Those who have been long-time fans of 3D Muscle Journey or who have taken the time to read our mission statement know that our focus goes much deeper than the simple pursuit of maximal drug free muscular development, strength development and leanness. The cornerstones of 3DMJ have always been community support, a holistic view of mental, physical and emotional health, evidence-based rational thinking, open minded discourse, and the personal growth that comes from dedication, desire, discipline and putting the journey on a higher pedestal than the destination.
Knowing this, perhaps it’s no surprise that I find myself feeling “at home” as I read about the history of the iron game. With my PhD finished, and with our monthly research review keeping me focused on the most relevant strength and physique science a couple weeks out of each month, I’ve had the time to dig into the history of lifting (something I’ve always been fascinated by). I’m currently reading “Mr. America” by John D. Fair which gives a full account of the Mr. America contest, how it came to be, how it transformed over time, and how bodybuilding culture evolved over time. On deck, I have the “Muscle Smoke and Mirrors” series by Randy Roach, and “The Super Athletes” by David Willoughby.
To understand where my head is currently at, I’d like to give a VERY brief history of bodybuilding and its relationship with the iron game. The first true physique contests occurred in the early 1900’s. Prior to this, displays of strength and physique occurred in vaudeville-style strongman acts. The first shows, promoted by notable historical figures like Eugene Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden, awarded prizes based on symmetry, proportions, athletic ability, and judging was also influenced by the values held and espoused by the individual. An emphasis on achieving physical and mental perfection and “paying it forward” to society were seen all as inseparable elements of bodybuilding. However, at this time the word “bodybuilding” wasn’t in vogue yet. Rather, the overall term was “physical culture”, which encompassed a swath of people who shared the pursuit of optimal health, athleticism, a desire to strive for each individual’s pinnacle capabilities, and they saw the development of the body as a symbol for the development of these holistic personal characteristics, all rooted in the original Greek ideal.
As physical culture evolved, a push and pull began between those who valued physique development for its own sake, and those who saw the physique as a physical representation of the strength and fitness achieved through training. This push and pull would eventually become an ever-widening fracture. Originally, Mr. America contests were held in conjunction with weightlifting meets and participants were given athletic points (in addition to points based on character) which factored into their score. In the 1950’s-1970’s organizing bodies for bodybuilding competitions often differed by whether or not the contestants were judged purely on their physique, or whether or not their athleticism and strength factored into their score as well. While Bob Hoffman and the AAU fought to preserve the union between health, mind and body in their competitions, the Weiders, and what would eventually become the IFBB, fought for “pure”, specialized competitions in which the physique was the only judging criteria.
Throughout the 1900’s, pure strength sport evolved, changed and split as well. In the early 1900’s weightlifting in the Olympics fell under the umbrella of track and field, and was an inconsistently held event that featured either one- or two-hand variants of overhead lifting. In 1920 weightlifting became an event in its own right, and that year and in 1924 and 1928, the competition lifts changed to either include or remove various one- and two-hand versions of snatches, jerks and presses. It wasn’t until the 1932 games where the sport found stability and maintained the inclusion of just three lifts: the snatch, clean and jerk, and clean and press, and established weight classes. However, in the 1950’s many lifters wanted to hold formal competitions using the “odd lifts”, which included all lifts that were not the main competition lifts in weightlifting. Squat, bench press, deadlift, and the strict curl were the most common competitions, and eventually, powerlifting was born as a separate sport. In 1972 the clean and press was eliminated from Olympic lifting competitions, with weightlifting becoming purely a test of explosive strength, and the training differences between powerlifters, bodybuilders, and weightlifters widened.
Today, some elements of this more unified “physical culture” still exist in strongman competitions, in CrossFit (although the emphasis on strength is much less), and less formally as is seen in the many “dual-athlete” bodybuilders who have crossed over to compete in powerlifting in the last decade or so. I find this all very interesting, because I wasn’t aware of this history until recently. Yet, I myself gravitated towards all aspects of the iron game early on, competing in powerlifting and bodybuilding from the very beginning and trying my hand at weightlifting later in my lifting career (and still dabbling today). I also find it interesting that I sought like-minded people who saw bodybuilding as an expression of something deeper, and representative of something more important. We created a community with 3DMJ based around the idea of balance, longevity, integrity and health. Yet, none of us were aware of the history that preceded us, despite our pursuit of many of the same cultural values that existed a century ago.
So why am I telling you all this? I’m certainly not saying you will be a better powerlifter, weightlifter, strongman competitor, or bodybuilder by training more broadly and incorporating elements from all four sports. I’m also not a cultural-luddite, advocating for a return to values that we held a century ago. However, I do think it’s easier today to lose something that was more easily found a century ago. I’ve met Olympic weightlifters who competed at the highest level who no longer lift weights because “they retired” and don’t see the point if they aren’t going to be competitive. I’ve met bodybuilders who “quit the sport” because they found it unhealthy either mentally or physically. I’ve met powerlifters who train through injury and know they are going to have a shorter lifting career and lifelong pain, in order to succeed in the short term. In each of these cases, there is something missing. The lost lesson is that the pursuit of personal evolution through training, was seen as a lifestyle. At one time, it wasn’t something one would think to retire from or quit. Sacrificing one’s health and happiness in the pursuit of the iron was likely not even conceivable, as that was the original purpose of the iron!
I’m not saying you won’t have to make sacrifices as a strength or physique athlete. I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive to achieve the highest level in your given sport. But I am saying, don’t forget what originally drew you to the iron. Don’t forget the joy you got from pushing yourself to keep achieving. Don’t forget the community you found that shared that same values, who helped you, and who you have likely helped in return. Don’t forget how you found purpose and learned life lessons from something so simple as lifting weights. How tragic would it be for the thing that brought so much meaning, to be pursued in such a way that it would result in resentment, poor health, depression, and the need to step away from it all together?
In short, don’t forget why you do this deep down. Because, knowing why you truly do this will help you make the right decision when you inevitably face one of the many “crossroads” of your career. For me, it has helped tremendously to learn about my roots as a lifter, and to remind myself that the things we don’t talk about enough today (but that truly are at the heart of why we do what we do), were the cornerstones of our culture in the beginning.