At 6-foot-2, with 217 pounds of hulking muscle, Poncho Martinez made for an imposing serf, dressed like a literal peasant — leather arm bracers over a baggy, cotton worker’s shirt — for last October’s Medieval Festival in Manhattan. He had spent the last year powerlifting, adding more than 20 pounds of muscle and transforming his frame from “doughy” to swole — a daunting physical presence that proved useful in the altercation he was about to witness.
As Martinez and his girlfriend stepped onto the downtown A-train, they noticed a “big burly man screaming homophobic invective at a tiny, skinny gay kid.”
“Don’t look at me or I’ll fuck you up!” the guy yelled at the teenager.
Without speaking, Martinez and his girlfriend sprang to the boy’s defense. She went to the boy’s side, speaking to him as if he were an old friend, while Martinez stood beside them and stared down the harasser, rendering the man silent and causing him to sit down. The man eventually left the train without incident, but Martinez remained unnerved by the experience. It was the first time he had witnessed someone “directly threatening someone else” in his five years in New York City.
That kind of incident has only become more common since the fall. Hate crimes were already on the rise in New York in 2016, and spiked after Donald Trump’s election “electrified the radical right,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center put it. Nearly 900 “hate incidents” were reported to the SPLC immediately after Trump’s victory, and harassment remained above pre-election levels well into January. Just this week there’s been a rash of bomb threats made to Jewish Community Centers throughout the country.
“I thought, That man was larger than the other guy, and he didn’t deserve to be. Leftists should be bigger than Republicans.” As in, physically larger, so as to deter would-be attackers.
Four months later, Martinez now trains 30 politically active liberal men in powerlifting, so they can be strong enough to defend themselves against attacks by far-right extremists, and to intervene in potential hate crimes like the one Martinez encountered on the train. Some have called it the #SwoleLeft.
“[Conservatives] thinks we’re weak, we’re snowflakes, we’re hiding in our safe spaces. That’s not the case,” one Martinez trainee said over Twitter. “Liberals are finally standing up for themselves. … If you’re a Nazi, you should be looking over your shoulder.”
Martinez, a 26-year-old technical writer in New York, first picked up weightlifting in 2015, at the behest of a power lifter friend and his father, who sold Martinez on the mental benefits of strength training. At first, Martinez was reticent. He was a 195-pound “schlub” who could bench-press only 90 pounds. (An “average guy” in his 20s should be able to bench press his body weight thrice in one set, according to Men’s Health.) “But [weight lifting] was so immediately transformative that I started evangelizing for it right away,” he says.
Martinez gravitated toward powerlifting exercises — squats, deadlifts and bench presses — but the emotional and mental gains drew him in more than the physical transformation. Clinical depression had long led him to drink, but weightlifting alleviated both his condition and his desire to self-medicate. “It was like I was rewiring my nervous system,” Martinez says of lifting. “You never have a clearer sensation of willpower than when you’re on your last rep of your last set of heavy squats. Will I give up and be crushed by this weight on my back? Or will I tap into a heretofore unused reservoir of willpower and try harder?” At his best, he could squat 335 pounds, bench 200 and deadlift 280.
His progress came to an abrupt halt after the election. “The election was despair-inducing,” says Martinez, a self-described socialist who had been energized by Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign. He spent the next two months “drinking like a monster” instead of working out, losing much of the strength and mental stability he had gained since 2015.
“Then I said, ‘Nope. Time to have hope again and stop wallowing in the state of the world,’” Martinez says. “Trump’s election made it clear that the Democrats are incompetent — that their power machinations are useless when confronted with a different fighting style, and that regular people need to get involved with politics on an individual level and on a daily basis.”
Martinez went back to weightlifting, only this time with a defined political purpose: to get big enough to adequately defend himself and others against what he saw as a rising tide of violent, conservative extremists. And he wanted to arm other, similar-minded men with the physical strength to do the same.
“I’m not training anybody who wants to kick the shit out of anyone who’s ever worn a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat,” Martinez says. He points instead to a Trump supporter who shot a demonstrator last month in Seattle and “neo-Nazis” who beat up two anti-fascist activists last week in New York as evidence of the threat posed by violent bigots who feel empowered by the current political climate. (Trump opponents, for their part, have been responsible for property destruction at the inauguration, attacks at a recent protest in Berkeley and clashes with police during a #NotMyPresidentsDay protest this Monday in Portland.)
New Yorker Jacob Roa, 27, credits Martinez for inspiring him to get back in the gym. “I used to work out a lot and was very strong,” says Roa, who’s known Martinez for four years. “[Martinez and I] talked the day after the election and I said, ‘I need to get strong again. When you’re physically strong, you’re more confident taking a stand.”
Martinez’s friend Ben, another 27-year-old New Yorker, hadn’t worked out in more than a year before Martinez started hounding him about it via text and Twitter DM. “It’s good motivation to have someone message you and say, ‘We have work to do,’” Ben says. “I’m not under any delusion that if a bunch of leftists get swole, we’re going to suddenly go out and punch our way to victory. But I have a lot of friends who are women, trans, queer and just plain smaller and gentler than I am, and I felt I had an obligation to protect people I love and care about if they find themselves in danger at a protest.”
Martinez found more trainees by posting to Facebook and Twitter, where 3,000 people follow his “weird Twitter” mix of absurdist humor and political commentary.
A couple “scrawny” guys responded, and soon they were training one-on-one at Richie’s, a spartan bodybuilding gym in Brooklyn, where a day pass costs $5. Martinez taught them the basics of powerlifting and gave them a three-days-per-week workout regimen, with instructions to record their lifts so he could monitor their progress.
He recruited other trainees at The Base, a self-proclaimed “anarchist political center” in Brooklyn, that regularly holds self-defense classes. “A lot of them come in like the kid I saw in the train — small people, queer people, people of color — people legitimately more worried for their safety than before Trump was elected, and they don’t want to get their asses kicked if it comes to that,” Martinez says. About 100 people have requested a training session, Martinez says, and 30 have actually followed through.
Martinez’s secondary goal is to instill patience in his trainees, a necessary skill for the grueling, often-unrewarding work of political activism. “[Because of weightlifting,] I’m really good at standing around being bored and dealing with bureaucracy,” he says. “And that’s what will help leftists more than combat ability.”
There’s also a symbolic benefit to Martinez’s activism, Roa says. Liberal men are regarded by the right as emotionally and physically feeble “cucks,” whereas the ideal conservative man is “the burly guy who can lift a truck.” Powerlifting actively defies that stereotype, and projects a message that the left will not back down — ideologically or physically.