If you look around most modern gyms, it’s easy to think that strength training is new. After all, some of the machines look like very recent inventions. Sports and exercise science reinforces this impression, and many aspects of strength training are relatively recent developments.
However, while the science of strength training is comparatively new, practical strength training has been around for many centuries, dating back to pre-history.
It’s impossible to say when ancient people started strength training, as it seems to be something that most civilizations engaged in. Some of the most common proponents of strength training were soldiers, whose very lives depended on being fit and healthy. Then there were the athletes of ancient Greece, who used weights to train for the original Olympic games.
Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries, and science started to catch up with strength training. It was recognized for its health benefits, and gymnasiums become more commonplace. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek for school.
From India to Asia to Europe, strength training has been popular for centuries.
In this article, we will take a brief look at the history of strength training, revealing how this activity developed in different world regions.
History of Strength Training
Some of the earliest examples of organized strength training come from ancient Greece, where physical culture has long been valued. The Greeks prized strength for warfare and athletics and established a link between a healthy body and a healthy mind. They also appreciated an athletic physique’s aesthetic appeal, which is why many ancient Greek statues are so muscular.
Ancient Greece may also have given us dumbbells. Olympic long jumpers used hand weights called halteres, which they used to provide them with momentum for a longer jump. These weights were also used by boxers and other athletes in the pursuit of strength.
An ancient Greek wrestler called Milo contributed to the concept of progressive resistance training. Legend has it that he carried a newborn calf on his shoulder every day and, as the calf grew, so too did his muscle size and strength. (1)
One of the first mentions of strength training dates back to the 1st century AD. In a letter to Lucilius, the historian and philosopher Seneca mentioned “short and simple exercises including the brandishing of weights.”
Interestingly, both Greek men and women engaged in strength training, and broad shoulders were viewed as an attractive quality in both sexes. So much for strength training being a masculine pursuit!
Europe has a long history of strength training. Stone lifting was especially popular, and Olympic style weightlifting also originated in Europe. Feats of strength were often viewed as entertainment, and performers like Eugene Sandow and the Saxon Brothers entertained huge crowds all over the region.
We get the term dumbbell from old England. They’re named after a device used by bell ringers to practice without making a sound. Dumbbells are dumb bells, with dumb meaning silent. A barbell was simply two dumbbells joined by a single metal pole.
Physical culture, which included strength training, become increasingly mainstream in Victorian times, and gymnasiums were very trendy. Even the royal family were known to strength train, often under famous visiting strongman performers’ tutelage. (2)
It’s impossible to discuss the history of strongman and strength training without mentioning Iceland. Despite being such a small country, Iceland has contributed much to strength training. Many World Strongest Man winners have come from Iceland.
In ancient times, Icelanders lifted stones to test their strength. Legend has it to earn a place on a Viking raiding ship; warriors had to attempt to lift a series of progressively heavier stones. As well as acting as a qualifier for the next raid, the heavier the stone lifted, the greater the share of the spoils would be. (3)
China, one of the oldest civilizations, has a similarly long history of strength training. Warriors lifted weights as part of their martial arts training and performed a range of bodyweight exercises to hone their muscles and toughen their minds.
Buddhist Shaolin monks still use many ancient training methods, such as lifting and carrying heavy clay pots and doing things like handstands and even one-finger push-ups.
Ancient Chinese lifters also developed and tested their strength by lifting heavy bronze urns called dings, weighing up to several hundred pounds. As well as being heavy, these three-legged urns were also very awkward to lift. Ding lifting was the ancient equivalent to modern-day functional training. (4)
India is often seen as the home of yoga, but as well as working on their flexibility, mobility, balance, and inner peace, the people of old India also valued strength. There is a long history of wrestling in India, and athletes used what is now known as Indian clubs to build their strength. This practice dates back many centuries.
Like Milo and his bull, Indian exercisers used progressively heavier clubs to build their strength. Indian clubs were seen by resident British soldiers and soon become part of army fitness training. British physical training instructors are still called club swingers for this very reason. (5)
Strength has always been valued, and it’s even mentioned in the Bible. The Philistine Goliath was the original strongman, and the Israelite Sampson wasn’t any weakling either!
While strength can be a natural characteristic, it was soon discovered that it was trainable too. Weak children could be turned into strong adults with the right kind of training necessary for ancient warfare. The Spartans of ancient Greece probably perfected this process, dedicating their entire lives to achieving the highest possible military prowess levels.
For many centuries, strength training was simply a part of life. Farming, hunting, gathering, and building shelter all involved physical fitness and strength. It was a case of only the strongest shall survive.
But, as humankind learned how to make the tasks of living easier through mechanization, using animals instead of manpower, and other labor-saving developments, the need for strength diminished. Instead of lifting heavy weights for survival, strength training became voluntary and something done for recreation.
One of the most exciting things about strength training is that unconnected cultures developed similar approaches to building strength. It’s just the equipment that differs. Where ancient Europeans were getting strong by lifting stones, the Chinese were using bronze urns. The end result was the same; increased strength.
This in itself is a useful lesson; there is no best way to train and no best exercise. Everything works, and what matters is training intensity and consistency.
- Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook with Translations, https://amzn.to/3paZIG1.
- The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons from an Around-the-World Sports Odyssey, https://amzn.to/3rOAgrO.
- The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, https://amzn.to/3tQ7GYJ.
- ALONG THE YANGZI RIVER: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan, https://amzn.to/2OmHBQL.
- Indian club swinging in nineteenth and twentieth-century India and England, https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/261930.