How Powerlifting Made Me a Better Libertarian

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Libertarianism is a very physical worldview.

A recurrent and basic theme in libertarian writing is the human body. For instance:

  • "Let us…concentrate on the question of a man's ownership rights to his own body. Here there are two alternatives: either we may lay down a rule that each man should be permitted (i.e., have the right to) the full ownership of his own body, or we may rule that he may not have such complete ownership." (Murray Rothbard)
  • "State laws, regulations, and actions are objectionable just because the state is claiming the right to control how someone’s body is to be used." (N. Stephan Kinsella)
  • "…the principle of self-ownership stands at the basis of libertarian thought. Each person is the owner of his or her own body." (David Gordon)

Individuals exercise self-ownership through a variety of physical choices such as a man choosing to wear a beard or not. For the despotic alternative, consider the prohibition of beards by Albania's Enver Hoxha and, more recently, Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov.

Athletic endeavor is a particularly emotional exercise of self-ownership. Accordingly, sport can yield great appreciation for one's body and the ownership thereof. I would like to share my recent experience in such an endeavor.

I was a competitive martial artist in high school and lost interest in college. A couple of years ago, I began lifting weights to build a stronger, healthier body and re-cultivate my kinetic identity. In short, I fell in love with the intensity, efficacy, and individuality of strength training. (Training partners can be great, but ultimately it's you and the bar.)

My athletic temperament remained, and I sought a competitive application to strength training. This is how I discovered powerlifting.

Powerlifting is a sport consisting of three one-repetition maximum (1RM) attempts in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, for a total of nine attempts. Powerlifting is more specifically a sport of relative maximal strength, with weight classes ranging from 97 lbs. to over 308lbs.

Powerlifting is also a sport of mastery with several criteria for successful performance. To give a few examples, a squat must break parallel (where the top of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees, not exactly commonplace in gyms); a bench press requires a pause at the bottom (no trampoline-style ugliness where people bounce the bar off their chests); and there can be no downward movement of the bar during a deadlift.

I gravitated to what is called raw or unequipped powerlifting, which consists of wearing only a belt with the required singlet. (Depending on the federation, knee wraps and wrist wraps are also allowed.) Assistive gear such as squat and deadlift suits and bench press shirts — in short, they create immense tension and enable higher lifts — predominate powerlifting today, but this style of competition doesn't appeal to me. (I'm the type who considers Scot Mendelson's world-record raw bench press of 715 lbs. more impressive than his equipped bench press of 1008lbs. And then there's Dennis Cieri benching 525 raw as a 198.)

I initially found no raw meets in my region and thought I would be unable to compete. Through research, I discovered the USAPL Florida federation offered an unequipped division at its meets.

In November, I attended USAPL Florida's Southeastern USA Regional Bench Press and Powerlifting Championships. I was impressed by the professionalism and solidarity I observed and decided this was the right federation for me. (Powerlifting could be called an anarcho-capitalist sport in having many federations for lifters with different preferences concerning gear, drug testing, etc. Heterogeneity and choice reign.)

A February state championship was announced at the end of the competition. This is where the rubber would meet the road. Was I really serious about competing or not?

I sent in my registration in December.

On February 24, I competed successfully in my first meet. By "successfully," I mean my subjective definitions of success: getting on the platform, not "bombing out" by making good attempts in each lift, and ending the meet with a personal record (PR) in the deadlift.

I was also successful in the objective sense of winning my division in my weight class, but this isn't paramount. The competitiveness of powerlifting is largely internal, and PRs usually matter more than medals. As champion powerlifter Nick Tylutki observes, "In this sport, success isn’t measured by winning, in my opinion. It’s measured in self-improvement through goal setting, hard work toward that end, and breaking through that goal."

I also made several errors that cost me a significant amount on my total. (Total is best squat plus best bench press plus best deadlift.) These errors included lack of sleep the night before, weighing in too light, and making an excessive jump between my first and second bench press attempts.

Live and learn. Overall, it was a wonderful experience.

My next meet, what's called a push-pull (bench press and deadlift), is in May. I currently enjoy being a local (i.e., state) lifter and sharing my love of the sport.

To be nationally or internationally competitive, I would need to do things that don't appeal to me such as gain a large amount of weight, with probable negative health consequences. In this vein, retired elite powerlifter Jim Wendler notes, "Anyone who has tried to compete at the highest level knows that athletics are not that healthy." (I'm 6'1 with long arms and legs and weigh around 180. Leverage figures importantly in powerlifting, and to compensate for my biomechanics I would need to weigh well over 250. For a comparative perspective, champion powerlifter Brad Gillingham is 6'5 and over 300lbs.; Tony Cardella is 6'0 and competes in the 275s; Dave Ricks is 5'6 and competes in the 181s; and Wade Hooper is 5'3 and competes in the 165s.)

Ultimately, though, it's my body.

For those who consider powerlifting too dangerous (yet often support danger-filled sports like football), no one is coercing you to enter a meet. But I doubt you will find a sport with as much decency and mutual support as powerlifting.

"The sport of powerlifting is the greatest sport in the world," Frederick Hatfield wrote in 1981. "Ask any powerlifter." (In 1987, Hatfield squatted 1014lbs., which set a world record.)

Powerlifting did not make me value self-ownership. I was a libertarian before I became a powerlifter, and my attraction to powerlifting probably arose in part from being a libertarian.

But powerlifting has deepened my concern for self-ownership. My passion and my freedom are intertwined. Now more than ever do I appreciate the words of Frederick Douglass:

"It is a fundamental truth that every man is the rightful owner of his own body."

March 10, 2007