Interesting article that touches on the relationships between social class and exercise preference entitled How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class.
The author Daniel Duane describes his struggle between his desire to train for conflicting types of recreational exercise--weightlifting for size and strength versus training for endurance sports such as triathlons. Citing an paper dating back to 2005 from sociologist Carl Stempel, Duane writes:
I've worked with a few people in these so-called dominant classes who have felt apprehensive about putting on too much muscle in fear that they might be viewed as...well, "meatheads" for lack of a better term. But I think to some degree the characterizations that Duane and Stempel describe are an outdated, traditional view towards strength training. Many people who strength train are also characterized by self-control, personal development, discipline, and an intellectual approach towards self-improvement with attention to detail. Training for strength, at least by the methodology that Dan John and Mark Rippetoe describe (two fitness gurus who Duane also cites in his article) is far from brainless weightlifting and not just a collective of meatheads with Napoleonic complexes overcompensating for deep-seeded insecurities. I also think it's a little odd to claim that certain sports display "moral character" while others do not.
I admit that to a certain extent that these prejudices exist, but I also believe that the paradigm is shifting. I think that as more people participate in strength training, more will come to see it has much to do with self-empowerment and building confidence, and less so about looking physically intimidating to compensate for insecurity. It is also important to note that Duane/Stempel's description is a very androcentric view towards strength training, as it neglects the social implications of women who participate in strength training or bodybuilding.
I've often thought about how people's workouts are influenced by a combination of either their functional goals or aesthetic preferences, but not so much by their social class and how their colleagues may perceive them based on their size. The author describes a conversation he had with a colleague over dinner in which he described his newfound passion for lifting heavy weights and desire to get really strong, to which he was met with the simple question: "Why?" It begs the question, is it necessary for someone uninvolved in competitive sports to squat with 300 pounds on their back or to lift it off the ground? And I suppose the answer is that it depends.
I feel like there are a lot of people that do not participate in competitive powerlifting or sports who still train for true strength simply because they find it empowering and challenging, which are totally legitimate reasons. Personally I feel like my goals for strength training change over time depending on whether or not I am involved in competitive sports and will continue to evolve as I grow older. Right now I would place myself in the category of people who enjoy lifting heavy because although I will most likely never be in a life-threatening situation in which I need to pull 300+ lbs off the floor, I still simply find it inherently fun to train the deadlift for strength.
So let's say there is no functional demand for certain types of heavy strength training or bodybuilding. What motivation remains? The obvious answer is the aesthetic benefit, but at times even this reason sometimes begs the question of "why?" The topic brings to mind what Ryan Gosling once said about exercising to maintain muscle mass, and how he basically found it to be a chore tantamount to raising a pet:
It sounds silly because ordinarily one would think being muscular is a desirable thing. And for the most part I feel like it is for the majority of people. But he does have a point--sometimes you have to ask yourself what purpose or function does having large muscles serve other than being aesthetically pleasing? And to what end must one train for muscular size, a task that requires constant upkeep?
I suppose there is some optimal combination of training for size, strength, aesthetics, musculoskeletal health and function which is different for everyone depending on how they inherently value each category and what their jobs or sports demand. Ultimately the author of the article put down the barbell and gravitated towards triathlon competitions, but not without "missing the feeling [of being] huge walking down the street."
I would hope that most people see the value of strength training at least to a certain extent for health reasons, as a foundation of upper/lower extremity and core strength will serve people well into old age. While they're at it, there's no reason for one not to look a little aesthetically pleasing and to have fun doing so. Going back to the original topic, I think people's perceptions of strength training will continue to change as time continues. The more strength training is promoted as a discipline to empower men and women and to fortify their health, the less it will have to do with one's socioeconomic status, gender, or social class.