The Olympics are finally here! And I could not be more conflicted. As a weightlifting/powerlifting/bodybuilding/CrossFitting fan, I love watching all manner of strength displays. Because I have a romantic soul, Olympic weightlifting is the event that I always look forward to.
In fact, one of my first memories of physical culture was seeing clips of Vasily Alekseyev’s 500 lbs. clean and jerk on television.
The grainy footage, the exotic name and the hulking man left an impression on a budding lifter in waiting. And while I have yet to match Vasily’s efforts, I have maintained a firm interest in Olympic weightlifting.
This year, I’ll admit it, I’m conflicted. I love Olympic weightlifting. It doesn’t matter the division or the gender, I love it. I don’t care about the 100m, the shot put, the football. I care about the clean and jerk and the snatch.
Admittedly this is somewhat niche. Depending on the country, Oly Weightlifting is likely the fourth most popular form of weightlifting. Certainly it falls behind powerlifting, bodybuilding and CrossFit. We haven’t even mentioned strength contests!
There was a time, however, when every single lifter in the gym dabbled with the Olympic lifts. They were used to build some of the best bodies in bodybuilding and some of the strongest athletes in powerlifting. What went wrong? Why did the lifts fall out of favor, and can they ever come back?
In The Beginning
Originally Olympic weightlifting was just that, weightlifting done at the Olympics. No, I am not initially being difficult. I am simply pointing out that very few rules and regulations existed in the early Games.
More than anything else, very little consistency existed. Previously on this website, we have discussed the evolution of Olympic Weightlifting from the inaugural Games at Athens in 1896 to the present day.
While the lazy man in me is tempted – very tempted – to just copy and paste that article here, I’ll do the honest thing and provide a quick summary. The first Olympic weightlifting event took place in 1896. The next took place in 1904. Critically, the 1904 Games used entirely different lifts to 1896. It took until 1920 for weightlifting to make another Olympics appearance and, you guessed it, that Games also used different lifts.
It was not until the mid-1920s that the actual lifts used in competition became standardized. What was once an odd combination of dumbbells and barbells became a trifecta which revolved around the clean and jerk, the snatch and the military press.
We will ignore the military press here for two reasons. First John Fair has written the definitive article on the press here (click the link, it’s a free article) and second, the military press is still used by lifters in a range of sports. As an Olympic event the military press fell out of use in the 1970s when organizers agreed that lifters were cheating far too much in their form.
If you don’t believe me, check out this Serge Redding clip. Notice the back bend as the bar moves up. Other lifters used far more back bend to move the bar – hence the need to ban the lift.
Moving back to focus. The 1920s saw Olympic weightlifting solidified around three lifts which soon became the backbone to many a training program.
Lifting For Strength
Now obviously the clean, snatch and press were used prior to the 1920s but their formalization during this period meant that more and more people now began to train with them.
John Fair previously wrote an excellent article on the organization of American weightlifting in the 1920s. While I will spare you the confused sporting landscape that Fair explained, the main takeaway for us is that many of the organizers – people like Mary Berry and George Jowett – were also influential fitness writers.
Why did this matter? Berry, Jowett, and others like Alan Calvert or Bob Hoffman, held a huge amount of respect for the Olympic lifts. Thus their training programs for the general public often included them.
A sample Berry program from this period was
1) Two Hands Clean and Press
2) Two Hands Snatch
3) Two Hands Clean and Jerk
4) One Arm Snatch (these one arm lifts are done with a barbell)
5) One Hand Clean
6) One Arm Jerk
7) One Arm Press
8) Bent Press
9) Side Press
10) One Swing, catch in front with the other hand. Alternate swings with a catch in front.
11) Two Hands Clean and Push Press (continental)
Admittedly this is very weightlifting centered but you get the point. During the 1920s and 1930s, weightlifting was the primary outlet for people interested in building their muscles and strength.
We have previously discussed the history of the back squat during the 1920s and the creation of the 20 rep squats/GOMAD diet routine to build bulk during the 1930s. There also existed gaining programs centered around the Olympic lifts.
Okay … But Where Are the Bodybuilders?
Quite simply, no where!
Bodybuilding did not become a regular sport in the United States or Europe until the mid-to-late 1930s/early 1940s. John Fair’s wonderful book, Mr. America, will be our roadmap here.
The first American bodybuilding show, hosted by Bernarr Macfadden, came in the early 1900s. The next contests (won by Charles Atlas), came in the 1920s. It was not until the late 1930s that an annual bodybuilding show was hosted. The first annual bodybuilding show, the Mr. America contest, was held in 1939.
Prior to that time men (and it was almost exclusively men) built their bodies through weight training but they did not compete in physique shows. They used the Big 3 lifts (squat/bench/deadlift) and the Olympic lifts in training primarily because these were the lifts recommended by fitness writers during these years.
The specialized and isolated exercises used by bodybuilders were not heavily pushed in magazines because there wasn’t an outlet for them. Incidentally this impacted the ideal body types of the age which, during the 1920s and 1930s, were more bulky than the lean figures of Sandow’s time.
Now this is not to say that men who focused on their bodies did not exist, Reg Park and Steve Reeves are two obvious examples, but rather to say that physique shows were not as popular as they were in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Holding Back the Bodybuilders
To speak in sweeping terms, the majority of serious weight trainers in the 1920s and 1930s likely used Olympic lifts. The Mr. America show threatened the popularity of the Olympic lifts for a very simple reason. It doesn’t matter how skilled or strong a bodybuilder is in a certain lift, they just need to look good.
One man, in particular, was keenly aware of this. That was Bob Hoffman, the owner of York Barbell and American weightlifting coach during their ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930s to 1950s. He was also, importantly, the head of the Amateur Athletic Union (the AAU).
The AAU was the body responsible for organizing and overseeing the Mr. America competition. They thus had the ability to control and shape its rules. As head of the AAU, Hoffman was very concerned that bodybuilding’s popularity would mean the death of Olympic weightlifting.
This, as you will remember from our post on power lifting, was the exact same concern Hoffman had about organizing power lifting meets. In both instances he was correct! Seeking to find a solution, Hoffman and the AAU devised a rather clever solution.
The early Mr. America shows would judge the body, but they would also include an athletic, and a personality, component. Surprise, surprise … The athletic component was an Olympic lift! This multi-factored judging criteria meant that athletes need to build their body but also to keep doing the Olympic lifts.
For this reason there was a large crossover between American weightlifters, like John Grimek or Steve Stanko, an the Mr. America contest. Even those who weren’t outright weightlifters, like Clarence Ross, needed to be proficient in the lifts. Simply put, if you didn’t weight lift, you couldn’t bodybuild.
A Changing Tide
As John Fair’s wonderful book on American bodybuilding made clear, the Mr. America show was controversial. By the early 1950s, many bodybuilders were frustrated with the contest’s criteria. What bothered them the most was the judging criteria.
As a sport, bodybuilding means judging bodies against one another. We can have a debate about what kind of body should win a contest but we all agree that bodies matter the most. If you are judging people’s personalities, athleticism and then their bodies, is that really bodybuilding?
By the 1950s and early 1960s, bodybuilders were beginning to openly criticize the AAU and the Mr. America’s judging criteria. The reason was simple. The men with the best bodies were not necessarily winning.
Competitors were winning the best arms, or most muscular awards, but were losing because they didn’t have the best personality or the strongest clean and jerk. The personality component, in particular, was problematic as many black, African American and Hispanic athletes believed they were being discriminated against.
As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘The Myth’ Sergio Oliva argued that he didn’t win the 1965 Mr. America despite winning the most muscular award because the AAU was racist. If the AAU was racist is a conversation for another day – although Jason Shurley has written a thought provoking article on race in the Iron Game at this time – but the judging criteria was clearly causing problems.
Yes it was forcing bodybuilders to continue doing the Olympic lifts but they resented it.
The Game Changing Olympia
The Mr. Olympia contest was not the first bodybuilding show to solely judge the body but it became the most important. Founded by Joe and Ben Weider in 1965, the Olympia had two new and game-changing principles.
First, the Olympia would only judge the body, not the personality and not the Olympic Lifts. Second, winners were free to re-enter the show in subsequent years. Another stipulation of the Mr. America was that winners couldn’t re-enter.
We have previously written on the first Olympia here. What is important for us is that the Olympia, and copy cat shows, popularized the idea that the body alone was important. No more personality critiques or athleticism components. Bodybuilders no longer needed to do Olympic lifts and so, they didn’t.
Running through old muscle mags, you can find a clear shift in the late 1960s. Olympic lifts, especially in Weider magazines, began to disappear from bodybuilder’s workout routines. They still held a strong place in Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine but a profound change had occurred.
Bodybuilders now did isolation exercises and exhaustion techniques to build the body. Weightlifters continued with the Olympic lifts. The two would crossover but never again with the same regularity.
As Always … Happy Lifting!