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The Evolution of Weightlifting

Updated on December 29, 2011
Wrestler training with a Sumtola, the precursor to the modern-day barbell
Wrestler training with a Sumtola, the precursor to the modern-day barbell
Female athletes working out in Ancient Rome
Female athletes working out in Ancient Rome
Louis Cyr, the legendary powerlifter. Don't be fooled by his unimpressive physical stats; the man was strong
Louis Cyr, the legendary powerlifter. Don't be fooled by his unimpressive physical stats; the man was strong
Eugen Sandow, the Father of Modern Bodybuilding who played a role in the shift from function towards pure aesthetics
Eugen Sandow, the Father of Modern Bodybuilding who played a role in the shift from function towards pure aesthetics
Strongman Arthur Saxon, nicknamed "The Iron Master"
Strongman Arthur Saxon, nicknamed "The Iron Master"
Charles Atlas Ad, c. 1940s
Charles Atlas Ad, c. 1940s
Eugen Sandow at 19, already possessing a remarkably muscular physique despite having never touched a weight
Eugen Sandow at 19, already possessing a remarkably muscular physique despite having never touched a weight
The Indian wrestler Gama, who was known to run several kilometres with a heavy stone ring on his neck, illustrating that functional fitness does not always equate aesthetic fitness and vice versa
The Indian wrestler Gama, who was known to run several kilometres with a heavy stone ring on his neck, illustrating that functional fitness does not always equate aesthetic fitness and vice versa
Abbye Stockton (1917-2006), professional strongwoman who trained Marilyn Monroe. Could lift more weight than most men. More info needs to be uncovered about Stockton, though.
Abbye Stockton (1917-2006), professional strongwoman who trained Marilyn Monroe. Could lift more weight than most men. More info needs to be uncovered about Stockton, though.

What do you envision when you here the phrase "weightlifting"? Do you perhaps picture an olympic lifter performing a feat of strength in a copiously proportioned bar of iron, or perhaps a bodybuilder practicing his bicep curls in front of a mirror? The truth is that, if it involves raising a weight, be it light or heavy, it's weight-lifting; regardless of whether the weight is made out of iron, wood, timber, or human flesh (like when you perform push ups with your girlfriend sitting on your back!). But the origins of weight-lifting I'm afraid, are as mysterious as the origins of say, Hinduism. In other words, it's indefinite as to where and when the practise first started, although I have a nagging suspicion that our neolithic forefathers did know a thing or two about pounding heavy stones for fun! And the reasons people lift weights are as diverse as the types and heaviness of the weights themselves. Some people, namely myself, train for function, and (within reason) aesthetics. Then there are those on the other extreme, who train purely for functional fitness, but not so much for aesthetics (e.g. Powerlifters, Sumo Wrestlers). Then you have the "aesthetic gang" who train purely for the visual effect on the body which results from weight lifting, the emphasis being not so much on strength and endurance, but rather, six pack abs and V- shaped torsos (e.g. Underwear Models, Fitness Models, Bodybuilders). Neither of these groups of course, can be said to be superior to the other. Everyone has their own goals, and if we are to expect others to respect our right to our goals and values, we should in turn respect their right to theirs.

Early Weightlifting

It is believed (but this may be contested with future research) that strength training as a sport first originated in India several thousand years BC, and spread to Ancient Greece, and was used as a means of conditioning for soldiers and sportsmen, primarily the wrestlers. Working out in Ancient India was a man's affair; the ladies had no business in the gymnasiums back then but hey, that was life several thousand years ago; so what'd you expect? Back then, there were obviously no such things as dumbbells and barbells, let alone benches. The aspiring strongman developed his muscles through improvisations such as rocks, tree trunks, over-sized boulders, and a variety of gymnastic exercises (e.g. Chin ups, pull ups, rope-climbing) that involve the bodyweight. Truly, you may think of these early strongmen as being "primitive", so to speak, but the truth is, their methods were no more primitive than the methods we apply today. I mean to say that, if you're lifting a 70kg barbell, as oppossed to a 70kg tree trunk (with carved-in handles), for instance your muscles honestly cannot tell the difference! Only that, the barbell is a much prettier sight to behold than a dirty, cracked old tree trunk. When Alexander the Great invaded India, he adopted a considerable portion of Indian culture into Greek culture, and it is through this included strength-training knowledge of the period. Strength training then (probably) spread to Ancient Rome, and contests of strength was turned into a major event at the Olympics. The ideal man (and woman) in much of Greco-Roman tradition was both mentally and physically fit; he or she had to be able to withstand the rigours of physical training in order to be considered a worthy human being. In fact, the Spartans used to chuck the skinny kids off Mount Olympus back then!

Strength Training for strength vs Strength training for aesthetics

Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the evolution of weight lifting is the shift in emphasis from strength towards aesthetics. As I said, there were no dumbbells, or barbells in the Ancient World. Isolation exercises (exercises used to target one particular muscle, as opposed to a group of muscles) popular with bodybuilders today (e.g. Bicep curls, tricep kickbacks,etc) were virtually non-existant. Instead, prior to the late nineteenth century, athletes of the iron trained not for show, but rather, for performance. They simply lifted massive shit with things like Military presses, squats, etc, ate big, and repeated the process. Muscular developmend back then was not planned and deliberate (for instance, a bodybuilder may look at himself in the mirror and say, "hm, I need more tricep.. so i will do some tricep extensions"). The statues you see representing the male body, e.g. Michelangelo's David, Hercules, etc, are nothing but mere statues. Prior to the advent of modern bodybuilding, it is unlikely that many strongmen would have resembled the granite statues that typified the artistic contribution of Ancient Greece. As I have said, they trained for performance, over prettiness. If they did end up looking like a Greek statue, then it was a bonus, but the greater priority was on gaining strength as rapidly as possible, as opposed to aesthetics. In fact, many early strongmen were overweight and stocky guys, who... Didn't actually look like "strongmen"! When we look at the Canadian powerlifter Louis Cyr (1863-1912), for instance, and compare him to say, young Arnold Schwarzhenegger, for instance, the difference in aesthetics is clear. But alas, which of the two is stronger? You may be surprised, but Cyr could easily outperform Schwarzhenegger in regard to strength and function, despite his pudgy and untoned frame (see figure 3 below). Cyr was known to be able to support 18 grown men on a platform on his back, resist the pull of four horses with his bare hands, and raise over 90kgs with one arm overhead.

Aesthetics were not seen as an important factor until the introduction of modern bodybuilding by a gymnast named Eugen Sandow (1867-1925, figure 4). Most bodybuilders today know him as the Father of Modern Bodybuilding, for the role he played in the sport of strength training, in the shift from function towards aesthetics. Fascinated the by Roman statues he encountered as a child during a visit to Italy, he became obsessed with attaining the exact same proportions of the granite men. And he succeeded too, possessing everything that contemporary bodybuilders covet - eight-pack abs, a lithe V-shaped torso, and huge, well-muscled arms and legs. One thing that must be noted is that Sandow was a genetic freak - In an earlier picture of him sketched when he was nineteen (looking like Orlando Bloom on steroids), he already possesses a tremendously developed muscularate and insanely low level of body fat, despite not having touched a dumbbell/barbell (he was a gymnast though, but even gymnasts today lift weights!). His foray into weight-training would come later, in his early 20s. According to Sandow, Nature had intended for all men and women to have bodies like Greek Statues, and in his words,

"He who neglects the body - and not to cultivate it is to neglect it - is guilty of the worst sin; for he sins against Nature."

"Every girl's schoolroom ought to contain statues of the women of ancient Greece. It is only through day-to-day familiarity with the correct ideal that the false ideal currant today can be dethroned. They (women) have come closer and closer to the ideal of the Eastern Harem, which produces indifferent-looking houris for a few brief years of youth, and ugly hags after the age of 23 or 24."

Obviously there is some flaw in Sandow's philosophy, but you have to realize that almost 200 years ago, there was no concept of genetics and different body types. Sandow also maintained that the pursuit of strength should come in tandem with aesthetics; for instance, if you had naturally broad shoulders, you shouldn't do shoulder exercises, or if you had naturally big legs, you need not do squats, etc. To Sandow, symmetry was more important than function, so to speak. But he did contribute to getting women involved in the hobby of working out, which was initially a men's affair.

There were some people who held Sandow in disdain for being a shallow douchebag more interested in aesthetics rather than performance. Arthur Saxon, a German who migrated to England, a contemporary of Cyr and Sandow makes it clear in his book The Development of Physical Power (1905) his disapproval of the "pretty boy" trend started by Sandow (e.g. Six pack abs, v-cut torso, and lithe legs).

I would say that, above all, I look for strength and power in a man, especially an athlete, quite regardless of muscular development. The fact that a man may have full physical development, but disproportionate power and energy has been proven to me so many times, that, in my book, I propose to aim at and instill the value of genuine power, without any attempt to obtain large increase in the dimensions of the different muscles. This means that I look upon as almost worthless the taking of different measurements for purposes of comparison from time to time, as is generally done by young men who train on the different systems which are now before the public.

... strength and power is the aim, not useless and artificially-swollen muscles developed with the mistaken idea of somewhat gratifying the somewhat vain desire for personal glorification (Yes, he's talking about YOU, Calvin Klein Man!)

(Excerpt from The Development of Physical Power)

In fact, Saxon goes so far as to say that the lifter has "no restriction as to his diet"; in other words, he can eat and drink whatever he likes, as long as it is easily digestible and doesn't make him sick. (Clearly not big on aesthetics!) The fact that neither Saxon nor his bros were overweight despite being heavy drinkers (they used to drink beer while they trained!) is reflective of insanely mesomorphic (naturally lean and muscular) genetics. In any case, there's no denying the fact that the man was a beast; he was able to raise overhead with one arm 57.6kgs, but I am certain that he could have done more if he had wanted to. I myself have performed this lift with 30kgs, so as you can see, I'm waay behind Saxon lol

Insecurity Issues

Eventually, people began capitalizing on young men's insecurities about their bodies. The bodybuilder Charles Atlas began a personal training course in the 1930s which was targeted at young men, which depicts a flabby weakling having sand kicked in his face by a muscular bully at the beach, and duly dumped by his girlfriend. The weakling picks up a copy of Charles Atlas' strength training course, pumps up his body to heroic proportions in a few short weeks, beats up the bully, and regains the respect of his girlfriend and peers. One may possibly note the political incorrectness (by today's standards) of Atlas's ads in its patriarchal, conservative undertones; while being an aggressive, masculine "He-Man" is portrayed by Atlas as being sexy, respectable and desirable, being "half a man" (as Atlas put it) is considered un-sexy, despicable and undesirable. Wonder what he would have said about guys like me, who wear what we like (women's clothes included) and express their emotions openly! Eventually, the Russians came up with what we know of as anabolic steroids, and this wonderjuice was utilized by Hitler's favourite commando, Otto Skorzeny. Even Schwarzhenegger and Bruce Lee have confessed to using it in order to attain their ridiculously symmetrical proportions, that the term "bodybuilding" today, has become synonymous with "steroids, abs, and bicep curls". So what is your goal? Strength? Aesthetics? Or both?


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow, superb blog loyaut! How long have you been blogging for?you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is excellent, as well as the content!

    • Crewman6 profile image


      8 years ago

      Made me laugh... I suppose moving any amount of weight in any fashion can have at least a minimal effect, but watching those bulked-up guys doing the shake weight, I have to wonder how they feel about it. I knew a minimal amount about Sandow, next to nothing about the others, and enjoyed learning more. Keep the great hubs coming!

    • BereniceTeh90 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Crewman: Thanks :) You may not believe it, but some people still despise Sandow today; some people say he was a fraud, that his measurements and strength records were all exaggerated, but we can be certain that his " Magic Grip Dumbbell" is definitely a fad, just like the "shake weight" and crunch machines of today

      SocailGuy01: Thanks :)

    • SocailGuy01 profile image


      8 years ago from America


    • Crewman6 profile image


      8 years ago

      Wow, what a great hub! Well written, and you really know your history. This was a pleasure to read. I had no idea Sandow was so despised by the strength icons of his day.


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