Strengthlifting maintains a stronghold in the U.S.

A photo of a strengthlifter doing a lift during a United States Strengthlifting Federation competition.
After switching to mostly virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Strengthlifting Federation is returning to in-person events.

When thinking about strengthlifting, names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Frank Zane probably come to mind.

Believe it or not, but the sport wasn’t developed in the gym with these athletes—weightlifting actually dates back centuries. It was officially introduced as an Olympic sport in the 1896 Games in Athens, Greece, and while it occasionally disappeared from the Olympic Games’ rotation, it was fully admitted again in the 1920 Games, remaining a mainstay ever since. U.S. athlete Bob Hoffman (eventual founder of the York Barbell Company) won 27 Olympic medals and more than 40 World Weightlifting Championships medals between 1948 and 1960, which drew incredible interest to the sport throughout the country.

Though strengthlifting is not the sport today that it was in terms of popularity during the heyday of Hoffman, Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, or Zane,
the sport is still alive and well in the United States. In fact, weightlifting comes in second to only walking as the most popular form of exercise in the country.

A sport of many disciplines

It’s important to note there are subsets of the sport. Olympic weightlifting, the pinnacle of the sport, includes two different lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Powerlifting, which is more focused on lifting the heaviest weight possible, is a separate technique that includes three moves: the deadlift, the bench press, and the squat. Strengthlifting focuses specifically on the press and conventional deadlift.

All of these disciplines have their own health and fitness benefits, and they are maintaining strong participation numbers, thanks in part to organizations such as the United States Strengthlifting Federation (USSF). The first and only lifting federation that is primarily online, USSF focuses on both powerlifting and strengthlifting, with multiple divisions for athletes of almost any age. The junior division includes the ages 14 through 19, the adult division includes the ages 20 through 40, and the masters division includes anyone age 41 and above.

Athletes can join the organization through its website, and then they are given a profile where all their best lifts, achievements, and trophies are tracked since most events are hosted online.

USSF first began hosting online competitions during the pandemic when gyms shut down. “We lost all of our in-person meets, which also meant we saw a sharp drop off in participation,” explains Jordan Stanton, USSF president. “To keep people interested, we started virtual competitions. It has been slow to reestablish, but we’re slowly building back our roster.”

This year, USSF reintroduced in-person competitions, though it has kept the online events going as well. Each year, the organization runs two strengthlifting meets and two powerlifting meets virtually, as well as one combined virtual event and one in-person championship. Each event includes a champion from each division.

The Strongman Corporation, which hosts more than 150 events per year, has seen an explosion in the number of its woman competitors. 

“With powerlifting or strengthlifting, it’s really a sport that’s individual—it’s a person versus themselves,” Stanton says. “All you really need is a good judging standard, which we have, and a method to judge, which we also have. We created a video system that allows us to evaluate a lift and whether it’s to the standard or not. It’s so much easier for athletes to compete from their home gym, and it’s less expensive. We feel that offering the virtual events will help the sport continue to grow.”

In each virtual event, athletes typically have a one- to two-week window in which they can submit their attempts—they get three attempts for each move—before judging commences. “After 24 hours or so, we release the winners and send out prizes via email or mail and post some of the best lifts on our social media channels,” Stanton said.

While most of the USSF’s participants are males between the ages of 20 to 40, the organization is seeing an increase in participants in the junior division. “Athletes in the junior division are often in many other types of sports, and a lot of them do lift, but they do it for the benefit of their other sports, so weightlifting is a secondary sport for them,” Stanton says. “We are seeing it become increasingly popular as a sport with youth.”

A ‘strong’ organization

Also helping to bring awareness and interest within the sport is the Strongman Corporation, which focuses on amateur and professional strength sports competitions. The organization got its start in 1997 and hosts more than 150 events each year, including the Strongman Corporation National Championship, which draws upwards of 250 athletes each year. The championship features seven disciplines, which change every year.

“It’s a very fun competitive event,” says Dione Masters, Strongman Corporation CEO. “With Strongman, there are at least 200 variations of events that athletes can compete in, so the actual disciplines they compete in change pretty much every time.”

What has also changed with the Strongman Corporation is the total number of participants and the percentage of men and women. When Masters took over the organization in the early 2000s, there were approximately 150 total participants, and maybe five of them were female. Today, Strongman Corporation has 20,000 athletes in 26 different countries with approximately 40 percent of them women.

“It’s a sport that’s social, which makes it a big draw,” Masters says. “We get a lot of women that compete simply because they don’t want to just go to the gym and lift weights. They are bored with that. They’d rather be interactive. It’s a great sport because it gets you moving while also providing a social aspect.”

However, the physical upside of the sport goes even further, Stanton adds. Lifting in any capacity comes with a variety of health benefits, including increased muscle mass and bone density. “Adding the competitive level to strength training only increases an athlete’s focus on the end goal,” he says. “It provides a structure to training and a goal to shoot for. And as we know, when we have a goal to shoot for, our compliance increases, we push ourselves harder, and strive to be better every time. These are benefits that as they become more known, will only continue to draw more participants into the sport.”