Overhead Strength

When we look at other aesthetic developments in sports and strength training, it raises the question of whether movements that we use to get strong come from a human bias toward certain kinds of strength. Specifically, the history of lifting for strength tends to favor the overhead press as a desirable feat and, in turn, a useful lift for the development of full-body strength.

Why We Press Things Overhead

Concepts of musical consonance and dissonance have given rise to the question of what draws the human ear to pleasing sounds. Consonance refers to complementary sounds, certain mathematical intervals in music (perfect intervals and major and minor thirds and sixths) that produce harmonious sounds that tend to soothe and please the listener. Dissonant combinations of notes tend to create jarring, atonal music. Some studies have shown that infants will prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones, suggesting a hardwiring to the general preference for consonance. Other studies have ventured into the Amazon jungle and found isolated cultures—with no experience of western music—that have no preference for one type of sound over the other. Whether learned or hardwired, however, enough preference exists among those who experience and study music to give rise to the consonance/dissonance distinction. When you consider sound in its most basic form—a vibration that creates a wave thorough a liquid, gas, or air, whose only significance comes in its perception—the distinction seems strikingly non-arbitrary.

(Similar concepts of consonance exist in lyrics and poetry as well, where repeated consonant sounds (consonance) or vowel sounds (assonance) create a series that tends to stick in your head: “I know the action in the street is excitin’ But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ‘n writin’” (from http://graphics.wsj.com/hamilton/) The colors represent repeating consonant or vowel sounds in a line from Hamilton.)

We seem to have ingrained preferences for each of our classical senses, which we extrapolate to the world around us. We see and appreciate color and balanced movement; we hear music and lyrics that create pleasing patterns; we prefer delicious foods, feels, and other sensations. Each experience raises an interesting question: do we like what we like because it is beneficial in some way to the human experience? Or do we like what we like simply because we like it and people around us seem to like it too?

When we look at other aesthetic developments in sports and strength training, it raises the question of whether movements that we use to get strong come from a human bias toward certain kinds of strength. Specifically, the history of lifting for strength tends to favor the overhead press as a desirable feat and, in turn, a useful lift for the development of full-body strength.

Where Do Sports Come From?

Sports are ancient survival skills adapted for distraction and entertainment, eventually set to rules, venues, arenas, fields, and (sometimes) music. The concept of sports for entertainment comes from cultural necessities like hunting and fishing, harvesting, combat, and the needs of war-making. People used to make games out of these skills as a means to practice or test community members’ preparedness. Modern sports are the evolution of those games in the absence of imminent threats and with the injection of leisure into modern societies, people playing at warfare, in style.

One of the survival skills has always been the feat of strength, perhaps because—like music—strength is both aesthetically pleasing and satisfying to the culture.

When strength feats transitioned to stage performances, before becoming organize sports themselves, performers further homed in on what types of feats the audiences preferred. And, in these performances, overhead pressing, supporting, and carrying strength were by far the most popular acts. Performers would travel and challenge audience members (or sometimes other noted strength performers) to lift dumbbells from the floor to overhead or to compete in the bent press.

Eventually, these challenges started to look like sports competitions. They were popular enough that weightlifting was one of the ten sports in the first modern Olympic games, Greece 1896.

Considered more of an extension of track and field, the weightlifting event was held outdoors, had no weight classes, and was performed without much in the way of standardization except in that the athletes were lifting the same equipment as each other:

The sport’s two events took place in a sand-covered circle in the middle of the athletics field, and that odd-looking space was soon the venue for the first genuine controversy of the Games. This featured an English athlete and an English judge, but, argumentative though both these men were, the root cause was that weightlifting was in its competitive infancy (the first world championships were still two years away), and therefore rules varied from country to country, and, in some countries, from person to person. (Randall 2011)

Weightlifting in this first Olympics consistent of two events: the two-handed lift and the one-handed lift. The one-handed lift was similar to the modern snatch but with a dumbbell instead of a barbell. The two-handed lift would be most similar to the modern clean and jerk without the specific rules as to “how” the bar should end up in the overhead position. A barbell was loaded and lifted by each contestant; then, the weight increased until no lifters could continue. Two lifters tied in this event, leading to a tie-breaker: Prince George of Greece and Denmark awarded style points to one lifter, making him the winner. He was, of course, a Dane.

Weightlifting in this semi-organized form was an Olympic event again in 1904, 1920, and 1924. Events varied somewhat during that time:

Every bar bell enthusiast who entertains any great deal of interest is knowing his game thoroughly should have at least a working knowledge of the group of lifts known as the Five International Lifts. This particular group of lifts has been recognized for some time for championship competitions by the principal lifting countries of the world…. [I]n the last Olympic Games only the three two-handed lifts were contested on, while in the Olympic Games of 1924 the entire group of five lists was used. (Berry 1930)

Mark Berry, who would be the head coach for the 1932 and 1936 American Weightlifting teams, wrote about the “Five International Lifts” as the standard for the first organized international strength sport.

The One-Hand Snatch

In this lift, athletes would “toss” a weight from the floor to arm’s length overhead in one quick and continuous movement. At first, lifters would swing the dumbbell up, almost like a kettlebell. As the sport advanced—and “recognizing the possibilities of raising the record standards”—lifters learned how to lower their body under the weight, using speed and the ability to support the dumbbell with a straight arm rather than raw strength.

The One-Hand Clean and Jerk

Again using a dumbbell, lifters would clean the weight to their shoulder, using a supinated grip, “the palm of the hand faces to the front and the knuckles are down.” The lifter would then use a powerful hip extension followed by a bending of the knees to drop his body under the weight and catch it in the rack position.

For the one-handed jerk, novices would try and “jump” the bell up and toss it to arm’s length. More experienced lifters would rest their elbow on their hip for support with the same-side leg slightly forward, knee straight. The lifter would then use a sudden dip and drive movement with both legs, throwing the arm upwards off the body with the momentum of the jump. According to Berry, “A good, springy pair of legs will prove valuable to the man who wants to get down under a weight of respectable poundage.”

In 1928, these one-handed lifts were dropped for good from the Olympic scene, leaving the sport with just three events: the snatch (formerly the “two-hands snatch”), the clean and press (sometimes called the “two-hands military press,” in which the American and International styles different substantially), and the clean and jerk (“two-hands clean and jerk”). In 1932, the rule sets and weight classes became standardized, leaving us with an international sport that blends the most traditionally impressive feat of strength (the overhead event) with the aesthetics of an incredibly powerful, fast, coordinated movement.

The roots of the sport are the roots of the strength performer, old-country feats that reflect the necessity of strength for survival. People have always been fascinated with overhead strength, being drawn to it, like consonance in music, for its aesthetic appeal and the satisfaction of hoisting heavy objects overhead. Later this week, we will examine some of the anatomy of the overhead press and discuss how this might be the most functional of the big four barbell lifts. Stay tuned.

References

Mark H. Berry, “Physical Training Simplified,” O’Faolain Patriot 2011 (originally published in 1930)

David Randall, “1896: The First Modern Olympics,” (2011)

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