When lifting weights becomes your everyday routine, as a practitioner you should read and learn about the history of S&C (strength and conditioning). It is crucial for understanding the field to know about prominent events, individuals, eras and training practices. Throughout the ages, tests of strength and power have remained a popular competitive sport and some important training concepts that are popular today are not as new as you probably have thought. Since the early years of weightlifting, men have challenged each other to be stronger and bigger than others. What more, being The Best is a title people will never stop pursuing.
Examining this facet of our history is certainly quite fascinating. The first evidence of building muscular strength date back several thousand years. Drawings on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, dating from somewhere around 2500 B.C. depict various types of strength contests. Explosive power and strength were desired because warfare was still common, as can be seen in China, where these difficult physical strength tests were used for military purposes circa 1100-250 B.C. In the 6th century B.C., possibly the most famous accolades were those in ancient Greece.
The Ancient Greeks were known for their excellence in sport and physical education, rigorously practicing disciplines such as swimming, discus and javelin throwing, jumping, running and gymnastics. The Olympic Games were first initiated around 776 B.C., where boxing, equestrian sports, and wrestling were practiced. The best known Greek strongman was Milo of Crotona, a 22-time strength champion and 5-time wrestling champion. One of the earliest bodybuilding events is thought to have occurred in Sparta. Not much progress was made after the fall of the Roman Empire, due to religious opposition to training.
The first connections of strength training to medicine and science were made circa 150 A.D., with the Greek physician Galen being one of the first medical doctors to recommend resistance training. It is believed that Michel de Montaigne also promoted the benefits of strength training, while the works of Andreas Vesalius and Bernard Siegfried Albinus were landmarks that aided the better understanding of the human anatomy by emphasizing the importance of the musculoskeletal system and positive changes triggered by physical exercise.
19th and 20th Century Advances
In the 1800s, strength and conditioning training increased in popularity due to big strides made in physical education. Prominent physical educators from Sweden and Germany trained several students who brought their philosophies and ideas to the United States, where the ideas were adopted by American educators. Some programs consisted mostly of gymnastic exercises, while others were modified and included flexibility exercises, calisthenics, and manual resistance exercises, and the use of medicine balls, clubs, dumbbells, ropes and other resistance equipment. One of the first training machines for assessing muscular performance and strength was invented by Dudley Sargent, a Harvard-educated medical doctor, in the late 19th century. The period between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s was one of the most influential early periods, known as the Era of the Strongmen, with various individuals promoting their muscular strength for commercial and entertainment purposes. Some of these pioneers are responsible for performing legendary accomplishments: Louis Cyr – the famous horse pull demonstration and a 4,337-lb back lift; George Hackenschmidt – also known as “The Russian Lion”, laid claim to inventing the Hack Squat; Ludwig Durlacher – also known as Professor Attila, a German strongman who claimed to invent, modify or adapt pieces of training equipment such as the Roman Chair.
In the 20th century, a great number of strongmen became market driven, and they began to market alternatives to resistance training equipment that claimed to increase strength without becoming muscle bound. One of the most popular men from this era was Angelo Siciliano (1892-1972), who became known as “the world’s most perfectly developed man who began as a 97-lb weakling”. Several million people have read his training philosophy to this day, known as the Dynamic Tension. It consists of 12 lessons of resistance exercises that could be performed anywhere for 15 minutes a day. Circa 1920, magazines, books, and courses started to get published, working on the popularization of the weightlifting culture. Another persona to greatly influence weightlifting as we know it is Vince Gironda, also known as the Iron Guru. While modern-day weightlifters may dispute some of his methods, most agree with his claims on training “intensity”, which he actually defines as “density”, i.e. amount of work per unit of time. He is famous for his 10X10, 8X8, 6X6, 10-8-6-15 and 15X4 methods. He has trained numerous famous weightlifters during his career, even though he never marketed any of his services. Even the most celebrated actors of Tinsel Town ran to him when they needed to get into shape fast for the silver screen.
Competitive weightlifting sports first appeared in the late 19th century (the first championship held in 1891), rising to the forefront with Olympic weightlifting. At first, there were no weight classes and the contests consisted of one- and two-hand overhead lifts, but by 1920 competitive lifts were the snatch, clean and jerk, and clean and press. The “Father of American Weightlifting” is Bob Hoffman (1898-1985), who formed the York Lifting Club. He wrote several books, created nutrition supplements, and created a weightlifting powerhouse out of the United States in the mid-1950s. That is when other countries like Greece, China, Turkey and the Soviet Union also became prominent in weightlifting sports.
Weightlifting and other forms of resistance training are today recommended for almost everyone, because their health-enhancing effects have been proven. There are methods, such as carb cycling, that are used for achieving goals that early bodybuilders strived for. They help boost the well-being and performance in athletic, fitness, and clinical populations. There has been an enormous increase in the scientific study field in the last 30 years, which has consequently led to dramatic changes in the perception of these sports and in the number of participants. Old school bodybuilders and weight lifters criticize younger bodybuilders, claiming that they should appreciate the past standards more. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former 7-time Mr. Olympia champion and the former governor of California, has compared the physiques of today’s Mr. Olympia competitors to a “bottle”, claiming that judges need to start favoring more narrow-waisted and aesthetic bodybuilders.
Those who plan to become active in weightlifting, as well as those who are already in it, should know the history of their iron spots and how weightlifting and resistance training exercises have developed throughout time. The exercises performed today are the result of compromise and consultation by the sports’ founders over a long course of time. Perhaps the standard lifts we will be doing in 15 years may be totally different that today’s.
About the author
Samantha has a B.Sc. in nutrition, and has spent two years working as a personal trainer. Since then, she has embarked on a mission to conquer the blogospere. When not in the gym or on the track, you can find her on Twitter at or in a tea shop. You can find more of her work on Ripped.Me, an excellent website detailing everything from healthy recipes to workout motivation.