Public performances of strength feats have been for sale for a long time. The icons who exhibited impressive achievements in strength made a living by performing them in sideshows, circuses, and other public venues. What they were selling was an experience of the extraordinary; it was pure entertainment with no practical purpose.

These shows gave common people something to see in their leisure time to distract them from the mundaneness of everyday life in modern society. Make no mistake, entertainment as a performing art is an integral part of humanity and comes in all shapes and sizes. But I would like to focus on powerlifting specifically as a form of aesthetic and entertainment. It is a service industry selling experiences! 

"Are You Not Entertained?"

As meaning-making beings, people develop their personal and group-oriented stories from the events they engage in regularly. Let's consider a person's individual narrative in the metaphor of a journey. The journey is marked by landmarks and stops along the way—not really the stretches of movement in between.

Powerlifting meets are set for a place, time, and in the public eye, for which performances will be experienced by both the audience and the lifters. What happens at the meets are sources of significance for the individuals and groups involved. The powerlifting federation itself is a defined group with members that construct their history with every single meet, in a sense. Therefore, each meet must have landmarks and stops along the way to provide contributions to the histories of the individuals and collective who participate. Almost everybody gets a trophy.

Records, awards, and photo ops are constituent parts of the powerlifting experience, and the advent and rise of social media have amplified their value. Records come in the form of personal, lifting class, and geographic framing (e.g., state, national, and worlds), and each distinction is meaningful depending on what one values and aims at. Apart from those competitions that give monetary prizes for winning, most of the other rewards provided at most powerlifting meets serve individual motives. Values and distinction are important psychological wages provided to those competing, judging, and spectating. But even in the cash prizes events, nobody walks away with a prize large enough to really improve their economic status. So, the word professional is more of a metaphor than a reality. But it is a title that has some significance and may be understood as a synonym for elite lifter.

Let's face it, lifters, officials, and meet directors do what they do as a source of personal and social significance. "I am a powerlifter."

What Does It Mean to Be a Powerlifter?

Well, the opinions vary a lot, and that is one of the reasons we have so many denominations, or, I mean, federations. That's right; there are the purists that proclaim raw, drug-free (well, tested anyway), etc., is The Original.

Meanwhile, there is the non-tested (political correctness acknowledged), unlimited support gear group that is all about the numbers. Some internet personalities say, "I don't care what you think; if you don't compete on the platform, you are not a powerlifter." And so, there is no consensus, and most powerlifters will take a personal stance on the criteria.

The point is the powerlifting federation and its competitions institutionalize the activity.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, world records like strongman Hafþór Björnsson's deadlift became controversial (Rogue Fitness, 2020). Not because it was not a public event or had legitimate officiation, gear checks, etc, it was merely because it was not institutionalized in a sanctioned competition that some devalued the significance of the feat. As such, we can see the role and service for sale by the powerlifting federation.

Be Your Own Hero

According to the late psychologist Rollo May (1991), there is a universal cry for myth. I suggest that powerlifters seek to be the hero in their own stories. Following May's thoughts, I am not suggesting that myth is used in terms of fairytale or fable, but rather, people understand themselves and their worlds through mythos or that which is legendary. The evidence of strength culture is everywhere, from the Viking Valhalla Warrior, Japanese Samurai, and even the pitbull or gorillas as spirit animals of the sports.

Powerlifting federations offer the opportunity for you to be the hero in your own story, publicly and institutionally. While the lifter is the hero of the legend, legends are made among groups. Legends are social stories that express values, behaviors, and symbols shared among the group and passed on to the next generation through storytelling. The rising number of documentaries, live-streamed competitions, podcasts, and more tells the stories of our powerlifting heroes and offers the current generation opportunities to write their own. But all stories are situated within a context.

Everyone in the sport today has a "place," so to speak, and powerlifting has grown to be a sport for just about everyone. With age, weight, sex, equipment, drug testing, and accessibility to meets as factors, the online database,, demonstrates the powerlifting caste system. Lifters tend to take on the perspectives, values, and expressions of powerlifting from the particular federation within which they compete.

The Powerlifter's Plot

One's powerlifting sociological imagination is an application of a theory from C. Wright Mills (2000). If you imagine a 3-dimensional graph with an X, Y, and Z axis, then you can plot weight class (X), age class (Y), and sex class (Z) as the main and traditional domains of human difference in powerlifting. All other classifications that were developed can be set aside for a moment. But once a lifter plots himself or herself within that graph, now they have a point of departure for comparison with other lifters within a federation.

Each federation has its own rules, records, etc., so it has its own graph. This is crucial if we consider powerlifting federations as competitive organizations within a larger powerlifting market. Social comparison and a sense of fair comparisons are vital to understanding our powerlifting myth, what archetype we occupy, and what constitutes a proper legendary ending.

Let's play this out now, considering shared values and rules as part of institutionalizing your personal story. Moreover, let's assume the values and rules as the fundamental ethos or morality of the federation compared to other federations.

Find An Authority You Believe In

Religious sectarianism (i.e., strong support for the religion you belong to) emerges from theological and cultural disagreements called schism. "Who" gets to set the criteria for what is sacred and profane is a matter of authority, and these things are always political.

There are three kinds of authority, according to sociologist Max Weber (1968): (a) Tradition, (b) Charisma, and (c) Legal-Rational. Justifications for who is in authority, rules formation, and rule enforcement are all based on one or a combination of these.

The social psychology of powerlifting is essential to understand if one will navigate the landscape, stay motivated, and succeed. To do that, you need to find a powerlifting federation that offers the kind of experience that serves you. Most, if not all, of the federations adhere to some powerlifting traditions like the three lifts and total score. Then we start finding differences in the rules and applications of the rules.

For example, squat depth is a big one, where the written rules might be the same, but judging is self-regarded as "strict" by individuals that hold to some version of the "ass to grass doctrine" of purity. Then there are calls for "hitching" on sumo deadlifts because the bar stopped, but conventional deadlifts get passed as long as the bar does not reverse downward.

These kinds of differences can be based on charismatic leaders that influence the judging standards through their organizational reputations and popularity. They can also be rationalized as "protecting the sport" and "protecting established records" for other reasons. Whatever the case, a lifter's experience of the meet can be made or spoiled by a referee or two that take it upon themselves to be the gatekeepers.

Know Your Why

You see, within the mythos, there are all kinds of heroes, villains, helpers, rulers, victims, and so forth. This is where the debates about the sacred and profane undergird the federations' legitimacy and ability to thrive socioeconomically. 

For powerlifting to thrive as a sport, it is imperative that the lifter's experience is placed at the primary position of "why" we have federations and meets in the first place. But like religious denominations, people are not all looking for the same experience and want to express themselves the same. So, we have federations that people pay into, join, and participate in, to achieve that experience(s) they are chasing as a personal goal.

The variety of classes provides a venue for everyone to be on a fair playing field with others. How democratic or autocratic a federation depends on its cultural identity in the sport and institutional structure. Moreover, what counts as a "win" is highly subjective and does not reduce its legitimacy. Finally, I will go out on a limb and say that all powerlifters are hobbyists. Nobody makes their living by being a competitor, so even professional powerlifters must have other ventures by which they make a living.


So now that we've got that out of the way, the varying degrees of seriousness and sacrifice to be the champion is up to the lifter. We need all kinds of lifters to keep this sport thriving. 

Stay motivated in your training by really understanding that this is all about you, your people, and what it means in your sociological imagination. If you can focus on setting goals that, when met, make you the champion of your story and the story of those you care about, then you'll stay awhile.

Negotiate the criteria by which you believe a legitimate lift and powerlifting identity is through your federation affiliation. Invest your time and energy in playing your role(s) within the context of the institution where you compete. Support powerlifting companies that support you as the lifter.

If a $300 designer singlet makes you meet better, and you can afford it, live out your mythos and be the hero of your story. Where things go south is in the criticizing of other lifters and federations. Sure, we all know better who we are by identifying those we are most unlike. There is a tribalness to group and federation affiliation.

But always remember that all lifters are engaging in the sport within a personal and social context that has some differences from yours. Moreover, "do whatever it takes" means different things to different people, and at what cost?

My hope is that the reader can do a little reality testing on where they are in the sport, what they are spending, and how to better strategize for goal setting and writing the legendary story they want to live. At the end of it all, very few powerlifters will go down in history in the sense of the larger society. But when you are old and sitting with your grandkids, perhaps the photos, awards, and stories you'll tell will positively affect them. And always remember your federation's role in pursuing public feats of strength. Promote and hold them accountable to provide the service you are paying for. 

Image courtesy of peshkov ©


  1. May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. W.W. Norton.
  2. Mill, C.W. (2000). Sociological imagination. Oxford University.
  3. Rogue Fitness. (2020, May 02). 501KG Deadlift – Halfthor Bjornsson. . (online). Retrieved from:
  4. Weber, M. (1968). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology, Bedminster Press.

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Dr. Rodger Broomé, Ph.D., is a psychologist and recreational powerlifter. He spent 22 years in Law Enforcement and Fire and Emergency Medical Services before retiring to become a professor and practitioner. As a fire training captain, Dr. Broomé was the primary strength and conditioning trainer for 8 basic training academies for recruiting firefighters in the Salt Lake Metro Area. While in the fire service, he competed in the USPF and WABDL as a 220 lifter and then took a hiatus to attend graduate school. After graduate school and a career change, Dr. Rodger Broomé has reinitiated recreational competition and contributed to his local powerlifting community with his knowledge of lifting and performance psychology. He is a state-level referee and seeks opportunities to help lifters succeed in their endeavors as powerlifters. Dr. Broomé's psychology practice has focused mostly on helping young athletes with motivation, focus, goal setting, mental skills, psychoeducation, and integrating their mental game into their physical training and play.