history of fitness equipment

Fitness Miscellany: A Brief History of "Old-School" Exercise Equipment

August 03, 2020

As an avid fitness enthusiast, Jan Libourel enjoys spending some of his free time learning and reminiscing about fitness of the past. Having been around for 78 years, Jan has seen a lot of fitness trends come and go, and he has seen the industry evolve, as did his training over the years. After some recent studies, Jan put together some fun info and snippets on the history of functional "old-school" fitness equipment like kettlebells, dumbbells, Indian clubs, medicine balls and macebells. Below he shares that in his most recent SFS blog post called “Fitness Miscellany”.


By Jan Libourel


functional fitness equipment

It is something of a mystery how three very useful pieces of fitness equipment that were pretty much standard in the pre-World War II era vanished from the gyms and common use in the immediate aftermath of the war only to enjoy a rebirth in the past couple of decades with the rise of the "functional fitness" movement. I am, of course, referring to the Indian club, the medicine ball and the kettlebell. At least I am old enough to have known what they were, but in the arrogance of young manhood I simply considered them hopelessly out of date: The Indian club and medicine ball belonged to the era of "leatherhead" football players and Walter Camp while the kettlebell harked back to the days of globe barbells and old-time mustachioed strongmen in leopard skins and Roman sandals!

Related: Medicine Ball vs Slam Ball

Many authorities on Indian clubs trace their decline to the rising popularity of "sports and games." This has never made any sense to me. It is true that in the post-WWII era mass calisthenics for schoolchildren lost much ground in favor of games, but sports and games had been enormously popular during the almost century-long era when Indian clubs were in vogue. Moreover, they were often touted as excellent conditioning tools for sports as well as being useful for rehabilitation of sports injuries. The medicine ball was also a popular training device. Although similar devices may have been in use since antiquity, the modern medicine ball seems to have been introduced in 1876 by one R.J. Roberts, an instructor at the Boston YMCA, and it rapidly gained worldwide acceptance. Early fitness proponent and publishing mogul Bernarr McFadden is reported to have been a big promoter of medicine balls. Although kettlebells are commonly thought to have originated as Russian agricultural weights, their use and dispersal as exercise gear may owe as much to German physical culturists as to the Russians. In any event, they did enjoy a considerable following in the USA. Louis Durlacher, aka "Professor Attila," who discovered and trained a young German medical student named Fred Mueller who later became world-famous as the great Eugen Sandow, was a proponent of kettlebells, as was his son-in-law Siegmund Klein, who remained a leading physical trainer in New York down to his demise in the 1980s. 

kettlebell history

The real father of body-building - Louis Attila

To get a better handle on why these useful items lapsed into obsolescence, I consulted Professor Conor Heffernan at the University of Texas at Austin via his website physicalculturestudy.com. He confirmed what I had suspected: The demise of Indian clubs and medicine balls was caused by the ascendancy of bodybuilding, dominated by the two arch-rival moguls Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider, over the realm of physical culture in post-WWII America. Size and strength were the order of the day, and since the Indian clubs and medicine ball were not particularly useful for these ends, they fell into disuse. As a matter of interest, I had occasion to meet both men: Hoffman at a powerlifting championship where he praised me as "a big, husky guy," and Weider at a bodybuilding competition in Harbor City, not far from where I now live. Subsequently, I perused at length Heffernan's dissertation for his Master of Philosophy degree from Cambridge University. Its topic was the significance of Indian club usage both in Anglo-Indian colonial relations and in gender dynamics in the United Kingdom. In it, he states that the popularity and influence of Sandow had caused club usage to steadily lose ground to bodybuilding with barbells and dumbbells after about 1900. 

Joe Weider fitness history

The disappearance of kettlebells is harder to explain since they certainly do help build muscular size and strength. Evidently, Hoffman and Weider just didn't want to be bothered with manufacturing and marketing them. One or both of them did market barbell/dumbbell sets that included kettlebell handles that could be slipped over your dumbbell bars. I was never quite sure what purpose they served. I suppose it may be cogently argued that almost anything that can be done with a kettlebell can be done equally well with dumbbells and that is why both Hoffman and Weider passed on them. I have heard it claimed or conjectured that kettlebells may have fallen from popularity during the Cold War era because of their supposed Russian origins. This strikes me as very doubtful. As a younger man, back in the 1970s, I acquired and pored over many second-hand muscle magazines--mostly Iron Man and Strength and Health--dating as far back as the late 1940s, and I have no recollection of ever reading anything about that. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I learned of the Russian origins of kettlebells. What is true is that they remained very popular in Russia long after they had fallen out of vogue in the West. 


Although we tend to think of muscular size and strength as closely correlated, they really aren't. Nothing brought this home to me more than an incident at the powerlifting championship where I met Bob Hoffman. Nearly all the men present--both competitors and spectators--were a massive lot. At the time I stood 6'3",weighed about 230 and was training hard, so I didn't feel particularly overawed among all these burly brutes. In the midst of all this muscle mass, I espied a tiny, skinny-looking little man. "What is he doing here?" I thought. Then I realized who he was: John Redding, the flyweight powerlifting champion of North America. At half my bodyweight, he was perhaps a trifle stronger than I. It was a good lesson in humility for me! Actually, on looking at some photos of him in competition, I realize he wasn't all that skinny. He had actually been packing quite a bit of muscle under his street clothing, as you'd expect of a powerlifting champ. Well, as our parents always told us, "You can't judge a book by its cover."

john redding powerlifting history


In my March 15 post about Indian clubs on this blog, I mentioned the Australian "Ace of Clubs" Tom Burrows, who had performed the incredible (some might say "insane") feat of swinging a pair of Indian clubs nonstop for 107 hours and five minutes. However, I could not find out much about him after that epic feat. I asked my friend Richard "Army" Maguire, who is both a club-swinging maven and quite a student of old-time strongmen in general. He didn't know what had become of him and conjectured that Burrows may have "ruined" himself with his extreme feat. Fortunately, Professor Heffernan was able to provide an answer: "Burrows returned to Australia during the Great War and volunteered in a hospital where, rather remarkably, he spent the next several decades. He continued to swing clubs but never to such extremes. Tom Burrows died in Sydney in 1944." One wonders whether his work in the hospital was as some sort of physical therapist--it would seem probable. Burrows was 76 when he died--a good old age by 1940s standards.

tom borrows


As I have been studying the history of fitness, I find the terminological confusion and misinformation almost overwhelming! It looks as if the first dumbbells were really kettlebells. Kettlebells, when they resurfaced, were often called "dumbbells" (and still are in some languages). Barbells were called "dumbbells," and so were Indian clubs. Let's see what we can do to sort out this confusion:

In the first place, it seems very improbable that the ancient Greek jumping weights called "halteres" had any real influence on the modern dumbbells except that the name (which was also used by the Romans) was adopted in some modern languages. It is also at best conjectural that the jumping weights were ever used for strength or bodybuilding purposes by the ancient Greeks. (Most of them are far too light for the purpose.) It was in the Roman period, hundreds of years after the decline of Greek athletics, that the jumping weights took on the form of modern dumbbells. A charming example is the "bikini girls" mosaic in the Villa Romana del Casale. It dates from the time of the emperor Diocletian (ca. A.D. 300)  and shows a number of scantily clad young women exercising with balls and other things. One of them is holding a pair of modern-looking dumbbells. However, the dumbbells are tiny--much more suitable as jumping weights than for any kind of bodybuilding.

Related: Dumbbells vs Kettlebells, Which Should I Use?


Turning to more recent times, we find the first recorded use of the term "dumb bells." It seems to have occurred in the writings of noted English journalist and essayist Richard Steele in 1711. A few decades later, Benjamin Franklin was an avid user of dumb bells, frequently recommending their use. (Franklin would not exactly be a poster boy for fitness training, but, then, he wouldn't have been the last weight trainee to have gotten fat in his later years, and he was reported to have been quite the stud into his 70s!) So, what were these early 18th century dumb bells? When I began weight training, I had read that they were bell-shaped weights with handles--in other words, for all practical purposes, kettlebells. They were called "dumb" in the sense that they were mute or silent. 

To the best of my knowledge, none of these early "dumb bells" has survived. This is just a theory on my part, but I have to wonder if they were cast from lead, the latter being far easier to cast than iron. While painted iron can last indefinitely, lead does corrode and disintegrate with age. It is also easily cast into bullets in times of emergencies.

dumbbell history

There are some other theories about the origins of the term "dumb bell." One is that old church bells, with the clappers removed were used as exercise weights; a variant is that church bells would have their clappers removed so that people could swing them for exercise without creating a public disturbance. These strike me as very far fetched. I can hardly imagine that many old parishes in England, much less the colonies, would have disused church bells about with which the village bucks could hone and display their strength. Moreover, even if that were the case, church bells are altogether too heavy to be practical exercise devices: Even a very small one will weigh about 300 pounds, a slightly larger one 400 pounds. As for the notion that the clappers from working church bells could be removed so that a parishioner could hone his strength by pulling the bell rope, I can only imagine the reaction of a sexton or churchwarden on being requested to go up to the belfry and at considerable discomfort and some little danger temporarily remove the clapper for such temporal ends! Moreover, pulling a bell rope effectively is much more a matter of technique than brute force--it wouldn't be much of strength builder. I speak from experience, having rung church bells in both England and the USA.

Eventually, the term "dumbbell" came to be used for almost any sort of hand-held exercise weight. By the time Indian clubs were gaining ground in the West, they were regarded as a sort of dumbbell. During the same period, dumbbells took their modern form--with a center handle and both ends equally weighted. Lightweight wooden dumbbells that weighed a pound or two or even less and often attractively painted or carved abounded in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They can often be had today at modest cost and make charming antique curios. I presume they were used as "calisthenic enhancers" much like lightweight Indian clubs.

When barbells made their appearance in the mid-19th century, they were often called "two handed dumbbells." The term "barbell" is commonly supposed to have been derived from dumbbell, but it also may derive from the French "Barre a boules" ("bar for balls"), a very descriptive term for the old globe barbells. The Germans used a similar term "Kugelstab" ("ball bar"), but in later years they referred to an Olympic-style barbell as a "Scheibenhantel" ("disc-dumbbell"). As a matter of interest, in the 1870s, the French experimented with a barbell with a globe at only one end--in other words, a macebell. One wonders whether they were inspired by familiarity with Indian gada mace training via their colonial enclaves in India or if they came up with the concept independently. In any event, they evidently failed to perceive the virtues inherent in the macebell, and the project was evidently stillborn.

old school fitness equipment

Shop steel maces

A few decades later kettlebells came into widespread use. Again, they were considered a sort of dumbbell, and this survives in some languages. One kettlebell I ordered had "Haltere Russe" ("Russian dumbbell") in French and "Pesa Rusa" (Russian dumbbell [or weight]) in Spanish on the box.

So, originally a dumbbell was what we would call a kettlebell. Later Indian clubs were considered dumbbells. Barbells were also called dumbbells, and things came full circle when kettlebells were and still are called dumbbells in some languages. After all this, it's still rather confusing, isn't it?

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