Are Weightlifters Dumber Than the General Public?

I’m getting older and my references are becoming more dated. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about … be kind. It first appeared in 2011. Planet Fitness, the people friendly gym chain, dropped one of the most insulting fitness advertisements seen in a long time. In fact, it was probably the most disgusting, egregious, and discriminatory piece of television I have ever seen.

Okay, maybe I am getting angrier with age. It was pretty funny. The TV ad, which ran for several months, featured a large bodybuilder trying to explain what he did to a ‘normal’ gym goer. With biceps bigger than the other man’s head, the bodybuilder explains that ‘he picks things up, and puts them back down.’

Are Lifters Dumb?

Here the bodybuilder is shown to be unintelligent and unaware of his boring existence. It was problematic, but pretty darn funny. It also played on the well worn idea of the ‘meathead’, the individual who cared for looks over books (yes I did just quote Matilda, the movie).

The Planet Fitness ad caused quite a bit of backlash – although at that time there was little Planet Fitness did which did not cause backlash. ‘Lifters were not dumb’ became the rallying cry for many of us.

Were we being a little bit sensitive? Absolutely. After all, ‘education is important but big biceps is importanter’ is more of my favorite internet memes. The idea that the weightlifter or the gym goer is less intelligent than the general public is not an new concept.

As far back as Ancient Greece, individuals complained that athletes focused too much on their training and not on their education. Complicating matters was the fact that Ancient Greece was also home to an education system for men which involved lectures and lifting.

The ‘Meat Head in Media’

Back to Planet Fitness and the ‘Meat Head’ meme. American culture, in particular, has long played on the idea that bodybuilders and gym goers are dumb. Check out poor Dave Draper being bullied by those dastardly Monkees in the 1960s

Lifters have a bad reputation which, often, doesn’t hold up to reality. A rudimentary glace at those well known practitioners of evidence based bodybuilding or lifting are examples of this.

But people want hard facts. Remarkably we have the answer!

Studying the Meat Head

In 1954 Peter Karpovich, whose interest in weightlifting is covered in this wonderful Iron Game History article, conducted an intriguing study.

Studying the academic records of 392 college weightlifters from three different universities in the United States, Karpovich sought to discover, beyond any doubt, whether or not lifters were dumb.

Studying the records and grades of these students, Karpovich found that on average, weightlifters held a B average in University. This placed lifters on par, or even slightly better, than their non-lifting peers.

In fact, Karpovich seemed to suggest that weightlifting would make individuals better students

Probably the same personal quality that enables a student to make himself study is also needed in order to make him stick to the systematic grind of weight training

So take that Planet Fitness! Yes it has taken me a decade to defend my community, but that doesn’t matter. I win!

Why Study Lifters?

So before finishing up, I want to address a rather obvious question – why did Karpovich study these weightlifters?

Jan Todd’s wonderful article on Karpovich’s ‘conversion’ to weightlifting does a great job exploring this. To shorten it (and do disservice to the research within it), Karpovich was an exercise scientist who was deeply skeptical of weightlifting. In effect, he believed many of the myths surrounding weightlifting namely that

  • It made people inflexible
  • ‘Dumber’ people did it
  • It was damaging to the body (be it joints or organs)

Following a meeting with Bob Hoffman and his York Barbell team in the 1940s, Karpovich set about debunking these ‘truths.’ The IQ test was one such experiment.

So next time Planet Fitness, or anyone else, wants to slander the weightlifting community, the very least they can do is provide peer reviewed research to underpin their claims.

Maybe I should mellow out with age…


Peter V. Karpovich “Weightlifting,” Journal of the Association for Physical and Mental Rehabilitation, 8 (1954)

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