Weightlifting History

Monday, 3/27/23 was the 18th anniversary of my first CrossFit WOD. My CrossFit career is old enough to vote. Tuesday, 3/28/23 was the 132nd anniversary of the first international weightlifting meet. I’m a fan of history, so this is going to be a self-indulgent post to discuss some weightlifting history. If you’re curious where the terms “snatch” and “clean” come from, read on. If not, feel free to peruse some of our other articles that might be more pertinent to you.

Prior to 1891, there were no organized “competitions” for weightlifting. Circus strongmen of old would perform unique feats of strength for entertainment purposes. But that’s what they were – entertainers. For example, Eugene Sandow was frequently called the strongest man on earth. As it turns out, this was due to HIS OWN marketing. His feats of strength were entertaining, but he rarely competed in organized competitions. The first international weightlifting meet was more in line with these old school feats of strength, but the weights were standardized. For the first time, the actual weights lifted were verified. There were a total of 8 lifts performed, using a combination of single arm and two armed lifts. Not all lifts involved a barbell. Two days later, on March 30th, another competition was held using ONLY a barbell.

Five years later, in 1896, weightlifting made it into the first modern Olympics as a field event in Track & Field. This time, there were only 2 events: a 1-handed lift, and a 2-handed lift. The 1-handed lift had to be completed with each arm and used a small weight reminiscent of a dumbbell. The 2-handed lift was similar to the modern clean and jerk. The 1904 Games followed the tradition of the March 30th IWF meet, using ONLY a barbell.

When it came to the 2-handed lifting technique, the early 1900’s saw the advent of the weightlifting belt. Lifters from Germany and central Europe would hoist the bar from the floor to their belts using a mixed grip. They would switch their hands while the bar rested on the belt, heave it to their shoulders, and then jerk it overhead. Lifters from England and France would lift the bar from the floor to their shoulders without making contact with the body. The German/Central European technique became known as the “continental.” This technique is still used by modern strongmen to lift and axle bar. By contrast, the English/French technique, because it didn’t touch the body, became known as a “clean” lift. Now you know where the term “clean” came from.

Courtesy of Arthur Saxon’s Textbook of Weightlifting

Weightlifting was not in the Olympics in 1908, 1912, or 1916. It returned in 1920 with 3 lifts: the one-handed snatch, one-handed clean & jerk, and two-handed clean & jerk. By this point, the one-handed snatch was known as such because one had to “snatch” the weight off the floor. In 1924, the two-handed snatch, and the two-handed clean & press (strict press as opposed to jerk) were added, bringing the total number of competition lifts to five.

The 1928 Olympics saw the removal of the one-handed lifts, dropping the total back to three. These competition lifts would remain in place through the 1972 Games. By that time, judges recognized that press technique was incredibly difficult to judge. Many lifters would lean so far backwards that they essentially turned the strict press into a horizontal press, standing up at the last minute to lock it out overhead. My spine hurts just thinking about it. In any case, the sport of weightlifting, as it is currently judged, has existed since 1972. The biggest change in recent history has been the inclusion of women in 2000. Weight classes have changed over the years as the sport has grown, shrunk, and grown again in popularity.

So, that is a brief history of the sport of weightlifting. If you’re interested, I recommend delving into the historical strongman feats of old. The pre 1891 history is quite fun to learn about. Thanks for indulging me. See you in the gym.

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