When powerlifter Brad Castleberry steps under a barbell loaded with 45-pound plates and claims he is about to set a world record in the back squat, he could very well be carrying on another long and distinguished strongman tradition: using fake weights to deceive viewers about how much he can lift.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, strongman acts toured Europe and the United States. Most of the men involved in these performances were legitimately strong, but they were in show business, and not all of their lifts were on the level. As noted in David Chapman's Sandow the Magnificent, early physique star Eugen Sandow and his mentor Louis Attila attracted attention to their own strongman routines by exposing the fakery of competitors, calling them out as frauds for using lighter barbells and hollow weights (Sandow may also have used such props, particularly later in his career).
Fake weights, which can be purchased online at various outlets, have figured prominently in movies (recall 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 professional wrestling (Dino Bravo's attempt to set a bench press "world record" at the 1988 Royal Rumble was one such stunt).
In most cases, the fake weights are employed by people who are already strong, such as Eugen Sandow and wrestler Dino Bravo, to create the impression that they are superhuman. Brad Castleberry, another very strong person, appears to be following in their footsteps--and like them, he has been called out for it by other powerlifters.
"[Castleberry] is a dude who works hard in the gym and makes a living from it, but he also has a tremendous ego," trainer and MMA athlete Marc Sestok told Motherboard. "It's kind of disrespectful to those involved in powerlifting."
Castleberry, who has a sizeable Instagram following, is hardly the only individual on social media who has used fake weights to garner views and grow his personal brand. Kali Muscle, an enormous and extremely popular bodybuilder, has faced similar accusations, as has Brazilian fitness model Gracyanne Barbosa.
The 130-pound Barbosa, in fact, may have posted the most egregious of these videos to date, squatting a bar that appears to be loaded with 495 pounds for ten below-parallel repetitions without breaking a sweat (many experienced heavyweight lifters, myself included, would be incapable of doing that).
For Nick Miller, a natural powerlifter who maintains a YouTube channel dedicated to exposing steroid users and other strength athletes he considers to be deceptive, these practices are deeply problematic. "I think people need to understand what's going in the fitness industry...what people are trying to get away with, how they're building audiences this way," he remarks in a video dedicated to exposing Barbosa's use of fake weights.
Not everyone shares Miller's level of concern for this practice. "Ultimately, what matters most on Instagram is appearance," said Douglas Alexander, an aspiring physique athlete who shares his pictures and videos on the service. "Views and likes might be the only thing folks such as Castleberry and this Barbosa person are racking up legitimately, but they are certainly getting them. When it comes to social media, no publicity is bad publicity."