This is an article that I’ve written multiple times. I’ve drafted it, re-drafted it, cut parts, added parts, and rearranged parts. Why? Because it’s difficult to put into words exactly how I feel about the topic. I feel it’s a big issue, and I want to make sure that I say exactly the things that I want to say. It goes against a lot of commonly held beliefs in the fitness industry, and I’m going to use a lot of harsh language. I don’t usually like to swear in an article for the sake of professionalism, but understand that in this context I simply don’t care. This is about as honest as I’m going to get.
The spread of amateur bodybuilding culture in the U.S. has led to the creation of swarms of poorly-informed bros who are high on confidence and low on actual knowledge. We call their wisdom broscience because it’s certainly not real science and because it’s largely anecdotal. Everything that they ‘know’ to be true is likely just unscientific garbage. But their larger crime is that their presence in gyms has had a much more problematic effect: the growth of alpha male culture.
The idea behind the alpha male culture is rooted in the maximization of one’s potential through the application of aggressive behavioural practices designed to craft one into the alpha male, the leader of the pack. This is a philosophy and way of life as much as any other: it defines not just how one acts in the gym but also outside of it. It encompasses work life, home life, recreational activity, and how one acts in the gym.
We have 4chan/fit (please, don’t ever go there), bodybuilding.com, and numerous other online communities dedicated to supporting and empowering these alphas. We have loud music, hardcore gyms, and youtube ‘bodybuilding inspiration’ videos. We have things like John Romaniello’s Engineering the Alpha: A real-world guide to an unreal life, with the heading “build more muscle, burn more fat, have more sex,” and endorsed by infamous douchenozzle Tucker Max. (To be fair, I do respect John and initial research has suggested that the book provides more than a one-dimensional support of the traditional alpha. I’m planning on picking the book up and doing a book review within the next few weeks to get a more comprehensive look on the subject.) In short, ‘alpha’ culture has thoroughly infiltrated fitness culture to the extent that it’s now bursting out our ears, and further, it’s total fucking garbage.
The typical alpha stereotype is that of the big protein-chugging, supplement-popping asshole who comes into the gym, plays loud music, lifts heavy weights, screams a lot, and then drops weights everywhere and leaves them for someone else to clean up. The fitness industry has already in some instances realized that this is a bad thing; Planet Fitness’ business practices, though often misguided, are aimed at correcting this problem. ‘Alphas’ aren’t good for the environment. They’re rude, stupid, and unpleasant. They’re assholes, and little else. But the thing is that oftentimes, the really serious lifters aren’t alphas at all.
In nine times out of ten, the strongest guys I’ve seen in the gym are quiet and polite. They lift heavy weights, they breathe hard, but they keep their lungs to themselves. They swap out with others for sets, and make sure they aren’t monopolizing the squat rack. They’re considerate of others, don’t make a ton of noise, and don’t need ridiculous pump-up music to motivate them to come into the gym. Why? Because the gym is important to them. They understand that they’re sharing a space with other people and that things work best when everything goes smoothly and no one gets in anyone else’s way. They’re experienced enough to know that acting alpha is actually just going to get in other people’s way, and this makes the gym worse for everybody.
You wanna know who’s really the worst? Teenagers. Teenagers roll up into the gym in packs of five or six, make a ton of noise, monopolize machines or racks, and act very rude to others. When approached or asked to stop, they respond with a very juvenile, know-it-all attitude, and then refuse to do anything differently unless gym staff is brought in and their membership is put on the line. The thing is, alphas are pretty much just grown men acting like these teenagers for fun.
When I go into the gym, I go into full-on meditative mode. When I’m lifting, I listen to calming music like post rock, drone, or downtempo electronic. I listen to audiobooks. I enjoy lifting without being bothered, because that ruins the effect. Breathwork is an important aspect of lifting, and my breathing is often just as controlled as I get it during yoga. Yoga and other flexibility routines factor very heavily into my powerlifting workouts. Lifting doesn’t pump me up, it tires me out. After a workout I often feel like taking a nap, because I’ve pushed myself to my limits and burned up all my energy. If I don’t feel tired, I know I haven’t hit myself hard enough. In my opinion, many lifters are like me, but they tend to hide this fact from themselves by putting on bullshit macho personas in order to make themselves feel better and fit in to the alpha culture.
Acting alpha isn’t going to get you to lift any heavier. It isn’t going to grow muscle any faster. Yes, if you’re a newer lifter, maybe it can help motivate you to come in when you otherwise wouldn’t. But in my opinion, if you need to act like an alpha just to get yourself to go into the gym, then you probably don’t want to be in the gym in the first place, and should just go find somewhere else to park your six-pack abs, like anywhere that you can make sure that you’re at least fifty miles away from another person. The weight doesn’t care if you’re listening to dubstep or classical. It doesn’t care if you’re screaming or keeping your mouth shut. It doesn’t care whether you had to be an asshole to get your hands around it or not. It just cares whether you’re strong enough, and if you aren’t no amount of acting like an asshole is gonna get you a ten pound improvement on your bench press.
The alpha lifestyle is part of a much larger problem, namely, the american hegemony. In recent history, gyms have been reappropriated by the dominant capitalist culture, being less about professionals looking to compete and more about amateurs looking to increase their cultural capital. American capitalism is the creed of wastefulness, decadence, and needless competition. Alpha is the new yuppie, and is an example not of any increased agency on the alpha’s behalf, but of a symptom of capitalism spreading out into new markets. In short, gyms were once about getting strong, but now they’re about making money, and this means catering to the people willing to pay, namely rich (or would-be rich) assholes looking to show off.
This also means endless money aimed at the obesity epidemic. It means trying to convince people that skinny bodies are good bodies, that excess weight is a sin, that you have to suffer through exercise that you hate in order to be respected and admired by other people. It means money aimed at selling expensive supplements to amateur lifters who would see much better results if they just put away their wallets and just learned to stick to their regimen more fully. It means trainers roaming the gym, waiting for the slightest hint of weakness so that they can snap you up and sell you sessions. It means tanning so that you can wreck your skin. It means that the industry will try to sap as much money out of us as possible while giving us as little back as possible in return.
There are isolated pockets of resistance. Planet Fitness, as previously mentioned, tries to fight this problem but targets the wrong issues. Non-corporate gyms tend to involve a lot less BS (though of course they may suffer from other issues). YMCA, as a non-profit, does a pretty good job of ignoring the prevailing capitalist trends. For the most part, however, the alpha problem is pervasive and dictates business practices.
Macho aggressivity and dominance are not the path to happiness, or even to real power. Sure, they can get you some places in some circles, but they won’t make you a better person and they certainly can’t help you lift more weight. There are some things that you can’t talk your way out of, and in the meantime being an asshole isn’t going to help. Not being an alpha doesn’t mean that your life is going to be shitty. It just means that you can be pushed around by other alphas. Nine times out of ten, you aren’t going to be dealing with alphas. You know what you do when you run into that one-out-of-ten alpha? You don’t put up with his shit. You have to be an alpha only when dealing with other alphas, and the rest of the time you can be as quiet and polite a person as you want without suffering any negative consequences. The idea that you have to be all alpha, all the time, is just another symptom of the overall problem. It’s like bringing a nuclear bomb to a knife fight. Learn to be smart and meet every situation with an appropriate response. If someone comes at you alpha, you respond alpha. Otherwise, relax.
The blade of grass stands tall only in order that it may be cut down short again the next time the lawnmower passes by. The cow grows fat only in order that it may be slaughtered for meat. If a stick cannot bend, it must either resist the force, or break. There are always bigger fish in the sea. It’s the same with alpha: if you don’t learn some humility, you’re just waiting around for the guy one step higher on the ladder to cut you down. The only way to avoid losing, in some situations, is not to play the game. You see guys all the time, saying that they would rather kill themselves lifting than be weak. That’s dumb as hell, because if you’re dead you can’t lift anything. Besides, all strength is temporary. Does it look like Bill Kazmaier still lifts heavy? Hell no, he's fifty nine. Realistically you're only strong for maybe half of your lifespan. What are you going to do for the other half? Strategic retreat enables a smart soldier to live to fight another day. Oftentimes, alpha isn’t about being dominant, it’s just about being stupid. I really can't wait for this shit to disappear. It's the new yuppie, and it's godawful as all hell.