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Origin of the Dumbbell

By Mike Westerdal

The humble dumbbell is probably the single-most versatile piece of weightlifting equipment ever devised by man. Dumbbells are great for training any body part and can be used by anyone, regardless of skill level, age, training capacity or fitness goals. They can be used just about anywhere-in gyms, homes, garages, hotel rooms and more-and are a vital part of the training regimens of competitive bodybuilders, "weekend warriors" and even housewives the world over.

The history of dumbbells stretches back more than 2,000 years, making them the oldest continuously-used piece of exercise equipment that we know about. One of the earliest references to the ancient Greeks' use of dumbbells-or a dumbbell-like apparatus-dates back to the 5th Century BC, 2,500 years ago. Back then, they were known as halteres or alteres. There were three basic exercises done with the alteres: lunges, bicep curls and a sort of abdominal side bend. I'm sure there were others but these are the only ones that have been documented.

Other cultures such as the ancient Chinese, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Indians all practiced various forms of resistance exercise but it's the ancient Greeks who are credited with developing the first form of the dumbbell.

The early versions of the dumbbell came in a variety of shapes and sizes and were made of a lot of different materials including lead and even wax. Things pretty much stayed the same up until about 200 AD when the Greek physician Galen wrote a text about the therapeutic benefits of exercise entitled De Sanitate Tuenda. In it, he discussed a variety of different exercises incorporating the use of the early forms of dumbbells. This text actually remained influential all the way up until well into the nineteenth century-almost 1,700 years. After the writing of this text, the ancient Romans also adopted the use of the dumbbell from the Greeks. A Roman mosaic dating back to the second century AD depicts a bikini-clad woman working out with a set of very modern-looking dumbbells.

Origin of the Dumbbell After the fall of the Roman Empire, systemic exercise declined considerably up until the dawn of the Renaissance period around the 1400s, when interest in fitness grew again. It was also during this time-the 1400s through the 1600s-that a greater range of exercises was developed and in addition, more styles and varieties of dumbbells became available. In addition to Galen's text other influential exercise-related titles included Dialogues des Gymnastica (1544) and De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes (1569).

De Arte Gymnastica introduced modern, contemporary approaches to physical fitness to the Western world. Largely thanks to this text, physical training with dumbbells became popular across Europe and later on, in North America. Interestingly, there is no clear explanation as to the specific origin of the term "dumbbell," but by the eighteenth century, that's what they were called. Benjamin Franklin was a huge advocate of dumbbells-referring to them specifically by that name-and used them to exercise almost daily.

In the 1800s the popularity of dumbbells surged again. By 1861 what were referred to as "German-style" gymnasiums with racks of dumbbells ranging in weight from four to one hundred pounds began to sprout up. That same year, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote that with a pair of dumbbells, "a man could exercise nearly every muscle in his body in half an hour." The first plate-loaded dumbbell-which could be loaded from 8 to 101 pounds-was patented on February 14, 1865. From that point on, the popularity of dumbbells remained constant and hardly a gym has been opened since that does not have a rack of dumbbells.

Today, dumbbells are available in a wider variety of styles, shapes and colors than ever before. There are even portable dumbbells that you can take with you when traveling-you fill them with water to use them and drain them to pack in your suitcase. And unlike the 1800s, there is an incredible variety of dumbbell exercise routines from which to choose-not just 17 or so. And today-unlike most of the past 2,500 years or so-dumbbells are used by everybody, not just mostly by athletes and soldiers.

These days, you are just as likely to find dumbbells not just in health clubs and gymnasiums but in home gyms too. That's because like I said before, they can be used by anybody, regardless of their fitness goals, skill level or athletic ability. It's interesting that fitness "fads and trends" come and go but the things that are truly effective and built on a solid proven foundation-like the dumbbell-remain constant, even 2,500 years later.


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