The Origins of Strength
Welcome back to Squat University. This week we are going to change things up a bit. Today, we’re going to talk about the history behind the squat.
Strength training is not a new concept. Historians have found references to feats of strength and weight lifting competitions dating as far back as the 3600 BC (1). Military recruits for the ancient Chinese Chou dynasty (1122 – 249 BC) were required to pass specific strength tests before they were allowed to join (2).
Strength training has always been a way of life for humans. The way we go about improving physical fitness is always evolving. The use of barbell training is still a new concept relative to the long history of man.
I pose a question for your readers, who invented the barbell? You see it at every commercial gym and crossfit box. The answer to that question dates back to the 11th century. Indian wrestlers for example, are known to have used Sumtolas (a wooden log with carved holes for handles) as far back as the 11th century AD (3).
While iron dumbbells could be purchased in most major cities across the world by the mid-1800’s, barbells were still extremely rare (4). The first mention of the use of barbells is said to have come from a professional strongman in France by the name of Hippolyte Trait. His gym boasted many spherical-ended barbells, which he called “Barres A Spheres De 6 Kilos” (4).
By 1900, barbells were becoming more prevalent across Europe. However, the same equipment was nearly impossible to find at the time in America (4). A man by the name of Alan Calvert set out to solve this problem. In 1902 he opened the historical Milo Bar-bell Company in Philadelphia. Named after the ancient Greek athlete Milo of Crotona, this company would introduce to the United States the first commercially manufactured barbell set. Along with the purchase of the barbell, it would come featuring a free weight training course (the first widely available course in the country) (5,8).
The Milo Bar-Bell Company published the first strength training and bodybuilding magazine Strength. This magazine sparked the rise in popularity of barbell training in the United States in the early 1900’s (5).
Strength featured professional and amateur weightlifters. The magazine documented their amazing physical transformations with the help of the Milo Barbell. Like many of the popular fitness magazines today, the pages were filled with competition results and instructive ‘self-help’ articles on resistance training (6).
The Evolution of the Squat
In the early 1900’s, the lift we know today as the back squat was actually called the ‘deep knee bend.’ It was performed on the toes with the heels together. Lifters would use lightweight and squat on their toes for many repetitions. At the time, no one was squatting massive weight with this method. There was no way to hoist much weight on your back because squat racks had not yet been invented.
The ‘deep knee bend’ was described in the “First course in Body-Building and Muscle-Developing Exercises” issued by the Milo Bar-Bell Company in 1915:
“Still standing with the heels together, toes turned outward, bend the legs at the knees, and sink down into position…Rise up again and repeat several times. When you lower the body, the heels rise from the ground. Point the knees as far out to the sides as you can, as this helps to develop the muscles on the outside of the thighs. Moreover, the more you point the knees to the side, the easier it is to keep the body upright. At first you will not be able to go all the way down, but as the muscles become stronger and more elastic you will be able to almost sit on the heels…repeat 20 times. Every third day times more, till 40 times; then increase weight of the bell 5 pounds.”(7)
Around the time of World War I, many in Europe had started performing the squat, as we know it today, as a competitive lift. Our first known reference to the use of the squat in a weight lifting competition came in 1919 Germany when Carl Moerke defeated Hermann Goerner in one-on-one contest by squatting 240 kg or 529 lbs (11).
After the war, a German immigrant by the name of Heinrich “Henry” Steinborn came to the United States in 1921 (9). Steinborn is credited for bringing with him this newly developed lift.
In 1921 he was be featured in the now popular Strength magazine. Alan Calvert boasted of his enormous strength and tremendous physique acquired through weight training (10). In the article Calvert recalls a new lift performed by Steinborn called the “squat”. At the time it was even placed in quotations because of its obscurity. This marks one of the first known usages of the word “squatting” as a weight training exercise (9).
Up until this point if you wanted to perform the ‘squat’ you had to use a fairly crude method to get the bar onto your back. Remember, the modern squat rack had not yet been invented. Most people at this time elected to clean the barbell to the shoulders and then perform a small overhead press in order to bring the bar to rest on the upper back (8). As you can guess this method greatly limited the amount of weight that could be lifted. Steinborn was well known at this time for his awkward but revolutionary new method for shouldering the weighted barbell.
In order to place the barbell on his upper back, Steinborn would up-end the loaded barbell to one side. He then squatted sideways and slowly lowered the vertical bar onto his back to the tops of his shoulders. As the bar lowered to his shoulders, he would drop into the bottom of the squat. From this bottom position he would then stand up with the loaded barbell upon his back. At only 5’8” and 210 lbs, Steinborn claimed that he could lift 530 lbs in this manner! (10).
In the later 1920’s and into the 1930’s the use of the squat continued to grow as a staple of weight training programs. Around this time commercialized squat racks would appear in training halls across the world, allowing lifters to hoist even more weight on their backs.
Weightlifters and body builders alike began to take up the squat and make it an important part of their training programs. From this point on, the squat was here to stay!
The evolution of the squat has led to many athletes breaking world records in speed, jumping ability and other feats of physical prowess. We take for granted the barbell squat. Athletes from the Olympic games, NFL realm and many other sports rely on barbell squats as an essential training staple.
Thanks for reading this week’s article. I hope you appreciate the history of the barbell and the squat exercise.
Until next time,
- Siff MC. Supertraining. Denver, Co: Supertraining Institute; 2000.
- Taneja, A. World of sports indoor, Volume 2. Gyan Publishing House, 2009.
- Stojiljkovic N, Ignjatovic A, Savic Z, Markovic Z & Milanovic S. History of Reistance Training. Actives in Physical Education and Sport. Federation of the Sports Pedagogues of the Republic of Macedonia. 3(1): 135-138.
- Todd J. From Milo to milo: a history of barbells, dumbbells, and Indian clubs. Iron Game History. April 1995. 3(6):4-16.
- Beckwith, K & Todd J. Strength: America’s first muscle magazine: 1914-1935. Iron Game History. August 2005; Vol 9(1):11-28.
- General Strength (1916). The Milo Bar-Bell Co. Philadelphia, Pa.
- First Course in Body-Building and Muscle-Developing Exercises. The Milo Bar-bell Company. 1915.
- Yarnell, D. King Squat, rise to power. Lexington, KY. 2014
- Todd T. Karl klein and the squat. NSCA Journal. June-July 1984. 26-67.
- Calvert, Alan. 1921. Milo. Strength. Vol 6, No. 3. November, pp.35-39.
- Bonini G, Kodya M, & Roark J. Was herman goerner truly mighty? Iron Game History. May 2007. 9(4): 21-32