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The Fake Strongmen of Instagram

The weights are phony, but the money is real

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on February 16, 2018.

Fitness model Brad “The Manimal” Castleberry has assembled an army of admirers and hate-followers on Instagram who watch him perform an impossible number of repetitions on the bench, barbell curl, back squat and military press, moving weights so heavy that even a single rep would come close to eclipsing world records. I might go to the gym and deadlift 600 pounds once to impress the bros, but that seems like nothing next to Castleberry pulling 675 pounds for an easy set of 10.

Which is basically why Castleberry catches so much shit: “You’re a weak, fake weight lifting bitch,” one of his 753,000 Instagram followers told him recently, echoing a common refrain among commenters. Of course, Castleberry isn’t weak. He’s a bulked-up former community college football player who has completed some impressive box jumps and is almost assuredly stronger than 99 percent of his critics. But he also owes his sizeable online presence to spurious feats of strength that do a disservice to legitimate lifters.

On the female side of the ledger, Gracyanne Barbosa, a Brazilian fitness model with 5.9 million Instagram followers, uses fake weights to give off the illusion that she’s performing back squats with high-weight, high-repetition loads that would challenge the brawniest of NFL linemen. Unlike Castleberry, who at least occasionally attempts to simulate intense exertion, Barbosa doesn’t so much as strain under the load of 495 pounds.

For people like me, who have logged significant hours in the gym, watching these fraudulent workouts can be galling. What good is bench pressing nearly 400 pounds sans spotter or struggle if someone like Castleberry has at least some gullible people thinking it’s easy to complete a rep at 700? What does that suggest about my two decades of toil? Am I the one who seems like the fraud for simply inhabiting the world of the possible? And for novices who might be interested in exploring the world of heavy-duty training, these strange videos can serve as a major turnoff — the learning curve appears so steep and forbidding that pumping iron is left to the supposed professionals.

Neither Castleberry nor Barbosa responded to my repeated requests for comment, which seems to be their standard practice. Barbosa has never actually addressed the allegations against her, though her videos are so unbelievable that there’s probably no reason to do so. Castleberry, however, has occasionally told fans to be quiet and accept the fact that he’s one of the strongest men on Earth. In fact, when YouTuber Kenny K.O. confronted him at the Mr. Olympia fitness convention, he proceeded to rant and rave about his bona fides.

“I lift at a billion-dollar company gym,” Castleberry tells K.O. while gesticulating wildly. “You think they’re gonna have fake weights in there? Ask that guy over there, he works there. Are those weights fake? Hey, if you want to start lifting where I lift, come on. I mean, it doesn’t matter what you lift, but it matters how I look. Look at me and look at you, who looks like they can lift eight plates?”

Whether Castleberry’s weights are fake or not, the overall barrier to entry to a career in faux feats of strength is relatively low. Fake weight plates and other lightweight devices are readily available for purchase at a host of online outlets. These props have figured prominently in movies (Bruce Willis easily bench-pressing 495 pounds in Unbreakable); muscle magazines (publications such as Flex and Men’s Fitness have used fake weights in their photoshoots for decades); and even pro wrestling (Dino Bravo’s attempt to set a bench press “world record” at the 1988 Royal Rumble).

If anything, strongmen performing deceptive lifts is a practice with a long and proud history that goes back centuries. “To understand the kind of fakery today, you need to go back to the 19th century, at which point you have to consider it in relation to the economy of the theater, which was every bit as precarious as it is now,” says Broderick Chow, a professor at Brunel University London and director of the multimedia project Dynamic Tensions: New Masculinities in the Performance of Fitness. “Back then, you were competing against 20 other strength acts for theatrical engagements, which meant you needed to keep intensifying what you did. Fakery became a way of mitigating risk in a totally uncertain economy.”

Famous Victorian-era physique star Eugen Sandow, for example, was legitimately strong, but not all of his lifts were on the level — though, neither were those of his contemporaries. As noted in David Chapman’s Sandow the Magnificent, the muscular performer — after whose likeness today’s Mr. Olympia bodybuilding trophy is modeled — even attracted attention to his own strongman routines by exposing the phoniness of his rivals, calling them out as frauds for using lighter barbells and sometimes even rushing the stage to crack open their weights and reveal the tricks of the trade.

Nonetheless, Sandow and his competitors realized that if their lifts had to be fixed, assisted or otherwise enhanced to impress the crowds, so be it — the business of being strong would lead you to bankruptcy if it wasn’t first and foremost a business concerned with being seen. Chow points out that Harold Ansorge, a famous weightlifter from the 1930s and 1940s, wrote about this extensively, noting in his guidebook Proper Bent Pressing that “THE DIFFICULTY OF A FEAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY PROVE IT GOOD FOR STAGE WORK” (emphasis Ansorge’s) and adding that strength exhibitions must boast a great deal of “flash” and “action” to wow the spectators.

Fitness journalist Anthony Roberts, the author of Anabolic Steroids: Ultimate Research Guide, sees the use of such items as a low-risk, high-reward proposition for people looking to build their social media brands. “It’s rare that anyone is conclusively proven to lie in the court of Instagram, and even when they are, like in the case of the supplement company Shredz photoshopping the pictures it posts of its ‘sponsored athletes,’ the consequences are often quite minimal: At worst, lots of fitness enthusiasts will say hateful stuff about you or your brand in online comments sections,” he says.

“I mean, imagine a job résumé that someone could lie on without any future repercussions in terms of your ability to land the job or make the sale,” he continues. “That’s how folks like Brad Castleberry and Gracyanne Barbosa approach Instagram. They lie, get more followers and get more lucrative endorsement deals as a result. In a lot of ways, their deceptions seem to have enhanced the value of their Instagrams.”

To underscore the historical nature of his claim, Roberts cites the example of Sri Chinmoy, a slender Indian man with pipe-cleaner arms and a stack-of-dimes neck. Over the years, Chinmoy, an Indian mystic who had risen to fame as a meditation teacher, celibate cult leader and peace activist during the 1970s before reinventing himself in 1985 as a motivational speaker and weightlifter, achieved countless unprecedented feats of strength.

They were mainly unprecedented, though, because of how ridiculous they were — when they didn’t involve crazy homemade contraptions, they consisted of lifting circus elephants or groupings of his celebrity followers (a wide swath of fame that stretched from Nelson Mandela to Helen Hunt) from the ground, if just barely.

Even people who should’ve known better, like former bodybuilding and powerlifting champion Bill Pearl, were enamored with Chinmoy, who died in 2007 at the age of 76. “Just to support this kind of weight in any way is a miracle, because he isn’t just trying to lift a dumbbell, he’s trying to lift the attitude of the world,” Pearl said when introducing one of Chinmoy’s weightlifting shows in 1999.

“Here’s a direct lineage from kayfabe,” Roberts explains. “You look back at the strongman days, or even at wrestling in the carnivals, where outcomes of matches are predetermined, and there’s this obvious connection between exercise performance and deceit. The strength sports have been shrouded in smoke and mirrors since those carnival days, and steroids just made matters even more complicated. If some tough kid can bench 315 pounds in high school, what’s the harm in his starting to say that his max is 30 pounds higher? And once you go down that path, it’s a slippery slope. If you can load a few extra fake weight plates on the bar, and you get a better social media sponsorship for doing so, what’s the harm to you? What’s the danger besides a bunch of people calling you out on Instagram, and what does that matter if you’re getting paid?”

For his part, Chinmoy seemed to believe that the authenticity of his unusual lifts paled in comparison to their motivational or inspirational impact on the viewer. “I don’t blame people who suspect my performance,” Chinmoy told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. “My own mind suspects it. How can I blame them? When I think of 7,000 pounds, can you imagine? I can’t imagine someone can be so strong. Yet so many people have seen, and you can show it on the video.”

Castleberry made a similar point during his confrontation with Kenny K.O. at Mr. Olympia. Motioning toward the large crowd of onlookers who had gathered around his booth, Castleberry asked, “Who is the realest of all? Ten years of my life doing this, so does it look like I have a body that lets me lift big weights? Look at me! Look at the crowd! Ask them if they think I can lift big weights. Don’t you think they know what I can do? I brought them all here!”

He then playfully grabbed K.O. and pulled him close. “See, he gets it,” he told the crowd. “Fuck the haters. You get it. I don’t care if you lift fake weights. People can do whatever they want. But I’m the real deal, I’m the real shit.”