• History of Strength Sports

Why do we lift? A historical perspective

Why do we lift? It’s a question most lifters have asked themselves at some point and isn’t helped by the apparent confusion non-lifters have when we tell them of our hobby. Often with no financial incentive, no practical need for the strength levels we aspire to and the looming risk of injury; it can be a tricky question to try and answer. Alongside the mental and physical benefits, social enjoyment and vanity, the history of our strength sports plays an equal, yet subtle role in why we continue to put ourselves through the hardships of training.

Strength as a survival instinct

Survival of the fittest’ was a term coined by Charles Darwin in 1869 and implies that a human’s physical condition and capabilities denote their chances of survival. Until recent technological and medical advances, this was most certainly true but have we been left with an evolutionary urge to be strong?

Not only do we know that through natural selection, strong individuals thrived but we also know that direct tests of strength supported survival in ancient times. Specific examples of the importance of strength in ancient times include Scandinavian fisherman who used the lifting of natural stones to determine the hierarchy of their outgoing ships. If a fisherman was not yet, or no longer strong enough to lift threshold weights, they were not deemed worthy to join the crew and earn a living.

Strength becomes celebrated in culture

The history of strength sports includes a colourful period in the late 19th Century of vaudeville and circus shows, in which strength was often at the heart of the production.

In the ensemble of human oddities, strength athletes were revered for their abilities and their feats were widely publicised and speculated. During this period, ‘freakish’ size and strength were very publicly rewarded, rather than feared, paving the way for strength enthusiasts to be extroverted in their pursuits. This era also undoubtedly raised the bar of expectation for the average person who claimed to be strong because of the sheer notoriety and sometimes over-exaggerated lifting performances.

Strength as a means to a 'perfect body'

As the world of physical culture progressed, the human form itself came under scrutiny as it became more widely understood that physical training could positively transform the body.

Lifters were now not just training for feats of strength but to sculpt the body in reflection of emerging ‘celebrities’ like Eugen Sandow. An esteemed strength performer, trainer and author, Sandow  came to be known as ‘The Perfect Man’, and contributed to a culture fascinated with acquiring strength for personal vanity.

With relatively new technologies such as photography, motion pictures and the rise of media in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, these 'perfect physiques were seen more readily by the general public and more and more people aspired to a body worthy of a greek god.

Industrialisation reduces physical activity, health declines and a gap forms in the human experience

If we think about the ever progressing industrialisation and technological advances in the world, physical strength has become less and less important for humans to thrive.

In relative terms, the human race has only recently moved away from complete reliance on hard physical labour to provide sustenance for society. This has understandably created a void in the human experience, which we have, in part, chosen to fill with lifting weights.

It is well documented that notable strength figures like Atilla, Sandow and Hewlett understandable used industrialisation to market exercise and the use of gymnasiums to the masses. Is an exercise programme not just, after all, made up work that we use for pastime to fulfil a yearning for overcoming struggle?

Social media, record keeping and a global strength community

In more recent history, the emergence of social media has undeniably grown the interactive component of lifting as well as distributing knowledge of training and again, raising the aspirations of recreational lifters.

With the ability to database knowledge and lifting records, through systems like OpenPowerlifting, lifters can fully understand where their own potential and training could lead them, increasing engagement and enjoyment in strength sports. We are now more than ever aware of the wider strength community, how strength has progressed through time and where we ourselves fit within it all.

So, from the shores of scandinavia to vaudeville performers, the first ‘bodybuilders’ to contemporary media coverage…the history of strength sports can undoubtedly help us understand why we even lift.

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