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Why Are Dumbbells Called Dumbbells?

Dumbbells are a well-liked and effective tool for strength training and exercise. They’re versatile, easy to make use of, and are available in various weights and sizes, making them suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.



You possibly can get a full-body workout with a set of dumbbells or use them as I do: as an adjunct to the most important barbell lifts. I like doing Arnold shoulder presses and bicep curls with dumbbells.

But while doing a little of those curls the opposite day, I got to wondering: “Why are dumbbells called dumbbells?”

I mean, it’s form of a weird name when you concentrate on it.

I made a decision to analyze. 

The Ur-Dumbbell: The Ancient Greek Haltere

Not only did the traditional Greeks give us democracy and virtue ethics, but in addition they bequeathed us the forerunner of what would turn into the fashionable dumbbell. Soldiers and athletes would train with various weighted implements to get stronger. Considered one of these strength-training tools was the haltere. 

The haltere

The haltere varied in shape throughout antiquity but mostly took the shape of a semicircle with a hole in it; users would place their fingers through the opening to grip this piece of handheld exercise equipment. Halteres were typically constructed from stone and metal but were also made with wood and wax; athletes would add result in these picket and waxen halteres to extend their weight.

Halteres were used similarly to how we use modern dumbbells. Athletes would hold the weights while performing curls, lunges, and deadlifts. They’d also swing them around the way in which you’ll an Indian club.

An ancient Greek athlete holding halteres while doing the long jump.

Halteres were used for training within the long jump as well. Athletes would hold the weights of their hands and jump with them to accumulate power and strength of their legs. They’d also use halteres to leap further. As they jumped, they’d swing the halteres forward to assist propel their momentum after which swing the weights backward, letting them go just before landing.

The Romans copied the Greeks and used halteres to coach their athletes and warriors. The Greek physician Galen advisable soldiers utilize halteres to get stronger. 

Image from De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes showing modern dumbbell-looking halteres.

Through the Renaissance, ancient Greek and Roman training methods saw a revitalization. Health books of the period forwarded Galen’s recommendations for using weighted implements for exercise, and the haltere found its way back into Western culture. A very powerful Renaissance book that promoted strength training with halteres was Mercurialis’ De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes. Together with training regimens inspired by Hellenistic culture, the book incorporates elaborate illustrations of jacked Greeks and Romans hoisting things, including halteres, to get stronger. However the halteres that Mercurialis depicted looked different from the oblong semicircles that actual Greeks and Romans used. As an alternative, they looked like two cones stuck together at their heads, forming a rod in the center you possibly can grasp. 

They looked like modern-day dumbbells.

Dumbbells Grow to be Dumbbells

Because of Mercurialis’ De Arte Gymnastica, by the 18th century, training with handheld weights became a typical and accepted type of physical exertion. But when did the haltere start being called a dumbbell, and why was it called that?

Jan Todd, a professor of exercise history, has scoured the historical record on these questions and couldn’t come to a definitive answer.

But what she uncovered offers clues about how the haltere became the dumbbell. 

In 1711, the British poet and essayist Joseph Addison wrote this in his popular magazine, The Spectator:

Once I was some years younger than I’m at present, I used to employ myself in a more laborious diversion…it’s there called…the fighting with a person’s own shadow; and consists within the brandishing of two short sticks, grasped in each hand, and loaded with plugs of lead at either end. This opens the chest, exercises the limbs and offers a person all of the pleasure of boxing, without the blows.

It seems like Addison was shadowboxing using handheld weights that resemble what we all know as dumbbells. But in that essay, he never used “dumbbell” to check with his hand weights.

Nonetheless, when describing one other of his exercise routines in a distinct essay in the identical issue of the magazine, he does use the phrase “dumb bell”:

For my very own part, after I am on the town, I exercise myself an hour every morning upon a dumb bell that’s placed in a corner of my room, and [it] pleases me the more since it does the whole lot I require of it in most profound silence. My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me whilst I’m ringing.

An 18th-century dumb bell machine. Image from the Gentleman's Magazine, 1746.

The dumb-bell exercise apparatus, which was used even by a Founding Father. When Benjamin Franklin was 80, a friend asked him in a letter what accounted for his longevity. Old Ben responded: “I live temperately, drink no wine, and use every day the exercise of the dumb-bell.”

When Addison says he was exercising himself upon a “dumb bell,” he was likely referring to a chunk of apparatus that included 4 arms with lead balls on their ends. The apparatus was installed a level above the one on which it could be used. A rope attached to the device ran through the ground to where the user stood below. He would pull the rope up and down, turning the apparatus’ weighted arms like a flywheel. This rope-pulling movement resembled that used to ring a giant bell (like a church bell), though this “ringing” didn’t, after all, end in any sound. Hence, the device was called a “dumb bell” — “dumb” as in “doesn’t make a noise.”

So why did the name “dumb bell” get transferred from this piece of 18th-century exercise equipment to haltere-esque handheld weights?

Perhaps it was since the arms on the dumb-bell apparatus form of resemble the dumbbells we all know today. 

Or perhaps readers of Addison’s magazine conflated the 2 articles he wrote together and began considering of the hand held weights he referenced as “dumb bells” too.

The world may never know.

While there isn’t a definitive answer as to when and why handheld weights became often called dumbbells, it’s clear that by the tip of the 18th century, they were repeatedly being called such (the term “barbell” wouldn’t arrive on the scene for one more century). 

It’s also clear that dumbbells have a health-enhancing, strength-improving track record that stretches from antiquity through the current day.  

Long may they proceed to be hoisted. 

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