Dr. Mel Siff, A Short History of Strength and Conditioning (Dolfzine, 2003)

Strength training has always been synonymous with the so-called “Iron Game,” a broad generic term that includes the competitive lifting of heavy objects by “strongmen/women” during the last century or so. Feats of lifting strength, however, have appeared throughout the history of most nations, but it has only been in very recent times that training to produce strength has become a scientific discipline.

Mel C Siff Ph.D.
This science did not arise overnight, but is the culminating point of thousands of years of trial-and-error methods of training.

The earliest reference to formal strength training occurs in Chinese texts dating as far back as 3600BC when emperors made their subjects exercise daily (Webster, 1976). During the Chou dynasty (1122-249BC) potential soldiers had to pass weight-lifting tests before being allowed to enter the armed forces.

Editor’s Note: Weight-lifting in the first part of this article refers to the actual lifting of various objects, or weights, not “weightlifting,” which is the proper term for what many people think of as Olympic lifting.

There is abundant evidence that weight training was used in ancient Egypt and India, while the Greeks left numerous sculptures and illustrations of their athletes training with stone weights. The 6th century BC was known as the “Age of Strength” where competitions involved the lifting of huge stones. The renowned ancient physician, Galen, referred frequently to exercising with weights (halteres). His treatise Preservation of Health even classified exercises into “quick” (exercises without weights) and “violent”exercises (performed with weights). The Roman poet Martial (40-104AD) pondered: “Why do the strong men labour with their stupid dumbbells? A far better task for men is digging.”

It should not be surprising then, that the quest for superior strength led to numerous systems of strength training, thereby laying a solid experiential foundation for the far more refined methods of today.

During the 16th century in Europe, books on weight-training began to emerge, with Sir Thomas Elyot’s text on the topic being published in England in 1531. Several universities in France and Germany offered weight training. In 1544, Joachim Camerius, a lecturer at Leipzig University, wrote several books recommending weight training as an essential activity for the model school. In 1728, John Paugh published A Physiological, Theoretic and Practical Treatise on the Utility of Muscular Exercise for Restoring the Power to the Limbs, revealing that even then it was recognised that weight training offered therapeutic benefits. In the 1860s, the Scot, Archibald MacLaren, compiled the first system of physical training with dumbbells and barbells for the British Army and formalised a crude form of progressive overloading. Some of his ideas appeared in McMillan’s Magazine (1863) in his article, National Systems of Bodily Exercise, which compared various systems of physical training used at that time.

Pioneers of Strength Training

The path to strength training science is synonymous with the history of many of the legendary heroes of yesteryear, ranging from the biblical Samson and the bull-lifting Milo of Italy to the Russian superheavy weightlifter, Alexeyev. The showmen and strongman entertainers of 19th century Europe, in particular, laid the most solid foundations for the systematic development of formal strength and physique training methods and the eventual acceptance of the use of these methods in the general fitness and sports specific strength training revolution of today.

Space permits the mention of only a few of these pioneering strongmen of the past, so the history-minded reader is well advised to read David Webster’s fascinating and thorough book, The Iron Game, which presents the feats of these men from the distant past to 1975, upon which this brief summary is based.

On the basis of many years of research, Webster isolates the Italian circus and fairground performer, Felice Napoli, as the initiator of the strongman boom on an international scale. Born in 1820, some of his most illustrious disciples included Professor Attila (Louis Durlacher) and Eugen Sandow (Frederick Muller).

The German-born Attila, in turn, became so well-known that he attracted as his pupils some of the world’s most famous physical culturalists and many rulers of Europe. Royalty whom he taught included King George of Greece, King Edward of England (while he was Prince of Wales), Crown Prince Frederick who became King Haakon of Norway, the six children of King Christian of Denmark, the Queen Mother Alexandra of England, Princess Dagmar (who became Empress of Russia and mother of Tsar Nicholas), and the Duchess of Cumberland.

At the time, the training of royalty, the wealthy and the famous with weights and specialised exercises was a well-established and desirable profession, predating the current generation of so-called personal trainers by about 150 years.

The fame and fortune of the strongmen of those days were a result of their regular and well-publicised one-on-one stage challenges and entertainment-hall competitions using some highly individual and unusual one and two arm lifts, swings, supports and manoeuvres against loads of vehicles, humans and specially contrived barbells and dumbbells. These events, much like the music hall performances of famous composers and musicians, were often attended by royalty and the wealthy, and served to publicise these men, not only as entertainers, but also as teachers or mentors of “physical culture.”

The great Sandow, born in Koningsberg in East Russia in 1867, was sought out by presidents and rulers from all around the world, with his book, Life Is Movementbeing received enthusiastically by nine kings and queens and many princes of Europe, as well as U.S. Presidents William Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Besides defeating many strongmen of his time, he was a generous sponsor of many charitable causes and an early champion of more hygienic conditions of working and living for all, including the central role of formal fitness and health management.

As part of his vision, he pressed for the introduction of physical education and sport as compulsory school subjects, and the regular examination of pupils by school doctors and dentists.

Concurrently he toured the world lecturing to promote physical culture as a means of improving quality of life, with his contributions being described as follows by Mirror of Life and Sport (8 April 1911):

“His Majesty King George has conferred an unique honour upon Mr. Eugen Sandow, the world-renowned exponent and founder of scientific physical culture, Mr. Sandow just having had the honour of being appointed Professor of Scientific Physical Culture to his Majesty. The keen interest which the King has always taken in the physical welfare of his people is well-known, and there is no desire more dear to his Majesty’s heart than to improve the conditions of life for the masses. Mr. Sandow’s appointment must be regarded as a striking recognition of the undoubted benefits of scientific physical culture, and there is no doubt that the interest shown by his Majesty in the subject will considerably increase the popularity of the science of which Mr. Sandow is the principal authority. Mr. Sandow is a man who has risen by his own unaided effort to a position in which he is not only a national but a world factor in the science of improvement of the human body and the combating of that physical degeneracy which in former eras has always accompanied the advances of civilisation.”

In many respects, therefore, Sandow was one of the most important founding fathers of the fitness revolution, with the history of his efforts revealing that the modern phenomenon of science-based physical training is by no means novel or innovative.

Interestingly, Sandow’s methods focused largely on the development of strength and skill as the foundation of health, an approach which was almost completely deposed more than half a century later by cardiovascular scientists such as Dr Kenneth Cooper of the USA. These individuals massively downplayed the role of these fitness qualities and stressed “aerobic” fitness as being far more important to general health. It has taken more than 25 years for the quality of strength advocated by Sandow to return to academic acceptance.

In Russia, during this same period, the eminent Polish-born physician, Vladislav Krayevsky (or Krajewski), founded the St. Petersburg Amateur Weightlifting Society (1885), having visited various German towns to familiarise himself with what was already known throughout Europe as weightlifting or ‘heavy athletics’ (or ‘Tyazhelaya Atletika’, the name still used in Russia to describe this sport), because of his great interest in the use of physical culture for the prevention and treatment of illness. Many prominent scientists, artists and athletes became his pupils, including another famous strongman, George Hackenschmidt, who credited Krayevsky for teaching him all that he knew.

Editor’s Note: The term “weightlifting in the above paragraph and in those below now refers to the sport itself, or Olympic lifting.

Hackenschmidt, in his book, The Way to Live, added that some of the world’s strongest men of that era, including Sandow, were trained according to Krayevsky’s system. Krayevsky’s considerable knowledge in medicine, psychology, physical culture, methods of using exercises and organizational abilities made him an acknowledged leader in weightlifting sports (including wrestling). He not only promoted weightlifting, taught classes and organized competitions, but also lifted himself, achieving significant success in barbell lifts. Krayevsky was president of the jury at the first world championships in Vienna in 1898. His personal example, enthusiasm, authority and the popularity of his group of distinguished students had a major effect on the development of weightlifting in Russia.

Krayevsky wrote two of his fundamental works during the period 1896-1899, one of them being The Catechism of Health – Rules for Athletes. Although this work was sent to press on December 9, 1899, it was never published and is now preserved only in manuscript form. His other book, The Development of Physical Strength with Kettlebells and Without Kettlebells, however, was published in 1900 and reprinted three times (1902, 1909, 1916) after his death in 1901.

Krayevsky felt that many of the limitations imposed by heredity could be overcome by appropriate training.

Krayevsky displayed an excellent knowledge of the history of physical culture and all forms of gymnastics. He paid special attention to therapeutic gymnastics in his Diagram of Medico Gymnastic Uses and its accompanying detailed commentary. Krayevsky was very familiar with Swedish gymnastics and noted its therapeutic applications, but his concern with the lack of scientific substantiation of the Swedish system led him to recruit Russian experimentalists to research it.

Many of Krayevsky’s methodological recommendations are still valid and include medical control of the athlete’s health, regularity of workouts and planned sequencing of increasing loads, multi-faceted physical development, psychological management, observation of wellness rules (especially sleep) and refraining from the use of alcohol and smoking. Krayevsky was especially concerned with forming correct breathing habits and methods of combating fatigue, and felt that many of the limitations imposed by heredity could be overcome by appropriate training.

Many of these early strength pioneers devised interesting and unique training weights and machines, including cable machines, variable resistance machines using cams and levers, elastic springs and cables, friction resistance devices, kettlebells, thick-grip bars, hollow-ended barbells and dumbbells whose weight could be increased by adding lead shot, odd-shaped bars, isolation machines, weighted boots and various throwing devices. Yet there are those today who lay claims of originality to designing these machines more than 50 years after their original manufacture.

In addition, a large number of weight training, bodybuilding exercises and techniques which are believed to be original today had been tried and tested in that burgeoning exploration era of finding the best methods of strength training.

The Divergence of Training Philosophies

The development of different scientific and educational cultures in the West and the East had a profound impact on the growth of the different aspects of strength and general fitness training. In the earliest days of the strength game, most of the strong men traveled extensively to learn from colleagues and teachers with different outlooks and were keen to be apprenticed to those whose knowledge attracted widespread attention.

With the advent of World War I, the growth of the United States into a great power, the advent of communism and other controversial philosophies and economies, nationalism reached greater heights than ever before in Europe. The Great Depression followed a few decades later, leading to World War II and the partitioning of the world into an Eastern and a Western bloc.

...within a few decades after World War II there were at least a million Olympic lifters in the USSR alone.

The increasing ideological isolation of nations and well-protected prestige of sporting success meant that research in all fields, including sport, took different directions. During the years after both World Wars, Russia and Europe still continued to promote the virtues of physical strength and power, whereas research in the West rapidly veered in the direction of cardiovascular fitness, assuming great impetus with the “running for health” and “aerobics” crazes associated closely with Swedish endurance exercise research and popular fitness books such as Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics.

This resulted in a vigorous promotion of the cardiovascular doctrine, the paradigm which maintains that cardiac and general health depends predominantly on prolonged endurance, or “aerobic” exercise. At the same time, proponents of this doctrine fairly vigorously denigrated the health benefits of strength training. For example, Cooper (1968: p25) stated that,

“If it’s muscles or a body beautiful, you’ll get it from weightlifting or calisthenics, but not much more. . . If it’s the overall health of your body you’re interested in, isometrics won’t do it for you, neither will isotonics or anaerobics. Aerobic exercises are the only ones that will.”

It was inevitable that the accompanying high profile marketing and media campaigns — extensively underwritten by the medical profession — would make the pursuit of strength-oriented sports considerably less attractive in the public eye. Olympic Weightlifting became, and still is, a rarity in schools in the West as strong young men are steered more in the direction of sports such as American football and rugby, games which by mere acceptance into the school curriculum ensure a huge pool of talent.

While Cooper and his colleagues were espousing aerobics, the Russians and Eastern Europeans accumulated extensive international information on strength and sports training while developing a vast research effort into these topics. In addition, they established a vast coaching and educational sports programme. Most schools offered weightlifting (Olympic Lifting) and within a few decades after World War II there were at least a million Olympic lifters in the USSR alone.

Besides its application in competitive weightlifting, strength training became an integral part of all sports training in Russia, whereas in the West, the attitude more often was one which claimed that weight training slowed one down, made for unnecessary bulk and reduced flexibility. Quite predictably, Russia began to dominate the Olympic Games, especially in Olympic weightlifting, at the same time that the cardiovascular doctrine began to dominate the West.

This Russian dominance often has been simplistically attributed to the extensive use of drugs such as androgenic-anabolic steroids, but ironically, the synthesis and sporting use of these drugs was pioneered in the West. It is more accurate to state that the use of such drugs became equally extensive in East and West and that dominance in many international sports by Eastern nations was more a consequence of several other vital factors, especially strength science and organisational systems.

The West today would appear to have reaccepted a useful role for strength training, but the proliferation of weight training facilities and personal trainers still has much more to do with commercialism than the impact of strength science, as is emphasized by the fact that the cardiovascular doctrine still dominates the fitness conscious psyche. There are few schools which offer Olympic lifting and there are fewer competitive lifters than ever before.

The Modern Era Dawns

The systems of training of the early pioneers touched upon above ultimately formed the framework of modern competitive bodybuilding and weightlifting, with some of the exercise techniques and machines being adopted into physiotherapy and the coaching regimes for other sports. Yet, serious scientific research into strength training only developed well into the 20th Century and, as we have seen, even now research into cardiovascular training attracts considerably more attention from scientists. Nevertheless, the evolution of resistance training in several different directions has produced an invaluable data base from the following distinct sources:

  • Weightlifting and powerlifting (competitive performance against maximal resistance).

  • Bodybuilding (resistance training to maximise muscle hypertrophy).

  • Supplementary resistance training (resistance exercise to enhance fitness in other sports).

  • Physiotherapy (resistance exercise for rehabilitation).

  • Scientific research (analysis to understand resistance exercise scientifically).

The above sources of information suggested to me more than a decade ago that it would be beneficial to write an extensive textbook which draws from all of these disciplines to present an integrated approach to the use of strength conditioning to enhance fitness training, bodybuilding and performance in all top level sport. Throughout, my approach was to reconcile competitive weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding and sporting performance with scientific and medical research because the vast percentage of books in strength and fitness training tend to adopt one limited, often dogmatic approach.


6 thoughts on “Dr. Mel Siff, A Short History of Strength and Conditioning (Dolfzine, 2003)

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  1. “Space permits the mention of only a few of these pioneering strongmen of the past, so the history-minded reader is well advised to read David Webster’s fascinating and thorough book, The Iron Game, which presents the feats of these men from the distant past to 1975, upon which this brief summary is based”

    Another good book on this topic is David P. Willoughby’s The Super-Athletes. Some fascinating stuff in there.

    1. Do you have a copy of it Reilly? I was lucky enough to pick one up last year. As you say, it’s absolutely fantastic. The sheer depth of the record keeping alone is mind boggling

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