Weightlifting and Powerlifting in the Middle Ages

by tmarkov on July 31, 2011

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.


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