Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting

by Peter Clayworth

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.


Bodybuilding is an activity involving the intensive development of muscles through exercise and diet.

In competitive bodybuilding a panel of judges rates the contestants on the size, tone and symmetry of their muscles. Each bodybuilder goes through a routine, striking a series of poses. In some competitions the bodybuilders may also go through a fitness routine. New Zealand has both men’s and women’s bodybuilding contests.

‘Stomach of steel and an iron will’

In 2011 Morrinsville bodybuilder Nathan O’Hearn followed this regime:

4 a.m.: One-and-a-half-hour walk or jog

6 a.m.: 10-egg-white scramble, then rest or sleep

8 a.m.: One-and-a-half boiled chicken breasts and kūmara

10 a.m.: Two-hour gym workout then protein shake

12 p.m.: Free time

3 p.m.: 10-egg-white scramble then two-and-a-half-hour cardio workout such as lawn mowing

6 p.m.: Protein shake

7 p.m.: One-and-a-half- to two-hour walk

9 p.m.: One-and-a-half boiled chicken breasts and salad

10 p.m.: Bed.1

Bodybuilder’s regime

Bodybuilders do gym-based weight-training (weightlifting) and strength-training exercises. They generally eat specialised diets with carefully worked-out proportions of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Many eat five to seven meals a day, each of similar nutritional value. Designated rest periods are also important in the bodybuilding regime.

Origins of bodybuilding

Bodybuilding emerged in New Zealand as part of the ‘physical culture’ movement of the 1890s and 1900s. The movement was largely based on the teachings of Eugen Sandow, a British-based Prussian strongman. Sandow travelled the world showing off his ‘unrivalled muscular development’ to packed theatres.2 His 1902–3 visit to New Zealand gave a huge boost to the exercise and bodybuilding movements.

Sandow marketed the ‘Sandow system’ of exercise methods and equipment. Sandow schools – gymnasiums that used Sandow’s methods – were set up around New Zealand from 1900. Some instructors, such as Dick Jarrett of Whanganui and Fred Hornibrook of Christchurch, became nationally famous athletes and bodybuilders.

Sandow in Auckland

‘The curtain rises to show Sandow, arrayed simply in tights, a leopard skin and sandals, mounted on a revolving pedestal, against a background of plum-coloured velvet, in order to show his wonderful muscular development. He assumes a score of different poses, each having the effect of showing a different group of muscles in a state of tension … The perfect physical development of the athlete caused a great sensation.’3

In 1900 Hornibrook organised a competition in Christchurch to find the ‘best developed man’.4 This was New Zealand’s first bodybuilding competition and became an annual event attracting large audiences. Hornibrook also organised a physical development competition for women, although the female competition was judged at a gym rather than in public.

In 1911 the first national annual physical culture competition for men was held. National competitions appear to have been discontinued during the First World War, and then in the 1920s and 1930s the physical culture movement emphasised gymnastic exercises rather than muscular display.

At the 1940 centennial exhibition the New Zealand Weightlifters’ Association held a ‘Centennial physical excellence contest’ to select a ‘Mr New Zealand’ and a ‘Miss New Zealand’ from 12 finalists representing the various provinces.5 This appears to have been the first Mr New Zealand competition. By 1949 Mr New Zealand was a regular part of the annual New Zealand Weightlifting Championships.

Modern bodybuilding

Competitive bodybuilding in its modern form began in New Zealand in the late 1950s and 1960s. This was partly the result of publicity given to bodybuilding in the US and partly due to the opening of new gyms.

Clive Green’s gym in Auckland, opened in 1958, became a training centre for bodybuilders. Bodybuilding became a sport in its own right, rather than a sideline activity for weightlifters and wrestlers, and New Zealanders began to compete in international competitions such as Mr Universe and Mr Olympia.

From the 1970s the use of drugs such as steroids developed into a major issue. One response to this was ‘natural bodybuilding’, which involved strict testing regimes to ensure contestants were drug free. The International Natural Bodybuilding Federation holds its own Natural Universe and Natural Olympia competitions.

In the 2000s there were a number of New Zealand national bodybuilding competitions for both men and women. The National Amateur Bodybuilding Association ran an annual championship, while competitions for professionals were organised by the New Zealand International Federation of Bodybuilding. The natural bodybuilding movement held contests organised by the South Pacific Natural Physique Association.

  1. James Parr, letter to his parents, 26 August 1859, ‘James Parr’, qMS-1628, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Back



Weightlifting, also known as Olympic-style weightlifting, involves lifting a barbell loaded with weight plates above the head. The two styles of lift are:

  • the snatch, where competitors lift the weight in one movement
  • the clean and jerk, where competitors lift the bar to their chest in one movement, then above their head in a second movement.

In each style of lift, competitors have three attempts at lifting the most weight possible for them. They are given placings for the separate styles, as well as for the lifts combined. Competitors are divided into weight categories. These have changed through the years, including a major reform in 1996.

Weight training in the 1930s

Laurie Hogan, the first New Zealander to hold a weightlifting world record, remembered, ‘Our equipment was pathetic – a few fixed barbells at Len Wilson’s Physical Culture Centre; a few mild steel bars, with collars screwed on; the weights were some pieces of boiler plate, with centre holes … We had no headquarters for training, so we would gather each Sunday morning at Jack Elliot’s garage and spend most of the morning playing around with all kinds of lifts.’1

New Zealand beginnings

In the 19th and early 20th centuries weightlifting was generally carried out as part of fairground strongman displays or strength competitions at sports meetings. Weightlifting featured in the exercise regimes promoted by the physical culture movement of the early 1900s. Physical culture advocates also organised weightlifting competitions.

Weightlifting was part of the 1896 and 1904 Olympic Games, and since 1920 has been included in the summer Olympics. It became an organised sport in New Zealand in the 1930s, the decade when provincial weightlifting organisations were established.

The New Zealand Amateur Weightlifters Association was set up in 1935, along with an annual national championship. Jack Elliot of Auckland, known as the father of New Zealand weightlifting, was one of the key organisers. Weightlifters competed in provincial championships with the winners going to the national championships.

‘Minties moments’ at the 1974 Commonwealth Games

Superheavyweight Graham May’s gold medal-winning performance at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games produced some great television. Perhaps the most spectacular scene was his first attempt at a clean and jerk lift of 187.5 kilograms. May got the bar over his head but wobbled forward and fell on his face. He released the bar, which rolled off the platform towards the first row of the crowd. Fortunately the spectators, including Princess Anne, escaped unharmed.

Empire and Commonwealth games

At Auckland in 1950 weightlifting was included for the first time in the British Empire Games. New Zealand performed well with Harold Cleghorn winning the gold medal in the heavyweight division. Tony (Bruce) George was awarded silver in the middleweight division.

Since then New Zealand weightlifters have built up an impressive record in the Empire and Commonwealth Games. Heavyweight lifter Don Oliver gained a silver medal at the Perth games in 1962 and won gold at Kingston in 1966.

The 1974 British Commonwealth Games at Christchurch were a high point for New Zealand weightlifting, with the sport receiving mass publicity. Under Don Oliver’s coaching the New Zealand team won two gold, two silver and three bronze medals. Gold medal winners superheavyweight Graham May and middleweight Tony Ebert became household names.

Precious McKenzie, a South African flyweight lifter who was representing England, was another stand out figure at the Christchurch games. In 1978, McKenzie lifted for New Zealand, winning a gold medal at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games.

New Zealand waited another 20 years before the next weightlifting gold. Darren Liddel won three gold medals at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games in the clean and jerk, the snatch and the combined for over 105 kilograms.

At Manchester in 2002 Nigel Avery added two more gold medals to New Zealand’s tally, in the over 105 kilograms clean and jerk and the over 105 kilograms combined, along with the silver medal in the over 105 kilograms snatch. The Manchester games also produced New Zealand’s first female weightlifting star. Olivia Baker won a silver medal in the over 75 kilograms snatch and two bronze medals for the over 75 kilograms combined and over 75 kilograms clean and jerk.

In 2014 at Glasgow, Richard Patterson won gold for the 85 kilograms group, Stanislav Chalaev won silver for the 105 kilograms and Tracey Lambrechs won bronze for the over 75 kilograms. On the Gold Coast in 2018, David Liti won the over 105 kilograms category.

Olympic Games and World Weightlifting Championships

New Zealand has not performed as well in the Olympic Games or in the world championships. Harold Cleghorn’s seventh place in the heavyweight division of the 1952 Olympics remains the best performance by a New Zealand weightlifter at the Olympics. Olivia Baker’s eighth place in the 75+ kilograms combined category at the 2000 Sydney Olympics is the best performance by a New Zealand woman.

At 2013 the highest placed New Zealand competitor at a world championship was Don Oliver, who in 1957 was fifth in the heavyweight division at Tehran.



Powerlifting was developed in the United Kingdom and the USA in the 1950s. International powerlifting competitions began in the early 1970s, even before the formation of the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) in 1972.

Powerlifting involves three different types of lift:

  • The squat has the weighted bar placed on the lifter’s shoulders while they are in a standing position. The competitor then squats and attempts to stand up again lifting the weight.
  • The bench press involves the lifter lying on their back and taking a loaded bar at arm’s length. The competitor tries to bring the bar down to their chest, then raise it and hold it at arms’ length.
  • The deadlift requires the lifter to lift the barbell from the floor to thigh height, moving from a knees bent to knees locked position with a straight back.

Competitors have three attempts at each type of lift. Athletes compete within different weight categories.

Powerlifting in New Zealand

In New Zealand powerlifting competitions began in the 1970s, but it was only in 1985 that the New Zealand Powerlifting Association (NZPA) was incorporated. The NZPA follows the rules set down by the IPF. These include a strong emphasis on drug-free sport.

The powerlifting national championships are held annually in August, along with a national bench press competition every October. Qualifiers from the provincial competitions are selected to compete in the national championships. Both men’s and women’s powerlifting are divided into a series of weight and age categories. Raw powerlifting is a further category in which the lifter must perform without supportive gear.

A clean winner

Sonia Manaena of Invercargill represented New Zealand at the 2012 World Powerlifting Championships in Sweden. She won the silver medal in the 84+ kilograms category with the gold going to Russian lifter Irina Yaroshenko. Yaroshenko then failed a drug test, leaving Manaena as world champion. Unable to enjoy her triumph in Sweden, Manaena was presented with her gold medal at the Civic Theatre in Invercargill in front of an appreciative local audience.

International record

New Zealand competes in the Oceania, Commonwealth and World Powerlifting Championships. Despite the fact that powerlifting is an amateur sport with a low public profile, New Zealand has a proud international record:

  • Jeff Madsen was among the world's top powerlifters in the 1980s.
  • Precious McKenzie represented New Zealand at the world championships from 1978 to 1980. He won gold medals in the 56 kilograms in 1978 and 1980, and came second in 1979.
  • Cathy Millen was world champion in 1990 (82.5 kilograms), 1991 (75 kilograms) and from 1992 to 1994 (90 kilograms).
  • Derek Pomona was world champion in the 110 kilograms category from 1995 to 1997.
  • In 2012 Sonia Manaena was world champion in the the 84+ kilograms, and Bruce Park was world champion in his category in the over-70-years masters powerlifting.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 March 2023)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, updated 27 Jan 2015