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Powerlifting and Philosophy II: What Roland Barthes Can Teach Us about the Raw Versus Geared Debate

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The subject of “raw” versus “geared” powerlifting has been viewed with contention by many of its participants since the rise in popularity of raw powerlifting. This mutually felt antagonism has so greatly escalated that I feel compelled to offer this disclaimer: the purpose of this article is not to champion one style of training and competition over the other. Rather, I’ll be couching the discourse surrounding raw versus geared powerlifting in the philosophy of French semiologist and cultural analyst Roland Barthes; what I hope follows illuminates the rhetoric of those who profess an undying allegiance to Houses Raw or Geared.

An Overview: Barthes and Semiology

But before I get ahead of myself, allow me a moment to contextualize for you the subject of semiology: semiology is, at its heart, the study of the creation and maintenance of sign systems. All aspects of a given culture, including language, exist within these sign systems—in other words, all that we produce, all the images, sounds, and objects of everyday life, convey a meaning that is intelligible and communicable to us as users of language.

Take as an example a word: a word, as a sign, is the combination of a signifier and a signified. Using the written word “raw” as an example, its signifier (its ‘image’) consists of its three letters: R-A-W. “Raw” is, as an image, a very particular set of lines that conveys a signified, or a concept. So, the concept of raw—lifters who choose not to use certain pieces of equipment—is conveyed by these three letters, drawn and organized in a very particular way. What’s important to note here is that the connection of signifier and signified is an arbitrary one. Unlike earlier modes of communication, like ideograms, which were fashioned from the visual appearance of the “real thing” that the sign intended to represent, the signifiers of our languages are completely arbitrary; the connection between “raw” and its signified is an arbitrary connection. “Raw” is no closer to approximating the real thing than the equivalent word in any other language—the relationship is only naturalized as “normal” through our repetitive use of the sign.

Now, when signs exist within a system, they attain syntagmatic meaning—in other words, their meaning is affected by the very existence of other signs. Take, again, “raw” as an example. In this context, “raw” has a very particular meaning; it is the stuff of the “raw powerlifter.” But when constellated around other words, “raw” takes on a different meaning:

“The IPF Raw World Championships.”

“The SPF Raw division.”

In these two instances, “raw” connotes something slightly different; the signified is, in one instance, “no wraps, two-hour weigh-ins, no deadlift bar, etc.” and, in the other, “3m knee wraps, twenty-four hour weigh-ins, a deadlift bar, etc.”

But raw’s syntagmatic meaning can be changed further:

“This beef is so raw, I can still hear it fucking mooing.”

“I’m on a raw-food diet.”

“I like to sleep in the raw.”

“Yeah brah, I totally hit it…” (Okay, I won’t go here. But you get the idea.)

In each of these syntagms, “raw” means something entirely different; meaning is never latent and natural, and is instead always constructed and contingent upon context. What I want to make clear here is that sign systems, in contemporary society, are highly constructed and historically grounded things, and they only mask themselves as “natural” by virtue of their repeated use and circulation. “Raw”’s correspondence to its real-life referent (either a certain type of powerlifter, or any of the other meanings I implied through previous examples) only seems “normal” to us because it’s how we’ve communicated the concept of “raw” for the duration of our lives.

What Roland Barthes sought to achieve in his Mythologies was an elucidation of the constructedness of signs in everyday life. For Barthes, sign systems function as historical constructions disguising themselves as natural; our language works effectively when we can “lose ourselves” in it, forgetting the arbitrariness of the connections between signifiers and signifieds. Barthes, in Mythologies, opts to examine how consumer objects in twentieth-century consumerist society routinely deny their historicity in favor of being “natural.”

Consumerist society has with regularity denied the constructedness of its existence by pretending that mass production and mass consumption are “natural” activities. One of Barthes’s mythologies is of laundry detergent, which is routinely marketed as “airy,” “fresh,” and “bubbly,” words that limn it to nature:


Here’s some Gain. What does Gain have to do with sunshine, butterflies, and flowered plants? Your guess is as good as mine.


Oh look, some “Ultra Downy.” Note the silk touch and the promise of a “clean breeze,” accompanied by the visual supplement of billowy clouds.


Here’s some Purex. You know how I know you want to buy it? You’re partial to the implication that Purex comes from “natural elements”; it’s nothing more than crushed leaves, flowers, and apples, if the packaging is to be believed.

So, why is it that most laundry detergents promote themselves as being “natural”? Why are so few detergents marketed as being industrially strong and filled to the brim with chemicals straight out of the company laboratory? Because cultural participants have for years evinced a strong predilection towards the comfort that a “natural” product provides. “Natural” has, throughout the history of consumerist Western thought, had a very positive connotation; we use its comfort to quell our fears of an increasingly technocratic, industrial world.

Relating Semiology and the “Natural” to Strength and Fitness

This much is true of what’s en vogue in diet and medicine: holistic practices are in, “whole foods” are all the rage, and even among athletes, the “Paleo” diet is popular.

To what can we attribute Paleo’s popularity? Its efficacy, sure, but the Paleo diet is also popular because it purports that one can still “eat like our ancestors.” Eat a “hunter-gatherer” diet, Paleo says; “never-mind the constructedness of such a diet. Instead, embrace Paleo as a natural way of eating.”

I’m here to tell you that doing something “because it’s natural” is never a good reason. For one, “natural” is not necessarily better. For another, “natural” is never really “natural”; it’s historical and constructed. It only opts to disguise itself as natural.

If you listen closely to the raw versus geared debate, you’ll hear declarations of what’s “natural” being hurled from both sides. House Raw asserts that lifting raw is more “natural”—you’re lifting the weight yourself, after all. For the zealots among this crowd—here, I’m referring to those “raw dawgs” who wouldn’t dare associate with anything or anyone from the equipped community—geared lifting is a display of “fake” strength, since “artificially produced material” is lifting the weight, not you.

House Geared counters with the competing assertion that geared powerlifting is part of the “natural” progression of the sport. They impose a telos when one shouldn’t be imposed; they say that the sport is “evolving naturally” towards better and better equipment, as if we’re biologically hard-wired to always want to out-do our predecessors. “It is human nature,” they say back to the raw zealots, as if one couldn’t break a world record by getting stronger and not by manufacturing stronger gear.

The argument, on both sides, depends upon disguising a historical, constructed process as natural. Houses Raw and Geared are the Gains, Downys, and Purexes of powerlifting, even if they do not themselves realize it. They’re falling back on the same tired rhetorical ploys that have plagued consumerist society and allowed for sign systems to exist without drawing attention to themselves. Roland Barthes teaches us to look with skepticism upon both sides of this debate.

So, let me debunk two popular myths. First, “raw powerlifting” is not “natural.” It is in actuality an extraordinarily constructed activity. Lifters train for weeks in preparation for a particular predetermined competition, one that involves a very particular set of equipment. When you go to a powerlifting meet, you expect a barbell, some plates, a squat rack, a bench, and a platform. You do not expect for your powerlifting meet to be held, unannounced, three weeks prior to its purported date. You do not expect to have to squat a very heavy cow, or bench the heftiest of the spectators seated in the front row.

Furthermore, you expect to perform three lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. You don’t expect to have the squat suddenly replaced by the wrist curl. And you don’t expect for your wrist curl to be misloaded.

But let us carry the “natural” debate to its asymptote: would it be more “natural” to use unevenly loaded weights at a competition? After all, the groceries you heroically carry in one trip won’t be evenly distributed, so why should your barbell be? Should we even use weights at all? Why don’t we just lift whatever’s around us and declare the winner to be the person who dies last? Wouldn’t that be more natural?

Why even compete at all? Wouldn’t it be more natural not to hold organized competitions? Aren’t rules constructed and restrictive? And what about training itself? Does training pervert a true appraisal of one’s natural strength? Are the only truly natural athletes non-athletes, since their strength is entirely “God-given”?

I’m not trumpeting any of these suggestions. I am, instead, simply trying to make a point: there is nothing “natural” about the sport of powerlifting, whether you’re a raw or an equipped lifter. And to assert that geared powerlifting is the “natural” progression of the sport is an equally egregious fallacy. In historiography (the study of historical accounts), this is what we could call a teleological approach to history: it writes history from the end-point and attempts to describe, in clean, linear fashion, how we arrived from point A to point B. Teleological approaches forget that history could have been otherwise; powerlifting as we know of it today was not predestined from its inception.

Remember, powerlifting was once a collection of “odd lifts”; the fact that powerlifting became the squat, bench press, and deadlift is not a “natural” development at all. Any of those “odd lifts” could have ended up comprising the sport of powerlifting. What if powerlifting were the front squat, overhead press, and stiff-legged deadlift? Isn’t that conceivable as an alternate history?

And if the very ontological basis of the sport is subject to historical revision, don’t you think the transition to geared is equally unnatural? Geared powerlifting is not the natural progression of the sport; if that were the case, then the rise in popularity of raw powerlifting would represent a regression into primitivism. Obviously, the legion of raw powerlifters feel otherwise, and if you subscribe to a linear, teleological interpretation of history, those sorts of regressions aren’t supposed to happen.

In summation, tread carefully around any sort of rhetoric that promotes the “naturalness” of such-and-such style of powerlifting. As Roland Barthes teaches us, there is nothing natural about what’s “natural.”

This is the second in a series of articles (“Powerlifting and Philosophy”) that I intend to publish. Keep your eyes peeled for the next addition in the series—“What Postmodernism Can Teach Us about Linear Versus Conjugate Periodization”—which is forthcoming.

  1. DieselWeasel

    Another good one, Kyle. Keep ’em coming.

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