevermind spectators.
According to my anecdotal research (Instagram again) many people wanted to give Crossfit a go after watching the games, or seeing the athletes train on YouTube, but trying to do the WODs before Crossfit Boxes (their version of gyms) became popular was pretty awkward in most commercial gyms. It would be difficult to book out a deadlift platform and a rowing machine to do circuits on in most gyms (and that’s if those gyms even had both).
This became a barrier to the training so people began to look for a sport or discipline that was easier to train in a regular gym setting. As stated earlier there was a lack of Olympic Lifting coaches and gyms until relatively recently, but powerlifting took far less equipment and space so a lot of people turned to this.
As well as this - Crossfit is very good at representing the female side of the sport. Names like Tia Toomey and Anna Thorisdottir are at least as recognisable as Rich Froning or Mat Fraser. My instagram stories led me to believe that a lot of women were inspired by the exploits of people like Tia Toomey (her name came up a lot in this research) and wanted to emulate that.
This point is reflected when you look a little deeper in the split of participants in powerlifting competitions too - in British Powerlifting’s (formerly Great British Powerlifting or GBPF) National competitions there have been more women than men competing every year since 2015.
Powerlifting has gotten more and more popular in the last decade or so, and it deserves to in it’s own right. Training is incredibly satisfying and lifting more one month to the next is always an amazing feeling. Competitions are also fun, they’re quite often full of wholesome support and an excellent atmosphere to let yourself go and break some personal bests.
However, it also owes a lot to the circumstances of the sports in the same family or ballpark as them. The barrier for entry to powerlifting was initially easier to overcome in the early 2010s than it would have been in other sports.