Owing to the increasing popularity of powerlifting, cross fit and olympic lifting, chances are you either own a weightlifting belt or see them on a regular basis on the gym floor. A means of bracing the abdomen, weightlifting belts are a source of controversy in the weightlifting world between those who see them as legitimate tools in the quest for heavier weights and those purists who prefer all lifts be done without any equipment whatsoever. For the majority of us, they’re simply a novelty to break out on a deadlift PR.
In today’s post, we’re going to explore the history of the weightlifting belt, from ancient mythology to the present day. Far from a new phenomenon then, the belt has long been a lifter’s friend.
Although weary of starting this post too far in the past, there are two mythical belt stories which are simply too cool to pass up, one Greek and one Viking. In the first instance its said that Milo of Croton (discussed in detail here), built his legendary Greek strength through a form of progressive training. You see each day Milo would carry the same calf up a hill. Each day the calf was a little heavier, meaning that Milo progressively got stronger.
Now when the calf became a cow, Milo’s journey to muscledom was finished. His progressive training method has resulted in an impressive and enviable physique meaning that the poor cow was no longer needed on the scene.
Somewhat predictably, the cow was slaughtered and consumed by the hungry, and now particularly strong, Milo. Knowing the importance of not wasting anything, Milo fashioned the animal’s hide into a crude belt of sorts which he wore in his Olympic endeavours. An early precursor to the modern belt perhaps? Certainly I’d argue so.
The second mythical story comes from the Norse God, now of Marvel fame, Thor. Aside from his legendary Hammer, another weapon in the Viking’s repertoire was his trusty belt, megingjörð. Though less famed than the Hammer, presumably because no one wants to wait for Thor to put on his belt during a Marvel movie…the belt was nevertheless hugely important. You see, according to Norse legend, when megingjörð was combined with Thor’s hammer and iron gloves, the belt doubles his already legendary strength. Truth be told I’m lucky if a weightlifting belt adds 10 kilos to my PRs. Maybe I need a Norse manufacturer?
While the remainder of this article is going to focus on the nineteenth-century onwards, it’s important or interesting at least to consider the more ancient elements of the belt.
The Nineteenth Century Strongman
Now on to the real stuff…
Given that physical culture or weight training as we understand the term dates its origins to the nineteenth century, it should come as no surprise that the precursor to the modern weightlifting belt also comes from this time. Unfortunately very little seems to have been written on weightlifting belts during the nineteenth century so it is unclear whether such belts acted as a decoration or as something more supportive. From the scant photographs which exist, the answer would appear to be both.
In any case, one of the first instances I have found regarding weightlifting belts comes from men such as Professor Attila, that mid-century strongman perhaps most famous for his tutelage of a young Eugen Sandow. The photograph here of an Attila nearing the end of his career, shows a small belt as part of his ‘uniform’. Given that leotards generally don’t require belts, I’d say it’s a safe bet to assume it had some performative function.
Whether Attila learned to use a weightlifting belt from his own mentor Napoli is unclear though it does seem to have been common practice at this time. See for example another turn of the century strongman Louis Cyr who similarly used a belt during lifts.
The Importance of Competition
While such strongmen were important perhaps in spreading or highlighting the item’s importance, their significance pales in comparison to another area of physical culture; that of competition. You see it was Olympic events where weightlifting belts undoubtedly gained the most popularity. Indeed the first official international contest between weightlifters, namely the 1896 Olympic Games, saw some competitors don their belts in search of better lifts. Though not all lifters wore them, many did. Check out the photo below from the 1904 games which includes the lifter pictured below whose belt resembles that of Louis Cyr’s above.
As weightlifting’s importance grew, so too did the prevalence of weightlifting belts amongst the general training populace. Though introduced to weightlifting belts through Olympic weightlifting both John Grimek and Steve Reeves pictured below helped to highlight the belt’s multi-faceted importance for bodybuilders as well as strength trainees.
Reeves and Grimek
In particular Reeves, pictured on the left showcased the belts utility with regards to bodybuilding exercises such as the hack squat. Grimek showcased just how damn heavy one can lift with one.
Regardless of each men’s uses, something is clear. That from the 1940s onward one finds a litany of weightlifting belts featured on both sides of the Atlantic in physical culture and athletic magazines. This suggests that from this period one, the practice had become normalised amongst certain sections of the gym floor. With the codification of powerlifting from the 1960s onwards and the popularity of cross fit from the naughties onwards, the prevalence of the belts continued to grow.
Nowadays, the belt is popular enough to be satirised in Broscience, and if that isn’t the height of fame in this realm, I don’t want to study physical culture anymore.!
As always, happy lifting!
Chidlovski – Weightlifting Equipment History
Starting Strength Forum (Link)
Reeves’s use demonstrates how belts were modified even as early as the 1940s to do more than support the midsection: closer examination of Reeves belt reveals he’s using a modification on the back of his belt which allowed a barbell to be attached to it for performing Hack squats:
Belts modified with straps, chains, and links, to be what we might call hip belts now, for doing Hip squats, dips, and pull-ups, are probably as old as the simple support belt itself.
Apologies for my late reply. Hectic times at the minute.
That is a really good catch, thank you! I think you are indeed on to something with this one.