Have you ever wondered about the origins of weight training? In this blog post, I’ll take you through a captivating journey that traces the evolution and advancement of weight training exercises and equipment, from ancient times to the contemporary era.
Weight training holds its place as the most popular form of resistance training amongst fitness enthusiasts. It involves lifting objects against the gravitational force to increase strength. Today, it has become an integral cornerstone of the modern fitness industry, enabling individuals to bolster their strength, elevate athletic performance, and promote an overall sense of well-being.
Ancient origins: Weight training is by no means a recent development; its origins can be traced back to ancient times. When examining recorded history, it becomes evident that people have been involved in weightlifting for a multitude of reasons: to compete against each other, to attain greater strength and power, and to maintain their physical readiness for warfare. Across recorded history, weights served as tools for displaying physical prowess in exhibitions and performances.
Stone lifting tradition: In ancient times, the practice of stone lifting was a significant tradition. This tradition was observed in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Tamilakam, encompassing the entirety of South India, and the northern half of Sri Lanka. In many prehistoric tribes, individuals would attempt to lift large rocks whenever they encountered them, and the first person to succeed would often inscribe their name onto the stone, along with a message. Notable instances of such rocks have been discovered in castles across Greece and Scotland.
For instance, consider the story of Bybon, son of Phola, from Greece. Bybon accomplished the remarkable feat of lifting an immense stone weighing 143.5 kilograms with just one hand, raising it over his head. To commemorate this achievement, his name, along with the message “Bybon, son of Phola, has lifted me over [his] head with one hand,” was meticulously carved onto a stone that now resides in a Greek museum.
Evolution of gyms: The tradition of stone lifting in Greece eventually played a role in the development of gyms. These early gyms weren’t just lacking structured weights; they also stood out for their distinct absence of sportswear. Remarkably, the Greeks conducted all their training in the nude.
In fact, the term “gymnasium” has its roots in the Greek word “gymnasion,” which is formed by combining two base words: “Gymnos,” signifying “naked” or “uncovered,” and “Gymnazo,” representing “to exercise” or “to train.”
Introduction of competitive sports: Originally, ancient Greek gyms served as spaces for honing combat abilities, encompassing disciplines like wrestling, racing, javelin and stone throwing. This foundation paved the way for an array of competitive sports, including running races, discus throw, javelin throw, long jump, sprint races (stadion), wrestling, boxing, and even chariot races.
The Olympic Games: These diverse sporting events ultimately culminated in the creation of one of the world’s most esteemed and monumental athletic spectacles – the Olympic Games (commencing around 776 BC). As a highly revered event, the Olympics began to offer substantial rewards, including crowns fashioned from sacred olive leaves, sculptures of the athletes themselves, and influential political positions. This incentive structure drove athletes to push the boundaries of their training, resulting in the development of extraordinary physical prowess.
Milo of Croton and Principle of Progressive Overload in Weight Training: An athlete who stands out in history is Milo of Croton, renowned as the greatest and strongest wrestler of his time. His exceptional prowess was highlighted by his unprecedented achievement of winning the Grand Slam of the Panhellenic Games six times, beginning in 540 BC. The Panhellenic Games encompassed four distinct sports festivals, including the Olympic Games, held cyclically over a span of four years.
Milo popularized the Principle of Progressive Overload through a remarkable feat. He carried a newborn calf on his shoulders, and continued to do so until it matured into a four-year-old bull. While initially undertaken as a bet, Milo noticed that as the calf grew in size, so did his own physical stature and strength. The legacy of athletes like Bybon and Milo sparked a global movement, inspiring countless individuals to cultivate their physical abilities and excel in their chosen sports.
The emergence of the First Structured Weight Training Equipment – Halteres: With the progression of gyms, came the evolution of training tools. As gymnasiums developed, the use of stones and animals as training tools gave way to more organized equipment. Amongst the earliest tools employed by Greek soldiers within the gymnasium was an ancient predecessor of the dumbbell referred to as Haltere. Crafted from stone and metal, the design of the Halteres remained consistent for many centuries, illustrating its enduring effectiveness.
End of the Ancient Olympics in 393 AD: The Olympics became an integral part of ancient Greek society. Every four years from 776 BC to 393 AD, thousands of people from all the Greek states and colonies gathered for the competition. But unlike the modern Olympics, there was no torch relay, and no female competitors; the events would often become brutal. The ancient Olympic Games officially came to an end when Roman emperor Theodosius 1 issued a decree banning all pagan festivals, including the Olympic Games.
Strength athletics – Ancient Strongman sport: Humanity’s fascination with physical abilities never went down even after the end of the ancient Olympic Games. People still kept on competing in sporting events to showcase their physical prowess. This enduring fascination laid the groundwork for the emergence of the earliest form of strength sport: Strongman championships, also known as Strength athletics. In these competitions, individuals vied to exhibit their exceptional physical prowess, carrying forward a legacy of strength that transcended the era of the ancient Olympic Games.
The sport of strongman has some roots in Viking traditions:
Viking civilization thrived from the 8th to the 11th century and this period gave rise to the strongest men on the planet. The extensive Viking trade network spanned from Iraq to the Arctic Circle, thus explaining the concentrated presence of strongman athletes from the same region. Rooted in Viking tradition, a distinctive rite demanded the lifting of a specific stone to prove one’s mettle. This practice endured for centuries in Iceland and Scotland, where young men would raise a stone to demonstrate their passage into manhood. Some of these stones still exist today and have also been featured in modern strongman contests.
Indian Clubs (Mudgar/Gada) popularised by the British in the 17th Century: Indian club swinging has a heritage extending back thousands of years to Hindu traditions, where these clubs were revered as gifts from the divine. Serving as exercise equipment, they presented resistance during movement to cultivate strength and mobility.
This practice involves maneuvering wooden clubs of varying sizes and weights through specific patterns, forming part of a comprehensive strength exercise regimen. These clubs ranged in weight, from a few pounds to specialized versions weighing as much as 100 pounds.
When British colonists of the 19th century encountered exercise clubs in India, they dubbed them “Indian Clubs.” These clubs were taken from India to Britain, where they were primarily employed as training tools by soldiers and police forces.
Introduction of dumbbells in the 17th century:
The pioneers of strength events did not have the sophisticated equipment that we have today or the research on training and physiology to back up the exercises, but they did have the important desire to lift something heavy for fun, sport, and physical health. Mother Nature’s gifts were all that these pioneers had to use. They made equipment out of whatever they could. As time went by, they created more modern inventions for strength athletics. For example, dumbbells originated in the 1700s when a rod was placed between two church bells. When the clapper was removed from the bells, they became silent, or dumb, hence the word “dumbbell”. The golden period of strongmen started in the 18th century when some of the greatest athletes showcased their superhuman physical capabilities.
Introduction of barbells in the 18th century: Barbells made their debut in the 1860s as lengthy bars with weighty masses on each end. Originally utilized as props by circus performers in sideshow acts, they evolved over time. In 1902, Allen Calvert, an accomplished American weightlifter, entrepreneur, magazine publisher, and author, established the Milo Bar-Bell Company in Philadelphia, PA. He introduced the Milo Triplex, a patented barbell design featuring adjustable weights.
The Milo Bar-Bell Company went on to manufacture barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells of varying sizes. In addition to his business ventures, Allen Calvert significantly contributed as an author to shaping and regulating the realm of weightlifting and competitive sports.
Introduction of Weightlifting sport: The roots of modern weightlifting competitions trace back to the strongmen of the 18th and 19th centuries, figures like Eugene Sandow, Arthur Saxon of Germany, George Hackenschmidt of Russia, and Louis Apollon of France. These individuals showcased their feats of strength in circuses and theaters. The inaugural weightlifting contest, featuring standardized weights, barbells, and a system of competitive scoring, took place in 1891 in London. Comprising seven lifters from across the globe, this event, officially recognized by the International Weightlifting Federation in 1989, marked a pivotal juncture in the history of weightlifting and strength sports. It signified a transition from the circus strongman era to that of Olympic champions.
The rekindled Olympic Games of 1896 included weightlifting events, a trend that persisted in the 1900 and 1904 Games. However, these events were temporarily halted until 1920. At the behest of the International Olympic Committee, the International Weightlifting Federation (Fédération Haltérophile Internationale; FHI) was established in 1920 to standardize events and oversee international competitions. By 1928, the earlier one and two-hand lifts had evolved into a focus on two-hand lifts: the Snatch, the Clean and Jerk, and the Clean and Press. The Clean and Press was subsequently discontinued in 1972 due to difficulty in judging them. Thus, modern Weightlifting sport now centers around two two-hand lifts: the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch.
Eugen Sandow – Eugen Sandow, a German strongman athlete, earned the title “Father of modern bodybuilding.” In the late 19th century, bodybuilding emerged from “muscle display performances” showcased by strongmen in circuses and theaters. Sandow pioneered this cultural shift, igniting the tradition of “muscle display performances” that define modern bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding’s origins: Sandow organized the inaugural bodybuilding competition on September 14, 1901, christened the “Great Competition.” This groundbreaking event unfolded at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The panel of judges comprised Sandow himself, along with Sir Charles Lawes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The contest was met with resounding success, drawing such an overwhelming audience that many bodybuilding enthusiasts had to be turned away. The coveted prize presented to the victor was a golden statue of Sandow, exquisitely sculpted by Frederick Pomeroy.
During the 1950s and 1960s, bodybuilding witnessed a surge in popularity, fueled by the rise of strength and gymnastics champions, alongside the widespread dissemination of bodybuilding magazines, training methodologies, nutritional guides, and the advent of protein and other dietary supplements. This era also ushered in the opportunity to partake in physique contests.
The proliferation of bodybuilding organizations occurred concurrently, with the notable establishment of the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) in 1946 by Canadian siblings Joe and Ben Weider. Other organizations such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), National Amateur Bodybuilding Association (NABBA), and the World Bodybuilding Guild (WBBG) also contributed to this expansion. Consequently, the scope and scale of bodybuilding contests grew exponentially.
Among the various bodybuilding championships, some garnered particular prestige, including titles like Mr. America, Mr. World, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Galaxy. A pinnacle was reached with the inception of Mr. Olympia in 1965 by the IFBB, which has since emerged as the foremost bodybuilding competition worldwide.
The machine age and weight training: After the emergence of free weights, substantial advancements in resistance training took several centuries to materialize. However, the 1950s marked a transformative phase with the innovative contributions of American fitness luminary Jack LaLanne. LaLanne’s ingenuity gave rise to several enduring pieces of equipment. He introduced the first cable-pulley machine, the Smith machine, and the first leg extension machine. This pioneering spirit resonated further with figures like Harold Zinkin, creator of the Universal Gym, and Arthur Jones, who unveiled the Nautilus Machines, thereby catalyzing the integration of machines into gym environments.
A progression in the evolution of equipment came in the form of plate-loaded machines, introduced in the late 1980s, with the pioneering Hammer Strength leading the way. These machines prioritized entire body movements over isolating specific body parts. They offered a natural and smooth feel.
Amid the “functional fitness” wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the inclusion of Swiss balls, bosu balls, and foam rollers became a prerequisite for gyms catering to the general public. The turn of the millennium saw the advent of the CrossFit movement, accompanied by additions like battle ropes, sleds, glute ham raises, and more. This dynamic evolution of equipment reflects the ever-evolving landscape of fitness and strength training.
Scientific Understanding and Application: As scientific knowledge expanded, so did our understanding of weight training. Exercise physiology and biomechanics played crucial roles in optimizing weight training exercises for specific goals. Many researchers and strength coaches revolutionized the field with their evidence-based training principles, focusing on factors such as muscle hypertrophy, strength gains, and injury prevention.
Conclusion: Spanning from ancient civilizations to modern fitness centers, weight training exercises have undergone a remarkable evolution. What began as rudimentary employment of stones and bones has evolved into a sophisticated scientific discipline that harmonizes strength, athleticism, and aesthetic allure. Amid our unending quest to fathom human potential, weight training exercises are a bedrock of physical fitness, enabling individuals to unleash their utmost capabilities.
It is crucial to remember that, prior to embarking on a weight training regimen, consulting with qualified professionals is essential. This ensures proper form and technique, optimizing safety and effectiveness. So, grab those weights, embrace the legacy, and embark on a journey of empowerment.
– Yogesh Chavan
Senior Faculty, Exercise Science