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They don’t ring.  They aren’t bell-shaped.  They are pretty simple, and I can maybe get that they are a dumb piece of iron, but where did they get the name dumbbell?

Resistance training has been around for centuries.  Ancient cultures knew that lifting heavy objects developed strength.  Many of their archaic fitness devices were developed from farming implements or weapons of war.  But as for the dumbbell, we have the church to thank for that.

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Church bells are loud and heavy pieces of metal.  In order to make one ring, it requires a great deal of strength to pull downward on a rope causing a wheel or lever to rotate and a hanging clapper to clang off the sides of the bell.

In the 1700s a device emerged that mimicked the motion of swinging a church bell.  The bell had the clapper removed, making it silent, or “dumb”. It is not known if this device’s creation was in response to bell ringers needing to practice ringing their church bells without confusing or annoying the village people, or if it was due to a growing exercise and fitness craze of the time.  Either way, the dumbbell device may have very well been the first piece of home fitness equipment.  

The earliest written account of the use of dumbbells comes from poet Joseph Addison in the British magazine The Spectator in 1711. Addison wrote, “I exercise myself an hour every morning upon a dumb bell, that is placed in a corner of my room…My landlady and her daughters…never come into my room to disturb me while I am ringing.”

Brojamin Flexkin

Brojamin Flexkin

One of the best-known proponents of the use of the dumbbell machine was Benjamin Franklin.  In a 1774 letter to his son, Franklin wrote that he used dumbbells to “quicken his pulse and increase his warmth.”  He later credited daily use of dumbbells for the reason he lived such a long life.  Among his other accomplishments and interests, Franklin was a strong supporter of health and fitness, and was in great shape himself most of his life.  He advocated eating a healthy diet, drinking water, and staying active by running, swimming, leaping, and wrestling.  Franklin lived to age 84, which is 30-40 years past the average age of his time.

Dumbbell machine

Dumbbell machine

Perhaps because of the expense and weight of using/moving an actual clapper-less metal church bell, the dumbbell was eventually modified to an all-wood contraption that used weighted balls positioned on rods coming off a roller that were rotated by pulling on ropes. If you look closely at the rods and weighted balls, you can see the start of what likely was the earliest form of how we know dumbbells today.  It is believed that someone took the weighted rods off the dumbbell machine, attached a second weight to the rod, and presto, the modern dumbbell was born.

The dumbbell was eventually lengthened, and there you have the barbell. 

Famous strongman, Eugen Sandow

Famous strongman, Eugen Sandow

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