To me, there is nothing more humbling than watching the powerlifters train in my local gym. Huddled around a barbell, sniffing ammonia, slapping each other’s backs and violently screaming as they rip weights from the floor or put unimaginable poundages on their backs. And that’s just the teenagers. Anecdotally the past decade has — in my opinion — seen powerlifting become a much more accessible and popular pursuit for men, women and, in the case of my gym, children.
This was not always the case though. Lifting heavy weights has always fascinated mankind, but dedicated powerlifting competitions, centered on a small but hallowed group of lifts, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The fact that official powerlifting competitions did not emerge until the 1960s re-iterates the impressiveness of the sport’s rise in the recent Iron Game. In detailing the birth and growth of powerlifting over the past two centuries, today’s post looks at the precursors, early iterations, and finally divisions which have made the sport what it is today.
Let’s Take It Back a Few Centuries…
Much like our post on weightlifting, there is a difficulty in tracing the first powerlifting shows in human history. Individuals had for centuries, developed their bodies, and egos, through lifting weights. While there is a temptation to begin this story with Ancient Greece when individuals lifted gargantuan weights with one hand, or start with the stone lifting feats found throughout the world, we shall go with a more recent past.
Despite the strength exploits of Thomas Topham in the 1700s or George Barker Windship in the mid-1800s, our focus today begins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when strongmen and women first began to emerge in droves. As noted by several historians ranging from Peter Bailey to Randy Roach, the nineteenth century saw the explosion of ‘Music Hall’ culture in both the United States and United Kingdom (1).
In the Vaudeville music halls of England and the United States, lifters began to challenge one another in feats of strength. This was very much a time when weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman training were virtually indistinguishable. When Eugen Sandow shot to fame in 1889 it was following his victory over fellow strongman ‘Samson’ in a series of odd lifts. Likewise, Louis Cyr toured Canada, and later England, during this time challenging and defeating anyone who dared attempt to match his strength (2). The early 1900s were a foundational time for powerlifting for one simple reason, it marked a growing interest in who was the strongest.
This is, after all, the foundational drive of the sport. Whereas basketball or football concerns itself with points scored, and bodybuilding with the body beautiful, powerlifting is based upon strength and strength alone. In the opening decade of the twentieth-century, European and American audiences became increasingly fixated with the title of “world’s strongest man”. This was not in the sense of the shows we know today but rather which individual exhibited the greatest strength in the widest variety of lifts.
Thus, individuals began to challenge one another and trade barbs in public over the coveted title. Some contests saw rudimentary Olympic lifts used to determine the victor. However, far more common were odd lifts. Arthur Saxon, for example, once competed with a bag of flour against a fellow strongman. Minerva lifted a barrel of lime to demonstrate her strength. Some, admittedly far fewer, showcased their strength through rudimentary deadlifts, back lifts and, in the case of George Hackenschmidt, bench pressing. This period, although important, can be marked as a transitional phase between the old lifting world and the new. It marked a shift from Vaudeville entertainers to recognized athletes in their own right. The development of the barbell, covered elsewhere on BarBend, was of course crucial in this transformation.
The First Competitions and Organizations
Inching Closer to the Birth of Powerlifting
Weightlifting welcomed its first world championship in 1891. The sport’s prestige was heightened some years later when it was featured at the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games in Athens (3). Powerlifting, on the other hand, had no such competition. Indeed, powerlifting as we understand it today, was virtually inseparable from weightlifting for the first half of the twentieth-century. This was especially the case with two of the largest weightlifting organizations which emerged during this period.
While mainland Europe boasted a series of weightlifting organizations in the early twentieth century, weightlifting, and by proxy powerlifting, tended to flourish in Great Britain and the United States. After several failed efforts, a British Amateur Weightlifting Association (BAWLA) was established in 1910. What was significant about BAWLA, aside from their fun acronym, was that the group oversaw innumerable lifts. By 1933, the group held official competitions in over thirty lifts (4). While BAWLA may have appeared solely concerned with Olympic weightlifting at first glance, the reality, was that they promoted several versions of the powerlifts we use today. For example, BAWLA held meets for one handed deadlifts, two handed deadlifts, rudimentary presses and some leg work. Incidentally the judging process involved was often remarkably strict.
When Hermann Goerner toured England in the 1920s, he attempted to break the BAWLA deadlift record with a 650lb deadlift. Successful in lifting the bar from the ground, Goerner’s lift was disqualified because he failed to pull the weight with his heels touching as per BAWLA’s rules (this is called an ‘English style deadlift). After the confusion was cleared, and a visibly angered Goerner returned to the barbell — the strongman then completed the lift satisfactorily for his BAWLA judges (5).
In the USA, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) largely oversaw proceedings. Founded in the late nineteenth century as a sort of catch all sporting body for American sport, the AAU came to sponsor weightlifting events in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Much less formalized than BAWLA, at least in terms of the its formal lifts, the AAU played a crucial role in promoting weightlifting during this time. It’s scope intensified during the 1920s and 1930s when influential physical culturists — like Bob Hoffman — took a much greater role in promoting Olympic weightlifting. For anyone doubting Hoffman’s commitment to turning the USA into a weightlifting powerhouse, Professor John D. Fair’s biography of Hoffman reveals the almost messianic zeal Hoffman brought to American weightlifting (6).
The push for Olympic Weightlifting in the 1930s and 40s did not prevent American men and women from engaging in powerlifting events. Perhaps the greatest example of this was Bob Peoples who was a 181 lb Tennessee man with a fondness for iron. During the 1940s, Peoples, who trained primarily using homemade equipment, began to push the boundaries in terms of what was possible in the deadlift. An example of his ingenuity included a wooden barbell which held rudimentary baskets on both sides capable of holding stones from the local quarry.
To increase the bar’s weight, Peoples simply added more rocks (7). Likewise, Peoples even created his own makeshift power rack to sustain his monstrous lifts. Deadlifting in a style that is no longer seen among fitness fanatics — primarily due to safety concerns — Peoples deadlifted 729 lbs in 1949. Official powerlifting competitions had not yet materialized, but individual’s interested in strength and strength alone emerged in public life (8).
A Move In the Right Direction?
Closer to Formal Competitions
Where Bob Peoples was very much a maverick in his designs, he was not alone in his enthusiasm. The same year Peoples deadlifted over 700 lbs, a series of fitness promoters, including Peary Rader of Ironman magazine, came together to organize America’s first powerlifting association (9). Whereas the AAU and BAWLA welcomed Olympic and powerlifting feats, this new association was focused primarily on powerlifts distinguishable from those found in the Olympic lifts.
A formal meet to highlight the powerlifts was scheduled for late 1949 to host the first strength event of its time. Showcasing the tight relationship with other physique endeavors, it was held alongside bodybuilding and weightlifting events. Interestingly, the lift chosen was a continental clean and jerk rather than a squat, deadlift or bench press. The continental clean and jerk lift required lifters to pull a bar from the ground up their body and then jerk it overhead. Unlike a clean & jerk or snatch, the continental clean and jerk was a much more labored and methodical lift. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the bar is often dragged up the body with considerable effort.
Reflecting on the event in the 1980s, Rader conceded that the continental clean and jerk marked the association’s attempt to entice previous Olympic weightlifters to take part in the meet. While some Olympic weightlifters took part, Rader and his fellow organizers were delighted to find several competitors whose interest in weightlifting solely extended to powerlifts (10). Seeking to appeal to these early powerlifters, Rader and those emulating his association, spent the next decade hosting a series of ‘odd lift’ competitions across the United States. Like the meets being held by BAWLA, such events could feature anything from one handed deadlifts to slow bicep curls. Joe Warpeha has estimated that about 42 different odd lifts were used in competition at this time in the United States (11).
Powerlifting Is Born
At Long Last…
The 1950s proved a pivotal decade for powerlifters across the United States. Olympic Weightlifting, despite the best efforts of Bob Hoffman and others, was waning in popularity. The AAU, which oversaw Olympic Weightlifting, bodybuilding, and odd lift competitions, was coming under increasing criticism and individuals were calling for a sea change in the iron game (12). Bodybuilding promoters began organizing their own competitions in the United States, most notably those organized by the Weider brothers. Based on the popularity of ‘odd lift’ competitions and the conviction that a narrow focus on weightlifting excluded a great deal of the lifting community, individuals began to petition the AAU for a powerlifting meet.
For most of the 1950s the AAU’s response — as dictated by Bob Hoffman — was a resounding no.
Times however changed, and quickly at that. Faced with the prospect of a splinter organization, an unofficial powerlifting meet, titled the ‘Powerlifting Tournament of America’, was held on September 5th, 1964. Held under the watchful eye of Bob Hoffman, the event welcomed 21 men of varying weight classes (13). The success and interest in the event pushed Hoffman and the AAU to finally take powerlifting seriously as a sport in its own right.
To that end, an official AAU endorsed powerlifting meet was held the following year in York, Pennsylvania. This time 47 lifters from 17 US states took part in an event which began at 11am and only ended the next morning at 2.30 am. Significantly, the event was widely covered in muscle mags from across the globe and ignited an interest in holding more events. What’s more, the event effectively set a benchmark for the sport in choosing the squat, bench, and deadlift as its core lifts (14). In 1966, the first official British powerlifting competition was held, based largely on the AAU example (15). The next decade then witnessed an expansion in the scope, style, and soul of powerlifting.
Powerlifting Continues to Grow
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As American powerlifting grew in popularity, it was perhaps inevitable that international competitions would begin to cross lifters’ minds. A British powerlifting federation was established in the late 1960s, soon followed by other European nations. Interestingly, it was the French and British who first came together for an international competition when lifters from both nations met in 1968 and again in 1969 (16). Undoubtedly important, these competitions featured two rather unusual rules.
- First, and it seems to be based on the insistence of French lifters, the deadlift was not included in these competitions.
- Second, and perhaps cruelly, the method for judging the squat was rather draconian. At the bottom of the squat, lifters were required to pause until signaled by the referee to rise back up. Effectively lifters were tested in pause squats. Britain, incidentally, won both competitions (17).
These European competitions were important, but the nascent powerlifting world was itching for a real test. They wanted to see Britain and America meet in competition. Thus in 1970, an inaugural international meet between British and American lifters was held in Los Angeles. As retold by Mike Shaw, one of the British lifters, the event was met with great interest, and even attracted local television spots (18). In homage to the previously discussed Bob Hoffman, a rematch was held on his birthday in 1971.
This meet then set the scene for a world-level powerlifting competition the following year in 1972. With a world-level competition, an International Powerlifting Federation was established that very same year in 1972. In a short time, the sport had come to full maturation (19). Full maturation for male lifters that is. It took another six years before female powerlifting became recognized as an official pursuit and sport.
The 1970s were a pivotal moment for powerlifting, but not all of the changes were positive. The push for greater numbers encouraged lifters of both sexes to indulge in the arts of lifting through specialized clothing and chemicals. Regarding the former, Ben Pollack, Dominic Morais, and the Todds found that lifters had, since the late 1960s, used tight wrapping, elevated heels, and on more than one occasion, used tennis balls behind their knees to allow them lift more weight (20).
Following the international growth of powerlifting in the 1970s was accompanied by a growth in powerlifting suits for the bench and squat. Equipped with these rudimentary suits, lifters found their numbers rapidly increase. For true anoraks, the first bench suit was created by John Inzer in 1973 whose influence in the sport is still undisputed. The use of lifting suits was not however to everyone’s liking and in 1994 the AAU hosted the United State’s first raw (unequipped) meet, which only allowed competitors to use a lifting belt and nothing else (21). The creation of raw meets, now an established category of powerlifting, dated its origins to the 1970s when wraps and suits first appeared on the platform (22).
Suits were, of course, not the full extent of lifters’ determination to lift heavier. Anabolic steroids also had a role to play. Now before delving briefly into this history, it is important to highlight a number of misconceptions around steroid use in the 1960s and 1970s. As is well documented, the introduction of steroids into the United States in the mid-twentieth-century, primarily by Dr. John Zieglar and Bob Hoffman, was initially met with suspicion by many sport and medical officials.
Strange as it may seem, many didn’t believe steroids were effective. This included the legendary John Grimek, who felt steroids actually impaired his athletic performance. Equally problematic was how acceptable steroid use was for some in the lifting community. Prior to the 1972 Olympic Games United States lifter Ken Patera stated that he wanted to see who had better steroids, the US or the USSR. It was for this reason, combined with the human desire to lift more that steroid use became rampant in powerlifting from the mid 1970s onward (23).
As the tide turned against performance enhancing drugs in the early 1980s, powerlifting too was affected. The IPF introduced its first round of drug testing for anabolic steroids in 1982. Six years later, the first world drug free powerlifting organizations was founded.(24) The emergence of drug testing in powerlifting did not stop the use of performance enhancing drugs, far from it, but it helped to split the sport between natural and chemically enhanced lifters.
Powerlifting is arguably now one of the most diverse lifting activities. Competitors can enter drug tested, non-drug tested, equipped, and raw events at various weight classes. The sport has proven to be more open to women than other strength sports, and it has embraced the many ways in which people like to lift.
And anecdotally, powerlifting is often the most common way people like to train train, at least initially. Built around the holy trinity of the squat, bench press, and deadlift, powerlifting does not boast the same lineage as weightlifting or bodybuilding, but it speaks to the basic desire to pick things up and put them back down. Its simplicity is its success.
Feature image courtesy @zenoofpowerlifting Instagram page.
- Peter Bailey. Music hall: the business of pleasure. Vol. 1. (Open University Pres, 1986); Randy Roach, Muscle, smoke, and mirrors. Vol. 1. (AuthorHouse, 2008), 75.
- George F. Jowett, The Strongest Man That Ever Lived (Milo, 1927), 6-10.
- Michael H. Stone et al., ‘Weightlifting: A Brief Overview’, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28, no. 1 (2006): 50.
- David Webster, The Iron Game (John Geddes: 1976), 147-151.
- Conor Heffernan, ‘Forgotten Exercises: English Style Deadlifts’, Physical Culture Study.
- John D. Fair, Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell (Penn State Press, 1999).
- Bob Peoples, ‘The Training Methods of Bob Peoples’, Ironman Magazine, April/May (1952).
- Peary Rader, ‘Powerlifting: How it All Started’, The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban.
- Joe Warpeha, ‘A History of Powerlifting in the United States: 50 Years after York.’ (2015).
- Jan Todd, ‘Chaos Can Have Gentle Beginnings: The Early History of the Quest for Drug Testing in American Powerlifting: 1964-1984’, Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture, 8, no. 3 (2004): 5.
- R. Countryman, ‘Close battles spark first senior national powerlifting championships’, Iron Man Lifting News, 12, no. 2, (1965)” 10-18.
- ‘A Chronology of British Powerlifting’, British Powerlifting.
- Mike Shaw, ‘My Story – The Origins and Rise of the Drugs Phenomenon World & British Champion (BAWLA, IPF, BDFPA & WDFPF)’, British Drug Free Powerlifting Association.
- Warpeha, ‘A History of Powerlifting in the United States…’
- Jan Todd, Dominic G. Morais, Ben Pollack, and Terry Todd, ‘Shifting Gear: A Historical Analysis of the Use of Supportive Apparel in Powerlifting’, Iron Game History, 13, no. 2-3 (2015): 37-56.
- Ibid; Cast Iron Strenght, ‘Powerlifting, A Brief History’.
- Todd, Morais, Pollack, and Todd, ‘Shifting Gear…’, 39-45.
- Todd, ‘Chaos Can Have Gentle Beginnings…’, 6-8.
- World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation, ‘Philosophy and Mission’.