Someone picking up a barbell

A History of Weightlifting

From building up strength to aid in battle to modern ‘strong man’ competitions, humans have been interested in weightlifting and strength training for centuries.

The desire to cultivate stronger muscles and more powerful individuals has been a historical preoccupation; it is no wonder the history of weightlifting is a long and interesting one.

In our blog, we take you through the ages, briefly exploring the sport’s long history and evolution.

Ancient Weightlifting

The earliest signs of humans participating in ‘weightlifting’ come from China in the 10th century. Men entering the military would have to pass tests of strength before being accepted.

Ancient Greeks were also known for weightlifting; their primitive version of the sport included lifting large stones to prove their strength. There is later evidence of Greeks also using very early dumbbell prototypes to train.

Drawings in Ancient Egyptian tombs show evidence of Egyptians lifting heavy sandbags as a form of physical training and strength building.

But how did these ancient practises evolve into the sport we know today?

Modern Weightlifting

Weightlifting as we know it today originated in the strong men competitions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Feats of incredible strength were often performed in circuses and theatres. Performances of men breaking chains, cables and lifting people were a standard part of the show.

Famous performers of the sport at this time include Eugene Sandow of Germany, who became an icon for strength and manhood by the end of the century.

Sandow was trained by legendary strong man Ludwig Durlacher, also known as Professor Attila. Durlacher was one of the first professional trainers and opened his first gym in 1886. His clients included many among the rich and famous, including members of various royal families and other notable people from high society.

By 1891, these strong man circus performances had transformed into an international competition in London.

Barbell and weight on the floor

Olympic Weightlifting

Weightlifting first appeared in the Olympic Games in 1896. Over the next few Olympic cycles the sport fell in and out of the Games, but by 1920 it became a permanent event.

By 1932, five weight categories had been established and three disciplines were incorporated: the press, the snatch, and the clean-and-jerk. By 1972, the press lift was discontinued, leaving the two other lifts as the standard.

Female Weightlifters

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Ludwig Durlacher was among the first to encourage women to take part in weightlifting and other strength-based sports.

However, it wasn’t until 2000 at the Sydney Games that women were able to compete in weightlifting at the Olympics.

Now, women from across the world take part in the Games and compete within seven weight divisions. Historically, China has been one of the best ranking countries for women’s weightlifting.

Women holding weight above her head

Equipment Evolution

The Greeks and Egyptians might have used stones and sandbags for weight training, but like so many things, this evolved over time.

The terms dumbbell, kettlebell and clubbell originate from the 18th and 19th centuries and were increasingly used for training and performances around this time.

Now, the standard weight used in competitions is the barbell. This is a steel rod with removable cast-iron disk weights attached to each end.

The 20th century saw the rise of specialist machines and weight-related exercises. In the 1970s, Arthur Jones’ Nautilus machines became a popular addition to many weightlifter’s training regimes. The brand first made resistance cable machines to aid weightlifters and now sells other cardio training machinery.

Home gyms stocked with equipment are now becoming increasingly more possible and popular.

Man with a weight in each hand

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If you have enjoyed this article, why not take a look at our exploration of what causes muscle pain after exercise?