How the Ancient World Lifted Weights


“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. (…) What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

– Socrates, as quoted in Memorabilia(1)

To me, the above quotation encapsulates the most honorable parts of the lifting community. On meeting his companion Epigenes in poor physical condition, Socrates listed the innumerable benefits of exercise. Beginning with personal vanity and health, Socrates connected the strong and muscular body to the protection of one’s home, the survival of one’s city-state and heightened levels of thought. As Epigenes meekly protested, Socrates intensified his argument. The meeting ended with a chastised Epigenes disappearing from the conversation, presumably to finally go exercise.

Whether or not Socrates had this conversation with Epigenes is besides the point, what’s important about its subsequent record was the focus on personal health. The modern interest in sets-and-reps fitness has, quite rightly, been connected to the nineteenth century but this does not mean that those in the ancient world were not equally concerned with health, strength and fitness. To that end, ths article examines the history of resistance training in the ancient world, specifically that found in China, Egypt, Indian and Greece. As will become clear, many cultures have privileged health, strength and athleticism for reasons ranging from religious devotion to military warfare.

Ancient China

In his examination of Chinese physical cultures, Nigel B. Crowther found that lifting weights, archery, weight throwing, tug of war, boxing, and a host of other activities were practiced by Chinese men in the ancient world.(2) This is perhaps unsurprising given the long history of Chinese martial arts. What is less well known is the variety of strength exercises and demonstrations done separately or in conjunction with martial practices. Examining the period of 6000 BC to 500 AD, Crowther cited religion, warfare, personal health and social customs as the primary motivations for these men (and it was primarily men) to lift weights.(3) Given the nature of Chinese regions during this long period, only soldiers and athletes were permitted the time and space to train for prolonged periods of time.

When it came to lifting weights, Chinese athletes did not disappoint. To display their strength, regional strongmen lifted rocks and metal objects, like heavy tripods and massive swords, overhead or with one hand. One’s ability to lift such objects was often linked to their fighting prowess, their virility, and as an indication of their family’s strength.(4) Strength was not merely an object of vanity but instead something of considerable societal importance.

Stone lifting was the primary way in which men competed in strength competitions but it was not the only avenue open to those seeking to build to display their strength. During China’s Warring States period (475–221 BC), martial artists would take part in a single or two man lift of a large three legged cauldron called a ding.(5) Significantly, dings could weigh upwards of several hundred pounds and their irregular shape made lifting them all the more difficult. Traditionally, and since the second millennium BC, these cauldrons were used ancestral worship rituals, which suggests that the ability to lift one of these cauldrons was symbolically important as well.

The lifting of stone objects and symbolically important objects, continued well past the ancient period. Zhi Dao’s work on the history of sports in China found that rural strongmen during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) would lift stone lions supposedly weighing close to 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds).(6) Perhaps more realistically, we also have stories of performers completing back lifts with a dozen people on their back during this time.

Lim SK has also cited the use of the guandao as a weightlifting practice from this period.(7) The guandao is a pole swung around the body in many Chinese martial arts. According to SK, soldiers and strongmen in this period would swing heavy guandao around their bodies to build strength and muscle. It was also done to show one’s physical prowess. Remarkably, this practice still exists today, and is echoed in the increasingly popular practice of club and mace training.

[See more: Chinese Seniors Are Throwing Stones to Stay in Shape.]

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, lifting weights was an equally popular practice. Egypt, although different from China, still shared similarities when it came to physical culture. Wilson Chacko Jacob’s study of Egyptian physical culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries highlighted the fact that weightlifting in Egypt dated back thousands of years and encompassed both gymnastics and heavy lifting.(8)

In Ancient Egypt, lifting weights was one of many sports engaged in by local soldiers, athletes, and regular men and women to improve their health. If you go online you’ll even find some enthusiastic Egyptian nationalists claim that lifting was so widespread in Ancient Egypt that it actually spread from Egypt to far flung places like Rome, Greece, Cartage and Phoenicia.(9) Whether or not this is the case is debatable, but it is clear that the Egyptians cared when it came to strength.

One of the most popular lifting techniques in Ancient Egypt was sack swinging, which could be compared with the modern day clean & jerk Olympic lift. To build their bodies, and also as a form of competition, individuals would lift a sack of sand with one hand and keep it overhead for a period of time. Alongside these forms of weight training, we know that gymnastics was a hugely popular form of training for soldiers and citizens alike.(10) Using a series of bodyweight or calisthenics exercise, men and women would strengthen their muscles and improve their agility.

Unlike China, where a substantial written record has been preserved, our knowledge of Egyptian strength training comes primarily from murals found in tombs. Some tombs, such as the tomb of Beni Hasan, date to 3500 BC. In Hasan’s tomb, we have evidence of men and women exercising with weights in the form of paintings. Later tombs such as Prince Bagti III’s tomb from 2040 BC or the tomb of Khetyalso depicted Egyptian soldiers exercising with weights.(11) Such murals hint at both a recognition that strength training held value and that it was popular.

Ancient India

Regions in Ancient India also boasted a fascinating strength culture which encompassed both athletic and military training for wrestlers and soldiers. Similar to Ancient Egypt, where heavy sacks were swung around the body, the most consuming form of physical training in Ancient India came in the form of heavy club swinging. India was not unusual in this regard, as Persia also boasted a rich history of heavy club swinging, but the popularity of the practice in India marks it out as unique.

Indian clubs,’ as they’re now known, have made a resurgence in recent years as part of the functional training craze that has swept across gyms. As a self-confessed Indian club fanatic, it has been a lovely treat to see dozens of gym goers swinging lightweight clubs in rhythmic fashion to strength their stabiliser muscles. For those training in Ancient India however, these exercises were far from light and more likely to be connected to warfare than anything else.

While Indian clubs appeared in early Buddhist and Jain writings, their ancient past is best understood through Hindu texts like the Mahabharata, written between 400 BCE and 400 CE. In the text, gadas, the heavy club precursors to Indian clubs, were mentioned at several points by the text’s heroes and demons. Included among the gada users was Vishnu, one of the most revered Hindu deities, and it’s even said by some that Vishnu was responsible for forging the original gada. Vishnu’s association with the gada meant that symbolically, it came to be linked with power, destruction and a certain amount of reverence. Thus, those who swung the gada or the Indian clubs took the matter seriously.(12)

Also relevant was Hanuman, an ape like God, revered for his strength. A demigod praised for his devotion to Lord Rama, Hanuman is intensely related to Indian clubs in Hindu texts and iconography. As the Hindu God of wrestling, Hanuman explicitly linked Indian clubs with athleticism, a connection reiterated daily for Indian exercisers, who for centuries prayed to Hanuman before training. In Ancient Greece, Hercules was often the god found within the gymnasium. In India, it was Hanuman.

Hindu reverence for Indian clubs stemmed from their martial applications and it is interesting to note that the Mahabharata was written soon after the Indian Vedic Age (1500–500 BCE) during which Indian clubs were often used in battle. Exercising with the Indian club was both a form of physical culture and a means of training for battle.(13)

The emergence of other weapons in the following centuries did little to displace the clubs’ battlefield application, although such weapons did signal a change in the clubs’ use. While still used in battle, Indian clubs became a training tool during the fifth century for Hindu wrestlers who combined club swinging with stone lifting and callisthenics to build their bodies. Also stemming from this period were the two Hindu wrestling exercises still practiced by countless athletes today: the Hindu squat (performed on the tiptoes) and the dand (or the Hindu push-up), which moves from the “downward dog” to the “upward dog” Yoga positions.(14)

In India’s case, physical culture was a military exercise, a form of religious devotion and a religious exercise. Just as the Ancient Greeks used gymnasiums, Hindu wrestlers used akharas, the term for their specified training spaces. Joseph Alter’s work on contemporary Hindu wrestler found that the exercises used trace back hundreds of years.(15) Indeed the club swinging exercises practiced by Hindu wrestlers today are likely to have been very similar to their Ancient counterparts.

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, stone lifting, calisthenics, and rudimentary forms of dumbbell training were practiced by soldiers, athletes, patients, and a host of other groups to train their bodies. Exercise was of utmost value in Greek city-states, for numerous populations. Given that my, and many others’ initial motivation for training came from the movie 300, it seems fitting to begin with military training. When talking about military training in Ancient Greece, the city-state of Sparta seems the most obvious choice. According to Humfrey Michell the Spartan system was predicated on the need to

maintain an army of experts who were ready and able at any moment to suppress sedition within the state or repel invasion from without. The Spartan was a professional soldier and nothing else, and his education directed entirely to two ends – physical fitness and obedience to authority …(16)

Education was seen as a serious, disciplined undertaking. The mother instructed the young child, and the father supplemented this early teaching with moral training. At the age of 6 or 7, all male offspring in Sparta were required to continue on their fitness programs. They were thus required to undergo roughly 5 years of gymnastics or callisthenics in conjunction with sport and military training.(17) Recreational boxing, for example, was a common pastime where it was combined with sport and weightlifting to build the troops which defined Sparta’s fierceness.(18)

The historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 AD) claimed that Spartan children were given a hoplon, or military shields, weighing roughly 10kg, as part of their training.(19) On the other hand there was Athens, and many other city-states, where soldiers’ training was undertaken in the gymnasium, where it was included in a much more holistic form of education. We can see then that military training encompassed rudimentary forms of weight training and calisthenics combined with sport.

Sparta may have led the way in military training but when it came to athletic training, the Athenians were in a league of their own. Under the influence of Greek physicians, Athenian athletes began to undertake strict forms of physical training and dieting prior to contests. According to Manning, athletes would spend roughly ten months preparing for the Olympic games, held every four years in Olympia.(20)

Roy Shepard’s work on Ancient Greek training found that training for the Olympic Games necessitated the need for specialized sport coaches, training camps, and serious diets. During the last month of training, athletes would begin using halteresor stone dumbbells to build their speed and strength. For long jumpers, the halteres were also used to increase their distances.

haltere

[Learn more: Kettlebell History Goes Back Much Farther Than Russia.]

Returning to Nigel Crowther, he found that halteres typically weighed anywhere from 5 to 12 pounds and were used to strengthen the shoulders and arms as well as the legs.(21)

Where people train is almost as important as to how they train. It is somewhat trite to point out that sport cannot take place without playing fields or courts. Likewise, physical training is often difficult without a space to train. Like the Hindu wrestlers, discussed above, who used akharas to train, Greek city-states regularly included gymnasiums as spaces for athletes to train. The word gymnasium itself is derived from gymnos, meaning naked, as Greek athletes typically trained in their birthday suits.(22)

Gymnasiums were the locations where trainers could be found, exercise equipment was held, and recovery in the form of massages or baths could be undertaken. Gymnasiums were public buildings, municipally owned and controlled. They thus played a prominent role in Greek city states. They were common buildings and were often attached to stadiums were possible.

Gymnasiums began as athletic spaces for athletes, young men and soldiers to mould their bodies. Over time, gymnasiums evolved into educational spaces for teenage boys and men. In an article on the Greek gymnasium in 1945, Clarence A. Forbes depicted the gymnasium as ‘a headquarters of higher and adult education.’(23)

The rooted custom of daily exercise and a bath brought men to the gymnasium. Once there, and in the company of like minded individuals, the gymnasiums became a place for social, and, at times, sexual intercourse, small talk, relaxation, lounging, a place to disseminate learn news, and a place to learn. What began as an ancient sports centre moulded into an educational academy and social hub.(24)

The Sophists, a Greek philosophical school most prominent in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, were the first group to begin using the gymnasium as a lecture hall on a regularly basis. Others soon began to emulate the Sophists including Socrates, one of the best known Greek philosophers who made the gymnasium his home base.

It was for this reason that so many philosophers, from Plato to Aristotle, stressed the importance of an education spanning both mental exertion and physical exercise.(25) Greek education, as conducted in the gymnasium from roughly the fourth century onward, spanned physical exercise and traditional learning. Lifting was necessary for one’s development. Physical and mental health worked in tandem in Ancient Greece. The Gymnasium was at the heart of these developments.

But what of Greek strongmen? Given the importance of Hercules in Greek mythology, it would be remiss not to mention Ancient Greek strongmen. Milo of Kroton, the sixth century BCE athlete, was credited with inventing progressive strength training.(25) While this is a big claim, Milo’s own story demonstrated as much. As a young man, Milo dreamed of Olympic glory and to that end, he reputedly carried a young bull on his shoulders every day for four years. As the bull grew older and larger, Milo’s strength increased. His crude strength training was not in vain: over the course of his athletic career, Milo won six Olympic gold medals. The bull’s fate was not as rosy — Milo supposedly ate the bull on its fourth birthday!

Away from Greek mythology and storytelling, surviving artifacts suggest that athletes exhibited tremendous forms of strength and muscularity. A black volcanic rock, found on the island of Thera, which weighs 480kg bears the inscription that Eumastas lifted it from the ground. Sandstone blocks from Olympia, weighing 143kg, were said to have been lifted by Bubon and thrown with one hand. In the fourth century AD, Jerome described weightlifting with metal balls instead of boulders. Taken together, such stories and records indicate the value placed on the trained body, and lifting, in ancient Greece.(26)

[We cover many of these feats in our list of the 8 most badass feats of strength from the ancient world!]

Wrapping Up

Surveying weightlifting and training in the ancient world, a few key themes emerge. First, that training has long held a considerable importance in a variety of human societies. This suggests that the need to train, lift, push and pull are closer to innate human behaviors than many would currently believe. Put another way, we are built to move and, I would argue, lift.

Secondly, training has always held a greater societal importance. It could, as was the case in ancient India, be linked to military training, sport, and even religious devotion. In China it could be linked to one’s ancestors and one’s own vitality. In Ancient Greece, it meant these things and more. It meant the whole development of the self.

Finally, the lifting and exercise practices discussed here displayed the ingenuity behind individuals’ exercise habits. People lifted heavy stones, rocks, rudimentary dumbbells, heavy clubs and their own body weight to build muscle, strength and agility. Taken together it is clear that weightlifting not only existed in these ancient cultures, it thrived.

Featured image via @engraved_in_iron and @heroic.sport on Instagram.

References

  1. Gardiner, E. Norman. Athletics in the ancient world (Courier Corporation, 2002), p. 71.
  2. Crowther, Nigel B. Sport in ancient times (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), pp. 1-12.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hai-sheng, Q. I. N. “The Research on the Weightlifting Sports of Ancient China.” Journal of Anyang Institute of Technology, 2 (2012): 26
  6. Zhi Dao, History of Sports in China (DeepLogic, c. 2019), pp. 56-62.
  7. Lim SK, Origins of Chinese Sports (Asiapac, c. 2019), pp. 51-55.
  8. Jacob, Wilson Chacko. Working out Egypt: effendi masculinity and subject formation in colonial modernity, 1870–1940 (Duke University Press, 2011), pp. 1-25.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Radley Alan Stuart, The illustrated history of physical culture (Alan Radley, 2001), p. 4.
  11. Mechikoff, Robert A. A history and philosophy of sport and physical education: From ancient civilizations to the modern world (McGraw-Hill, 2006), p. 29.
  12. Heffernan, Conor. “What’s Wrong with a Little Swinging? Indian Clubs as a Tool of Suppression and Rebellion in Post-Rebellion India.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 34.7-8 (2017): 554-577.
  13. O’Hanlon, Rosalind. “Military sports and the history of the martial body in India.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 50.4 (2007): 490-523.
  14. Gandhi, G., and P. Kumar. “The capillary blood’ in-vivo’ micronucleus test: Wrestlers exercising at ‘Akharas’.” Journal of Exercise Science and Physiotherapy, 3.2 (2007): 129.
  15. Alter, Joseph S. “Somatic nationalism: Indian wrestling and militant Hinduism.” Modern Asian Studies, 28.3 (1994): 557-588.
  16. Michell H, Sparta (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 165.
  17. Shephard, Roy J. An illustrated history of health and fitness, from pre-history to our post-modern world (Springer International Publishing, 2015), 189-191.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Manning C, “Professionalism in Greek athletics,” Class Wkly, 1.10 (1917):74–78.
  21. Crowther, Nigel B. “Weightlifting in antiquity: achievement and training.” Greece & Rome 24.2 (1977): 111-120.
  22. Bucher, Charles Augustus. Foundations of physical education (Mosby, 1975), 316.
  23. Forbes CA, Greek physical education (Century, 1929), 1-12.
  24. Dinsmoor, William Bell, and William James Anderson, The architecture of ancient Greece: an account of its historic development (Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1973), 320-323.
  25. Kretchmar, R. Scott, et al. History and philosophy of sport and physical activity (Human Kinetics, 2018), 87-88.
  26. Crowther, “Weightlifting in antiquity: achievement and training.”



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