Djupalonsandur Stones

Lifting stones in Djúpalónsandur in Iceland, weighing from top to bottom 25, 54, 104, and 154 kg.

Progressive weight training and weightlifting as a sport flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome.  (Read about it: History of Weightlifting in Ancient Greece and Rome). As a sport, it subsided after the fall of the Roman Empire. During the Dark Ages weight training became mainly the tool of the warrior and the shows of strength became popular entertainment. Such competitions have remained relatively unchanged in Switzerland, Spain, and Scotland.

Numerous records exist that describe weight training for the knights, as well as for the army soldiers. A common practice of young knights was training with weapons of double weight in order to develop strength. The Roman military writer Vegetius was widely read at that time, describing the traditional training of young legionnaire recruits. They were given double-weight swords and shields to train hard by striking at posts. In this way, when the recruit took up real and lighter weapons, “as if freed from the heavier weight, he will fight in greater safety and speed”. Aegidius Romanus, an archbishop of Bourges in the early 14th century wrote that a military leader needed to be attentive to individual drill, noting that, “having arms unaccustomed to striking and limbs untrained for fighting” was useless for soldiers. He also stressed the importance of practice as toughening to endure hardship as well as “hardness of the body”.

A number of other 15th century humanist writers on physical education also repeatedly stressed the importance of muscular strength and conditioning. Various images of weight-training in Medieval artwork show the fencers performing heavy stone lifting or throwing  (similar perhaps to the modern “medicine ball” exercise tool) as well as the use of heavy sticks equivalent to later “Indian club” exercise tools. Another proponent of physical exercise in the 15th century was the Hispano-Italian master of arms and knight, Pietro Monte, who wrote voluminously on fighting and military arts and  included a concise chapter on body conditioning and diet in his Colecteanea work published in 1509. Monte advocated weight lifting, running sprints, and other calisthenic workouts in order to achieve the ideal martial physique—again, in the classic model. As many Renaissance writers did, Monte stressed the importance of physical conditioning and exercises as key to health, happiness, and martial prowess. Sir Thomas Elyot, in ‘The Boke Named the Governor’ (a treatise published in 1531), advised exercise “with poises (weights) made of lead or other metal” along with “lifting and throwing the heavy stone or bar.” In 14-15 centuries, British soldiers were known to exercise by pushing a metal bar.

As an example of weightlifting outside of the military training, lifting stones became popular in Iceland (where it was called steintökin), Scotland, Northern England, and Scandinavia. Usually, a lifting stone was simply an unmodified stone of a predetermined weight. The challenge was to lift the stone thus proving one’s strength. The weights and rules varied from country to country. In Iceland, the stones were categorized as “full strength” at 341 pounds/155 kg, “half strength” at 229 pounds/104 kg, “weakling” at 108 pounds/49 kg , and “Useless” at 50 pounds / 23 kg. Among many uses, they were used to qualify men for a job. In order to get a job on a fishing boat, a man had to lift a “half strength” stone to a ledge about a hip high. <IMG>. The famous Husafell Stone weighs 418 pounds and has been used for over two centuries.

In Scotland, “Manhood Stones” (Clach cuid fir) were used as tests of strength as part of the “Golden challenge”. Every young man had to lift the stone (weighting at least 220 pounds) and put it on another stone in order to be accepted into manhood (and be allowed to wear a hat).

Similar events existed in other countries. A popular variation was a “stone walk” where the participant had to carry the stone a certain distance. This type of event has become popular today in the strongman sport.

Another exercise with weights that dates back to middle ages is stone put in Scotland. Similar to shot put, it utilizes a rough round stone 16 to 30 pounds. The object is t throw (or put) the stone as far as possible. The Swiss variant of stone put is known as Steinstossen and utilizes a much heavier stone – 184 pounds (83.5 kg). An English text from the year 1184 noted knights “contended in throwing heavy stones”.

The word “Dumbbells” originated in Tudor England, where athletes used church bell clappers ranged in weight from a few ounces to many pounds, to develop the upper body and arms. The athletes would remove the clappers from the bells; hence, the name “dumb,” as in “silent,” and “bell” – dumbbell. When strongmen started to make their own equipment, they kept the name, even though the shape changed.

In the 18th century, interest in physical strength and well-being reappeared among the general population regardless of it’s practical application to warfare. Physical education was reintroduced to the university curriculum. Special exercise apparatus were developed and used along with programs using free weights and simple machines. The training was focused on musculature strength and endurance rather than physical development. In the middle of the 18th century, professional strongmen became popular, with feats of strength such as bending bars of iron, lifting various objects including people and farm animals, and breaking chains. In the mid-1800s, lifting as we know it today developed in parallel in several countries throughout Central Europe and in the United States. This time can be considered as the beginning of modern weightlifting.



Exercises with free weights were obviously part of a man’s life (more so than in the modern age of machines). It is impossible to tell when and where a systematic weight training with increasing weights became a part of education or a comprehensive sport. The earliest records exist on bronze objects dating 5000 BC that depict activities with weight not unlike modern dumbbells.

People recognized that physical work with weights makes the muscles stronger, improves joint mobility, increases overall endurance of the body. There is little doubt that of all sport competitions, lifting weights is one of the oldest. It is an activity as natural to all humans as walking, running, or wrestling. Since the regular competitions involving weight lifting were such an ordinary and integral part of the cultural life, it was mostly ignored by the artists and chroniclers who were more interested in exceptional events. This presents a problem to the historians. Still, a remarkable amount of records can be gleaned from different cultures.

Lifting weights in ancient china

One of the earliest records depicting weightlifting comes from ancient China

In Ancient China, weighted objects of various kinds were used for heavy exercise to prepare troops for battle.The first program of physical exercises with or without added weights has been recorded around 3600 BC. A much later record pertaining to the Chu dynasty (1122-1249 BC) indicated that the examination to enter the army envisaged the study of texts regarding weightlifting.

A great variety of contests of strength have been recorded in Chinese history books. During the Warring States periods (770 -221 BC), two forms of contest called “Qiao Guan” and “Kang Ding” had taken shape. Qiao Guan was a kind of weightlifting involving guan – a heavy door bar. It was lifted by a man grasping it by one end with a single hand. In Kang Ding, a meat-cooking vessel, or “ding”, was lifted by holding it by the two loop handles. Kang Ding originated in the State of Qin, where a powerlifter named Wuhuo reportedly lifted a ding weighing 500 kilograms. Professional weightlifting and powerlifting activities began to appear in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), along with other forms of weightlifting such as pulling up a tree and lifting a deer. Qiao Quan remained in vogue up till the Tang Dynasty (618 -907), but it was then replaced by other contests of strength among imperial court warriors. It then became a subject of cadet examinations, and door bars were replaced by weights made according to prescribed specifications. In his studies, YangShiyong described the lifting of the shidan (a wooden bar with big stones at the ends) during the Ming dynasty. Stone objects weighing 100, 125 and 150 kilograms came into use in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644 -1911) dynasties. As stone objects were easy to make and popularize, weightlifting using stone locks and stone bars became a traditional sport among the populace.

In Mesopotamia, Sumerians were the first people to leave traces of their civilization which flourished around the year 3500 BC. Objective of the entire public Mesopotamian art was to demonstrate the skill and the strength of the ruling class and threaten, in this way, any potential enemy. When Sumerians were not engaged in fighting for survival, children and adults from all classes gave themselves up to game and there were countless informal competitions of strength and dexterity.

Weightlifting in Egypt

Wall mural from the tomb of Beni Hasan - three men lifting bags of sand

In Ancient Egypt, weightlifting was one of the many sports known by the Egyptians. From Egypt, it spread to Phoenicia, Carthage, Greece, and Rome. One method of weightlifting was the attempt to lift a heavy sack of sand with one hand (similar to clean and jerk lift) and keep it high in a vertical position. The player had to stay in that position for a short period. This is one of the rules of weightlifting applied till now. In the Egyptian art, there are numerous representations of wrestlers, some of them depicted exercising with weights. The tomb of Beni Hasan revealed wall paintings showing men and women exercising with stone weights as early as 3500 BC. Illustrations from the 2040 BC tomb records of Prince Baghti III (Medium Reign, XI dynasty) depict movements that are strikingly similar to the one-hand snatch or swing. The mural depicts three men intent on lifting weights (possibly sand bags) with only one arm.

The warlike people which had established its capital in Mycenae, whose deeds under the walls of Troy were sung by Homer in the Iliad , dominated the Mediterranean area from 1600 to 1200 BC According to Richard Mandell, the Mycenaeans (also called Achaeans) participated in short and long foot-races, wrestling and weightlifting matches. Winning a public match or lifting a big rock in front of an audience, when these activities were socially approved and ritually performed, could be regarded as a favor indication by the gods”. The existence of games (at Olympia) in pre-Dorian times perfectly fits the Achaean athletic character narrated by Homer; the fact that the poet does not mention Olympia is due to the simple, local character of the festivals at his times.

The development of weightlifting as a sport culminated in Ancient Greece, where it took shape as the sport we know today. Read about it in the next part:
History of Weightlifting in Ancient Greece and Rome.


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