In the late 19th century, when weightlifting was just beginning to develop as a sport, there was a wide range of lifts. Many of them were novelties performed by the professional strong men who performed with circuses in Europe, in music halls in Great Britain, and on the vaudeville circuit in America.
Other lifts were used primarily for training, but were sometimes included in competitions. Among them were the dead lift, the supine or back press, the deep knee bend, the belly toss, the wrestler’s bridge, the barbell curl, the one-arm swing, the upright row, the bent press, and the behind the neck press.
At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, there was an all-around dumbbell event in which competitors had to perform nine one-arm lifts, a single two-arm lift, and an optional lift. When the British Amateur Weight Lifting Association was founded in 1911, it listed 42 official lifts for which it would approve records.
During the 1920s, there were two national weightlifting organizations in the United States, the American Continental Weight-Lifter’s Association (ACWLA) and the Association Of Bar Bell Men (ABBM). They both recognized records for a wide variety of lifts, although some of them were relegated to exhibitions, not competitive events.
Beginning in 1920, though, Olympic weightlifting was limited to three lifts, the snatch, the press, and the clean and jerk. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) became the national governing body for the sport in 1928 and began emphasizing only the Olympic lifts. All the others were lumped together as “odd lifts.”
Although banished from major competition, several of those odd lifts were important training tools for bodybuilders. They became generally known as strength lifts or powerlifts. Among them were the squat, the deadlift, and the back lift. As bodybuilding contests proliferated after World War II, they often included exhibitions of powerlifts. Those exhibitions sometimes turned into informal competitions. Occasionally, there were also challenge matches at a particular lift.
The AAU Takes Over
During the 1950s, Olympic weightlifting declined in the United States, while bodybuilding and powerlifting gained many new followers. As a result, the AAU began to reconsider its position. It took some time, though. In 1958, the AAU’s National Weightlifting Committee decided to begin recognizing records for odd lifts, provided they were made at sanctioned AAU meets.
A national powerlifting championship was tentatively scheduled for 1959, but it never happened. Instead, the first genuine national meet was held in September 1964 under the auspices of the York Barbell Company, Ironically, Bob Hoffman, the owner of York Barbell, had been a long-time adversary of powerlifting. But his company was now making powerlifting equipment to make up for the sales it had lost on Olympic-style equipment.
The AAU finally staged its first national championship in September of 1965. After several fits and starts, the bench press, squat, and deadlift had been selected as the championship powerlifts. The bench press and squat were relatively new versions of older lifts, the back or supine press and deep knee bend, respectively.
The back press had several variations. In essence, the lifter lay on his back and pressed the weight to arm’s length above the chest. There were various methods of getting the weight off the floor. The simplest was to rest the weight on a box so the lifter could reach over his head, grab the weight, and bring it to the chest before the upward press.
During the 1950s, the bench replaced the floor and, finally, a rack replaced the box. Now the lifter lay on the bench, took the weight from the rack and lowered it to his chest, paused, then pressed upward. The weight could then be placed back on the rack. This new technique was called the bench press.
The deep knee bend had become the squat, partly because of concerns that the knees could be seriously damaged. Originally, the lifter did an actual deep knee bend, until the buttocks nearly touched the floor. There were often repetitions involved. For example, in 1939 Harry Fields set an unofficial world record by doing 15 deep knee bends with 400 pounds of weight.
As with the back press, there was a problem with getting the weight off the floor, in this case onto the lifter’s shoulders and behind the neck.
Again, a rack came into use to hold the weight at a suitable level. For competition, the rules were changed to require only that the lifter lower the body until the top surface of the legs, at the hip joint, is lower than the top of the knees. With those changes, the deep knee bend had become the squat.
The dead lift, on the other hand, is a relatively simple move that required no changes. The lifter picks up the weight from the floor and stands erect, with knees straight. In competition, the weight must also be returned to the floor on a signal from the referee.
Led by the United States and Great Britain, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was founded in 1973 and held the first world championships that year. That spurred the establishment of the European Powerlifting Federation in 1974.
Since powerlifting is closely associated with bodybuilding and women had been competing as bodybuilders for years, the new sport was opened to them very quickly. The first U. S. national championships for women were held in 1978 and the IPF added women’s competition in 1979.
The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 required that each Olympic or potential Olympic sport must have its own national governing body by November of 1980. As a result, the AAU lost control of virtually every amateur sport, including powerlifting. The U. S. Powerlifting Federation was founded in 1980 as the new national governing body.
Powerlifting, like Olympic weightlifting, has long been associated with the use of anabolic steroids. During the 1980s, several other sanctioning bodies were established with an emphasis on drug-free competition.
Among those still in existence are the World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation (WDFPF); the World Powerlifting Congress (WPC); the Amateur World Powerlifting Congress (AWPC), which is the amateur wing of the WPC; the American Powerlifting Federation (APF), the U. S. affiliate of the WPC; the World Association of Benchers and Dead Lifters (WABDL), which sanctions single-lift competitions; the World Powerlifting Alliance (WPA); the Natural Athlete Strength Association (NASA); the World Powerlifting League (WPL); the World Powerlifting Organization (WPO); the USA Powerlifting Federation (USAPL); and the World Natural Powerlifting Federation (WNPF).
The IPF remains the major international governing body and is affiliated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Although not yet an Olympic sport, powerlifting is an official sport of the Paralympics, and the IPF is bound to follow the IOC’s drug testing procedures. Currently, the IFP has more than 70 member countries, while something over 20 countries belong to the WPC.