Some of you are familiar with images of the late 19th, early 20th century strongmen who performed incredible feats of strength in circuses. Such feasts included lifting large animals and heavy barbells/kettlebells over their heads. These incredible performances were decades before true scientific studies of strength training began. This was before university level research projects on sports training, companies and labs studying the biological effects of supplements, and so forth. So, how did these guys do such things? Did they figure it out on their own? Or, was there a much longer, deeper history to the sport of strength training?
While many cultures for centuries have revered strongmen (think Hercules in Greek mythology) the first evidence of strength training was over 5,000 years ago…in China. During the Chou dynasty soldiers had to pass an entrance test of strength before entering military service. In addition, there is a mountain of evidence from paintings to sculptures and stories in India, Egypt and Greece demonstrating athletic feats of strength. So, strength training has a very rich, deep history all over the world. No one owns the rights to the birth of the “strength game.”
Chinese mural depicting strength training 5,000 years ago
Before the 1st century the Greeks had begun the celebration of physical strength via the birth of the Olympics. This included women athletes as well. So, strength training has been part of the history of men and women for a few thousand years or so.
Greek drawing showing stone lifting competitions 2,000 years ago
As societies began making strength an official sport more and more students of strength were born and began testing different methods to increase ones strength. By the 1500s books were published on the science of strength training in England. At the same time universities began offering weight training in France and Germany. By the 1700s enough research had been done to provide scientific evidence to support weight training for physical therapy. In the 1800s the first official training book involving dumbbells and barbells was published for the British Army and introduced the principle of “progressive overloading,” a method still utilized and verified by scientific and real-world testing 150 years later.
Things began to really take off by the end of the 19th century. Men by the names of Napoli, Durlacher, and Sandow popularized weight lifting through circus performances and caught the attention of European royalty, political leaders, and American presidents. Sandow was, arguably, the strongest (pun intended) catalyst for the acceptance and spread of countries adopting strength training as part of required curriculum in their schools. So, if you’ve ever taken a PE class you can thank Sandow (or not depending on your experience haha).
The only person who may be seen as the “true” pioneer of modern strength would be Sandow’s teacher, Krayevsky. Krayevsky was a polish-born physician who created the St. Petersurg Amateur Weightlifting Society in Germany in 1885. Through his knowledge in psychology, physical culture, medicine, and methods of using exercises and organizational abilities Krayevsky became the center of the strength training world. Numerous scientists, reseachers, and strength athletes sought his wisdom and expanded upon his teaching with their own research. Over 100 years later, and many of Krayevsky’s teachings are coming back to the front of the training world.
Krayevsky and his students
Going into the 20th century more and more studies have given attention to strength training but the amount of research, while extensive, is still dwarfed in comparison to the number of studies done regarding cardiovascular training. Despite this deficit, the strength training research community had several areas to pull studies and analysis regarding training programs and strength training equipment:
- Focus on muscle growth
- Weightlifting & Powerlifting
- Focus on muscle performance
- Focus on muscle rehabilitation
- Scientific Research
- Focus on the biological aspect of muscle response to training
- Supplementary Resistance Training
- Focus on indirect muscle training to enhance performance
While research continues in the field of strength training it is important to note the celebration of “new” knowledge this research tells us today. What many researchers are learning is that many of the guiding principles of strength training from 150 years ago are still relevant. That’s not to say we are not learning anything new but very little, as of this writing, has shocked true students of strength training and it’s history. Elite coaches such as Dan John, Mark Twight, Eric Cressey, Mike Israetel, Charles Poliquin, and so on only prove what the titans of the past knew about the human body’s ability to develop strength. The foundations of strength have barely changed. Only the scientific understanding is new. Let’s try not to forget them.
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!