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USA Weightlifting

The genealogy of lifting traces back to the beginning of recorded history where man's fascination with physical prowess can be found among numerous ancient writings. A 5,000-year-old Chinese text tells of prospective soldiers having to pass lifting tests.

Ancient Greek sculptures also depict lifting feats. The weights were generally stones, but later gave way to dumbbells. The origin of the word dumbbells comes from the practice of removing clappers from bells, rendering them soundless during lifting.

The first modern day Olympics were held in 1896 and weightlifting was included as an official sport. Weightlifting did not appear in the 1900 Games, but returned in 1904, and has been a regular event since 1920. In 1932, three lifts were standard: the press (eliminated in 1972), the snatch, and the clean & jerk. In 1932, there were five weight classes. Today there are eight weight classes for men and seven weight classes for women.

The U.S. men, dominated the sport in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, an era that is discussed in detail inThe Rise of the U.S. to World Weightlifting Dominance by Arthur Dreschler (SEE BELOW).

By 1996, the U.S. Team was ranked 15th in the world after a successful Olympic Games performance in Atlanta, Ga. The U.S. junior men were ranked 13th in the world. In 2000, Oscar Chaplin III won the Junior World title in the 77kg weight class and the only Junior World gold for the U.S. Men's Team.  

Women's weightlifting has been conducted at the World Championships level since 1987. The U.S. women have won medals in eight World Championships and continue to be a power in the world arena. In 1994, U.S. lifter Robin Goad was the World Champion in the 50kg class 

Women's weightlifting participated for the first time in the Olympics Games in Sydney, Australia. Tara Nott, a U.S. lifter in the 48kg class, was the first woman to earn a gold medal in women's weightlifting in the Olympics and the first U.S. lifter to earn a gold medal in weightlifting in 40 years. Cheryl Haworth, 75+kg earned a bronze medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

In 2001, the U.S. Junior Women won the team championship at the Junior Worlds, including three gold medals from Cheryl Haworth. In the 2002 Junior World Championships, Cheryl repeated her performance and again captured three gold medals as a member of the U.S. Junior Women's team.  

For information on the International History of Weightlifting visit:


The Rise of the U.S. to World Weightlifting Dominance by Arthur Dreschler 

At the dawn of the 20th century, the center of world weightlifting was clearly in Europe. Competitions had already been under way for a number of years, and the level of performance was steadily improving. In the Western hemisphere, there were some outstanding strongmen, like Louis Cyr and Warren Lincoln Travis, but weightlifting competitions were an oddity. 

During the 1920s, through the efforts of men such as George Jowett, Alan Calvert, Ottley Coulter, Bernard Bernard and David Willoughby, US weightlifting struggled to become an organized sport. Bernard and Jowett collaborated to create the foundation for the "American Continental Weight-Lifters Association", when Bernard set forth guidelines for the organization in the July 1922 issue of the "Health and Life" magazine, which Bernard edited. Those guidelines covered 49 recognized lifts, how referees would be qualified and how titles would be awarded. Bernard was to be president and treasurer of the organization, with Jowett and secretary and Arthur Gay the vice president. 


The 1946 US Team: rear row, left to right, Stanczyk, Spellman and Terpak, front row, Ishikawa, Hoffman and Kay (Davis was not present for the photo).

While Jowett and his associates were excited about their new organization, the leading physical culture publications of the day, "Strength" and "Physical Culture", were not signed on to the ACWLA. Before very long, there was a falling out between Jowett and Bernard, with the latter withdrawing from the organization (which had accomplished little thus far) and Coulter assuming his role. But Jowett and Coulter accomplished little, while Willoughby, a local ACWLA leader in Los Angeles, succeeded in establishing an affiliation with the local offices of the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU) and was conducting regular competitions and establishing records under BAWLA rules (the British Weightlifting Association). 

In April of 1924, Willoughby staged a "National" weightlifting championship, which was also supposed to serve as a basis for selecting an Olympic Team to represent the US at the upcoming Paris Olympic Games (no team was ever sent to Paris). In the meantime, Jowett joined the staff of Calvert's Strength magazine and began, with Calvert, to push the ACWLA. The ACWLA was also reorganized, with Jowett as president, Coulter and Willoughby as vice presidents, and an advisory board that included Charles Atlas, Bernard, Calvert, Earle Leiderman, Charles MacMahon, Bernarr Macfadden and Henry Titus (many of the major players in the Iron Game at that time). Jowett was to be the editor of Strength magazine from 1924-1927 and that position, along with his energy in it, made him the most powerful voice for the organization of weightlifting in the US at that time. He staged a number of competitions and the first ACWLA governance meeting (in late 1924). At that meeting, issues such as the lifts to be contested were agreed to. 

Soon after that, Jowett received moral support from the legendary Warren Lincoln Travis and strength stars John Y. Smith (the New England strongman) and Karl Moerke, one of Europe's greatest lifters of that era, both participated in ACWLA events. But in the same year, Calvert had a change of heart and began to criticize Jowett and the ACWLA. When Jowett tried to move things forward with a national championship, it was rained out. 

Jowett was dismissed from Strength magazine in 1927 and the ACWLA effectively collapsed. D.G. Redmond, the new publisher of Strength, and Mark Berry, cultivated a relationship with the AAU. They published a statement from the AAU in the December 1927 issue of the magazine that denied any relationship between Jowett and the AAU and subsequent issues of the magazine attacked Jowett's character and athletic accomplishments. 

In the meantime, Mark Berry created the Association of Bar Bell Men (ABBM), which, though a relative failure as an organization, did establish a link (through Dietrich Wortmann), to the AAU. That organization would become the permanent home of weightlifting during its crucial years of development into an established sport in the US. Berry had organized an ABBM nationals via mail results. A relative unknown, Bob Hoffman, won the heavyweight division (with little or no competition) in 1927. Concurrently, Jowett was making separate inroads into the AAU and had his own plans to control weightlifting within that powerful organization. 

While Jowett and Berry jousted for influence with the AAU, Dietrich Wortmann, who had wrestled in the 1904 Olympics and headed up the German-American Athletic Club in NYC, trumped the feuding pair by proposing weightlifting rules that conformed to the international rules to the AAU. 

The AAU accepted Wortmann's proposal and he subsequently became chairman of the Metropolitan NY AAU weightlifting committee and ultimately its national chairman. The AAU recognized National champions in weightlifting in 1928, via the compilation of results received in the mail. But in 1929 Wortmann organized the first true National championships in, NYC, on May 3-4. The meet was a major success and even Berry announced (in Strength magazine) that the event constituted "the greatest carnival of weight lifting in the history of the game, in America". The Cooper and German American clubs of NYC dominated the competition, but the Arcade club of Hagerstown, MD and the Deutsche Eiche club of Hoboken NJ were prominent as well. In addditon, Arnie Sundberg travelled all the way from Portland, OR to win his bodyweight category, giving the competition a true national flavor. 

Berry apparently realized that the AAU was to become the true leader of the sport. He cancelled the ABBM nationals of 1929 and by 1930 was singing the AAU's praises in Strength magazine, and voicing support for the 1930 AAU Nationals to be held it NYC, on Randall's Island. The following year the nationals were held in Philadelphia and Bob Hoffman managed to secure 3rd place in the heavyweight division, representing the York Oil Burner Athletic Club. More importantly for the future of US weightlifting, Hoffman was becoming more active as a major competition promoter and beginning to build a team to challenge the European émigré dominated teams of NYC. 

Hoffman had become interested in the use of weight training for sports training and the development of champion weightlifters during the 1920s. He had used weight training to build his own body into a muscular and powerful one and he was convinced of the incredible value of the progressive resistance exercise. He deeply admired weightlifters, believed them to be the most amazing athletes in the world and he wanted to become more involved in their world. One way that the saw to do that was to manufacture barbells.  

Hoffman had partnered with a plumber named Ed Kraber to establish and build the York Oil Burner Company, which had great success on the basis of two things. The first was Kraber's invention of one of the first automatic oil burners and the second was Hoffman's phenomenal ability as a salesman. In 1929, Hoffman and Kraber purchased a building at 51 N. Broad Street in York, PA. That building was to become the home of both the oil burner and the barbell manufacturing companies that Bob was to build. Bob had great financial success during the early Depression years. By 1931, with funds generated by the success of the oil burner company, Hoffman had the financial wherewithal to move forward into that field he loved, building barbells and a team to lift them.  

Things started very slowly, with Bob gathering of few accomplished and fledgling weightlifters around him to form the core of his team. He offered these young men jobs with his Oil Burner Company, along with the opportunity to train with each other. During the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce, the opportunity to have a steady job and train with fellows who shared your love of a sport was to prove irresistible to a number of young men. It should be noted that this was not a violation of the amateur rules of the day, because the jobs Hoffman offered did not pay lifters to lift, but rather to make oil burners and barbells. His strategy worked and many of the best lifters in the country did join the York team. 

Although not one York Oil Burner club member won a national championship from 1928 through 1930, York Oil Burner athletes won four out of the eight available gold medals at the 1932 Nationals, along with their first National team championship. Most of these athletes were athletes local to the area who signed up with the York, and many of them worked for the York Oil Burner Co.

While no other team truly challenged the York team after that, during the mid-1930s, York sometimes won less than half the available gold medals at the Nationals, twice winning five medals (in 1933 and1935) and once winning only two (1938). But in 1939 Hoffman's team won five gold medals (out of a possible eight) once again, this time lifting under the York Barbell Club banner (vs. Oil Burner) for the first time. In 1940, York swept all six bodyweight categories at the Nationals (the rules had reduced the number of bodyweight categories that year to - in pounds - 123, 132, 148, 165, 181 and Heavyweight, the rest of the world was using five bodyweight categories, with the 123 lb. category omitted). With the exception of the 1952 Nationals, where a number of York lifters wilted in the extreme heat and failed to total, or performed poorly, the York team was to dominate the US Nationals until the1970's.  

By the early 1930s, Hoffman had formulated and begun to implement a plan to make lifting weights a national pastime, and the US the strongest nation in the world (at least as demonstrated by the sport of weightlifting).

Bob had seen the US fail to even send a weightlifting team to the 1928 Olympic Games because the US Olympic Committee felt a US team would not be competitive (they were probably right).

With the help of Mark Berry's fundraising, and that of others, a team was fielded in 1932, for the Olympic Games the US would host in Los Angeles. And Hoffman would serve that team as the assistant trainer (Wortmann was the manager, Berry the coach and Emmett Faris the trainer). But even with the US as the host nation, in an era when travel was a significant challenge that made participation in the US an insurmountable barrier for many athletes around the world, the US could still only manage to win two medals (out of 15 available) in the sport of weightlifting. The US team manage to secure 3rd place team score, well behind the leaders, France and Germany.

Hoffman was determined to make the US a world power in weightlifting, and weight training an activity practiced nationwide, if not worldwide, when he began to divert his attention from his highly successful York Oil Burner Co. toward developing the York Barbell Co. Perhaps the biggest step toward the realization of his dream came in December of 1932, when Hoffman published the first issue of what was to become the fabled "Strength & Health" magazine (S&H).

Barbells and dumbbells manufactured by the York Barbell Company (and others) were the tools competitive weightlifters and ordinary people were to use build seemingly super human strength and outstanding muscular development. But Bob realized that he needed a public voice to promote the activity he loved. S&H magazine was to be the vehicle Bob was to use to create the sub-culture that was to support the grueling task of building the US weightlifting team from what was essentially a "pick up" team to the most dominant team in the history of the sport. 

Following the Games, Hoffman was criticized by many of his peers for trying to overly influence the sport and his attempt to secure a place on the AAU national committee in 1932 was unsuccessful. That setback was apparently one of the factors that motivated Hoffman to begin publishing S&H magazine in December of the same year. A down and out Jowett was happy to accept Hoffman's offer to partner with him in publishing the magazine. Together, Jowett and Hoffman resolved to revive the ACWLA as an AAU competitor and create the fraternal American Strength & Health League. 

Berry and Wortmann, in the meantime, foreseeing potential power of Hoffman's magazine, and the revival of the ACWLA as an attempt to take over the sport, had the ACWLA declared an outlaw organization by the AAU. But by the annual meeting of the AAU late in 1933, an agreement had been reached to resolve the differences between the organizations by having the ACWLA become a fraternal organization and permitting Hoffman to assume a leadership role within the AAU.

At about the same time, Jowett and Hoffman parted ways. By early 1934, Jowett's name had disappeared from S&H magazine and by year end he resigned as head of the ACWLA. Shortly thereafter, Hoffman let the ACWLA and S&H League die off. A year later, the Milo Barbell Company went bankrupt and Strength magazine ceased publication. Hoffman soon acquired the rights to both and his power grew to its highest level yet. Although that power was not sufficient to secure him the position he desired as coach of the US team at the Berlin Olympics, his dominant position in weightlifting in the US was clearly emerging and it was a position he was to hold for the next 40 years.

It is clear that Hoffman's efforts weren't limited to putting together a team that could win in the US. He was slowly helping to build the quality of lifting across the US. S&H magazine of course praised the York lifters, to the point of building the reputations heroic proportions for men like Tony Terlazzo, John Davis, John Grimek and Steve Stanko. These men and others from York, with the steady publicity provided by the magazine, become true heroes and Iron Game celebrities. But Hoffman's brilliant writing helped to create heroes of many other lifters as well, whether from around the US or from other countries around the world. The magazine continually highlighted the superior lifting and athletic performances of Bob's beloved weightlifters, and the unique value of weight training, especially weightlifting.

The magazine was filled with instruction that enabled readers to improve their strength, their muscular development and their general health. And there were plenty of features that were of help to fledging weightlifters, from articles on technique and how to train, to biographies of the champs and explanations of how they trained to become the great lifters they were. 

Perhaps most inspiring of all were the accounts of competitions. The results of local competitions throughout the US were always prominently reported in summary (tabular) fashion in S&H, but what made the magazine really special were the first hand reports Hoffman provided of the major national and invitational events.

When you read a Hoffman report of an event you felt as though you were really there. He would describe a lifter's heroic struggle to better the barbell in infinite detail. He'd describe the competition as it unfolded (lighter lifts first then building to the climax of the heaviest lifts and most accomplished competitors). He would summarize the progress of the competition with something like "After the press and snatch, the broad shouldered Smith was in the lead by 10 lbs, Henderson was second, but he was a stronger man in the C&J. And Jackson was only 5 lbs and behind Henderson, and he was stronger than Smith and Henderson in the C&J, largely due to the strength of his enormous legs". As you would read his reports you could almost see and hear the competition taking place.  

Bob would often describe the physical appearance of each lifter, provide some personal background, some prediction regarding that athlete's future success, and/or some friendly advice that was both encouraging and instructive (e.g., if Jones can improve his pressing technique he will be a real contender in this bodyweight category). And apart from the focus on competitions, Bob always had the inside story on who was coming up, who was injured, what the competition looked like, etc. etc. 

Athletes would be on the edge of their seats reading Hoffman's reports on one hand, and imagining themselves as subjects of such future reports on the other hand. Countless lifters dreamed of the day when Hoffman would be writing about them. And this prospect provided no small motivation for them to strive for the highest levels of performance.

By the late 1930s, there was an entire cast of characters who were familiar to S&H readers and those readers were always anxious to receive the magazine and learn about what their lifting heroes and others active in the game, had been doing since the last issue of the magazine.

And in every issue of the magazine, there were pictures of strongmen (and women) with great physiques and extraordinary strength that had truly been developed though the use of barbells and related equipment. There were also pictures of those who were not as accomplished, but who had nonetheless transformed themselves through the use of progressive resistance training.

Meanwhile, the York Barbell team had become the strongest team in America, and US weightlifters, in general, were becoming authentic contenders on the international scene as well. The1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was a much more competitive Games than the 1932 version held in Los Angeles. Yet a US lifter, Tony Terlazzo, won the first US gold medal since the 1904 Games in St. Louis (where the US had the majority of competitors). In addition, all of the rest of the US team's members were legitimate competitors.

In 1937, the first World Championship since 1923 was held. Tony Terlazzo won agold medal for the US, this time in the 67.5 Kg bodyweight category (his win at the 1936 Olympic Games had been in the 60 Kg. category). And John Terpak joined Tony on the winner's stand, with a victory in the 75 Kg. category.

In 1938, the US had its strongest performance ever, establishing the US team and as force to be dealt with in future years. Terlazzo won again at 67.5 Kg., Terpak took third place in the 75 Kg. category and Stanko was a very credible second in the heavyweight division.

However, it was the "unknown" John Davis who really shocked the world, with his world records and dominating performance in the 82.5 Kg (181 lb.) bodyweight category, at the tender age of 17. No one had ever seen an athlete so young perform at such as level. The Europeans and Egyptians (the world leaders up until that time) realized a formidable new team was knocking on the door of leadership at major international competitions.

But just when it seemed that the US might actually win a world team title, a man named Adolph Hitler put an end to Hoffman's dreams and those of millions around the world, when he began to roll over most of Europe with his army. Because of the War Hitler had created, weightlifting would not see a world championship for 8 years after the championship of 1938, in Vienna. By that time, many millions had suffered, including young weightlifters around the world.

Tensions were high in the US regarding the then "war in Europe", but US weightlifting performances continued to improve. By the 1941 Nationals, the winning totals exceeded what had won the World's in 1938 in three out of five bodyweight categories (and essentially equaled the totals in the other two categories). But by the 1942 Nationals, with many of the US's best lifters in the military, performances declined significantly overall. They were not to recover until after the war was over. Nevertheless, annual National championships were conducted in weightlifting throughout the war years. 

The "inconvenient" interruption in weightlifting progress in the US caused by WW II might have sidetracked many men from even thinking much about the sport during the war years, not Bob Hoffman. He continued to advocate for weightlifting during these years, arguing that training with weights was actually part of proper national defense. He published articles on training in the military and continued to report of local and national weightlifting and bodybuilding events.

He emerged from the war more determined than ever to realize his dream of having the most dominant team in the weightlifting world. As soon as the war was over, he was doing what he could to prepare a US team for what he hoped would be the quick resumption of the world championships. His hopes were soon realized.

To the credit of the officials of international weightlifting, a world championship was organized the year after WW II came to a close. Paris was selected as the host of the first post-war world championship, in 1946. That seemed fitting, since France was one of the nations that had suffered most severely during the war yet was also a world power in the sport (though much more so before the war than after).

When plans for the championship were finalized, there were only weeks to go before it was to begin. Most prospective US team members had been able to do only limited training after returning from their service, but that was a handicap shared with most of the lifters with whom they competed. And many argued things were even worse in Europe, where much of the war had actually been fought.  

The US Team consisted of 6 athletes: Emerick Ishikawa, Stan Stanczyk, John Terpak, Frank Spellman, Frank Kay and John Davis. Ishikawa was to compete and 132 lb. The US had three 165 lb. lifters on their team: Stan Stanczyk, John Terpak and Frank Spellman. Only two lifters from a given country could enter a single bodyweight category at the championship, so Stancyzk was asked to reduce to the 148 lb. category. He had to lose 17 lb. to do it (13 in the last week before the competition) and many thought he either would not make it, or would be so weak as a result of the bodyweight loss that he would perform poorly.  Frank Kay was to compete in the 181 lb. category and Davis in the heavyweight division.

The US Team that traveled to Paris via a series planes, first from LaGuardia airport to Newfoundland, then to Ireland and finally on to Paris. The team had the pleasure of staying in a hotel which was run by Leon See, the former manager of world heavyweight boxing champion, Primo Carnera. See did everything possible to help the US team. 

Training quarters were provided locally, with each team having scheduled training hours. Our men, and most of the others, had limited time to recover from their trip, but the US team had travelled further than most of the other teams. Hoffman was worried about the condition of his athletes, particularly Spellman, who fell ill on the trip and weighed only 156 lb. on the day of his competition.

The victorious US team waiting to return home (left to right): Davis, Ishikawa, Spellman, Terpak, Stanczyk and Hoffman. The team had been stranded in Europe for six weeks during a transportation strike and had to return by ship.

 Frank Spellman, the last surviving member of the US team that competed in Paris, graciously consented to be interviewed during the preparation of this article and many of the insights he provided have generated information for the article (I want to thank him for his cooperation). Frank told me a humorous story about the US team members. It seems that most of them were chewing gum while in Paris. A number of the US team's competitors, particularly the Russians, became convinced that the gum was the "secret" of the strength of the US team and they were delighted when our lifters offered them some of this magic substance. The USSR heavyweight, Kutsenko, claimed an entire package for himself once each of his team mates had gotten a stick. Unfortunately for him, as we will report later, the gum did not enable him to catch John Davis! 

Emerick Ishiskawa led off for the American team. And while he lifted reasonably well under the conditions, the competition from the rest of the world was stronger than anticipated and he ended in 5th position, scoring no points for the US team (under the rules of the day, only those who placed in the top three scored team points).

Frank Spellman holds the barbell overhead at the end of his second attempt C&J with 319 lb.

In the meantime, lifters from the countries who were expected to offer our strongest competition, Egypt and the USSR (who had entered the world championships for the first time as a team), did score points. Mahmoud Fayad, of Egypt, placed second, and Moysei Kasjannik, of the USSR, placed 3rd. The winner, a terrific young lifter from Sweden, Arvid Anderson, broke a number of World Records.

While the first day of competition had been something of a disappointment for the Americans, day two provided an absolute shock for the Europeans, who thought they might be home free, when the 1938 defending 67.5 Kg. champion and still world recordholder from the US, Tony Terlazzo did not appear. Relative unknown, Stan Stancyzk, was successful with his massive bodyweight loss and he proceeded to smash Terlazzo's world total record by 22 lb. and defeated his nearest European rival, Sivlnevko, by a phenomenal 44 lb. However, the USSR lifter did earn valuable team points for second place and his team mate Popov earned additional points for placing 3rd.

The legerdary Khadr el Touni, of Egypt, was expected to run away with the 165 lb. division, but he was not in as good a shape as was expected. In contrast, the Americans lifted better than expected and ended up giving Touni a run for his money. Terpak finished second to Touni by 6 lb. Spellman cleaned the weight he needed to defeat Terpak, and move into second place, but he became lightheaded after his clean and was unable to complete the jerk. However, both Terpak and Spellman had earned critical team points for the US.


The line up for the middleweight (75 kg.) bodyweight category at the 1946 World's. Frank Spellman is 3rd from the left, John Terpak is 4th and Khadr elTouni, the eventual winner, is 6th from the left.

Next up for the US team was Frank Kay. A butcher by trade, Kay normally weighed about 190 lb., so had to reduce considerably to make the 181 lb. bodyweight class. He normally did so successfully, and that was the case on this occasion, but the result was some loss of strength, which was always a worry. In addition, Frank was not in his best ever shape, so it appeared that he had his work cut out for him as the competition is his bodyweight category began.

Here there was no suspense about the winner. Grigori Novak of the USSR was untouchable at the time. He could out press his opponents by a wide margin, was generally better in the snatch and could C&J with the best of them, so he was considered to be a sure winner and he did not disappoint.

Both Kay and Henri Ferrari, France's only star in that championship, totaled 390 kg., which exceeded what the great John Davis had lifted in 1938 in that bodyweight category. Kay was the lighter man so placed second. But Novak totaled 425 kg., after pressing 140 kg.(to 120 for Kay and 110 for Ferrara) and became the sensation of the entire competition. At the close of the 181 lb. category, the outcome of the team competition was still in doubt.   

But the US still had its "ace in the hole" John Davis. Davis had a long term of service during WWII and contracted malaria while overseas. When he came back from the War, he was much weaker than he had been before he left (he'd totaled 1005 lb./456 kg. in 1941) but it was believed that he could still do enough to win, and win he did, with a total of 435 kg.. Jakov Kutsenko of the USSR was second and Ahmed Geissa of Egypt was third. John's victory, which included the first 300+ pound snatch ever done in official international competition (recognized as a world record), put the US team over the top. After many long years in pursuit of the Europeans and others, the US was finally the top team in the world, a position it would essentially maintain until the late 1950s. Hoffman's dream had become a reality!

Arthur Dreschler is the author of The Weightlifting Encyclopedia: A Guide to World Class Performance.