The History of Weight Training and Lifting

How Weight Training Evolved

It's easy to look at weightlifters today and imagine that this sport was born in the gym. Yet, a look back in time tells us that it actually began to emerge long before these fitness facilities came into existence.

Drawings in Egyptian tombs, for instance, appear to show pictures of a variety of weight training objects such as bags weighted with sand. Similar historical practices can also be found in ancient Greece and Rome.

While it may seem that even our ancestors were also concerned about their health and physiques, much like many of us are today, it might not be that simple. One theory of weightlifting's background is that this training was more so a means of survival.

Weightlifting: A Warrior's Sport

Considering the history of wars and conflicts—many of which used to be fought by hand—it's not difficult to imagine how strength, power, speed, and size were desirable characteristics for warriors. Consequently, training to improve these attributes and achieve an edge on the battlefield would no doubt have been a benefit.

You can still see evidence of weight training's battle-based beginnings in many of today's competitions. The Olympic sports of discus, shot put, hammer throw, and javelin demonstrate the basic skills that would be required to throw a spear, stone, or ax, for instance.

Modern strongman contests also reflect these warrior-like skills. Contestants are tasked with moving heavy objects, the application of which could be seen in construction tasks of yesteryears, or in any number of applications requiring bulk and strength, such as military purposes.

Enter Olympic Weightlifting

Olympic weightlifting was introduced as a formal event in 1896 in Athens. Initially, only men could participate. It was more than 100 years later when women’s weightlifting became an Olympic sport, in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, and it has been a great success in subsequent Olympic Games.

Weightlifting in the Olympics had a rocky start. After making its first appearance in 1896, it disappeared from the 1900 Games. It then reappeared in 1904 and did not return to the Olympics again until 1920, when it was admitted in its own right.

Initially, Olympic weightlifting featured some event criteria that would seem unusual in today's competitions. One example is the use of one and two-handed dumbbell and barbell lifts. There were also no weight divisions in these early events.

In 1928, the format for this worldwide competition became more standardized. Two of the lifts initiated that year that have withstood the test of time include the snatch and the clean and jerk. A third lift, the clean and press, was also used in 1928 but was later discontinued in 1972 because it was too hard to judge.

Today, men can compete in seven different weight classes in Olympic weightlifting, ranging from 61 kilograms to 109+ kilograms. Women have seven classes of their own, from 49 kilograms to 87+ kilograms. Countries are allowed two competitors in each class, subject to meeting Olympic qualifying standards.

Powerlifting as a Sport

The techniques and culture within powerlifting are substantially different to those that exist within Olympic weightlifting. Powerlifters compete to see who can lift the heaviest weights. Their events include three exercises: the deadlift, the bench press, and the squat.

Although popular, powerlifting is not a recognized Olympic sport. That said, you can find powerlifting within the Special Olympics. These contenders began competing in the 2013 Women's and Men's World Masters Powerlifting Championships and are supported by the International Powerlifting Federation.

The Evolution of Weightlifting Equipment

Not only has the sport of weightlifting evolved over the years, but so too has the equipment these athletes use. The word "dumbbell," for instance, is said to have originated from a device designed in the early 18th century to practice bell ringing, yet without the bells actually being rung, hence the term dumbbell.

Kettlebells and clubbells also have an early origin, perhaps from the early decades of the 1800s. Barbells, which originally used round globes that could be filled with sand or gravel, followed in the late 1800s. Eventually, these globes were replaced with more flexible plates or disks.

Charles Atlas—who is known for transforming his 97-pound body into solid muscle via isometric exercises—made his equipment popular in the 1930s. In the 1970s, Arthur Jones, who is in the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame, introduced his Nautilus machine equipment, which became very well regarded and popular as well.

Free weight and crude cable machines have also evolved. As a result, a wide variety of machine trainers and home gyms are now available both for use in the gym and at home.

The Future of Weightlifting Equipment

As far as equipment is concerned, barbells and dumbbells will likely continue to be the mainstay of weight training, even if a few minor design or aesthetic improvements emerge. Adjustable dumbbells are one example of how these weights have been changed to better meet the needs of today's weightlifters.

Kettlebells, club bells, resistance bands, and tubes will also contribute to future weightlifting workouts, yet possibly in a lesser way. These devices don't always provide the resistance weightlifters need to grow their muscle, making other pieces of equipment more suitable for this sport.

Regarding machines, the sky is the limit for new designs. Technology makes these advances even more exciting, offering weightlifters and powerlifters a number of options, from equipment that looks like a mirror to machines that can develop more personalized training programs.

No matter what equipment you decide to use, you can train like an Olympic athlete, which also means getting their results.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. United States Sports Academy America's Sports University. The history of strength training.

  2. The International Olympic Committee. History.

  3. Pennsylvania State University. A study in sport: Olympic weightlifting.

  4. Team USA. USA weightlifting: Bodyweight categories.

  5. Special Olympics. Powerlifting.

  6. Smithsonian Magazine. Charles Atlas: Muscle man.

  7. USA Strength & Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame. Arthur Jones.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.