“How Much Can You Lift?”: Avoid the “John Wayne” syndrome

A critical question in assessing your disability is how much you can lift and carry, both on a “frequent” basis (2/3rds of the workday) and on an “occasional” basis (1/3rd of the workday).

“How much can you lift?” is a standard question in social security administrative hearings.   We men often have trouble with that question.  Specifically, we have trouble answering it honestly.

It’s not that we are dishonest.  It’s that we are – well – unrealistic.   I call it the “John Wayne” syndrome.  (If you are younger, maybe you can think of it as the “Vin Diesel” Syndrome).

On countless occasions, I  have sat in front of a male client with a bad back and his wife.  And I ask him the question: “how much can you lift?  I know where this is going.  He gives me a ridiculous number.  50 pounds.  75 pounds.  His wife reacts.  Sometimes it is eyerolling, sighs of exasperation.  Sometimes the wife just gets mad.

Because she lives with him.  She know his estimation of what he can lift isn’t even close to reality.

The reasons we men exaggerate our physical prowess are many.  Pride undoubtedly.

I am approaching my mid-60s, and I just recently starting some weight lifting. I would call it “light weights” not because that is my choice, but because that is all I can do.  If you had asked me, before I started lifting, what I could lift I would have greatly overestimated, not because I am full of myself, but because my memory of what I can lift is from when I was a much younger man.  When I sit down at a new machine, and look at the weight that the last younger and fitter person set, I often think “yeh I can do that”.  One rep and I am setting the weight way down.

Usually disabled men have been relatively inactive due to their health since they last worked. By the time of the ALJ hearing, that could be several years. So when I prepare my Dallas clients for their hearing by asking the all-important “how-much-can-you-lift” question, and get what I know to be a ridiculously answer like “50 pounds”, I always ask: “When was the last time you lifted 50 pounds?” Invariably I get a blank look, with an answer like “I can’t remember…”.

I counsel my clients to think about the weight question this way.


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