It is believed that the dumbbell as we know it today was invented in Ancient Greece in the era of ancient Olympic Games. Progressive overload training was described as early as the 6th century BC, when famous Greek athlete Milo of Croton was training for Olympic Games by carrying a newborn calf on his back every day until Olympics took place, by that time he would carry a four year old cow the length of a stadium. The predecessors of modern day dumbbells were the halteres, which served multiple uses from training to competition. Ancient Greek records shows the evidence of the halteres dating to as far back as 700 BC. In Ancient Greece, exercise and training was highly valued. By the 5th Century BC, halteres were of common use in Ancient Greek training regimes.
Popularity of the halteres grew globally as by the 2nd Century BC, famous Greek physician, Galen, came up with a variety of exercises that required the use of halteres. Galen insisted halteres as a necessity for physical fitness as it trained the body for war. As they did with most aspects of Greek culture, the Romans copied the Greek methods and implements of physical training. The Romans, who also had a strong concern on physical fitness as a civic virtue, adopted the use of halteres in their exercises as a means to strengthen their armies. It is worth noting that the use of halteres in ancient Greek workouts has been a topic of interest and research in the field of exercise science.
Greek surgeon Antyllus described three main exercises involving the use of halteres in ancient Greek workouts: curls, lunges, and deadlifts. During curls, halteres were lifted from the waist to the shoulders with the forearm held straight, similar to modern bicep curls. In lunges, halteres were held out in front of the body with both arms fully extended while lunging forward, focusing on training the shoulders instead of the lower body like modern lunges. Finally, in deadlifts, users lifted each haltere with their respective hand while bending and straightening the lower back, repeating the motion while lifting the halteres.
It is noteworthy that a mosaic from the Piazza Armerina in Sicily, dating back to the fourth century A.D., indicates that some Roman women used halteres in their physical training. It is unclear whether the mosaic depicts a dance troupe or a group of women athletes, but what is clear is that the illustrated bikini-clad woman is holding a pair of dumbbells in her hands. This mosaic is a fascinating historical artifact that suggests the use of weights by women in ancient Rome.
While physical training declined with the fall of Roman Empire in 4th-5th centuries AD and the disappearance of the Olympic Games, Galen’s writings kept the idea alive. In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot published the The Boke Named the Governor, and urged his Renaissance contemporaries to look to Galen’s De Sanitate Tuenda for exercise advice. For exercise at home, Elyot wrote, men should try walking, “labouring with poises [weights] made of lead or other metal called in latin alteres, lifting and throwing the heavy stone or bar, playing at tennis, and divers semblable exercises.
By far the most important Renaissance text related to exercise was Hieronymus Mercurialis “De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes”, which was first published in 1569 in Venice, Italy. Mercurialis served as personal physician to Emperor Maximilian II. The text introduced to Western thought many of the training principles that continue to influence contemporary approaches to physical training. The book revived an interest in Galen and the training methods of the ancient Greeks.
In his writings, he examined the benefits of various physical activities, such as walking, discus throwing, rope climbing, and ball games. He also suggested the use of weighted balls filled with sand and dumbbells, which he recommended for targeted exercise purposes. These early forms of medicine balls and dumbbells played an essential role in training. One notable feature of Mercurialis’ work was the shape of the hand weights, which departed from the curved shape of ancient halteres. Instead, the dumbbells depicted in his work resembled two conical pyramids connected at their apex.
During the early 18th century, the physical training methods of the ancient Greeks, which had been revived by Mercurialis, started yielding results. Dumbbell exercises were gaining recognition as a legitimate form of physical training once again. Joseph Addison, a British poet and essayist, mentioned in his publication, The Spectator, that he discovered dumbbell exercises from a “Latin treatise… written with great erudition,” implying that he was influenced by the Mercurialis text.
In his account on 12 July 1711, Addison recounted how in his younger years, he used to engage in a more strenuous pastime which involved fighting with one’s own shadow. This activity, referred to as “the fighting with a man’s own shadow” in the region where Addison was at the time, involved the use of two short sticks held in each hand and loaded with lead plugs at either end. This exercise was beneficial for the chest and limbs, and provided a boxing-like experience without the physical impact. Although Addison’s description of these handheld objects matches our current understanding of the term, he did not use the term to describe these wooden and iron tools.
According to Benjamin Franklin’s surviving correspondences, it appears that he incorporated dumbbell training as a significant aspect of his daily routine. In a letter to his son dated 19 August 1772, Franklin stated that he preferred rigorous exercises that could be completed quickly. He gauged the effectiveness of each exercise based on the amount of warmth it generated in the body. As Franklin explained, riding one mile on horseback provides more exercise than traveling five miles in a coach, and walking one mile on foot provides more exercise than riding five miles on horseback.
Instructing his son, Franklin asserted that dumbbell training was a superb method to generate bodily warmth. He stated that by completing forty swings, he was able to elevate his pulse from sixty to one hundred beats per minute, as measured by a second watch. Franklin surmised that the intensity of warmth produced typically corresponded with the rate of pulse increase. In another letter penned at the age of eighty in 1786, Franklin replied to a friend’s inquiry about his longevity: “I live temperately, drink no wine, and use daily the exercise of the dumbbell.”
Published in 1728, John Paugh’s work, A Physiological, Theoretical and Practical Treatise on the Utility of Muscular Exercise for Restoring the Power of the Limbs, provided compelling evidence for the use of handweights. The book included descriptions of dumbbell exercises that were similar to those in use today. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt, first published in 1802, also documented similar exercises. By 1828, Charles Beck, a German physical educator who played a significant role in introducing German gymnastics to the United States, included a section on dumbbell exercises in his celebrated work, A Treatise on Gymnasticks.