The Evolution of Strength Training

Strength training and weight lifting may seem like a modern concept but in fact it dates back centuries.  Back in the early days it was necessary for man to be strong and fast for the purpose of hunting. 

Nowadays though the evolution of strength training is much less about survival and more about keeping fit and healthy while sculpting an aesthetically pleasing physique.

The Early Days Of Strength Training & Weightlifting

Weightlifting is one of the oldest sports in the world and lifting a heavy object, whether it was for personal achievement or to show off athletic prowess, can be traced back to ancient Greece, Egypt and China.

olympic games from 800bc copy

Dating back as far as 776BC, weightlifting was a core component of the Olympic games whereby athletes would lift heavy stones or rocks to showcase their strength.

Throughout the history of weightlifting, one of the most famous lifters was Milo of Croton. Croton was an incredibly successful Greek athlete who, at the time, was famous for his great strength.

His way of building muscle and improving his strength was simple.  He began by one day lifting and carrying a newborn calf.  He did this each and every day for a period of around four years so in the end was lifting a 4 year old bull. 

milo of croton

To put this into perspective, a fully grown bull can weigh around 907kg! This is a fantastic example of progressive overload and how someone’s muscles become stronger over time.

The development of strength training became more mainstream during the 19th century. This is when competitions became more structured with rules to ensure a level playing field for all athletes.

It was in 1891 that the first official weightlifting competition took place. It included lifts that you’ll be more familiar with today including the snatch and clean & jerk. Olympic weightlifting as a recognized sport had officially been born!

Aside from Olympic lifting, we also can’t forget about powerlifting. While not an Olympic sport, it still involves complex lifts like the squat and deadlift where a competitor is required to lift as much weight as possible.


Recommended Reading – Olympic Lifting VS Powerlifting


Early Weightlifting Equipment

Halteres are probably the earliest example of dumbbells. Made from either stone or iron, they didn’t weigh anywhere near that of todays dumbbells. Instead, they came in at a light weight, ranging from 2 to 9kg.

They were used by the Ancient Greeks, but not for strength training methods like building their muscles. Greek athletes would use them to provide momentum when performing the long jump.

Other examples of early weightlifting equipment included things like stones, sandbags, and, of course, animals.

Equipment used for weight lifting evolved throughout the years but remained fairly crude until the 1900’s.  For example, early dumbbells were developed back in the 1700s by using a rod and two church bells.

The clapper within the bell was removed rendering it silent or ‘dumb’, hence the term dumbbell

As well as equipment being simplistic, exercises also remained less complex.  The bent press was a strong man lift favored by the likes of Arthur Saxon.  This involved taking a weight from shoulder height to above the head using just one arm.  Saxon bagged himself a world record by lifting an impressive 168kg doing the bent press.

gym equipment in a gym

Over time, the development of technology and knowledge has meant that methods have greatly improved and equipment offered being much more sophisticated.

How The Evolution Of Strength Training Impacted Equipment

Strength training became much more popular in the early 1900’s, partly due to the invention of the adjustable plate loaded barbell by the Milo Barbell Company

For the first time in weightlifting it was now possible to easily and quickly load the required amount of weight.  Prior to this, a different barbell was needed for a different weight.  

During the 1940’s and 50’s a number of other plate loaded devices were created.  The very first selectorized multi-station machines was developed in the late 1950’s by Universal Gym Company.

Throughout the 1970’s strength training continued to grow in popularity and more equipment was designed and pushed out to the market place to meet the demands of this growing industry.

Wrapping Up

Looking back, weight lifting and strength training was very basic with limited options on how an exercise could be done, look at Milo and the bull.  These days new equipment, workouts and methods are changing all the time which goes to show just how popular strength training really is and how it’s popularity continues to grow.

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