THROWBACK THURSDAY! THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN #4
Having covered most of the older training methods and implements, it’s time to head into the “modern” era. In terms of weight training, I would classify the modern era of weight training as the era in which the plate loaded barbell and dumbbell came into wide use, which means that the modern era would begin in the late 1880s. Though many of the exercises currently in use were invented prior this period, it wasn’t until the modern era that training implements came to really resemble those in use today and was when the exercises currently in use came to be standardized.
While the standardization of the performance of weight training exercises was useful in determining the winner of strength competitions and made naming conventions easier, this was perhaps the most annoying contribution of the modern period. If you’re confused as to why it’s annoying, it’s because the “standardization” of non-competition exercises leads to a lot of idiotic discussion and quibbling between people too weak to be doing anything other than lifting and eating.
Let’s move past my hatred of mouthy neophyte lifters, however, and get to the topic at hand- the modern era of lifting. Though dumbbells, as I’ve covered in previous installments, had been in use in varying forms since the ancient Greeks, the barbell did not come into wide use until the middle of the 19th Century. Though he is not necessarily credited with their invention, the man with whom the wide popularity of the barbell is associated is Parisian gym owner and proto-bodybuilder Hippolyte Triat.
In 1849, Triat opened a massive, 9500 square foot gym in downtown Paris with two rows of balconies for spectators, and illustrations of his gym depict the walls filled with racks of fixed-weight barbells. In his advertising brochures, Triat boasted of having dumbbells weighing over 200 pounds in his gym, though no one is certain whether he was referring to single hand or double handed dumbbells, as the term
“barbell” wasn’t yet in use (Todd).
Prior to Triat, the closest thing to the modern fixed weight dumbbell was the “iron wand” which was very similar to the goofy weighted rubber coated bars you see in group fitness classes- they usually weighed two to six kilos and were used, like the modern version, for group fitness. Triat seems to have drawn upon that idea and created heavier iron wands affixed with weighted globes on either end for increased weight. This shape then influenced the wands that had been Triat’s inspiration, and from then on iron and wooden wands shared the same shape- a fixed bar with globes at either end.
Though one might have thought that the barbell would have caught on like wildfire after its invention, no one thought to use on in a strength exposition until Austrian strongman Karl Rappo worked onto into his routine late 1870s. According to several his contemporaries, heavy barbells had been in use in the mid-19th Century in Germany, though there’s no solid evidence of this- just hearsay. According to the Germans, they had used solid iron globe barbells until the 1870s, then switched to solid iron bars and hollow bells filled with sand or lead to make their weight adjustable. Then, in what is perhaps the greatest example of Germanic superiority one might proffer, a German corporation called Heyden began manufacturing plate-loaded barbells in the 1880s. Well, at least until you consider the fact that George Barker Winship, who I mentioned in a previous entry, patented the plate-loaded dumbbell in 1865.
What we have then, is a mess. No one is quite sure when and where the plate loaded barbell arose, or exactly when. What we can be sure of, however, is that modern weight training could not exist without the plate loaded barbell- globe barbells take up far too much room, and they don’t afford trainees the ability to easily progress from one weight to the next. Furthermore, they would have made strength competitions immensely costly and difficult to hold, simply because of the man-hours and work involved in moving massive numbers of heavy barbells. Finally, without the invention of the modern free-rotating, plate loaded barbell, continued progress in training weights would be severely hamstrung by the stress on and strength requirements of the forearms and hands.
Though heavy lifting in the US all but died out with the death of Winship, it was resurrected in 1902 by Alan Calvert and Calvert’s equipment company, Milo, and by Thomas Inch, Calvert’s rival, and vocal proponent of plate-loaded barbells. Like the rivalry between Hoffman and Weider that would follow in 40 years, Calvert and Inch argued vociferously in the press about whose products were the better of the two. Both men offered a plate loaded option, but Calvert offered adjustable-weight globe bells as well, affording trainees to increase training weights by an ounce at a time if they so wished. Across the ocean, numerous German companies vied for dominance in the weightlifting equipment industry, all producing barbell sets of different sizes in an apparent effort to out-Apple Apple in terms of producing proprietary nonsense to people who are unconcerned with brand-whoring.
This brings us, finally, to the Olympic lifts. In the early days of strongman competitions, there was no set program of lifts. Instead, competitors agreed upon a few lifts and went at it, mano-e-mano. There was no standard for the lifts, either- you moved the weight from point A to point B however the hell you could get it there. On a deadlift, if you weren’t hitching, you weren’t trying. You could muscle out snatches, and you could invent new form on the spot if you’d not before tried a certain lift. Everyone was there to see weight get moved, and none of the quibbling, insipid, tragically weak people of the modern era existed at the time to call bullcrap on lifts done by people of whom they were terrified and with weights they could scarcely comprehend.
The closest that anyone could come to a standard program of lifts was what the British referred to as the “Championship Lifts”, they could not even agree on whether there were four or five of those. According to Edward Aston, who claimed there were four officials but five contested “Championship Lifts” (and never bothered to identify the four officials ones), the five lifts the Brits considered “Championship lifts were the one hand clean, two hands clean, one hand anyhow, two hands anyhow, and a single handed snatch or clean (at the choice of the competitor). Of the three lifts, both hands had to be used at least once, which forced a bit of strategy into the competition by making the lifter choose the lift in which he’d employ his weaker hand (Aston III).
Due to the lack of event standardization, however, no one could agree on a bar. Thus, the first Olympics saw something akin to a one hand snatch and a double-hand clean and jerk being contested, with permutations of these events or just no weightlifting at all occurring until the 1928 Olympics. By 1928, however, the Olympic committee decided on three lifts- the press, the clean and jerk, and the snatch. That same year the first modern Olympic barbell was released by the Berg company specifically for use in the Olympics. That design was then copied by the York Barbell Company, and modern lifting was truly and officially born.
Well, sort of- there was still the matter of how the barbell should get off the floor and to the shoulder. Even though pretentious, know-it-all asshats of the internet might contend that the clean is the only “legitimate” method of getting a weight to one’s shoulders, the clean began as one of two methods to shoulder a weight for jerking or pressing. At the outset, this lift was referred to as the “to the
shoulder anyhow” and there was a stark geographical division in the
performance of the lift. Arising out of a long tradition of beer garden lifting and public strength competitions in Germany came the “continental.” According to Arthur Saxon, the “we give zero craps about your rules and are here to move some goddamned weight” Germans believed.
“IT DOES NOT MATTER MUCH HOW A MAN GETS HIS WEIGHT TO HIS SHOULDER PROVIDED HE ‘PUTS IT AWAY ALL RIGHT[SIC]’ AFTERWARDS. THE CONTINENTAL WEIGHT-LIFTER HAS, OF COURSE, TO SHOULDER HIS BELL BY THE EXERCISE OF HIS OWN UNAIDED STRENGTH, BUT HE MAY LIFT IT SHOULDER HIGH WITH BOTH HANDS, OR BY LEVERING IT UP HIS BODY, ACCORDING TO THE LIFT IN QUESTION”(SAXON 19).
Quite frankly, since the to the shoulder anyhow was really a barbell adaptation of ancient stone lifting competitions, this method would have made the most sense. Then, instead of throwing the stone, as the ancient Greeks were wont to do, they simply put the weight overhead and held it there, as throwing an expensive custom-made iron implement would have been dangerous and costly.
“THE FIRST OF THESE PULLS THE BELL UP ON TO THE ABDOMEN IN A CLEAN LIFT WITH AN OVER AND AN UNDER GRIP, AS SHOWN IN THE ILLUSTRATION. THE BELL IS THEN LODGED ON THE WAIST-BELT (WORN LARGE FOR THE PURPOSE), WHILE THE LEFT-HAND GRIP IS CHANGED TO AN OVER-HAND ONE; THEN WITH A DIP AND A JERK IT IS HOISTED UP ON TO THE CHEST, AND WITH ANOTHER TO THE CHIN, PREPARATORY TO THE FINAL JERK WHICH SENDS IT ALOFT. SOME EVEN PROLONG THIS AGONY STILL FURTHER, MAKING FOUR, AND SOMETIMES FIVE, JERKS BEFORE THEY FINALLY REACH THE CHIN”(SAXON 52).
That might sound horrifying to the modern form Nazi, but it was brutally effective, and when you look at what the Germans were doing in comparison to their British counterparts, it becomes all that much more obvious- the Olympic gold in the clean and jerk in 1928 for heavyweights was 313.5lbs (set, amusingly, by a German and not a Brit), whereas Austrian Joseph Steinbach continental led and jerked 380.25 for a double over 20 years earlier.
As I mentioned, the British focused heavily on “clean lifting”, which they judged to be prettier and a better test of skill, rather than brute strength. Clean lifting was the backbone of British amateur competitions, and formed one of the four British championship lifts. Because the Brits focused so heavily on those lifts, however, they lacked the requisite strength to compete with the Germans in the “to the shoulder anyhow”(Saxon 20), and it was likely this reason that the Olympic Committee, which had British but no German members at its inception, chose the clean.
Though this method resulted in considerably less weight lifted, it made the event “fair” for British lifters, because if the Olympics had included the continental instead of theclean, no Brit would have even had a a snowball’s chance in hell to medal in weightlifting. Performance of the clean differed from the continental considerably, as it had to be “gripped palms downwards, and brought to the shoulders in a distinct movement while either splittingor bending of the legs” (Eric’s Gym). According to Saxon, most of theearly 20th Century lifters used a split, rather than a squat clean, which Saxon found to be stupid, but seemed to find “clean” lifting stupid rather overall.
Interestingly, the same logic was applied to the overhead portion of the lift. According to Saxon, Continental lifters were all pressers, whereas the British were fans of the jerk (Saxon 34). Given the strength advantage held by the Germans over the Brits because of their immense strict pressing strength, both events were included, ostensibly in the interest of fairness. The difference between the two methods was essentially that the press relied entirely on the strength of one’s shoulders and arms, whereas the jerk took the strength of one’s arms and shoulders almost entirely out of the equation. The Germans obviously viewed the jerk with a measure of contempt but competed in it anyway because their immense pressing strength just made their jerk better.
The press was intended to be conducted in an extremely strict manner, but even from the outset there was dispute as to exactly how it should be performed, and that dispute continued until the event was eventually dropped from the Games in 1972. Saxon sums up the two methods nicely in The Textbook of Weightlifting:
“[STEINBACH], IT WILL BE SEEN, LEANS RIGHT BACK FROM THE WAIST AND PUSHES FORWARD WITH HIS SHOULDERS (AS WELL AS ARMS) IN A DIAGONALLY UPWARD MOTION. [SAXON], ON THE CONTRARY, PUSH WITH ARM STRENGTH ONLY FROM AN ERECT POSITION, WITH HELLS CLOSE TOGETHER. STEINBACH HOLDS THE RECORD, BUT [SAXON COULDN’T] RECOMMEND HIS STYLE” (SAXON 54).
The jerk, on the other hand, was to be performed just as it is now- continuous, fast movement of the bar from one’s shoulders overhead, without pressing the weight out. In Saxon’s time, they primarily squat jerked, which is curious given their split form on the clean. This may have been since the Alan Calvert alleged that “splitting in the Jerk was ‘all lost motion.’ He said that the correct thing to do was to drop the body straight down by sitting on the heels – the style used by Milo Steinborn, who did 347¾ lbs.”(Webster). In any event, the rules were never really in dispute and have remained the same to the present day.
Like the jerk, the snatch had been performed basically if there had been dumbbells heavy enough to make it a worthwhile competitive lift. Snatching began as a dumbbell event, and then became immensely popular as a unilateral barbell lift, just as the clean and jerk had. This may be due in large part to difficulty in pressing out a barbell overhead with one hand, especially given the fact that early barbells lacked knurling. In any event, inclusion of this lift in the Olympic was basically a no-brainer, as it was an old standby in strength competitions in both German beer gardens and effete British gymnasiums.
And there you have the development of Olympic weightlifting. As powerlifting has grown in fame and given the “brute strength” over trickery and “technique” aspect of the lifts in powerlifting as compared to those of Olympic weightlifting, interest in weightlifting steadily waned over the last 75 years. That decrease in interest was also no doubt spurred by the dominance of the Eastern Bloc over the West in that sport, which made competing in it even less appealing to Westerners, as being the best Western Olympic weightlifter often means you don’t even get to participate in the Olympics.
CrossFit has recently spurred something of a revival in Olympic weightlifting, but given the internet’s ability to promote the most insipid arguments and dickless complaints to the forefront of the zeitgeist, even the mighty knee sock juggernaut might not be enough to buoy interest in weightlifting for long (especially if more Crossfitters get paralyzed in freak accidents). Frankly, hot chicks in booty shorts should be able to save just about anything, so I doubt weightlifting will ever fade from the public view the way other strength training methods have, but it will likely never regain the prominence it enjoyed until the early 1970s.
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Aston, Edward. Some practical hints on heavy weight-lifting I. The Superman Magazine. Nov 1930. Web. 18 Nov 2014. http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Competition/Aston/hwl-i/hwl-1.htm
Aston, Edward. Some practical hints on heavy weight-lifting II. The Superman Magazine. Nov 1930. Web. 18 Nov 2014. http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Competition/Aston/hwl-ii/hwl-ii.htm
Aston, Edward. Some practical hints on heavy weight-lifting III. The Superman Magazine. Nov 1930. Web. 18 Nov 2014. http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Competition/Aston/hwl-iii/hwl-iii.htm
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Webster, David. The Development of the Clean & Jerk, Part One. Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. 7 Nov 2011. Web. 19 Mar 2014. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2011/11/development-of-clean-jerk-part-one.html
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Weightlifting at the 1928 Summer Olympics – Men’s +82.5 kg. Wikipedia. Web. 19 Nov 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weightlifting_at_the_1928_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_%2B82.5_kg