On the walls of the funerary chapel in Beni-Hassan in Egypt is a drawing. Depicted in this drawing are three figures, lifting what appears to be bags above their heads. Although no one can say with certainty that they are actually performing strength-training exercises the impression is very reminiscent of Indian club training. This drawing is 4500 years old and is thought to be the earliest record in existence of resistance exercises.
Even in Britain in 1896 B.C. there was a game called the wheel feat, which was a kind of weight throwing competition.
However strength training really developed in Greece around the sixth century B.C. to improve performance in the Olympic Game’s. It is quite obvious that strength training and the muscular physique were important to the Greeks. You only have to look at their art. Strength is the predominant characteristic of nude statues found all over Greece, and non-shows this more so than the drawings and statures of Apollo and Hercules with strongly defined muscles and powerful physiques.
The Greek athletes used jumping weights called ‘halteres’. They varied in size and shape and it is believed that this is where the modern dumbbell originates.
In the second century A.D. things really progressed when a celebrated Greek physician called Galen devised a systematic range of strength exercises using implements such as the halteres, along with heavy lifting and isometric exercises. The Romans also used similar training techniques but not only for the games but to promote prowess in battle. The Romans to understood the importance of strength training and its connection with health and wellbeing.
When the Roman Empire collapsed these training methods almost disappeared as Christianity grew and their philosophy of temperance spread. The body was no longer a thing to be admired and the only physical training practiced was to improve the skills for warfare. Strength training ceased to exist for almost a thousand years but the writings of the Greeks and Romans were preserved.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that written references to strength training appeared once more. Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531 wrote about Galen’s weight training exercises and other writer’s, Joachim Camerarius and the French essayist Michel de Montaigne also wrote about the benefits of resistance training and described some of the methods employed.
In 1710 Thomas Topham was born in Islington, England and he grew to be a remarkable natural strongman. So much so that Dr John Theophilus did a scientific study of him and this became one of the first research papers on resistance training. Topham went on to perform publicly with his first strong man exhibition taking place in the Midlands market town of Derby in 1736.
In the United States in 1772, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his son and he mentions how pleased he was that his son is exercising and how important it was to prevent disease and illness. He later wrote in 1786 how he himself had stopped drinking wine and exercised daily with dumbbells.
In Europe during the late 18th century there was much greater emphasis placed on physical education. The German teacher Johann Gutsmuth wrote The Encyclopaedia Of Bodily Exercises and he and another German, Friederich Jahn went on to invent items of fitness equipment with the latter designing the parallel bars. Jahn also sponsored physical culture festivals. At some of these festivals as many as 30,000 people would attend.
During the 19th century in Britain, Europe and the United States, weight training grew dramatically. The Triat’s gym in Paris was huge and would rival any of the gyms today. In 1824 Charles Beck arrived in New York from Germany. He established the first gymnasium in the U.S. in Massachusetts. Another American exercise guru at the time was Dr George Barker Windship who was born in Massachusetts in 1834 and after receiving his M.D. from Harvard University in 1857, went on to tour America and Canada extolling the virtues of weightlifting.
By the early 20th century most strongmen were professionals. Probably the most famous was a Prussian, Frederick Muller (1867-1925) who used the stage name Eugen Sandow.
Sandow’s early claim to fame was breaking the ‘Test Your Strength Machines’ that were so popular in Brussels, by simply overloading them. Many times the police would be called to arrest him for vandalism but when he explained that he had put his coin in them but he was just too strong for them, there was little the police could do. However it gave him the publicity that he desired. In 1889 he went to London and joined the strongman team of Samson and Cyclops were he proved to be stronger than both men. In 1893 he found himself at the Chicago World’s Fair were he teamed up with the promoter Florenz Ziegfeld. He then went on to earn $1500-$3500 a week at the fair, a staggering amount of money for the time. A young man called Barnarr MacFadden saw his shows and they had a huge influence on him. MacFadden went on to publish a magazine called Physical Culture and by 1926 had a circulation of 400.000 making MacFadden a personal fortune of 30 million dollars.
As well as strongmen there was strongwomen. The most famous being a German woman called Katie Brumbach who used the stage name Sandwina. She was so strong that she could twist horse-shoes and carry a 600lb cannon on one shoulder. Many strongmen at the time would not appear with her, afraid of being shown up.
However by 1930 vaudeville had almost disappeared and with it came the end of the professional strongman.
While all this was happening on the professional entertainment front the amateur side of weightlifting had become increasingly popular. Many serious amateur lifters were furious at some of the things their professional counterparts professed they could do and wanted to disassociate themselves from what they felt were preposterous claims.
They wanted to bring in the element of competition but with regulated and fair rules and this all began in 1891 with the formation of the German Athletic Association. By 1896 three of the first four modern Olympiads included weightlifting. Also around this time in France a new lift was developed called a ‘clean lift’ were the weight is taken to the shoulder in one motion rather than the ‘continental’ lift were it is bought up in two or more movements. This lift took over from the ‘continental’ lift.
In 1898 the first ‘World Championships” took place but although at this time it only featured British and European weightlifters.
In 1911 the British Amateur Weightlifters Association was formed but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that America formed The American Continental Weightlifters Association, modelled on the rules of the British Amateur Weightlifters Association. These associations were absorbed by the Amateur Athletic Union that then adopted the French rules for lifting. The main reason for this was so that the U.S could join the International Weightlifting Federation, which was formed in 1920 to promote and conduct international competition.
However there were many other facets of lifting including Powerlifting. Although the first official U.S. National Powerlifting Championships didn’t take place until 1965, there are now more participants of this style of lifting than the Olympic style. This is because powerlifting requires more strength and less technique that Olympic lifting and so is easier to learn and more familiar.
Bodybuilding became another form of competition. Here the goal is to use the weights to develop the perfect looking physique, with huge muscular definition and perfect muscular proportions. This kind of competition is not new, the Greeks staged this kind of contest as part of the Panathenaean Festivals. Eugen Sandow ran physique contests in London, giving prices to the best muscular men and in 1904 the first U.S contest took place promoted by Barnarr MacFadden. But the first true bodybuilding competition took place in 1947 in Philadelphia, and was called ‘Mr Universe’
In America from the 1920’s, the mail order business had a huge effect on the amateur weightlifting scene. Names such as Charles Atlas and Earle E Liedermam dominated the market. Magazines influenced young men all over America the most famous being Strength and Health published by the late Bob Hoffman and Muscle and Fitness and Flex published by Joe Weider.
Joe Weider became one of the biggest names associated with weightlifting through the 1970’s and onwards. Joe Weider’s brother Ben formed the International Federation of Bodybuilders and between them they took people like Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom.
The films of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980’s and early 1990’s promoted weightlifting and bodybuilding even further and they were probably the golden times for resistance training. Shows like Gladiators on British TV also had a huge impact.
However in the mid 1990’s stories of steroid abuse filled the media and changed the way people viewed weight training. The spit and sawdust gyms started to fade away to be substitute by swank new health clubs designed to appeal to women as much as men. Through the 1990’s they replaced the bars and clubs as the new place to meet people. Bodybuiling began to decline and fitness training took over. Fit became the new buzz- word and the weightlifting training routines adapted to meet this demand. Manufacturers of fitness equipment moved with the times. Nautilus who had invented the single station weight stack machine back in 1971 had lead the way but now faced competition from a dozen or more suppliers. Each one bringing out more stylish, user friendly, machines.
The popularity of home fitness equipment grew and as it did so the quality of home gyms improved and became smaller, to fit more easily into home environments.
Today the market is truly professional, dominated both in the U.K and America by health club chains offering high tech equipment and plush environments. In the home market it is now possible to buy health club quality fitness equipment that can be at your disposal 24 hrs a day.
Its easy to think that we are a million miles away from the Greeks of 600BC but when it comes down to it the principals are still the same. To get stronger and improve our physiques we still have to do the same thing, progressively lift weights. The difference today is that it is backed by science and packaged differently to appeal to a more sophisticated society.
The future of course is difficult to predict. The obesity epidemic, dominating most of western society is worrying. You can have the best fitness equipment and facilities in the world but if no one is prepared to use it, it all goes to waste. For people in the fitness industry this is going to be one of the main challenges but it’s a challenge worth taking on. Muscle burns calories, so strength training is a vital part of weight management. What will probably happen is machines will be designed to be less intimidating and weight training programmes will be devised to meet this changing market. If this can be achieved and people begin to see the benefits then weight training will be alive and well for a long, long time to come.