Story: Bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting

The disciplines of bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting developed alongside each other from the late 19th century. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that they all became separate organised sports. New Zealanders have excelled in weightlifting and powerlifting.

Story by Peter Clayworth
Main image: Wellington bodybuilding champions, 2012

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The physical culture movement

Lifting weights became widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the international rise of the ‘physical culture’ movement. This fitness movement was based on the teachings of Eugen Sandow, a Prussian strongman who toured New Zealand in 1902, displaying his muscular physique and promoting his exercise regime. He is often called the ‘father of bodybuilding’.


Competitive bodybuilding in its modern form began in New Zealand in the late 1950s. Bodybuilders develop their muscles through diet and lifting weights. In competitions they are rated on the size, definition and symmetry of their muscles.

From the 1970s steroid use became a major issue. One response to this was ‘natural bodybuilding’, which includes testing to ensure contestants are drug free.

Weightlifting and powerlifting

In both these sports the aim is to correctly lift barbells that are loaded with the heaviest possible weights for the lifter.

Weightlifting, also known as Olympic-style weightlifting, involves lifting a barbell over the head. There are two styles of lift. In the snatch the barbell is lifted in one movement. In the clean and jerk the bar is lifted to the chest in one movement, then above the head in a second.

Powerlifting uses three different styles of lift – the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.

Competitive lifting

In powerlifting competitors are usually ranked according to their combined scores from all lift styles. Weightlifters are ranked in each style, as well as by combined scores from both lift styles. New Zealanders have won numerous weightlifting medals at the Commonwealth Games, and since 1978 they have won a number of world powerlifting championships.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2023)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 27 Jan 2015