Weightlifting History

Weightlifting History

Since the dawn of civilization, human beings have sought to improve and show off their strength by lifting heavy things. Not only is lifting weighty objects important for construction, but it is a great way to stay in shape and even compete. Today, weightlifting is one of the fixtures of the Olympic Games and other strongman competitions, but what are the origins of weightlifting, and who invented it? Below, we will take a look at the long history of weightlifting.

What Is Weightlifting?

Competitive weightlifting is a simple sport that is also guided by a few different regulations. First, the lift must be executed in the proper order and with two hands for the entire duration of the lift. Each competitor gets three attempts at the current weight of the bar in order to complete the attempt correctly. Participants are divided up into both age groups and weight classes to balance competition and create fairness among competitors.

Proper technique must be used throughout an attempted lift in order for it to be considered a completed motion. A barbell also cannot be dropped from higher than the shoulder after a completed or uncompleted attempt or else this will result in a penalty. Many other regulations and rules guide the sport; however, at its core, competitive weightlifting shows who is able to lift the most weight possible and who is the strongest of the competitors.

Weightlifting Country of Origin

The origins of weightlifting cannot be traced to one individual region, country, or place. However, a few different places were home to some of the earliest weightlifters and weightlifting competitions. Weightlifting’s earliest beginnings have been traced back to places such as Ancient Greece, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Montenegro, and regions in Spain. Throughout these different countries and regions, there is evidence of heavy stone-lifting events, competitions which were the earliest weightlifting events around the globe.

Particularly, in Ancient Greece, weightlifting was less of a sport than it was an exercise habit, though it could also be competitive in nature. Many Greek myths, such as the story of Hercules, prized physical strength, and weightlifting was used as a means of gaining the ideal strength the Greek civilization desired from its people. According to records, one of the most famous Greek weightlifters, an athlete named Bybon, once lifted a 316-pound stone with one hand. This stone, now called the “Stone of Bybon,” was marked with an inscription and is today on display in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

The more modern version of weightlifting reappeared in some of the same regions, including Germany, Russia, and England, where strongmen and lifting competitions first became popular. International competitions in modern weightlifting began at the turn of the 19th century in London, and weightlifting spread into the Olympics from the start of the modern games in Athens, which were first held in 1896.

Weightlifting Inventor

Similar to how no single country can be credited with being the “creator” of weightlifting, there is no singular inventor of it, either. The earliest credits for competitive weightlifting can be given to the Ancient Greek civilizations, as well as early Scottish kingdoms, where the first known and recorded competitions were held.

The modern reincarnation of weightlifting surfaced in the form of strongmen competitions featured in multiple different settings. Strongmen like Eugene Sandow, Arthur Saxon, and Louis Apollon can be considered some of the early pioneers of the sport. They regularly toured with various circuses and traveling shows around their respective countries and regions, showing off their great strength. Without their competitions and shows, the sport and idea of weightlifting in a competitive sense would most likely not be as widespread as it is today.

Weightlifting Origins

Weightlifting began over 2,000 years ago, tracing back to ancient Chinese and Greek civilizations. There is evidence that Chinese military recruits had to lift heavy weights as far back as 300 B.C. to pass physical tests.

Besides Chinese civilizations, the Ancient Greeks were well known for lifting weights and had competitions involving weights around the same time period as the Chinese. Some strongman competitions began to appear in the later stages of the 19th century, as well as the inclusion of weightlifting in the first modern Olympics in 1896, which set the sport of competitive weightlifting in motion. The early Olympic history of the sport was on-and-off, as it was included in only two of the first five games until its inclusion for good in 1920.

Weightlifting Popularity

The sport of competitive weightlifting has been a mainstay in the Olympics since 1920 and has seen a rise in popularity over this stretch of time as well. The sport has been regularly popular in Europe, the origin region.

The rise of weightlifting in the United States, however, has been much slower. The sport was quite popular in the earlier parts of the 20th century, and multiple Americans won medals in global events like the Olympics. Because the popularity of the sport is diminished, America lags behind the world in these competitive events. However, the rise of athletes like Martha Rogers in recent history has led to growth in the sport in America.

These countries have produced the most weightlifting titles for their respective nations and have some of the highest popularity rates in the world for the sport:

  • Russia
  • China
  • Bulgaria
  • United States
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Poland
  • Iran
  • Turkey
  • Kazakhstan

The 10 countries that make up this list regularly compete for the title at every global event in weightlifting each year and during each Olympic cycle every four years.

Weightlifting Key Facts and Timeline

  • Prehistoric Times: Weightlifting exists among many different human civilizations, with lifting heavy or special rocks often being a rite of initiation for young men.
  • 6th Century B.C.: An Ancient Greek weightlifter, Bybon, manages to lift a 316-pound stone with one hand. The stone is marked and survives to the modern day.
  • 3rd Century B.C.: In Ancient China, soldiers are required to pass weightlifting exercises during training.
  • 200: Greek physician Galen describes strength training exercises using halteres, an early form of dumbbells.
  • Early 19th Century: Pehr Henrik Ling invents a system of stretching and resistance exercises called medical “gymnastistics” (now called Swedish drill).
  • Early 19th Century: The modern version of weightlifting begins across Europe in multiple different countries.
  • 1850: Barbells are invented.
  • 1870: Kettlebells are invented.
  • Late 19th Century: Strongman competitions appear in England, spreading a new generation of weightlifters around the world as people flock to circuses and shows to see them.
  • 1896: Weightlifting is included as a sport in the first modern Olympic games in Athens.
  • 1900: Weightlifting is excluded from the Olympic Games.
  • 1904: Weightlifting briefly returns to the Olympics.
  • 1905: The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), weightlifting’s governing body, is founded.
  • 1908: Weightlifting is excluded from the Olympics yet again.
  • 1912: Weightlifting is excluded from the Olympics in this year as well.
  • 1920: Weightlifting is restored to the Olympic Games, where it has remained ever since.
  • 2000: Women’s weightlifting is added to the Olympic games as an official event in the Sydney Games. The sport has gained great popularity since this time, especially in the United States.


When was weightlifting invented?

Modern weightlifting was invented in the early 1800s, but several ancient societies, such as the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, practiced versions of the sport. As early as prehistoric times, heavy rocks were lifted as an initiation rite.

Who invented weightlifting?

Swedish polymath Pehr Henrik Ling invented what we know as the modern version of weightlifting. In the early 19th century, he devised a system of resistance training resembling modern weightlifting. Others developed similar methods in other European and North American countries. Around the same time, strongmen such as Eugene Sandow, Arthur Saxon, and Louis Apollon developed the sport.