Strength has a greater purpose

On June 9th, 2020, StrongFirst posted an image on social media that said “The StrongFirst team agrees that racism is wrong.” Beneath that was the text:

Concerning the latest events, the one thing that everyone on the StrongFirst team agrees on is that racism is wrong. On all related issues our team members have diverse and strong opinions—and StrongFirst is not going to force a company stance to represent them.

StrongFirst does not engage in political activism and virtue signaling. We choose to exercise our political rights as individuals, not as a company.

StrongFirst could have done much better than this.

The tone and language of their post indicates that they are indeed taking a position on the issue at hand. That position is: “StrongFirst supports the status quo.” They also are under the mistaken impression that taking action against racial injustice is either political in nature or is something that people just pretend to support in order to seem virtuous.

Beyond that, the post shows that StrongFirst lacks a complete picture of life and health, pretending that racial discrimination isn’t a core aspect of that.

Last and most importantly, the post rendered the StrongFirst motto “strength has a greater purpose” completely meaningless. Although they point to this motto often in their seminars and written materials, they do not believe they have any responsibility to help lead their community or unite them in any way.

StrongFirst supports the status quo

We are all part of a larger culture, and from time to time will be called upon to participate in that culture. If you don’t like it, tough. Get over yourself. You exist, so you are part of all this.

No person and no company is an island. One of the most basic realities of decision making is that not making a decision IS a decision. In this case, the choice of no action means they are siding with the status quo. 

“Racism is wrong” shouldn’t even be up for debate and it’s not even what the current conversation is about. The current conversation is about whether society is going to tolerate continued manifestations of racism, most especially the blatant violence against blacks.

On that, StrongFirst could not reach a consensus. Think about that. They could only agree that “racism is wrong.”

Topics on which they could not fully agree:

  • The constant killing of black people is worth our attention and has to stop, now.
  • The justice system should not punish black people to a greater degree than it does white people.
  • Changes need to be made to StrongFirst and our broader culture. This is a time to reexamine our behavior at every level.

They could not make a statement beyond “racism is wrong” because the company ultimately supports the status quo. “Racism is wrong” is a passive message that does nothing to change the realities blacks in America still face every day. Almost no one (save for the most extreme and fervent white supremacists) would argue with the statement, “racism is wrong,” yet most of us engage in some form of racism, whether we like it or not. The key is taking an active stance in righting those wrongs, in doing the hard work necessary to fight racism head on.  

Co-opting diversity

When StrongFirst states that the leadership agrees racism is wrong but is diverse in all other ways, that likely means that there are at least some folks there who also believe that killing George Floyd was fine. Or believe that racism is bad but systemic racism is a myth.

Cognitive dissonance is a central part of the human experience, and there are few places it rears its head quite like racism. StrongFirst was careful in its selection of words, as demonstrated by including the word “diverse” in their statement. That was no mistake. 

Every softcore racist I know on Facebook and Instagram has posted about how “we need to respect ALL human beings” and how “I’m all about love and equality,” while also often pointing out the criminality (and thus deserved fate) of the murdered, defending the cops, condemning the protests… but never saying something as simple as “the killing has to stop” or asking what they can do. The corporate version of saying “all lives matter” is to say this is too political and they’re not going to take a side.

Inventing politics 

Plenty of businesses have put out short statements that were MUCH stronger than StrongFirst. They didn’t get political or wade into complex territory. I would ask the StrongFirst team to read some of these statements and tell everyone which parts they could not agree on or were “too political.”

Agatsu blew them out of the water with their statement. The USPA were very thoughtful in their response. Mark Fisher Fitness had several great posts. NASCAR immediately started examining things and making changes. StrongFirst’s closest rival, RKC, used nearly the same number of words in their statement — and still did it better! Oh, and let’s not forget that even Jazzercise was stronger than StrongFirst on this.

This is not a political issue. Much of the discussion that follows can become political because it involves legislation or judicial decisions. But at its core, it’s not political — it’s ethical. Period. 

  • Do you think it’s wrong to actively kill black people more often, based on different standards than white people? 
  • Do you think the various inequalities that pervade our culture are real or a myth? 
  • Do you think something should be done to change that? 

These are the kinds of questions being asked, and they’re not political. Many of the answers are clear and factual, such as the reality of broadly different health outcomes for black people. Also, there are democrats, republicans, independents, and non-voters who are on both sides of this issue. It’s not party-specific. It’s human.

Denying authenticity 

Most telling was the use of the pejorative “virtue signaling,” which was by far the worst part of the statement. Virtue signaling is when someone is just expressing loud and conspicuous approval or disgust at an idea. So, based on how they’re using the term, they think that going as far as saying “killing black people is wrong” is something people primarily say for the sake of making themselves seem virtuous. They don’t think people actually believe it. 

Automatically assuming people are pushing StrongFirst for a statement because those people want to make themselves look good and feel better is incredibly dark and cynical. People are rightfully angry about the state of race in this country and the world. They aren’t pretending to be angry just to act like they’re better than you. They are concerned about very real issues and you are brushing them off as fakers.

If that was not the case, they would not have used the words they did. StrongFirst stated quite clearly that they do not engage in politics or virtue signaling, meaning they think anything beyond “racism is bad” is in one or both of those categories.

For the record, stating your beliefs or asking other people to state theirs is not virtue signaling. It’s just basic discussion, and it helps lead to a better understanding of the kind of teacher and leader you are. Which is incredibly important in the fitness industry.

This issue has been going on for centuries and aggressive change is needed RIGHT NOW. The status quo isn’t working and we need more people and groups to pitch in. We are the most successful species because we have the ability to evolve faster than any other animal, via culture and communication. We don’t have to wait for biology to shift us — we can discuss and debate and change NOW, in our lifetime! Knowing that, having that ability, and choosing not to use it is abhorrent to all but the most mentally and emotionally stagnant because it’s simply inhuman. 

Acting like it’s a great big unfair inconvenience to be asked to make a statement is pretty weak when people are being killed and you’re in a position to make a positive difference, even a relatively small one.

They made the collective decision to disregard what should otherwise be pretty clear ethical behavior.

StrongFirst is uninterested in a complete picture of health

Health is not just about physical wellbeing. Ethics, compassion, nutrition, right thinking, recovery, happiness, strength, and fitness are all very tightly related. Neglecting one hurts everything else, and issues of racial injustice directly affect the ability of individuals and groups to become healthy and stay that way.

An athlete’s relationship with their coach and fitness community is incredibly intimate and personal. Coaches who only provide instructions on movements, count reps, then call it a day rarely keep clients for long. Conversation, interaction, mental and emotional support, welcoming community — these are the kinds of things that make the difference between a real-life coach and impersonal methods like an app, book, video, or one-size-fits-all online program.

Striving to support ethical companies and individuals is a noble goal. When the product/service being provided involves physical training, development of my cognition, or is going into my body via food or medicine — I’d like it to come from a place of solid ethics. For instance, I would prefer to not eat factory farmed meat whenever possible.

Being prodded for some thoughts can, at the very least, be considered a reasonable investigation of product efficacy by the consumer. I think it’s important to know whether a person or group I’m associated with are the types who are okay with people being murdered based on the color of their skin.

In short: as a provider of health services, your ethics offer insight into your product. These issues are all about health as an individual and society.

Smarter, better informed people than I have written in great detail about health inequality. If you are a company even tangentially connected to health, it’s worthwhile to pause for a second to consider whether you are basically part of the problem or part of the solution in this regard.

You can’t just claim to be concerned with healthy living and strength when it’s convenient for you. StrongFirst’s statement implies that the state of things doesn’t concern them, when in fact, it concerns us all.

I do not expect StrongFirst to get into every possible aspect of health at their seminars or in their written materials. But at the very least, it’s reasonable to expect them to not completely dismiss key elements of health outright. Speaking and behaving ethically, treating your fellow human beings equitably, and making sure everyone feels welcome are central elements of happy and healthy living.

Change, too, is important and healthy. 

StrongFirst has changed their certification manuals many times over the years, carefully refining them into incredibly clear and concise powerhouses of kettlebell and strength knowledge. But has anyone at StrongFirst ever said, “I sometimes feel like we don’t get many black people at our seminars. Is there something about our approach that might make certain groups steer clear of us?” Or “What can we do to be more inclusive?” Or how about, “What can we do to improve our language to get the attention of a broader group of people?” If so, were those questions truly heard and acted upon?

These sorts of questions are healthy. Improving your vocabulary and how you speak as a whole is not submitting to what many see as “pansy-ass liberal ideas” about political correctness. It’s just showing you are capable of growing and learning. Perhaps sometimes political correctness does go off the rails, but far more often, it’s just that we are stubborn creatures who reflexively reject any need to make personal change. 

We bristle the moment we hear something with which we disagree, and we won’t even give it a moment’s consideration. I think this is one of humankind’s most unhealthy habits. And it’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to know if their coaches are like that, whatever it is they are teaching.

Strength has a greater purpose

There is no greater purpose to strength than to stand up for what is right. Refusing to defend the weak, the marginalized, the victimized, the oppressed — means StrongFirst has lost credibility when it comes to speaking of higher purpose. They can continue to talk about strength as relates to muscles and moving weight, but their own stated philosophy has collapsed. 

I can’t imagine what other greater purpose they imagine there to be. Money? Control? Abs? Fear? Domination? 

How bad do things have to get to compel you into action? What is more worthy as an application of strength than this?

Would you use your strength if the curtain came down and the opponents started clearly stating that the goal is genocide or a return to slavery? Or is that still too “political” for you?

When called upon to use your strength in a way that could contribute to the greatest positive change in our lifetime, your core reaction was to pass on it. I hope you never forget that.

The strength obtained via StrongFirst methodology is apparently intended primarily for show. You can learn how to press a kettlebell really well from them, but don’t expect to learn how to apply that strength in any meaningful way. That part is just posturing.

Basically, they are getting defensive about being called to task on their own motto.


StrongFirst really dropped the ball with their statement on current events.

They spoke up only to clarify that they are keeping with the status quo. They have misunderstood the issues and their impact on individual and societal health. Most disappointingly, they are a fitness company that is built on the idea of strength having a greater purpose, but they will not elaborate on what that purpose could be and they certainly won’t be a part of something real and meaningful. 

I wish StrongFirst had said more. I really wanted them to walk the walk.

I still think they have some of the best hardstyle kettlebell material out there, and I don’t think their whole business should be torn down just because they made a social media post that is poorly worded at best, morally anemic at worst. But at the very least, they did tremendous damage to their overall philosophy and ethical authority with their statement.

Maybe it won’t affect them noticeably, and they’ll get the same attendance levels at seminars with no financial impact (doubtful, but possible). But that still wouldn’t make them right. They’ll still be the strong folks who collectively decided to stay on the sidelines during the biggest fight for racial equality this generation has seen.

It’s a mistake to hide in your “courage corner” in a time like this. I want StrongFirst, its coaches, and its athletes to manifest that “strength has a greater purpose” motto. I want all of us to get past this most fundamental point: that something needs to be done, and we need participation from as many people as possible.

Society doesn’t need any more people of strength being apathetic. We don’t need more people and organizations who lack the emotional capacity to process the challenges of a dynamic world. We need people who are capable of taking their courage into the real world and applying it.

[For additional resources/points of discussion, click here.]

Quick resources on race

For most of my life I’ve been the type who would say he supported equal rights. However, the intensity with which I offered such support was calibrated in large part by what information was actually making it in front of my eyes. And the truth is that the American education system as well as the media machine do not put adequate emphasis on injustice against black people. They only hit the major points, but even that often is influence by a desire not to inflame too much.

This latest eruption of protests and social media discussion have brought forth a flood of stories and history of which I was not aware. Even more shocking than the stories themselves is the persistent question, “WHY DIDN’T I ALREADY KNOW THIS?”

That’s a question to be answered by people smarter and more capable than myself. For my part, I just want to share links to those things that I’ve learned in the past couple of weeks. Maybe you didn’t know some of these, either. Hopefully they’ll soften your heart a little bit. Take a breath, set your politics aside, and consider what you really think about these.

Clever/real rebuttals on many of the common complaints about the protests

Tulsa massacre

Civil Rights photos were rendered in black and white to make them look older than they were.

Wage theft

Brief history of racial terrorism in America

Use of prison labor for profit (AKA the slavery loophole)

Companies that utilize prison labor

Seneca Village

Ruby Bridges

Antiracism resources

Google docs with tons of resources for petitioning and donation.

“I’m the Marine who stood at attention for 3 hours in 100 degree heat in full dress uniform until I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Do me the honor of reading this message I’ve spent the last two days preparing.”