This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
If you’re listening to this show right now, you certainly understand the influence new products have on the ways we live. But the interesting thing is… that over the course of history, so many products don’t so much get newly designed but get resold to us over and over again with different packaging. Versions of the same technologies to help us clean, cook, exercise and sleep – all promising more efficiency and more convenience, attempting to make our homes into private little utopias.
Or at least that is the thesis of the podcast “Nice Try!” from New York Magazine’s Curbed. Their first season was about failed utopian experiments, but their second season makes a turn inward, into the private haven of the American dream… by looking at all the appliances in it. “Nice Try!” also just so happens to be hosted by 99pi superstar alumna Avery Trufelman. It’s nice to say her name again. Avery Trufelman.
So far she’s covered how the doorbell turned into the home security system, how the vacuum cleaner went from a public utility to the first widely accepted household robot, and how the CrockPot and Instant Pot cleverly repackaged of some of the oldest cooking technologies known to humanity but the episode we’re sharing today here is about a self improvement device that was NOT intended to make life easier. It was designed specifically to make life just a little bit harder. And it hasn’t changed very much since its invention. This is a story about lifting weights. And how it became a central component to home fitness.
Natalia Petrzela: So this is a full body exercise.
Avery Trufelman: Oh, there we go.
Natalia Petrzela: Three more. 3… 2… 1.
Avery Trufelman: Can I just introduce the show quickly? This would be a great place to introduce the show.
Natalia Petrzela: Yes! Totally.
Avery Trufelman: From… (out of breath laugh) New York Magazine’s Curbed and the Vox Media Podcast Network. This is “Nice Try!” I’m Avery Trufelman.
Natalia Petrzela: [laughs] All right, should we do some goblet squats?
Avery Trufelman: I don’t know what those are! But sure, let’s do them…
Let the record show, I totally work out, but just usually I’m on team cardio. So I had never swung a kettlebell before. And when I went to the house of Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of physical fitness and a professor at The New School, she had more than enough weights for both of us to work out together.
Natalia Petrzela: This one is 20 pounds. This one is 35 pounds. That one is fifty pounds.
Professor Petrzela roundly kicked my ass at lifting, which is just part of her home and her life. She has these weights and lifts them regularly. Workout equipment and accessories have become canonized into the realm of home appliances. Especially during the pandemic.
Natalia Petrzela: With home fitness equipment… what people are willing to spend has only gotten higher and higher. And I think that’s in part because we sacralize exercise as a legitimate expense and a legitimate pursuit. And with the built environment of the home, there is something desirable to show off.
Through the past 30 or so years, home workout machines have all but promised to move your limbs for you – the Nordic Track, the Bowflex, the Peloton… maybe the Wii Fit, I don’t know. But what Natalia gave me to hold while we did squats — a 35 pound iron kettlebell — is about as low-tech and simple as it gets.
Fitness trends come and go. But the weight is an anchor in the shifting tides. There have been very few changes to its design – Russian farmers used kettlebells in the 1700s as counterweights to measure out grain. Barbells used to have those giant globes of on either side of them that circus strongmen used to lift. And those were filled with sand or iron shot to modify the weight. But once barbells became a rod with changeable solid iron plates, that was sort of that. 35 pounds of iron is 35 pounds of iron. It’s just that the culture around weights — who lifts them and why — has changed.
Natalia Petrzela: If you look at, like, the larger history of fitness culture in America, you have at some moments a kind of celebration of, like, strength and, like, muscle-building and at other moments. And, like, a real ambivalence and even disgust about – and fear – about what it means to lift weight.
Professor Petrzela is truly not exaggerating about the disgust and fear. In the early part of the 20 century, there were honest-to-god health concerns around lifting weights.A widespread idea – promoted even by doctors – was that lifting weights would make you “muscle-bound.”
Natalia Petrzela: Musclebound meant being literally bonded by your muscles. Like your brain wouldn’t work. You were trapped by your muscles.
And you couldn’t touch your toes or touch your head. You’d be locked in a puffy muscular cage of your own making. And so the people who did venture into the world of weight-lifting were not too forthcoming about it.
Natalia Petrzela: Very unlike today, going to the gym, being seen exercising, is not something that displays your virtue.
Weight-lifting as a subculture was sweaty and dirty and entirely suspicious. It was considered a form of body modification to coax your muscles to this dangerous artificial edge with weights. And so it’s easy to be like, “Ha, ha! Old-timey people. Why were they so scared of weights?” I mean, I don’t lift weights. I think some of the reason why is because I’m intimidated. No that I think weights will make me unable to touch my head. I’m just, you know… why would I want to get ripped? But in thinking about this eternal, unchangeable piece of equipment at the center of so many changing attitudes and fads around personal fitness in America, I came across a story of this one businessman who’s arguably sort of a proto-home fitness guru from the 1930’s. And his entire vision was to get everyone to lift weights, no matter gender or age or race. Back when no one believed that it was healthy.
And I don’t know if I can actually say he succeeded or not. Because it is only fairly recently that we are finally sort of living in the reality that this guy envisioned. But it didn’t happen until way long after his death, and only in this very roundabout way,
Oh, and his name was Bob Hoffman.
Avery Trufelman: Can you read it?
Jan Dellinger: Yes. “At one time I stood alone. I was almost the only believer in weight-training for athletes and now there are thousands of coaches who are teaching weight training to their teams and hundreds and thousands of athletes improving their athletic ability through weight training.” Bob Hoffman.
That quote from Bob Hoffman is on a plaque at the entry of the Weightlifting Hall of Fame in York, Pennsylvania which is in a lot of ways a shrine to Bob Hoffman.
Jan Dellinger: That’s Bob.
Avery Trufelman: That’s Bob!
Jan Dellinger: Yeah, Bob later in life…
Jan Dellinger was my guide at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame where out front, there’s a 7 foot tall bronze statue of Bob – gleaming, bald, shirtless, super-ripped. Inside the atrium, there’s another bust of Bob, his buff arms crossed proudly over his chest. And right up there on the wall, there’s a massive sepia photograph of Bob from the waist up, in a frilly shirt, bow tie, and shiny patterned tuxedo decorated with military medals.
Jan Dellinger: He often had a lot of medals.
Avery Trufelman: He just, like, wore medals around?
Jan Dellinger: How do I talk about this? Okay, he… he had a big ego. He sometimes wore medals on his coat. He sort of looked like a third-world general. Some of those were bought. Some of those… some of those he actually earned.
Okay so Bob Hoffman was actually a decorated World War I hero. But he had a knack for – shall we say – pumping up the truth. About himself in particular.
John Fair: He was very egocentric and I would say more so than 90 percent of people.
When historian John Fair wrote the definitive biography of Bob Hoffman, it involved a lot of fact checking. But Bob’s very hearty ego turned out to be a useful tool to sell weight lifting to an incredulous American public in the 1930s.
John Fair: Because very few people believed in barbells.
Because, again, there was this concern that if you got too muscular, you’d ruin your body and muscles would make athletes slow and inflexible.
John Fair: Football coaches were the worst. Oh, my gosh. Yes. And I played tennis in college and the tennis coach told us, I don’t want any of you guys ever touching barbells.
Bob Hoffman had always been a good athlete. He was a canoer and a boxer. And when he began working out with barbells, his friends ridiculed him for “seeking manufactured bumps”– but he discovered that the strength and muscle gained from weightlifting made him better at sports.
John Fair: He realized from his personal experience that they helped him grow big and strong back in his canoeing days.
But Bob Hoffman was able to ascend into so much more than another secret gym rat. Because Bob co-founded a business that manufactured and sold iron oil burners. And in 1922, oil burners were a hot commodity.
John Fair: He got in on a good thing. Oil burners were new and everybody else had coal furnaces or fireplaces.
York Oil Burners, based in York, Pennsylvania, was doing pretty good business especially careening into the Depression. And so Bob Hoffman was at liberty to hire anyone he wanted to. And he wanted to hire fellow weight lifters. Not only because he knew that buff dudes are good on the factory floor, but he also wanted to create his own community. To train together and engage in some friendly lifting competition. And then Bob realized the processes of iron casting that they used for oil burners could also make barbells. Like, just for them to use for themselves, for their training.
John Fair: They started manufacturing them there in the middle of the oil burner company, began recruiting weightlifters from around the area to work in the oil burner company, which is an original, really original idea. He gave people jobs.
And so, Bob assembled a team of his employees of all races, of all backgrounds, brought to York, Pennsylvania from all over the country to form the York Oil Burner Athletic Club.
John Fair: Which is a very awkward name.
And things ratcheted up very quickly from there. Because In the small but passionate world of competitive weightlifting, winning a regional meet could qualify you for the Olympics. And soon members of the York Oil Burner Athletic Club were off taking off to compete in the Olympics and all other kinds of international lifting competitions.
John Fair: Bob spent, like, twenty dollars to send a telegram to Adolf Hitler, which is, like, basically “in your face,” you know.
That was after a 1938 world championship.
As Bob saw it, his ragtag crew of guys – some of whom were blue collar and immigrants – were suddenly representing A-MURICA. They were beating government-sponsored teams from Fascist and Communist countries. And this nationalism angle became a really important dimension for Bob Hoffman.
John Fair: He was fighting for America. He was fighting for our side.
And Bob came to believe that everyone should be super excited about what he was accomplishing. I mean, Bob was basically funding and creating the America lifting team himself, out of his guys from the York Oil Burner Athletic Club! You’re welcome, America!
And so, if Bob Hoffman was going to get the appreciation he thought he deserved, he needed to get rid of the stigma around lifting weights. To get Americans to embrace the barbell and to understand the beauty of lifting. And not only for his employees-slash-olympic champions, but so that every single American could be healthy and strong. And you know, prepared, just in case one of those nations with a state-sponsored lifting team tried to invade us.
John Fair: It was entire nations he was working against and they were doing it for, to a great extent, ideological purposes. So, yeah, he was up against a big stone wall and he couldn’t get over himself.
Back in 1932, Bob had started a magazine out of the Oil Burner Company called “Strength and Health.” In editorials Bob warned that American life was too easy.
VOICEOVER: The vast majority of the people are soft.
VOICEOVER: To avoid having our own country invaded we must be strong.
The magazine was packed with how-tos and advice and inspirational cover photos of Olympic champions…. many of whom just so happened to be Bob’s employees at York. And in 1935, when Milo Barbell, America’s biggest barbell company, went bankrupt, Bob bought it.
Jan Dellinger: We’re in the middle of a depression and Bob’s buying a mail order barbell business in the middle of a depression. That’s how much of a zealot Bob was.
By the late 1930s, Bob Hoffman had ditched the oil burner business entirely and started manufacturing and selling barbells full time.York Oil Burners had now become the York Barbell Company. Which was quite the leap, when you think about how popular oil burners were and how suspicious and niche weights were. So Bob had a lot of convincing to do.
Jan Dellinger: York gave a lot of exhibitions over the years back in the 30s and they would go to carnivals and have shows.
Bob used his Olympic team-slash-employees as models and spokesmen to sell his weights and home workout courses. The York men and Bob Hoffman traveled all over the country in a roadster with a barbell strapped to the front. They would lift the barbell and then touch their elbows to their toes, to show how flexible they still were. And this is key. The style of lift that the York men were demonstrating – the style that Bob most adored – was Olympic lifting. Indeed this is the style of lifting that is in the Olympics. But aside from that, it is a very specific style, which put simple, is this: lifting a barbell and raising it over one’s head, through a sequence of choreographed moves like the snatch, clean and jerk. It’s not just about lifting the most weight possible. It’s about how you lift it.
Jan Dellinger: Olympic lifting takes a little more snap speed, coordination and flexibility.
Olympic lifters were agile and, dare I say, graceful. They were the opposite of musclebound. And so Bob really wanted everyone to be excited about his Olympic lifting team and to be doing Olympic lifting themselves. Everyone. All ages!
Jan Dellinger: Yeah, if you tapped into the strength and health culture, an image Bob was very much informing, you found support. And for a teenage boy, you saw some kids your own age.
Jan Dellinger actually grew up to work in the editorial arm of York in the 1970s. But even before that, “Strength and Health” had a column written for women by women called “Barbells” about how lifting can help you keep a trim physique. Reading “Strength and Health” was a form of community outside the realm of mysterious, scary gyms. And actually, Bob Hoffman thought that was a better way to work out. He wrote–
VOICEOVER: Home training is the best way to produce the maximum in muscular strength and growth.
And again, this was a wild proposition when you think about the reaction Jan got from his dad when he asked for weights so he could work out at home.
Jan Dellinger: My dad threw a fit. Yes, threw a fit! He said, we’re not buying this for ya.
So you could be like, wow, Bob Hoffman was pretty prescient. That’s amazon. How did Bob Hoffman know that weights are good for you. The answer was, he didn’t. He was kinda shooting from the hip.
John Fair: It was all sort of trial and error, I guess you would say. But it seemed to be working. And what’s more, he was making a lot of money.
Because at a certain point, Bob becomes like a macho Gwneyth Paltrow. He starts cranking out books and more magazines full of all kinds of advice that extend beyond weightlifting, into general wellness. And some of his advice is just like…. wait, what?
Jan Dellinger: No one bats a thousand… Bob’s conundrum, Bob, is a conundrum.
In Bob’s 1938 book “How To Be Strong, Happy, and Healthy,” on one page he’s telling people to avoid eating white flour and refined sugar – ok, wow, pretty on the nose there – and then turn the page and he’s saying that most headaches are caused by constipation and not to put condiments on your food. And that masturbation can sap a man’s strength. And the thing about Bob’s rules that did have merit, oftentimes he thought they did not personally apply to him.
Jan Dellinger: He railed in print against caffeine and coffee but he took no’s to those. He was kind of a caffeine freak.
Avery Trufelman: Really? He would get mad at his boys for drinking coffee.
Jan Dellinger: There’s separation there in one person’s mind — don’t ask me to explain it. I’m probably telling you more than I should.
Bob advised a solid 8 hours of sleep but said that he personally didn’t need it because–
VOICEOVER: I sleep faster than most people.
It would be hard for anyone to live entirely by the rules Bob Hoffman set. Including Bob Hoffman.
John Fair: He loved hot dogs, he loved candy, he indulged himself with unhealthy food. He claimed to be the healthiest man in the world. But he turned out to be one of the unhealthiest men in the world.
So Bob was a total mixed bag with a lot of contradictory or unfounded or unfollowable advice. Which makes it wild that he was 100% correct about weight-lifting. But then the hilarious part to me is that this somewhat broken clock ends up being right twice because Bob shot from the hip again with another fitness product. And again he hits the target.
John Fair: If you want to be strong and healthy, you need more protein.
Avery Trufelman: Like is he the reason I can go get protein bars at the bodega?
John Fair: He definitely popularized the idea.
In 1952, Bob introduced a product he called Hi-Proteen. Spelled with two e’s! The recipe was essentially stolen from a one-time business partner and it was basically soybean powder that he mixed with chocolate from nearby Hershey, Pennsylvania. And he personally mixed it himself very unscientifically in a giant vat with a canoe paddle.
John Fair: Bob was in there sweating away, making high protein, eventually got others to do this, sweating away. He was using the same mixture to sell his gain weight product as he was to sell his lose weight product.
Avery Trufelman: Oh, my God, no! They were the exact same product.
John Fair: Exactly the same product. He insisted that these high protein products were the reason that American weightlifters were so successful in the 1950s.
So ultimately Bob Hoffman had created this loop where he wanted Americas to get excite about his Olympic team, by essentially relying on his Olympic team to sell his publications and protein products and weights but as individuals and professional sports teams and trainers started buying and using York Barbells and Hi Proteen, it made lifting weights a means to an end, and not an end itself. Because it turned out Bob’s customers were not necessarily interested in learning the choreography and sport of Olympic lifting for the great glory of America. They weren’t even interested in training for other sports. It turned out a sizable portion of Bob’s customers, maybe more sizable than Bob realized, just wanted results.
John Fair: That’s what young men want most of all, is to look big and to impress people. And it doesn’t– yeah, it’s good to have strength, but appearance is the main thing.
And the question became… what kind of appearance is the appearance to want? And how do weights fit into that? After the break, an ideological challenge to the York empire pits the east coast against the west coast, athletics versus aesthetics, and ultimately gets us to the kind of workouts you might be doing at home today.
The truism of rivalry is that it often springs from admiration. And so the cruel irony is that the weightlifting guru who emerged to challenge the reign of York Barbell could have easily been Bob Hoffman’s protege. Because while Bob was building his empire in York, a kid named Joe Wieder was home in Montreal, getting hooked on weightlifting. And according to Jan Dellinger, Joe Wieder gobbled up everything Bob did. He was a devoted reader of “Strength and Health” and a lifter of York barbells.
Jan Dellinger: Okay, here’s something people don’t know. When Wieder started out in the late thirties, he was a York rep. He was repped York barbell stuff.
And if you’ll recall John Fair’s description of Bob Hoffman–
John Fair: He was very egocentric and I would say more so than 90 percent of people.
h=Here’s the rest of the sentence:
John Fair: But he had his equal in his field cause Joe Weider was the same way.
Joe was still a teenager when he began to build HIS weightlifting empire. Legend has it, he pillaged old editions of “Strength and Health “to get the contact information of about 800 Canadian muscle men and mailed them each a postcard encouraging them to sign up for his publication. Which turned out to be the extremely French-Canadian sounding “Your Physique.” The first issue came out in 1940, when Joe was only 19 years old.
And eventually, when York stopped selling weights in Canada because of a tariff increase, Joe Weider decided to fill the gap by manufacturing his own weights. Eventually he got into shilling protein, too.
John Fair: Weider saw that Bob was making a lot of money out of it. And so he started manufacturing his own protein and he called it high protein and spelled it differently.
Weider spelled Protein correctly. And then Weider was making Weider vitamin mineral supplement, Weider energy tablets, weirder reduce aid supplement, and weider weight gaining supplement. Weider was essentially selling supplements as a magical shortcut to help you glean the benefits of working out without breaking a sweat. And this is part of the important distinction between Joe Wieder and Bob Hoffman.
Joe did not care about being able to execute a clean and jerk like an Olympic weightlifter did, and neither did his readers of “Your Physique.” They didn’t want to read about precise Olympic choreography or how to be fit out of some patriotic duty. They just wanted muscles.
John Fair: So where do you go if you want to become famous and make a lot of money and– Weider really got it right. He reasoned that it’s in bodybuilding. So that’s what Weider went for in a big way, not just for big bulging muscles.
Bodybuilding is the idea that you can sculpt your deltoids or triceps just so and make yourself into a statue of your own design. It was less about athletics and more about aesthetics.
John Fair: That you’re doing this not so much for your country, but you’re doing this for yourself. I guess you would say self-interest, that you become a “Weider” man.
The Weider way and the Hoffman Way were just fundamentally two different philosophies, even if they were using the same weights.
At the York Barbell Club Picnic in June of 1945, York Pennsylvania was dubbed Muscletown USA. Bob’s Americana Norman Rockwellian mecca for blue collar workers living and grunting together on and off the clock, all obediently living by Bob’s strict rules for health and wellness in order to bring glory back to the United States through the discipline of Olympic lifting!
But the bodybuilding movement was gathering steam in Los Angeles. And this is where Weider would eventually move to and set up shop. Muscle Beach had popped up in the 1930s, as a spot for gymnasts and acrobats to practice
VOICEOVER: Muscle Beach, where you flex whatever you have.
And by the 1950s, this slice of boardwalk attracted actors and extras and stunt doubles and workout buffs. Men and some women who went to exercise in the sun. Tourists came to gawk at their beautiful, perfectly suntanned bodies as they smiled and performed flips and stacked in human pyramids.
Jan Dellinger: It was a body conscious culture. I mean whether you were doing gymnastics or hand balancing or lifting and bodybuilding, whatever, you know, it was just like a bohemian atmosphere there in Southern California.
To Bob Hoffman, this Muscle Beach scene just looked like narcissistic cotton candy. Repeatedly “Strength and Health” smeared-
VOICEOVER: Booby builders
— who wanted muscles for muscle’s sake. Soon Bob coined the term “Sensible Physical Training” to differentiate his athletic, healthy York way from what he saw as Joe Weider’s superficial way. He essentially dragged Joe Weider into an ongoing war between their publications.
John Fair: Individuals that I’ve interviewed sort of blame Bob for the feud because Bob was the front runner and he didn’t like this competition from this upstart, this Canadian and this foreigner who was under communist influence or encouraging communist ideas.
Which is like LOL. But the feud between Bob and Joe got truly very ugly and petty. Just like, firing shots about each other’s divorces and finances. Stuff that didn’t even make good articles.
John Fair: I mean, it’s almost sickening.
Which is wild, because bodybuilding and Olympic lifting used to have a lot of overlap. A lot of the Olympic lifters at York used to also call themselves bodybuilders. But when this rift opened, a number of York men defected to become Weider men. Also, a lot of the guys just left York because of low wages and poor management. After all, why would you want to live under Bob’s impossible lifestyle rules and work for him in both the barbell business and on the Olympic team in central Pennsylvania? When you could work out in the sun, on Muscle Beach and pose in Mr Universe competitions and the bodybuilding lifestyle was all the more alluring. After Joe Wieder took a young Austrian lifter under his wing and in 1968, paid his way to the U.S.
John Fair: Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Weider product, you know?
Schwarzenegger changed the whole game. Not just for lifters. But for the wider American public when they saw Arnold star in the movies.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I am Hercules.”
John Fair: Barbells became accepted by virtually everyone, but didn’t happen until widely until the 70s. And it was probably Weider that cashed in most and eventually displaced Hoffman.
Bob Hoffman’s impact on the culture of weightlifting was, and is, huge. He converted a lot of sports teams and members of the military to start using weights. But ultimately, Bob gave up on the Olympic team. Emotionally and financially. Oddly Hoffman turned to funding softball teams.
John Fair: And that softball thing was really weird.
And American Olympic lifting has actually never quite recovered. Pretty much ever since Bob stopped personally bankrolling it in the 60s. Last year was kind of a big deal because a member of the women’s team won a silver medal. But the last time someone on the women’s team won a gold medal was 20 years ago, and on the men’s team, it’s been especially bleak. The men’s team hasn’t won a single medal since 1984, and I didn’t even know how bad Americans were at lifting. Because no one really talks about it.
John Fair: Well, we don’t emphasize weightlifting as a sport or as an Olympic sport. Other countries do this.
So yeah, when weightlifting became culturally acceptable, it was for bodybuilding and the showiness of it, rather than the sport. And interestingly, Professor Petrzela says that weightlifting set the stage for the next massive movement in American fitness, which was cardio.
Natalia Petrzela: So what happens when cardio becomes a big deal? Well, the enthusiasm that has been percolating thanks to these like strengths enthusiasts, now there’s a form of exercise that the world is primed for. That is good for you. That doesn’t involve lifting heavy things. Does it involve sending away for these iron heavy weights that you have to have in your house? It could be just trotting around, outside and in the street. You know, in your jogging suit and you’re like rubber-soled shoes.
Cardio, which started in the 60s but really took off in the 80s, was the surefire not-scary way to a lean lithe body. Lest you risk bulking up like Arnold, in comes aerobics and swimming and aqua aerobics. And the thing is that by the 80s, weights had become culturally accepted enough to be included as part of cardio home workouts.
Jane Fonda: “If you have several weights you may want to use heavier for these first exercises, the shoulder shrugs.”
In this Jane Fonda workout video from the 80s, where she’s just using little metal dumbbells, you can hear the aesthetic influence of bodybuilding…
“lifting to the side develops the mid-deltoid here…”
You can still hear the fear associated with getting “too” muscular.
“the three moves together give your shoulder a great shape without a bulky look”
The message had come through. Like, lifting weights was good for you, sure. But if you don’t want to get swole, maybe you should just use little ones. This is a new version of that same old fear of muscle boundness.
Natalia Petrzela: This weightlifting had always had this baggage with it, particularly for women that it’s unhealthy because it’s heavy. There’s a lot of that same kind of framing and marketing and reassurance about like, don’t worry, we’ll make you thin, or at least you won’t make you bulky. And that’s literally the same thing that we’ve been hearing since the 1940s.
And this is, of course, gendered, but I don’t think it’s entirely gendered. I think there are also a lot of class hang ups around what kind of bodies and intellectual in the knowledge economy should have, what it means to be lean and leisurely. Muscles carry a lot of baggage, so I’ve always been like, I don’t really want to lift that baggage up. And it turns out, Professor Petrzela, at the same time as she was roundly kicking my ass with her workouts, told me that she used to be just as hesitant as I was.
Natalia Petrzela: I had totally incorporated the world view that, like, I build muscle easily, and that’s a problem, you know, and so I don’t want to bulk up.
In 2018, Professor Petrzela wanted to train for the New York Marathon, and a coach suggested that part of her training should be weightlifting. That it would make her faster and healthier and fitter. That cardio and real full weight training can go together cohesively. And this has been a fundamental tenant of a relatively recent movement in fitness. One that I actually did not realize was actively underway all around me.
CrossFit gyms are often in garages or designed to look like gritty garages. Because that is where the movement began. It was invented for anyone to do in their home. Because you’re not working with abstract workout machines or trying to target specific body parts. You’re working with different weights and ropes and things that might replicate real-world situations — if you had to quickly run somewhere or lift something.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: CrossFit as a polarizing program. But there’s no question that after CrossFit came out in 2001, it spawned all of these different kinds of programs that put weight training at the center of fitness.
CrossFit was the birth of the functional fitness movement.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: The idea of the functional fitness is that you’d only need one barbell and a few weights, and you can do all these different kinds of things.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek is a professor of culture and anthropology at Brooklyn College.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: And I am an Olympic weightlifter.
Indeed, the style of lifting that Bob Hoffman loved.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: Olympic weightlifting in the United States has boomed since the advent of CrossFit because CrossFit brought the weightlifting equipment and style and moves into an everyday class for like general populations.
And the person responsible for CrossFit is in some ways a very Bob Hoffman-like figure who was proposing weightlifting workouts to the masses. A rogue personal trainer named Greg Glassman.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: He got kind of kicked out of his mainstream gym because he was doing all kinds of stuff differently.
Glassman would do ridiculous numbers of repetitions in a short time and then run around the block and then maybe do some gymnastics moves, maybe swing some kettlebells, maybe do some Olympic lifts. Each totally scattered workout was super quick, super high octane, and Glassman started to post his very intense workouts on the internet for anyone to follow.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: So this was like early online 2001…
So this was done mostly by rogue individuals in their garages. Until after September 11.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: It is not coincidental that the CrossFit, the war on terror, the U.S. military and the barbell sort of came up together.
After 9/11, all the elements that have been weird and alienating about CrossFit – the accessibility, the intensity of it – suddenly, this was really appealing to a civilian population who just bought gas masks and go bags because they wanted to be prepared for everything. And this was also appealing to a military gearing up to recruit for a new war. Paramilitarism was built into the very culture of CrossFit. CrossFit even started a line of workouts named after soldiers who died in the war on terror.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: You can go to the website and you can find an image of the man who died and a workout named after him, and they’re called hero workouts.
The hero and tribute workouts now also include cops who’ve died in the line of duty. But ultimately, this is the culture that really made weightlifting mainstream in America. More so than Bob Hoffman or Joe Wieder ever could. Even though CrossFit was actively developed to be rogue and fringy.
Think about the equipment that’s sold out in the pandemic. This Is like kettlebells and barbells. Stuff that was all revived by CrossFit or but rather functional fitness.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: Can’t use CrossFit because it’s branded.
Also, a lot of people don’t want to use the name CrossFit because of its long history of being libertarian and white and militaristic and male. Especially after the murder of George Floyd, when Greg Glassman tweeted racist things and was ousted from CrossFit corporate.
Katie Rose Hejtmanek: A lot of people will not continue with CrossFit because of the undercurrent. You know, white supremacist imperialism, misogyny that’s inherent to the practice.
Maillard Howell: It would be disingenuous and it would be maybe even borderline dishonest if I didn’t give credit to CrossFit. Despite the shitty part.
Maillard Howell is one of the founders of Dean CrossFit in Brooklyn. It’s one of only a few Black-owned CrossFit gyms in New York City, and a lot of CrossFit gyms have changed their names or disassociated from the brand. But Dean CrossFit was not one of those gyms.
Maillard Howell: We tried to be an example of what it should be or what it could be.
Maillard’s started lifting through bodybuilding. When he was young, he wanted to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Maillard Howell: Yeah, that’s how I started. I chased wanting to look like those guys in the magazine — “Flex” magazine. That’s how I started, doing pushups in my mom’s garage.
But when Maillard was compelled to try a CrossFit class, he realized his muscles couldn’t actually help him.
Maillard Howell: And I was like, whoa, that shit kicked my ass. And there’s two reactions to that. Either that shit kicked my ass, I don’t ever want to do that again or ever feel like that again. Or two, shit, that kicked my ass, I got to do better. I could do– I think I could do better. Now I may be an anomaly, you know, but it has, you know, I don’t think CrossFit or the functional fitness space would be where it’s at right now without that roar. It appealed to a number to a large percentage of all fitness goers.
For Maillard, functional fitness is about what your body can achieve, not what it looks like. It’s just right out of the Bob Hoffman camp. It’s almost like he took the words right out of Bob’s mouth when he said–
Maillard Howell: Everyone should be lifting weights.
Avery Trufelman: Everyone?
Maillard Howell: Everyone. I’m not saying you should be lifting weights to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or whatever. No, you should be lifting weights to improve your quality of life. You should be lifting weights to be a stronger human, to be a healthier human, to be able to do day to day stuff with minimal risk and increase your longevity. That’s why you should be lifting weights, period.
In a functional fitness class, you might encounter kettlebells and dumbbells or barbells, but in the class I just so happened to go to, we were given barbells and we were instructed how to clean and jerk with coordination and flexibility, Olympic-style.
Instructor: You want your elbows to be up like and the bar is actually resting on your shoulders.
Avery Trufelman: Are you always consciously considering the choreography? Or at some point does it become second nature.
Instructor: It becomes second nature.
Greenpoint Athletics, formerly known as CrossFit Greenpoint, is gritty and raw. I would have been way too intimidated to go by myself. But my friend Torrey and her wife Chris have been going a lot lately, and they have computer centric brain in a jar jobs like me. Chris is a law professor and Torrey is a writer.
Torery Peters: I’m Torrey Peters. Um, what should I say?
Avery Trufelman: Author.
Torrey Peters: Okay, I’m an author and fitness aficionado. As of like three months ago.
After a lot of instruction for how to execute an Olympic lift without throwing out your back, I spent 20 minutes trying to sync my breath with my movements to hoist my barbell over my head. And it required a lot of focus. My whole body and mind was induced into this very trancelike beatific state. And I didn’t feel competitive or like anyone else was looking at me. It was just me and this weight and some really loud music.
Torrey Peters: I feel… I get to feel good about my body here, not because of necessarily the way it looks but like, instead of being like, I want my body to be ornamental, I started aspiring for my body to be able to do jeez — what they’re doing. I didn’t even know what this movement is, but they’re doing to a pull-ups wall ladder.
Right on cue, the teacher who taught the class, Kylie ,started doing these ridiculously intimidating pull ups, like just as some sort of cool down.
Torrey Peters: I think when I see people do these movements, I don’t look at them. I can imagine what it would like to do that. And instead of even as like an aspirational attainment, aspiring to be in my body as opposed to aspiring to have somebody like gaze on my body is a really big difference.
The Olympic lifting class made my whole body ache in a satisfying way that felt pulsating. And I was like, huh? I think I could see myself getting into this? But I wasn’t sure if I was considering it for Weider reasons or Hoffman reasons, you know? Like, did I actually want to be strong or do I just want to look like I was strong? Arguably functional fitness kind of blurs that line.
Torrey Peters: Bodybuilding is supposed to be ornamental, and CrossFit is like, oh, it’s applicable. But there’s something ornamental. And having a body that’s so easily applicable to work like it’s work that you’ll never actually do it. And it’s like, yeah, I sit at my computer all day, but I could, I don’t know, like, chop down a tree. And so there’s a kind of like, it’s like a hidden ornamentalism of the body.
It’s a set of considerations and circumstances that seem so far removed from Muscle Town, USA and from the Olympics and from fears of muscle boundness and from the Mount Rose Cemetery in York, Pennsylvania, where Bob Hoffman’s grave was designed to look like Elvis Presley’s, but engraved with a long, glowing list of his many accomplishments.
Avery Trufelman: “At one time, I stood alone. I was the only believer in weight training for athletics. Now there are millions.”.
But Bob didn’t need all the bravery and the fake medals. His legacy speaks for itself, albeit more quietly and subtly than Bob would have liked it to. Because when I took that class at Greenpoint Athletics, the 2.5 pound plates I kept adding to my barbell each time I lifted it high above my head were emblazoned in iron with the name York.
“Nice Try!” is a product of Curbed and the Vox Media Podcast Network. You can find more episodes wherever you listen. This week Avery will be talking about the origin of the Western bathroom and the culture of modern cleanliness — as examined through the great mystery of why Americans cannot seem to fully embrace the bidet. Embrace the bidet, people. It is delightful.
“Nice Try!” is written and performed by Avery Trufelman, produced by Megan Cunnane, with associate producers Diana Budds and Sarah Burke, and fact checked by Selena Solin. Lisa Pollak is their editorial consultant, with sound design and engineering by Alex Higgins. Their showrunner is Art Chung, and executive producers are Nishat Kurwa and Kelsey Keith.
This program, 99% Invisible, is Delaney Hall, Swan Real, Kurt Kohlstedt, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.
We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.
You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.