What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Daniel Duane learned that weightlifting would protect him against sarcopenia — and learned first-hand what your workout says about your social class:

I learned to squat, deadlift, and bench press. I came to love the emotional catharsis of channeling aggression into the bar. I made new friends: A former Force Recon marine chatted with me between lifts, describing the first Gulf War and how he’d nearly died falling from a helicopter; a massively muscled, bald kickboxer, who happened also to be a handsome gay biotech lawyer, stood behind me during bench press sessions, fingers under the bar, making sure I didn’t hurt myself.

I adored lifting with these men. It was the happiest I had ever been in a gym. A faster runner abandons you; a stronger lifter hangs out, kindly critiques your form, and waits his turn. My strength numbers shot upward, and so did my body weight: 190 pounds, 200, 210, 215. I bought baggy pants and shirts. Walking down the sidewalk, I felt confident. At parties with my wife, I saw men who ran marathons, and they looked gaunt and weak. I could have squashed them.


Friends came for dinner. A public-interest lawyer, noticing I was bigger, asked what I’d been up to.

“I’m really into lifting weights right now,” I said. “Trying to get strong.”

The lawyer’s wife, a marathoner and family therapist, appeared startled, as if concerned about my emotional state. She looked me in the eye and said, “Why?”

Sociologists, it turns out, have studied these covert athletic biases. Carl Stempel, for example, writing in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argues that upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. The so-called dominant classes, Stempel writes — especially those like my friends and myself, richer in fancy degrees than in actual dollars — tend to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports that display moral character, self-control, and self-development, rather than physical dominance. By chasing pure strength, in other words, packing on all that muscle, I had violated the unspoken prejudices — and dearly held self-definitions — of my social group.


  1. Barnabas says:

    upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength”

    I think this is also seen in the pervasive slumped posture and shabby, overly casual clothing.

  2. Sfc Tom says:

    LOL. I’ve been powerlifting for going on 30 years, and I can think of only one UMC lifter. Never thought much of it, but now I’m set on seeing what research has to say about it. If anything.

  3. Night Boat to Cairo says:

    “A public-interest lawyer, noticing I was bigger, asked what I’d been up to.”

    He could have said “I’m gay” and they’d all be cool with it.

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