In videos released this weekend, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—a man who has compared childhood vaccines to the holocaust and is also running for president for some reason—lifts weights on a sunny beach. He appears to be lifting 115 pounds. He has fans who believe this is impressive, and that he can do so says something about both his personal health and his ability to advocate for public health. Let’s dig into those claims.
First, let’s consider his incline bench presses on their merits as a lift, judging them as a meathead would (it’s me, I’m the meathead). Then we can talk about why it doesn’t fucking matter.
What exercise is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. doing?
Kennedy, who founded an anti-vaccine propaganda organization egregious enough to get kicked off of Facebook, is doing an incline bench press. It’s like a bench press, but instead of the bench being parallel to the ground, it’s raised upward to sit at an angle. The resulting lift that is something of a hybrid between a bench press and an overhead (standing) press. It puts more emphasis on the shoulders and what bodybuilders call the “upper chest” than does a regular bench press. It’s normal to use less weight for incline bench than for a standard bench press. RFK, Jr. appears to have attached a 25-pound plate and a 10-pound plate on each side of a 45-pound bar; if the equipment is what it looks like, that’s 115 pounds.
The man who thinks Bill Gates wants to track us via injectable microchips is doing the lift in a style common among bodybuilders, in that he does not let the bar touch his chest and does not extend his arms all the way at the top. He’s also working with a spotter (that’s the guy standing behind him) who helps him to complete the last few reps. This is a way of getting in extra reps at the end when his arms are tired. He could stop and take some weights off the bar to make it lighter, but getting assistance from a spotter is a simpler way to accomplish the same goal. This is all pretty normal weight room stuff.
There is also another video in which RFK, Jr., who says he is not anti-vaccine but who continually advocates against vaccination, does pushups. They are not particularly good pushups.
Is 115 pounds an impressive incline bench?
Now, is what RFK, Jr. is doing hard? I don’t normally incline bench, so for the sake of journalism, I propped my bench up on blocks. My incline might not have been the same as Kennedy’s (and a different incline can certainly affect how difficult or easy a lift is) but I got it as close as I could. I didn’t have access to a sunny beach, and I didn’t do it shirtless, but I did wear jorts for authenticity.
Kennedy, who alleges that Anthony Fauci taught Chinese scientists “how to weaponize bat viruses,” appeared to do five reps without help from a spotter. I did four. (I did not have a person spotting me; I just lowered the weight to my lap after I failed to complete the fifth rep.) It’s safe to say Kennedy is a larger person than me, and being a dude, he would have an advantage over me in terms of upper body muscle mass.
He and I can compare our numbers with a Wilks calculator. (Wilks is a formula that attempts to account for differences in gender and body size so that people can compare lifts.) Unfortunately, when I searched for RFK, Jr.’s vital statistics, I encountered a myriad of celebrity websites that couldn’t decide if he was 5’8″ or 6’2″, so I doubt any of them have a correct weight. That said, I attempted a ballpark estimate. Five reps at 115 pounds works out to an estimated one-rep max (1RM) of 134 pounds. My four reps would give a 1RM of 129. If I plug those into a calculator with the assumptions that RFK, Jr., is 175 pounds and male, and that I am 155 pounds and female, he gets a score of 41.70 for his lift, and I get 58.04 for mine. Even if he and I were the same weight, the formula still gives me the win—45 points versus 58 points. Ergo, you should vote for me, not RFK, Jr. (I also think vaccines are good.)
So is a 69-year-old man doing a 115-pound incline bench impressive? Not really. It’s a perfectly fine working weight for a guy who lifts as a hobby, which is all we’re looking at here. If a guy of his age and abilities showed up to your neighborhood gym, you’d be like “hey, good for you, staying active.”
If, in fact, it is true that this weight is “50% of his max,” as the person who says he spotted this set claims, then that’s a more impressive lift. We don’t have evidence for or against the spotter’s claim that RFK, Jr., can actually “pump a few” reps at 230. We also don’t know why he would have posted his last drop set rather than a regular working set, any more than we know why he would have posted this set of eight partial-range-of-motion pushups that he claims was only such a low number because it was his last set of the day.
Why talking about this at all is really fucking stupid
Did we learn nothing from Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Crossfit videos? A person can be strong and athletic and still a horrible ghoul who should not be allowed anywhere near a seat for public office. (For the record, if Greene is still training, I believe she can probably out-bench Kennedy; we can schedule the anti-vaxxer powerlifting meet as a replacement for the Musk/Zuckerberg cage match.)
Kennedy’s whole deal in posting these videos is to take the focus off of health as a thing that is important to all human beings and is strongly affected by policy. In the tweets that followed his pushup video, the man who says that 5G cell phone networks cause cancer describes his vision for public health as, “not through pills or syringes, but through character and self-discipline.”
This is, of course, nonsense. Even strong people can get sick. Sickness itself is also a barrier to forming healthy habits, so keeping people healthy is part of what enables them (us) to exercise and eat well in the first place. And while exercise can play a role in preventing some chronic diseases, it doesn’t make all the other causes of disease disappear.
Kennedy’s fans have put pictures of Kennedy and Joe Rogan next to photos of actual vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, with the implication that all that matters to “health” is whether or not you look kinda jacked. (Hotez recently declined an invitation to debate RFK, Jr., on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and was subsequently harassed about it online and in person.)
Kennedy is just one of many loud voices that have been blaming people for their own sickness since the early days of COVID. And the trend stretches back further than that: I have a stack of old Strength & Health magazines from the early 1940s and several of them include editorials about how people who lift weights are always healthy, and anybody who has a health condition only has themselves to blame. Go back a bit further, and you find proto-fitfluencer Bernarr Macfadden yelling in print that “weakness is a crime—don’t be a criminal.” Macfadden didn’t believe that germs could make healthy people sick, much like Kennedy seems not to believe that the HIV virus causes AIDS.