Social media, weightlifting, and the rule of "use it or lose it"

A freakishly muscular man paces back and forth in a dingy garage filled with blaring death metal and barbells. The video is fuzzy, like cave-in-Afghanistan quality. The only things to dispel the atmosphere of impending massacre are the wholesome live-stream comments flickering down the screen. “You can do it!” “You’re the man!” Eric Bugenhagen, like many men, lifts weights in his garage, but unlike everyone else, kids spend their time watching him live-stream his workouts. Why would boys watch someone just lift weights? Bugenhagen is a charismatic performer with a day job in wrestling. Perhaps kids watch because they recognize him from television. Perhaps they watch because Bugenhagen’s intense amp-up routine is hilarious. Or maybe it’s just that his 800-pound deadlift is so impressive.

These are probably all true, but it misses the interesting shift in culture right now. The internet is an acid bath that melts television culture and reveals the fundamental shape of our society, and the success of Bugenhagen, and people like him, might point toward the future. Groups of young men are trying to find a way out of television culture, and new technology is being used to cure the problems that old technology created.

Across YouTube, there is now a new type of fitness genre of entertainment in which people, mostly kids, watch other people lift weights. Bugenhagen and “Jujimufu” are two popular YouTube channels that mostly just feature videos of people working out without much reference to tutorials or practical advice. In the 2010s, the general population was shocked to find out that kids would spend their free time watching other people play video games. The initially bizarre development of YouTube streamers gave way to a variety of more mainstream adaptations, and the rise of the lifting streamer may also point to trends in the decade to come. The most famous of the 2010s streamers was PewDiePie, who at one point had the most popular channel on YouTube. PewDiePie now tells his young followers that they must lift weights. What is going on?

Bugenhagen is a WWE wrestler who worked his way up that organization, but his celebrity is an internet phenomenon. Prior to entering the entertainment industry, Bugenhagen was a college wrestler. A few years ago, he began to record himself lifting weights in order to log progress. The early videos just featured him working out alone in his basement, but they quickly garnered a cult following. Bugenhagen lifts with outrageous intensity. He screams to pump up before a lift, screeches as he pushes the weight, then howls in celebration when he finishes. The intensity is infectious, in part, because it’s how people secretly want to act at the gym but can’t. Corporate gym chains, such as Planet Fitness, not only discourage grunting, they often brand themselves as the gyms where you’ll never have to meet someone like Bugenhagen. Maybe watching him break every gym “rule” allows teenage boys a way to escape the ever-watchful eye of Nurse Ratched vicariously.

Bugenhagen is a frequent guest on another weightlifting YouTube channel called “Jujimufu.” As a teenager, John “Jujimufu” Call created a forum for people interested in acrobatics. This endeavor morphed into a YouTube channel that combines acrobatics and weightlifting. His videos of overhead pressing while doing splits routinely went viral and earned him a spot on America’s Got Talent. His channel and associated business ended up making so much money that Juji was able to quit his corporate job. The videos on “Jujimufu” are entertaining, but what’s interesting is how little they resemble expectations for fitness content. There are no “how to” videos and no real attempt to sell viewers on a training program. Mostly, they feature groups of guys hanging out, lifting weights, and competing in goofy games, such as combining deadlifts with backflips. This ethos has evolved, and fans of the channel now gather on the messaging platform Discord. These fandoms may represent a deeper change in the culture.

Conversations on the impact of technology often get caught between two extremes. On the one hand, there are the hysterical optimists in Silicon Valley who believe in a miraculous and chrome-covered future. These are zombie progressives whose century-old ideology still doesn’t have an answer to the Japanese engineer in Hiroshima who watched the atom bomb fall from the sky and said, “The future sure is bright.” In contrast, there is a growing neo-Luddite movement, which manifests itself as rebellious teenagers reading the Unabomber and in a pop culture obsessed with the apocalypse. While the futurists and the Luddites seem to be opposing camps, their visions converge on a future without humans. The dorks dream of downloading their consciousness into a USB stick while the neurotics dream of a future in which nature is saved by ridding the world of people. Both view tech as an almost supernatural force that exists prior to all other human concerns. As bizarre as it sounds, the rise of the YouTube lifting streamer points to a more humane vision of the role of technology because it represents the rediscovery of fraternity.

Lifting weights immediately makes it clear that tech affects our ability to be human. For example, everyone is supposed to be able to squat all the way to the ground easily. In Eastern Europe, and in some Asian countries, it’s common to see 90-year-old women sit in a full squat as they wait for the bus. Yet most people in the West lose this ability. The reason is that we have toilets. Prior to the invention of toilets, people squatted every day, and it turns out that squatting is the only movement that requires full ankle mobility. Our joints are subject to the basic law of “use it or lose it.” No one thinks of the toilet when they warn of the dangers of technology, and yet this basic civilization advancement inadvertently affects the most basic human functions. What are the unintended consequences of televisions? Cars? Internet? Smartphones? As tech rapidly changes our lives, it brings into relief how “use it or lose it” extends far beyond our ankles, and we’re increasingly finding out just how much we can lose.

The television era coincided with the decline of any type of community. Part of this is because television as a medium sells lies. Instead of hanging out at a bar with friends, people watched shows about people hanging out at a bar. This is why the fitness industry was often “one weird trick to get a six-pack in 20 minutes.” The new lifting streamers end up shifting the emphasis from the final results to the day-in, day-out grind that any endeavor worth doing requires. Once the television fantasy is dispelled, a simple truth emerges. The truth about getting in shape is that it’s unglamorous and difficult. Any endeavor that takes decades of hard work can’t be completed alone. The internet is filled with fanatic fanbases and entertainment-focused “communities,” but the new fitness content points toward more substantial forms of community.

There is almost a logic that connects live-streaming deadlifts to the creation of community platforms. The types of people who want to watch someone deadlift also want to deadlift themselves. This points beyond the digital realm toward the need to have real-life spaces where boys and men can act the way Bugenhagen acts. The future belongs to those who use technology to create spaces where people can once again be people.

James McElroy is a novelist and essayist based in New York.

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Tags: YouTube, exercise, Health

Original Author: James McElroy

Original Location: Social media, weightlifting, and the rule of "use it or lose it"