THE EVOLUTION OF THE SCIENCE OF RESISTANCE TRAINING: The Early Pioneers of Progress : ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal

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The Early Pioneers of Progress

Kraemer, William J. Ph.D., FACSM

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doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000241
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The evolution of the science of resistance training has been influenced by the anecdotal insights of individuals involved with the various sports using resistance training (e.g., Olympic weightlifting), commercial product development, and the progressive advances in the technological and analytical capabilities available in exercise science laboratories around the world. Scientists who studied strength training were therefore interested from different perspectives resulting in a continuum from basic to more applied research studies. The early evolution of the science of resistance training started at the more applied aspects of understanding how programs affected end point outcomes in patients and individuals interested in strength fitness. Through time, the search for greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms of adaptation pushed the study of resistance training into the hands of many different laboratories because of its prolific adaptive characteristics. The early evolution of the science of resistance training in the United States offers some subtle insights into its worldwide impact for the field of resistance training research. Therefore, the purpose of this brief review is to provide a narrow perspective on part of the history that shaped the science in the field of resistance training. For an extensive view of resistance training history and physical culture, I direct your attention to the University of Texas and the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport, directed by Drs. Janice and Terry Todd (Figure 1).

Figure 1:
Drs. Terry and Janice Todd, codirectors of The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports and professors in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, the world's best resource for the study of resistance training history and physical culture.


At the core of resistance training was the fascination with skeletal muscle in both its morphology and function, most notably, strength. Isolated studies on these aspects were observed from the late 1800s through the 1930s. Work by the Nobel Laureate, English physiologist Archibald Vivian (A.V.) Hill developed the fundamental principles in biophysics that would be used by other investigators interested in the study of muscle mechanics and function needed for applications of resistance training to various populations for the development of strength (7–9). During the 1950s, the study of muscle function was just starting to provide an understanding of how skeletal muscle contracts. Research in the laboratories of Huxley and Niedergerke (10,11) from the University of Cambridge in England and Huxley and Hanson (12) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States were both defining the concept ultimately called the Sliding Filament Theory. Thus, the context for the early study of resistance training was devoid of any real molecular insights on how skeletal muscle functioned to produce force.


One notable investigator who pushed the modality into the mainstream was Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme. In an eloquent and extensive historical perspective of this man, Todd et al. (16) from the University of Texas’ Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport delved into the many permutations of a man who clearly impacted the field of resistance training as much as anyone historically (Figure 2). Thomas DeLorme was a newly minted first lieutenant and physician in the U.S. Army who, in 1944, on facing the multitude of wounded soldiers in the orthopedic department at Gardiner General Army Hospital in Chicago, was inspired to do more to help them in their rehabilitation programs. This inspiration arose from his own passionate use of resistance training and weightlifting in his own life. He knew from his own experiences, including recovery from rheumatic fever, that improvements in strength and muscle size could be derived from lifting weights. However, to convince the medical world at the time of its efficacy would require a major paradigm shift in the value of resistance training and its therapeutic use in medical applications (4).

Figure 2:
Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme was an avid weightlifter who trained with progressive heavy resistance himself. Here, he is lifting a very heavy load in the dead lift on a short bar in his younger days.

Ultimately, he convinced both the medical and lay communities that improvement in strength may be the key factor involved in the successful recovery from injury or surgical interventions. However, different from his own training regimes using heavy weights, he realized that a more conservative starting approach to program design had to be taken with the patient populations he worked with. To achieve his clinical goals for his patients, he went so far as to make the rehabilitation unit of the hospital look like a weight room of the time with all types of equipment to overload the various muscles of the body (4). Through time, success in his medical research with improved and more rapid clinical outcomes in his patients using his programs the medical and public views of resistance training started to change (5). Again, adapting to the lower function of his patents starting a program, the core of his rehabilitation program was based on a 10 repetition maximum (RM) rather than a 1 RM resistance. In essence, he used multiple sets at various percentages (e.g., 50% of 10 RM, 66% of 10 RM, and 10% of 10 RM) to stimulate strength gains in his patients. Thus, the concept of an RM higher than a 1 RM was entered into the resistance training vernacular, meaning a resistance that would allow only x number of repetitions.

The term progressive resistance training also became an accepted concept and was the term first coined by DeLorme, arising from a dinner conversation with his wife who came up with the name for his rehabilitation programs (16). Through time, in the late 1940s and 1950s, his research entered the consciousness of the public because of his status as a respected orthopedic and rehabilitation physician (Figure 3). DeLorme's writings and research with colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, MA, also supported the use of resistance training for both general fitness and sport preparation (6). A lifelong advocate of resistance training and lifter himself, he helped lay the foundation for the scientific basis for resistance training from both the clinical and practical program perspectives.

Figure 3:
Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme was an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and a specialist in rehabilitation medicine and one of the first advocates of progressive resistance training in the medical communities.

Interestingly, his own impressive strength was developed by the rigorous training regimes he performed in his own basement gym with more than 3,000 lbs of weights. As his son Charles recalled, he even challenged the York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman to a one-arm overhead “bent press” contest (16). One must then connect the dots and see that Dr. DeLorme was influenced from his youth onward by the anecdotal evidence and lay publications of the time produced by Bob Hoffman. One of the highest-profile practitioners of the time in the fields of weightlifting and bodybuilding, Bob Hoffman, the founder of York Barbell Company in 1932, promoted resistance training. The York Barbell Company sold barbells, dumbbells, and weight equipment while promoting the use of resistance training in pamphlets, books, and publications. The publication of the magazine Strength and Health and other lay publications produced by the York Barbell Company had an important influence that would resonate through the years in providing a program paradigm for the scientific study of resistance training. Importantly, this became a thread that would run through many practical experiences of the scientists who would go on and study resistance training in their scientific careers. Thus, anecdotal insights were gained from the lifting communities as well as their own involvement in resistance training, which allowed them to see things, as they say, from being “under the bar” as lifters themselves.


Professor Peter Karpovich of Springfield College, in Springfield, MA was one of the icons of his time in the field of physical education and physical fitness. One of the founders of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), also famous for his feuds with Dr. Thomas Cureton, another physical fitness icon during this time at the University of Illinois, Professor Karpovich made Springfield College an epicenter for physical education and would help mold many concepts in physical fitness in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1940, one concept he did not believe in was resistance training. He had noted that the men who promoted lifting were no better than quacks and faddists. But in 1940, a student at Springfield College found this to be inconsistent with what he knew from reading the publications from Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company. He sent a letter to Bob Hoffman asking him to come and present in a formal forum at the college the attributes of weight training. To his surprise, Bob Hoffman came to Springfield College and brought some famous weightlifters and bodybuilders along with him. Myths as to being muscle-bound and inflexible were dismissed roundly as Dr. Karpovich asked each athlete to scratch their back in the middle of their shoulder blades to show how inflexible they were. When the famous bodybuilder of his time John Grimek and famous weightlifter John Davis did so easily, Dr. Karpovich was stunned as the myth dissolved in front of everyone's eyes. Following up with demonstrations of feats of strength and power, the students and Dr. Karpovich also were left speechless. After an extensive set of demonstrations of flexibility, strength, and power by the athletes Bob Hoffman brought to Springfield College that day in 1940, the world saw the conversion of one of the biggest icons and skeptics about resistance training change his mind. Dr. Karpovich went on to do survey and experimental research projects to debunk the myths of the time that resistance training would be unhealthy for the heart, would make you slow, is done by men of lower intelligence, and that weight training was dangerous. In essence, he provided a core scientific validation for the study of resistance training and even more importantly, the use of it for development of physical fitness. Here again, Bob Hoffman's influence played a role in promoting the modality as well as resistance training research.


Examining the paradigm of the number of sets and repetitions was first engrained into the fabric of resistance training studies by another pioneer in the science of strength training, Dr. Richard A. Berger (18) (Figure 4). He had served in the Marine Corps and played football at Michigan State University for a few years and then continued and received his master's degree in 1956. He was an accomplished weightlifter in his own right and placed fourth at the Nationals in 1962. Interestingly, he did his doctoral work at the University of Illinois where Dr. Cureton headed up the laboratory program. His dissertation examined resistance training and was entitled “The Effect of Varied Weight Training Programs,” a research topic that would characterize his work for many years as a faculty member at Texas Tech and Temple University (1). Ironically, in some way, his model of studying resistance training still reflects the designs used in the studies of today where different programs using sets and reps combinations are examined. His research really started to differentiate what combination of sets and reps resulted in the best response with a training program. His seminal research using untrained college students, observed that three sets of six reps lifted at maximal intensity produced the greatest response to short-term training durations (2). This finding has stood as a benchmark for loading in the science of resistance training for decades. His involvement in the American Alliance of Health and Physical Education in leadership roles along with his publications on resistance training programs and their effects on 1RM strength set the stage for the study of resistance training that persists today (18). The research challenges that were evident in the 1960s and 1970s such as short-term time frames for the resistance training intervention (e.g., 6–8 weeks), training levels of subjects, methods of variation of program variables, and how to use realistic whole-body programs in highly motivated subjects or athletes remain today.

Figure 4:
Dr. Richard A. Berger’s career was dedicated to understanding the program design elements of the sets and reps that lead to optimal strength development. An avid weightlifter himself, he was inspired by the benefits that he himself saw.

An avid weight trainer and training theorist who pushed the concepts of resistance training with his books and research was Dr. Patrick O'Shea (17). His 1996 book Quantum Strength Fitness II: Gaining the Winning Edge stands as a must-read for anyone involved in resistance training. Again, a product of the 1950s and a weightlifting enthusiast, he used his position as a faculty member at Oregon State University to promote lifting and its use in athletics and for the general population interested in fitness (14,15). Interestingly, he was one of the first to study the effects of anabolic steroids in men who were performing resistance training programs showing what athletes had known for some time, that heavy resistance training, higher protein intakes, and anabolic steroids improve gains in muscular size and performance to a greater extent than heavy resistance training alone. It was published in the journal SCIENCE in 1969 as the world of sports medicine was just starting to learn about anabolic steroid use by athletes (13). He also turned his attention to the positive effects that weight training could have in women, acting as the strength coach at Oregon State along with his faculty teaching and research responsibilities. He established in his research and practical work in the weight room that the squat was the cornerstone lift for both men and women in a strength training program. The efficacy of weight training for women and especially athletes was later supported in a study by Dr. Jack Wilmore, a future icon in the field of exercise physiology and a past president of ACSM. In his laboratory in 1974, Dr. Wilmore monitored women athletes in their weight training programs at the university and showed that improvement in strength and body composition resulted with real-life progressive heavy resistance training programs as characterized decades before by Dr. DeLorme (3).


As with any field, the 1950s and 1960s leading into the early 1970s were filled with different investigations around the world and within the United States (Figure 4). What was obvious in the early phases of the evolution of resistance training research was the fact that no scientists who were women were principal investigators on this topic. It most undoubtedly was because of the belief that resistance training for women was thought to not be appropriate. Thus, most of the data were derived from men who were college age and relatively untrained (Figure 5).

Figure 5:
Tracking the clusters of investigations though the web of science, it was obvious that a linkage arose from A.V. Hill to Thomas DeLorme and to Richard Berger. The trends of such early work by these investigators set the stage for more work in the 1970s and beyond in the study of resistance training.

What was obvious in the early phases of the evolution of resistance training research was the fact that no scientists who were women were principal investigators on this topic. It most undoubtedly was because of the belief that resistance training for women was thought to not be appropriate.

Undoubtedly, the evolution of the science of resistance training in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in the United States was fostered by men who had been avid participants themselves in weightlifting, derived from their practical interest and readings at the time in the world of resistance training, and who took it to the next level of study. The seeds had been planted for further development in the study of this modality as from the 1970s forward, people started to show an increased interest in the pursuit of understanding. Yet, a long road to efficacy and acceptance still remained. The 1970s and 1980s would produce the next generation of investigators attempting to push the knowledge base ahead and again see the proliferation of corporate interest and influence on practices and programs. The cellular science was waiting to take advantage of the modality as a prolific stimulus to physiological systems but would result in a drift in the experimental designs away from the practical application of the modality. Nevertheless, a few of the early pioneers in the field covered in this brief review had dramatic influence on the use of resistance training and its future study. From the past to the future, the evolution of our study of resistance training continues because of the visceral attraction of humans to muscle and strength. Despite and amidst the angst and conflict of solidifying scientific concepts and principles with scientific experimentation from the basic to practical continuum of understanding, our pursuit continues. Stay tuned for more.


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