Weightlifting and Powerlifting in the Middle Ages

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.


Early History of 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.

Choosing Olympic Bar

A good Olympic bar will last a lifetime. You will never need to worry about a replacement if you make the right choice. Fortunately, there is a great selection of excellent bars. The prices start at very reasonable $150 and can go much higher. So it is important to understand what exactly you are getting for extra money, because there is a good chance that these are the features that can only benefit competitive Olympic lifters and you don’t need them at all. At the same time, don’t try to save a few bucks by cutting the corners here – you will soon regret it.

York steel bar

B&R Steel bar by York. While requiring some care, steel is preferred by many.

A few words about specs. A competition Olympic bar is 20kg. A training bar is either 20kg or 45lb (which is very close) and 7 ft long. If you want to be able to do exercises with weights smaller than that (for instance, if children are going to use your gym), you can find an olympic bar that weighs as little as 15 lbs and can still handle weight that is sufficient for most people. A weightlifting bar is 28-29mm in diameter – this is probably what you want. A powerlifting bar is thicker at 30-32mm and is more rigid.

The flexibility of a bar is an important factor for two main reasons. First, it provides the whip during olympic weights, which assists in the lift. Only very good Olympic weightlifters have enough technique and coordination to utilize this. The second and more important benefit is that a flexible bar acts as a shock absorber between the heavy weight of the barbell and your wrists and ultimately all your joints that participate in the kinetic chain – all the way down to your knees. It makes your workout gentler on your body. This becomes ever more important as you progress to heavier weights and dynamic lifts. It is much less important for powerlifting, so the powerlifting bars are thicker.

pendlay bar

Pendlay chromed bar. Bushing and bearing types look almost identical - the difference is inside and in the price tag

Another feature that is important for Olympic lifts is the high quality rotating sleeves. When you lift a barbell from the ground to the position above your head, the bar turns 180 degrees. The weight plates need to stay in place and not exert any torque on your wrists. The sleeves need to rotate freely and smoothly while supporting the weight of the plates. This is guaranteed by the bearings inside the bar. The top of the line bars utilize needle bearings – they are the smoothest but expensive to manufacture to high tolerances. A bushing is usually much cheaper and is more than sufficient for everyday training. This is the major cost saving factor.

Other considerations include knurling on the bar that should be clear but not too rough on the skin, and the surface quality of steel. Chromed surface will stay smooth and shiny while bare steel will require some maintenance. This is usually not a problem if the steel is of high quality. If your bar is going to spend time outdoors or in humid conditions, bare steel might not be the best choice.


A bushing does not rotate as smoothly as a needle bearing but is easier to manufacture

A good Olympic bar price range is from under $200 to over $1000. As just discussed, high end bars benefit competition Olympic lifts and are not necessary for training. Companies that are known to produce good Olympic bars are more or less the same that make the plates – such as Chapman Elite, Eleiko, Ivanko, Pendlay, Power Max, Rogue fitness, Werksan, York barbell, and many others. Most companies produce a variety of bars. Take a look at the specs of different models and don’t skip over the bars for juniors — they are good bars that might be exactly what you need.




Below are some examples that come highly recommended:

  • B&R bar by York, sold by Rogue fitness. A $300 bar, 29mm diameter. Good for both powerlifting and weightlifting movements. The bar is naked steel – “…made for serious lifting, not for looking shiny on the rack. No coating can ever match the look and feel of natural steel.”
  • York Strength Training 7′ Hard Chrome North American Bar – $125, 30mm.
  • Pendlay Nexgen bushing bars and Pendlay Nexgen bearing bars — highly recommended by everyone. The company provides plenty of technical info – reading the comparison between the two lines is an expansion on the basic information provided in this article.
  • Werksan – The official Bar of USA Weightlifting. Also makes a variety of training bars that are reasonably priced.
  • Eleiko – top of the line competition bars. Price tag reflects that. It is always useful to know what the best of the best looks like so that you can compromise intelligently.
Werksan bar

The inside of a Werksan bar, with needle bearnings

And don’t forget to read about choosing the weight plates for your bar.

Choosing Weight Plates

Does it matter what weight plates to get for your barbell? Absolutely. The right choice for you depends on what you are planning to do and how much money you are willing to spend. The cheapest and lowest quality weights will still do the job, but it will not do it pretty. I enjoy working out with high quality equipment. My excuse for spending extra money: It increases my motivation to exercise.

Generic Metal Weight Plate

Cheap metal plate you can get in a local store

So what are the differences? First of all, this article is about Olympic weight plates – the ones that have a two inch whole that fit on an Olympic bar with two inch rotating sleeves. The standard 1″ plates and standard bar are not sufficient for serious work. If nothing else, many exercises require that the plates stay in place while your hands rotate the bar. You can read more about this in the post about choosing Olympic bar.

Second, there are two main types of plates – all metal and rubber bumper plates. The bumper plates can be dropped on the ground. They are necessary for Olympic lifts. But even if you don’t plan to do a snatch or clean and jerk, they provide many benefits. They are safer and make much less noise than metal. And even if you drop the barbell from a very low height, you will be glad to have bought the bumper plates. It all depends on types of workout you intend to have. Metal plates are perfectly fine for bench press as well as for squat.

Ivanko EZ

A premium quality metal plate with easy grip.

Metal weight plates are not created all equal. The cheapest variety can be found in your local sports store for under a dollar per pound. They are made from a low grade cast iron with nothing but paint on top. They chip easily, and are usually not made to high precision. That means they are likely to rattle on the barbell. They will not fit together smoothly either — there will be small gaps between. Metal plates from more reputable manufacturers are often made from a higher quality metal and have a baked enamel finish. They fit together nicely and fit on the bar snug and smooth. A useful feature to have is grip holes in the plate – this will allow to use them in a variety of other exercises. Those are most useful on your biggest plates (20kg or 45lb, depending on whether you go with the metric type).

Bumper plates come in different varieties as well. The cheaper ones are made of recycled rubber, are all black, and they often have a strong rubbery smell that gradually goes away with use. The more expensive competition plates look cool, fit the bar and each other very well, and can be dropped from any height.

Rubber bumper plate

Bumper plate made of rubber. Does not look fancy on picture but the quality of this one is quite good.

There are many manufacturers and resellers that are known to produce good quality equipment. Here is an incomplete list of brands that I’ve heard multiple good things about:
Atomic, Body Solid, Bodycraft, Cemco, Cybex, Diamondback, EFS, Eleiko, Hammer Strength, Hampton, Hitech, Hi-Temp, Hoist, Icarian, Ivanko, Kraiburg, Landice, Legend, Life Fitness, Magnum, Mavrik, Nautilus, Nebula, Octane, Parabody, Pendlay, Power Lift, Power Max, Powertec, Precor, Promaxima, Rogue Fitness, Smooth, TDS, Troy, True, Tuff Stuff, Vectra, Werksan, York, Yukon.

When you shop online, note that prices are sometimes listed per pair and sometimes per single plate – pay attention to this. Below are some weight plates that come highly recommended for their price range. This is just a reference sample with examples from different quality and price ranges. The estimated price below is for a pair of 45lb plates. The first four are steel plates, the rest are bumper plates.

Competition plate

Competition rated plate. You have to see it to appreciate the quality.

  • York steel $85
  • Ader steel plates $90
  • Ivanko steel $130
  • Ivanko steel EZ grip (with grips) $160
  • Hi-Temp sold by rogue fitness $135
  • Pendlay Icon V2 $150
  • Kraiburg rubber $250
  • Rogue competition plates – $300
  • York rubber composition disks $300
  • Werksan training $350
  • Eleiko training $400
  • Mavrik $450

It makes sense to buy a whole Olympic weight set. A good choice is a 350lb set – two pairs of 45lb and one pair of 35,25,15,10.

Additional notes
You can mix bumper plates from different companies – they are all 18 inches.
Definitely get a plate holder rack – it is safer and it saves room.
When shopping online, pay attention to shipping charges. Some places actually ship for free while others charge a lot so initial price can be very misleading.
Some plates (especially competition ones) come in kilograms. 20kg is 44lb – quite close to the 45lb plate. You can get either type, it does not matter.
Even though the smallest plate in a set is usually ten pounds, you can combine them to provide five pound increments. Still, it is convenient to have fractional plates that provide even smaller increments.

And don’t forget to read another post about choosing Olympic bar.

Workouts for Women

A friend of mine is seriously into health and fitness. I would not call her obsessed, but pretty close. She has a ton of books on all kinds of food and diet, and knows every yoga studio in a fifty mile radius. Every time we get together, the conversation eventually moves to this topic and she talks a lot about exercising and getting in her best shape. She is not there yet. Her progress is not nearly as fast as she wants, especially considering the amount of effort she is putting.

A couple of times I asked her if she ever considered lifting weights. She did not consider this idea to be very useful, to put it mildly. “Don’t be ridiculous” might not have been her exact words, but pretty close.

This reflects the wide-spread perception that lifting weights is not for women. Which is unfortunate — weight lifting is a very efficient and safe way to build core strength and enhance overall fitness, for women just as for men. It is a widely accepted fact in professional athletic community — all research points to that, and articles in popular health and fitness magazines reflect that as well. Most serious athletes — both men and women, spend significant part of their training lifting weights as part of their core training program. Even if their sports requires a physique that is very different from an Olympic weight lifter. On the other hand, the people who don’t lift weights are the general not-so-athletic population who go to commercial gyms and fitness studios for their treadmills and ellipticals. And the results are usually not that impressive. So those who are in top shape – lift weights. And those who are not – don’t. Something worth thinking about. Maybe there is some cause and effect here?

So where does that idea that ‘weight lifting is not for women’ come from? There is no rational basis for it. Probably the main reason is that women are afraid that they will bulk up and start looking like a man. And that is absolutely not true! Still, a barbell brings to mind the competitive body builders whose physique is not an ideal feminine look that most women want to have. The truth is that you are not going to look anything like that. Women don’t grow muscle like men. Even most Olympic weight lifters don’t look bulky – just look at the competition videos like this one for instance. And these are the strongest women on Earth, at least for their body weight. So you don’t need to worry about getting as fit as they – it is unlikely to happen.

Another reason for this poor perception is that unfortunately, many sources of information on weight training are designed for men. This holds especially true for online forums. This contributes to the impression that this is a purely men’s sport. Just don’t be fooled and intimidated by that.

So how do you learn about weight lifting for women? How is it different from men? Well, it is really the same as far as the exercises go. The results will be different. Women’s muscle volume gain will be much smaller compared to men. But muscle volume has very little to do with gains in strength. Other than that, women who want to become fit should do the same exercises as men, with the same frequency. Weights should be adjusted according to the abilities, of course. You can use the same exercise routines and training schedules. There is an excellent book written specifically for women – “The New Rules of Lifting for Women”. Other than that, don’t be afraid to use the same materials recommended for men.

Now about the benefits of weight lifting. It has been shown that weight lifting burns as many or more calories as cardio workout of the same duration. But weight loss is not just about the pounds, it is about what part of your body these pounds come from. Women realize it better than men. Cardio burns both fat and muscle, while weight lifting burns more fat and increases muscle volume so the results are much better than from other types of exercise, or dieting alone. Weight lifting has other benefits as well. It increases bone density. And when done correctly, it reduces the chances of injury related to other sports and physical activities.

Pumping iron is not the only way to train. There are other ways of resistance training such as body weight exercises. The benefits of weights is that you can adjust them gradually for the most efficient training – the exercises should not be too hard or too easy.

Give it a try and see the results for yourself.