Made by Concrete: How Atlas Stones and Psychoanalysis Shape the Strength Athlete

In my recent blog post, I wrote about the Olympic lift called the snatch as a metaphor for psychoanalysis; psychoanalysis itself being just one of myriad avenues for developing a sense of self and identity. Today, I'm thinking a lot about how the entire process of strength training and competing, specifically in Strongman sport, and the ways we interact with the implements themselves, help shape our identities.

In case you aren't familiar with Strongman events, there are several, some of which have literally Titanic names. These include:
Atlas stone
Hercules hold
Frame carry
Keg toss

Here's a video of the Britain's Strongest Woman competition, showing the Atlas stone event:

Pretty rad, right? These lifts require aggression and direct access to some brute force that women tend to be socialized away from. Strongman events bring out power in people and this can be liberating for people socialized as women.

Though there are so many things I could talk about regarding these different implements and events, there are several things on my mind about the Atlas stone and how it shapes us as we lift it.

Before I follow that thread, though, I want to make a connection between Strongman events and the Olympic lifts. The snatch and clean and jerk, both Olympic lifts, require a lot of precision and carry with them some stereotypes in the sporting world: refined, modern, and less brutish than Strongman lifts (though of course there is plenty of throwing in the track & field portions of the Olympics). That story plays out in the myth of Atlas, too. Atlas, in Greek mythology, was a Titan (an old god) who was on the losing side of the war between the Titans with the Olympians (the new gods). As punishment, Atlas was sentenced to hold up the sky for all eternity.

Though there are several iterations of this myth, including one with a community-oriented Perseus who builds towers to hold up the sky and thus liberates Atlas (technology will liberate us all, right?), the general consensus is that Atlas is the myth about how the sky stays above us. While he's often depicted holding a stone which looks like the earth, the myth is actually about him holding up the sky forever and ever... and ever. 

Luckily for us mere mortals, the Atlas stone event is only 60 seconds. Though (and I speak from experience here) when an athlete finds herself struggling to get the stone to the platform, that struggle can certainly feel like it lasts forever.

As is the case whenever we struggle, these challenges shape us. Moving the stone shapes us. The Atlas stone, being spherical and exceedingly heavy, requires the athlete to bend her arms and chest in a particular way in order to receive it. Her chest and entire front side becomes a container for the stone; it sits in her lap and is positioned as close to her chest and stomach as possible. Essentially, she takes the challenge of the stone, and gives it a great big hug. An athlete can hang out in that squat position for a while– it's actually quite comfortable if one has the mobility, because the stone ends up acting as a counterbalance to one's body weight. Come to think of it, someone should probably have told Atlas himself about this little trick, maybe it would have saved his shoulders.

But eventually, if you wish to score, you are required to lift it to the platform at some point in the 60 seconds of allotted time.

Once you're ready, with as much power, force, strength, and explosion as you can muster, you fly that stone through your hip extension up to the platform height (usually 48" for women). 


There is a connection here between aggression and power, and receptivity and fluidity. In order to successfully complete this lift, you must be able to harness both your aggression and your receptivity. Giving a concrete ball a giant bear hug also shapes your body. Muscle develops, your mind becomes more connected to your body, and the implement shapes how you respond to just as much as your body guides the stone to the platform. Lifting Atlas stones is yet another example of how not only are we connected between body and mind, but how the external world shapes us through both our own agency, and our response to the agency and existence of objects outside of us.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot more precision required when it comes to Olympic lifts than Strongman lifts. My experience is that there is an interconnection of receptivity and aggression in both Olympic and "Titanic" lifting (my gender neutral name for Strongman), but Strongman is where aggression takes center stage. There is something about the refined nature of Olympic lifting that creates the magic I talked about in my earlier post, while "Titanic" lifting pulls you directly into contact with how your body is engaging with the implement. 

Yes, you move the implement: But the implement also shapes and moves you. Watch below for how Strongman has changed this person's life:

These feats of strength are hard-won, and bring you face to face with parts of yourself that require you to have full emotional and psychic transparency with yourself. They offer an opportunity to leave it all on the table. 

Yes, you guessed it: Psychoanalysis offers this opportunity, too.

And both require honesty with yourself and a willingness to engage in the challenge. The work comes in the training. The work is in the ability to return to the training or the analysis, to examine what you left on that table, and learn from it. These sports, and psychoanalysis, can change your cells, your muscles, your central nervous system, your understanding of yourself, and your emotional and psychic capacity for resilience and strength.

I'm opening my practice to people who participate in offbeat sports- like Olympic lifting, Crossfit, Strongman ("Titanic Sports"!), Highland Games, Powerlifting, Parkour, and even Circus- if you're looking for a therapist who understands the field of competitive strength sports, let's talk!