Radical Liftists: Why Leftists Should Pump Iron


Today an article about me came out
. I’d like to elaborate on that.

If you are a leftist activist, and you are physically capable, you should lift weights.

The benefits of regular strength training are as much mental as physical. If you feel that your individual efforts are insignificant to the point that you might as well not do them, you need to lift. It will change this belief. When you are capable of ripping a couple hundred pounds of iron up off the floor, you will gain an understanding of your ability to affect your environment through concerted repetitive effort. Repetitive is the key word there, because repetition is what you’re really training for. If you are a leftist, and you believe in the struggle for a better world, you must learn to struggle effectively. As an activist, you will exert a great deal of effort that will sometimes lead to progress but will usually have no clear immediate effect. The important part is that you keep showing up and trying hard.

Strength training and activism are similar in that for most people, the hardest part is getting out of the house and doing it. The will to begin in the face of something that seems ultimately futile is the hurdle. Both weightlifting and activism seem like things that other people do, things that they have seemingly always done, perhaps, and it may seem like if you have not yet begun then you never can begin. This is a bullshit belief. You are stronger than you think and you can grow even stronger, in both body and mind. Growing stronger in body will help you grow stronger in mind.

As weightlifting is often seen as the domain of meatheaded lunks, you rarely hear about the level of mental horsepower it takes. It is not the fine-tuned mental dexterity of solving a puzzle, but an exertion of sheer willpower. You do not appreciate willpower as a conscious thought pattern until you are in a situation where you have no choice but to call upon an untapped reservoir of mental strength to stand up under the crushing weight of a max effort squat, because the alternative is falling on your ass and shamefully scooting out from under the safety pins. There comes a moment, generally on the last rep of the last set, when your budgeted reserve of willpower will be insufficient, the weight will slow, and you will have the choice of giving up or consciously deciding: No. I will do this.

This is what you really have to gain from strength training. Though the idea of training to be strong enough to cave in a nazi’s face is appealing, you will very rarely be in a situation where you get to do that, and strength training alone won’t make you good at it. Closest I’ve come was staring down a man screaming homophobic invective at a gay teenager on the subway until he backed down, sat in stony silence for a bit, then softly murmured “I’m fucking vicious, bitch” as he got off the train. But this is still a rare occasion that you should be prepared for while hoping you don’t encounter it. It’s not a good idea to start a fight. It’s a really, really bad idea to start a fight. A protestor in Seattle was shot. The guys jumped by the 211 crew in the lower east side were slashed with a knife. No matter how strong you are, you are not in an advantage in a situation where you’re facing fascists with weapons. Being strong is not an invitation to start violence, but if violence comes, it may make you slightly harder to kill.

Hope that you will never have to fight in this way, and know that what you will have to do is go out and endure the boring, repetitive work of activism. One day recently, I left the gym and went straight to help deliver a list of demands to my senator’s office. This did not require physical strength and was mostly comprised of standing around an office building that didn’t want me there. But even so, strength training has made me better at standing around. It has helped to clear my head to the point that I am better at enduring boredom and wading through bureaucracy.

As you increase your strength, you are increasing your capacity to help people. I’ve had to carry a person fireman style twice since the election. You are not training to punch nazis. You are training because when you link arms with your comrades, you might as well link strong arms. You are training so that if someone falls at a protest, you can help them right back up. You are training to increase your discipline and willpower to endure the boring slog of daily activism. You are training for a capacity for the endless repetition of something difficult and unpleasant but that you do because you hope for a better future.

I’ll post more in the future about the details of the methods I recommend. For now I want to be clear that the benefits of strength training extend far beyond a potential capacity to disassemble a nazi. The hardest part is starting, so your first homework assignment is just that: to start. Your step one will be finding an accessible, affordable gym that has a barbell squat rack. Not a smith machine. Just locate the place. Determine that it exists, that it meets your criteria, and call the front desk to ask about their squat racks. That’s your day one activity. I’ll get into the details later.

Good luck out there.