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From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbells, and Indian Clubs
by Jan Todd, Ph.D.
During my dissertation research on the history of women’s exercise in the nineteenth century, I kept turning up references to dumbells, barbells, and other early resistance apparati in unexpected places. In some instances, the printed references were surprisingbecause of the early date at which they were published. In other instances, the references surprised me because of the manner in which the implements were used. After searching unsuccessfully for an authoritative text which would allow me to place these references in proper historical perspective, I decided to attempt the following brief history of these hand-held weightlifting appliances. I do notdoubt that I may be overlooking parts of this evolutionary tale, and I welcome your additions and corrections. an exercise in which the trunk is alternately bent and straightenecd.4 Halteres varied greatly in appearance and composition during the era modern historians refer to as Ancient Greece. According to John Blundell’s The Muscles and Their Story, published in 1864, the author, Pausanius,“described the halteres as of roundish or oblong figure, not perfectly round and that in using them the fingers were placed as if in the handle of a shield.” Another ancient writer, Blundell explained, “mentions the use of wax in this respect. . . In the palaestra these were called halteres, and to make them heavier they were sprinkled with particles of lead.” Some ancient texts, Blundell reported, evenapplied the term halteres to the weapon used by David to slay the Biblical giant Goliath, which would suggest that the reference is to the object cast or thrown by the sling.5 Halteres, Dumbells, and Other Early Implements In the second century AD., the Greek physician Galen pubAlthough the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Chinese, the lished his thoughts on the therapeutic benefits of exercise in Deancient Indians, and many other early peoples Sanitate Tuenda, a medical text which remained practiced resistance exercise, credit has tradiinfluential into the nineteenth century. Galen tionally been given to the ancient Greeks for prodiscussed using halteres for a variety of jumpducing the forerunners of our modern weight ing exercises—broad jumps, high jumps, jumptraining equipment.1 Accordingto Norman E. ing from low to high places, etc.—and also Gardiner’s Athletics of the Ancient World, the described exercises which involved bearing land that produced calf-carrying Milo of Croweighted implements upon the shoulders, head tona—the so-called father of progressive resisand feet. According to Blundell, these “body” tance exercise—had three weighted implements weights—seen in theaccompanying illustraby the fifth century B.C.2 The diskos and javelin tions—were called plummets and were used in were thrown for distance while the hand-held exercises to systematically strengthen the body.6 alteres or halteres were used as a jumping aide Galen also recommended training with wooden and for purposive drill. “Indeed,” Gardiner wrote, implements; a piece of wood “with a piece of “[thehalteres exercises] were probably taught lead enclosed” should be used by gout patients, as a musical drill, for as we have seen, the time Galen wrote, until they were strong enough to in these exercises was commonly given by a use heavier implements.7 flute player. The jumping weights were. . . used As they did with most aspects of Greek much in the same way as dumbbells . . . for athculture, theRomans copied the Greek methods letes are often seen swinging them in attitudes and implements of physical training. More warwhich can hardly have any connexion with jump like in nature than the Greeks, Roman males 3 ing. ” According to Gardiner, the writings of trained for military fitness rather than for athletAntyllos described three different types of halic prowess or physical beauty....
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