The History of the Olympic Barbell

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A friend of mine recently made a very serious and from my perspective funny discovery. Having spent months training in a University gym replete with shiny new barbells, he decided to join me in my own gym for a catch up and quick training session. Ever the opportunist, he decided it was ‘Chest Day’ and first up was the Bench Press.

Engaging in some light hearted, at least he thought it was light hearted, joking we began loading up the plates. As his outbursts began to reach a crescendo, I made my way to the water fountain for some peace of mind. Hearing a squeal I turned around to see my friend pinned under the bar at a weight he assured me was ‘nothing.’ Thankfully his pride was the only thing injured and next time round he had me spotting him. The result? Still nothing.

Despite getting angrier and angrier my friend couldn’t move the weight. A weight he’d worked on for weeks in his own gym. A few days later he realised what had happened. His swanky new gym…well the barbells there weighed 15kg, the bar we were using was 25kg before adding weight. Now the point of this story is not to deter you from training with friends, which admittedly is always hit or miss, but rather to reinforce the importance of standardised weights.

This was a problem facing Olympic weightlifters in the early twentieth-century.

Olympic Weightlifting 

Previously on this site, we’ve discussed the earlier iterations of Olympic weightlifting. In 1896, lifters contented themselves with dumbbells, the same was true in 1904. Similarly while a weightlifting competition emerged in London in the early 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1920s that we began to see lifts that were truly recognisable to what is performed today.

In the 1920, Games, which took place in Antwerp, Belgium, competitors were assessed in both one hand and two handed lifts. The latter being a two handed clean and jerk. The following games in 1924 saw the addition of a two handed snatch and a two handed press. Incidentally if anyone is interested in the history of the military press at the Olympics, John Fair’s article on the subject is just a joy to read.

This move towards two handed lifts was accompanied by the growing importance of weight lifting amongst the general populace. The 1920 games saw weightlifting as an Olympic event in its own right and with fourteen nations competing, the future seemed bright.

 

There was one small issue to contend with. Like my earnest friend discussed earlier, lifters across the globe were training with different barbells and prior to that dumbbells. It was proving difficult to train ‘in match conditions’ as it were as the standardised Olympic Barbell was proving hard to find, imitate and use. It’s at this point that our story really begins.

Enter the Olympic Barbell

Borrowing heavily from Jan Todd’s article on the subject, this website has examined the history of the barbell more generally but without delving into great detail. Having spent the better part of the day exploring the Olympic barbell, it’s possible to get a little more from the story at my own expense.

Previously I tracked the history of the Olympic Barbell to 1920s Germany but in light of more research it seems we can go back a little further. The late Mark Koyda’s thesis on weightlifting (I’d love to provide a link but I’m afraid it’s behind a paywall) had this to say about the Olympic Barbell’s origins

In 1908, German Franz Veltum produced a disc barbell. The prototypical “Olympic” revolving barbell with bearings was designed by Veltum and produced by the Berg company in 1910

Other sources link the Berg company’s production to the 1920s. For reasons which we will go into, I believe Koyda’s assertion was correct.

Similar to Elieko, the Berg company did not begin as a weightlifting manufacturer. The company was created in 1860 as an iron foundry and specialized with parts for bridge construction, iron constructions and the production of stable mechanisms. It was Wilhelm Berg who shifted the company’s focus towards sporting devices in the early twentieth-century, a decision that later earned him the title of ‘Father of the German Sports Industry’ (this information comes from the excellent Ironhistory website – if you’re not a member yet get over there!).

Soon after the Berg company began producing their barbell others took notice. A recent search through Alan Calvert’s Strength magazine from 1916 revealed Olympic barbells one the right hand side of the photograph. It is for this reason Koyda’s work seems closest to the truth.

 

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In 1928, Kaspar Berg introduced a new model barbell which caught the eyes of the weightlifting world primarily because of the ease with which they rotated during the lift. These bars were selected for the 1928 Olympic games in Amsterdam.   After the games, the barbells both in terms of their weight and size were then copied by the likes of York Barbell Company, the Jackson Bar- bell Company, and nearly all other twentieth-century manufacturers.

Returning to the Ironhistory website, which I really cannot praise enough, it is possible to gain some insight into what the early barbell looked like – albeit in a crude drawing

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For actual images we can turn our attention to the excellent pictorial history of the 1924 and 1928 Olympics created by Frank Rothwell

 

The Berg barbell and its imitators were found in gyms around the world, only displaced in the 1960s and 1970s when the Eleiko barbell came to the fore. The history of which is available here.

As always… Happy Lifting!

 

 

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