The History of Weightlifting and Strength Training

When you think of weightlifting, you probably think of heavy barbells, crazy training schedules, and indoor spaces filled with a wide variety of equipment. Strength training has come a long way from its prehistoric roots. 

In the early days, crowds gathered in Greek Coliseums to watch men compete in strength training competitions. Today, many people are being trained 1 on 1 by certified personal trainers in boutique gyms. Needless to say, there are many different ways that strength training has been practiced over the last 19 centuries. Although many things about the practice of strength training have changed over the last two centuries, the health benefits remain the same. In this article, we will talk about this history of strength training in countries around the world. Not only will we talk about how practices have evolved, we will talk about the benefits that still define training today.

The Early Days

horrible histories gym GIF by CBBC
horrible histories gym GIF by CBBC

Although people have recognized their strength throughout time, the early 18th century was when people began to measure and compare their strength in a tangible way. There are legends of people from prehistoric times lifting stones to signify their leadership and strength. In the 2nd century, it is recorded that people would test their strength by lifting a piece of equipment called the haltere. The cultures that have the most artifacts depicting early forms of strength competitions include China, Greece, and Egypt. Greece was perhaps the earliest adapter of strength training; they integrated swimming, javelin throwing, and jumping into their cultural practices.

In the 6th century, Milo of Croton was claimed as an iconic character of physical strength when it was rumored that he carried a full-grown bull across the city and to his home. Between the 6th century and the 16th century, there is not much information about the value of strength across different cultures. During this period, many nations were focused on spiritual health rather than physical health.

Ancient Greece Heroes (2nd Century)

Milo of Croton

Milo of Croton, Maximinus Thrax, and Louis Uni are just a few of the legends that have defined strength in Greece over the centuries. These men were known for their impressive muscular physique. Maximinus Thrax frequently entertained crowds by using rocks and wagons as props.

Parthenon Temple at Athen, Greece by Puk Patrick
Parthenon Temple at Athen, Greece by Puk Patrick

Greece was always innovative in their athleticism; they hosted the first games in Olympia in 776 B.C. The Olympic games were hosted in coliseums and gathered together thousands of people to celebrate human strength. Athenians and Spartans trained fervently for the Olympic games that were hosted every 4 years.

soldiers falling GIF
Spartan Strength Training

Perhaps Spartan training was the root of strength training as we know it today. At the age of 6, young boys would be enlisted in intense, Spartan military training. This era of strength training was extremely innovative. Greek athletes wrote out fitness regimens, engaged in warm-ups, lifted stones, and pulled carts. This type of discipline would not be practiced in other cultures until thousands of years later. 

The Early 18th Century (1701-1760)

John Locke

Before the Industrial Revolution, physical health was needed for survival.

People relied on their body to perform the tasks needed to get through the day. As large machines were developed in the Industrial Revolution, people were increasingly sedentary throughout the day. Since people were no longer moving throughout their entire day, they began exercising intentionally.

In the 18th century, John Locke wrote an essay that emphasized the important of physical activity for children. He proposed that physical activity should be infused into the education system. The idea of physical strength being an integral part of overall health was new and bold.

Until the 18th century, physical strength was regarded as an honor. Although it was revered, it was not typical for the common man to allocate time in his day to strengthening his muscles. Strength training was done by a select few individuals, those who wanted to become the strongest and most powerful.

The Late 18th Century (1751-1800)

8K by Cyril Saulnier

 By the late 18th century, common citizens began to see a value in movement. As people began to understand the benefits of strengthening their body, they began to test their strength using different techniques and movements.

An early form of dumbbells was created that was composed of sand and lead. By 1896, weightlifting had claimed a role in society and was represented in the Olympic games. In the 1896 Olympics, there were two weightlifting competitions: the Men’s One-Handed Lift and the Men’s Two-Handed Lift.

Women did not have competitive weightlifting represented in the Olympics until 2000. Although this segment of the Olympics was simplistic and ineffective at measuring true overall strength, it established strength training as a true sport that was valued across the globe.

The Progression of Strength

strong miss piggy GIF
strong miss piggy GIF

When we think about the history of strength training, we must remember that people did not have access to a 5000 square foot building that was filled with a variety of equipment, machines, and weights of all different sizes.

In the earliest days, staying fit and agile was crucial for livelihood. Centuries ago, it was important to have cardiovascular endurance and a degree of functional fitness in order to farm land efficiently. People often traveled by foot, increasing their endurance naturally by accruing steps as they walked throughout their town.

Groups of people gathered food and maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As sports developed, many nations took to javelin throwing and boxing. Before sports and weight lifting competitions, maintaining physical health and wellness was a lifestyle rather than a hobby. People relied on their strength and physical abilities to make it through the day.

What Happened Next?

File:Roper's gymnasium, Philadelphia, circa 1831.jpg

In the late 1800’s, it was apparent that hardcore weightlifters did not just want to be strong, they wanted to the be the strongest in the world. Many people would hone in on a single exercise and only increase strength in that one area. One thing that the early professionals did not understand was that there needed to be different weight divisions in order to fairly judge a strength competition. 

The Strong Man Era (1801-1900)

File:Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) - Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)- 1894-cropped.jpg

For years, many countries preferred very specific weight lifting techniques. Every country began to develop their own styles of lifts and techniques. Some countries preferred one-handed lifts while others liked two-handed lifts. Although some countries thought it was best to have competitions that judged strength based on one extremely heavy repetition, other countries wanted to compare strength through exercises that required multiple repetitions. Through trial and error, professionals began to determine what exercises could adequately measure overall strength in talented individuals. This period of time was called the “Era of the Strong Man.” In this Era, people were devoted to training their bodies in extreme ways. Although some people had developed immaculate strength, the average citizen still did not exercise on a regular basis.

Full Body Strength (1901-1920)

Marquis Luigi Monticelli-Obizzi was an Italian man that began to integrate the different weight lifting practices from countries around the world. Because of him, people started diversifying the exercise techniques that they completed on a normal basis. In addition to taking a holistic approach to strength training, Marquis made the powerful decision to promote movements that activated large muscle groups rather than movements that only focused on an isolated muscle.  He helped establish which exercises were true measures of overall muscular strength. These exercises are still commonly used to accurately measure overall strength. Exercises promoted in this time frame included squats, jerks, shoulder presses, bench presses, snatches, and the clean and jerks.

Functional Fitness (1880-1930)

As the 19th century came rolling in, European health professionals began recommending strength training as a form of therapy to their patients. These professionals trained other specialists on the importance of incorporating physical education into their practice. This innovative way of thinking about strength brought physical education and fitness into North America in a new way. From this point, leaders began to create ways for schools and health systems to engage their patients in physical activity.

File:NTS - Mercury - Weight training.jpg

In the early 1900’s, the barbell was developed. The barbell made it easier for athletes to increase their capacity to lift heavier weights. Since barbells have adjustable weights, they can accommodate many people. With the invention of the barbell, people began to get creative with the way they moved their body. People began finding techniques that could tone their entire body. As emphasis was placed on full-body strength, the concepts of bodybuilding exercises and bodybuilding competitions took root.

The Bodybuilding Era (1901-1940)

File:Ed Fury and Jackie Coey, 1953.jpg

Sandow spurred on the first recorded “bodybuilding” competition in London in 1901. In 1904, large-scale bodybuilding competitions began happening across the United States. People were inspired by the ways they could transform their body through fitness and nutrition. In the early 1900’s, fitness regimens were centered around full body toning.  In this era, more and more people began incorporating exercise into their weekly routines. At this point, it was still uncommon for the typical man and woman to exercise on a daily basis.

How Did Strength Training Get To Where It Is Today?

work out exercise GIF
work out exercise GIF

Although bodybuilding still has a part in the strength training culture, weight lifters are apt to integrate manageable workout regimens into their routine rather than focusing all their energy on their physique. Instead of spending excess amounts of time preparing for a competition, more people work to accomplish a level of fitness that is sustainable. Before World War 1, people around the world were moving in a similar direction in terms of their physical health.

During World War 1, countries became isolated and began going in different directions with their exercise habits. In the early 1900’s, people across North America became very passionate about cardiovascular exercise. For years, aerobic classes and cardiovascular sports took over the market. While the Western cultures were getting carried away with aerobic exercises, Eastern cultures were devoted to enhancing their strength training. Before WWI, working out was for the wealthy and elite. People exercised to maintain peak physical condition in case of war.

Post World War 1 (1918-1940)

File:Fred Winters, New York, winner of the dumbbell competition at ...

In the 1920’s, after World War 1, weightlifting was brought back to the Olympic games as its own category. At that time, people who were previously focused on aerobic movements began recognizing the wide range of benefits that resulted from strength training exercises.

There were only three lifts in the Olympic games of 1928: Snatches, Clean and Jerks, and Presses. People were focused on exercises that measured strength and could be completed without harming other body parts. It was in that time that many weight lifting techniques that required twisting were discouraged to reduce the risk of injury. Through this decade, lower and middle class workers began to exercise regularly. 

The Fitness Industry (1940-1970)

As the century progressed, weight lifters began dreaming of the different pieces of equipment that could enhance their workout regimen. In the 1940’s, the bench press was designed and implemented into fitness regimens. It was during this time that fitness became an industry. People began creating fitness-oriented magazines and activewear lines. The industry was monetized. With this shift, the fitness industry exploded and thousands of news products were flooded into the market. In the 1950’s, Universal and Nautilus developed multi-functional weight machines that allowed users to complete many different exercises with one machine. This machine is still the foundation for many innovative pieces of equipment today. 

In the United States, Bernarr Macfadden and Edmond Desbonnet were iconic names known among many weight lifters. These individuals developed fitness centers and methods that ignited the rise of strength training in America. Because of these leaders, people continued to value and prioritize their strength. Americans began to desire having muscular physiques and daily exercise regimens.  

Although the first private gyms opened in the 1930’s, large-scale gyms entered the scene during the 1960’s. Communal exercise began to rise in popularity. Although many gyms were populated by muscular men, training was becoming increasingly more common for women. The period between 1970-1985 brought energy into the fitness industry. Individuals were participating in exercise routines that were engaging and enjoyable – like jazzercise and aerobics. These types of exercise took the focus away from strength training. Although people were passionate about aerobic exercise at the time, women were slowly beginning to see the value in strength and conditioning.

Current Trends (1970-Now)

by Alora Griffiths
by Alora Griffiths

You are probably familiar with the trends that swept that nation from 1985 to 2005. Throughout these decades, people were fascinated by spin classes and treadmills. Although specialized aerobic classes were becoming increasingly popular, Crossfit began to enter the market in 2000. Crossfit was founded by Greg Glassman. This form of training incorporated weight lifting, powerlifting, and plyometrics into one dynamic routine. This new regimen helped to re-energize people towards strength training. To this day, Crossfit has redefined strength training as we know it. Through Crossfit, people learned techniques that minimized their time in the gym but maximized their physical results.

cardio GIF
cardio GIF

For the most part, people are now aware that cardio and weights are both vitally important for optimal health. There are many amazing professionals in the industry that have studied the benefits that strength training has on metabolism, mental health, toning, and overall well being. When you regularly weight lift, you have a reduced chance of injury through increased strength and endurance. You can become faster in your areas of cardiovascular exercise when you strengthen your muscles.

Working Out GIF
Working Out GIF

Today, the fitness industry can be confusing. With so many options and opinions about the best way to exercise, it can be hard to determine what is right for your body. Over the years as trends have come and gone, strength training is a technique that has continued to stand the test of time. Weightlifting is a form of exercise that is beneficial and accessible to people from all different backgrounds. In the next portion of this article, we will talk about the reasons why strength training has been a common practice for centuries.

Why Have People Practiced Strength Training For So Long?

by Evan Dennis
by Evan Dennis

Over the last twenty years, we have seen an innumerable amount of fitness trends take the spotlight. From step trackers to hip-hop classes, interactive Wii games to treadmill desks, there are constantly new fitness accessories that the industry is buzzing about. With so many products entering and leaving the market, it is important to examine the qualities of the practices that have been around for many years. 

It is obvious that people in prehistoric times were onto something when they illustrated respectable characters with great strength. It is necessary to ask – why has strength training lasted through so many centuries? What were the original benefits of strength and are they still relevant today? There are many undeniable benefits of strength training that have been recognized and upheld as anchors in the fitness industry.

Benefit 1: Strength Training Does Not Just Improve Physical Health, It Enhances Your Overall Well Being

by Wesley Tingey
by Wesley Tingey

I would venture to say that men in the 2nd century were not strengthening their muscles in order to become more attractive to the women in town. Men used to strengthen their bodies so that they would be prepared for battle and able to adequately farm the land. Since strength training improved their capacity to do their daily tasks successfully, men in the early centuries were naturally able to experience the overall health benefits that coincide with strength. Today, we recognize that strength training speeds up metabolism, reduces body fat, and balances hormones. When our bodies are balanced, we are able to maintain a stabilized mental and physical state..

Benefit 2: Strength Training Improves Your Longevity In All Areas

by Jon Tyson
by Jon Tyson

When your muscles are constantly getting stronger, you are improving your capacity to accomplish other tasks. In the early days, hunting the land was easier to do when muscles were trained to be agile and strong. As you accomplish goals in strength training, you learn the importance of resilience and determination. Not only is determination needed to get through a hard workout, it is needed to get through a stressful day.

Benefit 3: People Who Weight Lift Typically Have Many Admirable Qualities

Doesn’t get much better than that sunset… by Tyler Lastovich

When you think about the fossils that are covered in drawings of strong men, you must wonder about the qualities that made these men so great. Many times, strength is associated with leadership. When people are determined to accomplish tough goals in the weight room, they are likely determined to continue pushing through the difficult seasons of life. Admirable qualities of typical weightlifters includes:

  • Determination
  • Confidence
  • Ambition
  • Patience
  • Selflessness

People throughout time have been drawn to selfless leadership and quiet determination.

Benefit 4: Weight Lifting Improves Your Physique

by Dollar Gill
by Dollar Gill

There are so many physical benefits of strength training. Weight lifting exercises are crucial for toning. Some of the most effective exercises that have lasted throughout time are:

  • Squats
  • Shoulder Presses
  • Deadlifts
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Planks

Although these exercises are simple, they have withstood the test of time. With the rise of the home gym, strength training is more accessible than it has ever been in the past.


season 2 wendell borton GIF
season 2 wendell borton GIF

Strength has been a measure of aptitude and power since the beginning of time. In the early days, strength was a means of survival. People needed to be strong in order to farm, hunt, and protect their land. Strength training used to be a practice that was only available to a select few. Over the last hundred years, weight lifting has transformed and is now an integral part of life for many Americans. This type of training has withstood the test of time because it results in many physical and mental benefits. Although fitness trends are constantly changing, the benefits of strength training remain the same.

Leave a Comment