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Deadlift History: Exploring the Evolution of a Timeless Lift

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  • Post last modified:18 November 2023

The deadlift is one of the most simple and effective exercises you can do. It involves picking up a heavy weight from the ground and lifting it to your hips, using your entire posterior chain, which consists of the muscles on the back of your body.

The deadlift can improve your strength, muscle mass, posture, and health, and it is used in various strength sports and competitions.

But where did this movement come from? How did it evolve over time? Who were the pioneers and record-breakers of the deadlift? In this article, we’ll take you on a historical journey of the deadlift, from its ancient origins to its modern developments.

Early Beginnings and Evolution

early beginnings and evolution of the deadlift, evolution of deadlift

The deadlift is a primal and instinctive movement that humans have been doing since the dawn of time. Whether it was lifting a rock, a log, or a fallen comrade, humans have always had the need and desire to pick up heavy things from the ground. However, the deadlift as we know it today, with a standardized barbell and plates, is a relatively recent invention. Before that, there were many variations and iterations of deadlift-like movements, performed by different cultures and individuals, for different purposes and reasons. Here are some of the earliest examples of deadlifts and their ancestors.

Ancient Antecedents: Tales of Eumastas and Bybon

ancient tale of Eumastas

One of the first tales of what could be considered a deadlift comes from the sixth century B.C. in ancient Greece. On the island of Thera, archaeologists unearthed a massive boulder that weighed about 480 pounds. On the boulder, there was an inscription that read, “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” It is speculated that Eumastas had hoisted the boulder to his waist, or even to his chest, using his bare hands. However, there is no concrete evidence of how he did it, or why he did it. Perhaps it was a test of strength, a display of prowess, or a tribute to the gods.

Another similar tale comes from Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games. There, another huge stone was found, weighing about 315 pounds. On the stone, there was a handprint and an inscription that read, “Bybon, son of Phola, has lifted me over his head with one hand.” This is an even more impressive feat, as it implies that Bybon had not only lifted the stone from the ground, but also pressed it overhead, using only one hand. Historians believe that this was more likely to be true, as Bybon probably lifted the stone with two hands, and then held it with one hand, while the other hand made the imprint on the stone.

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These stories show us that the ancient Greeks had a fascination and appreciation for strength and lifting, and that they used stones as a means of measuring and demonstrating their abilities. They also show us that the act of picking up a heavy object from the ground and lifting it to a certain height is a natural and universal human endeavor, that transcends time and culture.

The 1700s: Strength Pioneers and the Deadlift’s Ancestry

the golden age of deadlift, deadlift history

The 1700s and 1800s were the golden age of strength pioneers, who changed the game of strength and lifting. These were performers and athletes who competed with each other, and entertained audiences with their amazing feats of strength. They also experimented with different equipment and techniques, and laid the foundations for the modern deadlift.

One of the first and most famous strength pioneers was Thomas Topham, a British strongman who lived in the early 1700s. Topham was known for his incredible feats, such as breaking a broomstick with his arm, lifting two barrels of water, heaving his horse over a gate, carrying a house beam, rolling up a pewter dish, squeezing a quart pot, and lifting 560 pounds with his little finger. He also performed a feat that resembled a deadlift, when he broke a rope that was fastened to the floor and could sustain 2,240 pounds of force. He also lifted an oak table that weighed 350 pounds, using only his teeth.

Topham’s feats caught the attention of Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a French philosopher and engineer, who was fascinated by Topham’s strength. Desaguliers measured and recorded Topham’s lifts, and even brought him to the Royal Society in London, to perform for other scientists and scholars. Desaguliers also tried to explain the source of Topham’s strength, using the principles of physics and mechanics. He concluded that Topham had a combination of large muscles, strong bones, and a powerful nervous system, that enabled him to lift such heavy weights.

Topham was one of the first lifters who made the deadlift seem possible, as he demonstrated that a human could lift more than his own body weight from the ground, using his hands, fingers, or even teeth. He also inspired other lifters and performers to follow his footsteps, and to challenge themselves and each other with different feats of strength.

The 1800s: The Emergence of Deadlift-like Movements

emergence of deadlift, deadlift history

The 1800s saw the emergence of deadlift-like movements, that used different equipment and techniques, and had different names and purposes. These movements were performed by various lifters and performers, who wanted to test and showcase their strength, and to entertain and impress their audiences. Here are some of the most notable deadlift-like movements from the 1800s.

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The Harness Lift

harness lift, deadlift history

The harness lift was a movement that involved lifting a heavy weight from the ground, using a harness that was attached to the weight and to the lifter’s shoulders. The lifter would stand over the weight, and then pull it up with his legs and back, until it reached his waist or chest. The harness lift was popular among circus performers and strongmen, who used it to lift animals, people, or objects, such as horses, elephants, cars, or pianos. One of the most famous harness lifters was Louis Cyr, a Canadian strongman who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cyr was able to lift 4,337 pounds with a harness, which is still considered to be the heaviest weight ever lifted by a human.

The harness lift was similar to the deadlift, as it involved lifting a heavy weight from the ground, using the posterior chain. However, it was different from the deadlift, as it used a harness instead of a barbell, and it allowed the lifter to use more leverage and momentum, and to lift more weight than he could with his hands.

The Silver Dollar Lift

silver dollar lift, strongman, deadlift history

The silver dollar lift was a movement that involved lifting a heavy weight from the ground, using a barbell that had large discs on each end, resembling silver dollars. The lifter would stand over the barbell, and then grip it with his hands, and lift it up with his legs and back, until it reached his waist or chest. The silver dollar lift was popular among powerlifters and strongmen, who used it to test and improve their strength, and to break records and win competitions. One of the most famous silver dollar lifters was Bob Peoples, an American powerlifter who lived in the early 1900s. Peoples was able to lift 725.75 pounds with a silver dollar barbell, which was a world record at the time.

The silver dollar lift was similar to the deadlift, as it involved lifting a heavy weight from the ground, using a barbell and the posterior chain. However, it was different from the deadlift, as it used a barbell that had larger discs, which increased the range of motion and the difficulty of the lift.

The Health Lift

health lift, deadlift, deadlift history

The health lift was a movement that involved lifting a heavy weight from the ground, using a platform that was attached to the weight and to a lever. The lifter would stand on the platform, and then push it down with his legs and back, until it reached the end of the lever. The health lift was popular among doctors and health enthusiasts, who used it to promote and improve their health, and to measure and compare their strength. One of the most famous health lifters was George Barker Windship, an American doctor and inventor who lived in the mid-1800s. Windship was able to lift 1,000 pounds with a health lift machine, which he designed and patented himself.

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The health lift was similar to the deadlift, as it involved lifting a heavy weight from the ground, using the posterior chain. However, it was different from the deadlift, as it used a platform and a lever instead of a barbell, and it allowed the lifter to use less range of motion and more force, and to lift more weight than he could with his hands.

FAQs Section

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about deadlift history.

What are the benefits of deadlifting?

Deadlifting has many benefits for your physical and mental health, such as: Improving your strength, muscle mass, posture, and metabolism.
Enhancing your athletic performance, power output, and injury prevention.
Reducing your risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis.
Boosting your confidence, self-esteem, and mood.

How can I improve my deadlift technique and performance?

There are many ways to improve your deadlift technique and performance, such as:
Practicing your form and technique with light weights or an empty barbell, and using cues and feedback to correct any errors or flaws.
Warming up properly with mobility drills and practice reps, and using the appropriate equipment and accessories, such as a belt, straps, or chalk.
Following a progressive and periodized training program, and adjusting your frequency, volume, and intensity according to your goals and recovery.


Conclusion

deadlift history, significance of deadlift history

The deadlift is more than just an exercise. It is a reflection of human history, culture, and innovation. From the ancient Greeks to the modern powerlifters, the deadlift has been a way of expressing and measuring strength, overcoming challenges, and achieving goals. The deadlift has also evolved over time, with different equipment, techniques, and variations, to suit the needs and preferences of different lifters and audiences. The deadlift is not only a physical movement, but also a mental and emotional one. It requires focus, discipline, and courage, and it rewards with confidence, satisfaction, and health. The deadlift is a journey, not a destination. It is a journey that you can join, and that you can share with others. The deadlift is a story, and it is a story that you can write.