From ancient times to 20th century, the barbell has evolved through many centuries, changing and molding from an almost caveman-like tool to one of the most revered and worshipped piece of modern training and measuring equipment. Only in the past two centuries has the barbell begun to surface as an important tool in strength training. To understand the history of the barbell, the history of the dumbbell must also be discussed. It all started in Ancient Greece…
To be frank, the barbell did evolve from the dumbbell, so to track the history of the barbell we must first dive back into Ancient Greece. In the 5th century a legendary Greek named Milo had accidently invented progressive strength training by lifting a calf and carrying it until he was a man and the calf became a bull. With that Milo also had three separate implements he used to improve his strength and performance. Out of these three, one resembled a dumbbell in its ability to be lifted off of the ground and used to train against gravity. This was the first recorded historical evidence of a tool resembling a barbell. The next is in Italy in 1569.
A famous physician in the Renaissance named Hieronymous Mercurialis wrote a text titled “De Arte Gymnastica Aput Anceintes” which discusses the ancient art of gymnastics and its benefits on the body. In his text Mercuralis discusses a tool called a “Halter” or ancient form of a dumbbell. Despite looking nothing like the modern dumbbells we have come to use commonly throughout most resistance exercise training regimens today, the Halter is very close in relation to the dumbbell and barbell.
Skipping to the early 19th century, a German physical educator wrote a text titled “A Treatise on Gymnasts” which was responsible for introducing German weight training to America. This text written in 1828 allowed scholars in America to study how the Germans were so well conditioned. This was partially due to the part where dumbbells or dumbbell-like implements were used in schools for exercise classes. Now between 1828 and 1889 there was an explosion of barbell evolution. French gym owners and military personnel adopted the early versions of the barbell to aid in everything from training troops to strongman performances to athletic competitions. In France the first siting of the precursor to the modern-day barbell was labeled as a “French Dumbbell” in 1860. This kind of barbell had two very large wooden globular spheres on each end. The first iron globular barbells were sold in the 1870’s in Germany. Globular barbell training in Europe was so popular due to the massive amount of men pursuing careers as strongmen back in the 19th century.
Between the years of 1859 and 1865, a Bostonian by the name of George Barker Windship claimed to have invented the plate loaded barbell. Unfortunately Windship died in 1876, and America blamed his heavy lifting for his death. This lead to a massive decline in interest in strength training for decades. Finally, in 1889, the first exposed plate loaded barbells were introduced, meaning the plates could be freely attached and detached on each end without any hinderance of protectors or shells.
By the beginning of the 20th century, barbell development was almost at its peak. The modern day barbell you see today in the Olympics and in almost all modern exercise facilities today was invented by Kasper Berg in Germany in the year of 1928. That same year was the first the Olympic Barbell was used in the Olympics, specifically in Amsterdam. Once the Amsterdam Olympics concluded, both York and Jackson Barbell Companies copied Kaspar’s model and mass produced it, making the modern day Olympic barbell widely available for purchase and use for the public.
The barbell took many trials and errors in order to evolve into the exposed plate-loaded revolving grooved tool it is today. Germany and France had a big part in its evolution, along with America. Thanks to strongmen and Olympic enthusiasts this tool is still an essential part of all gyms around the world. I bet you did not know that!
“From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbells, and Indian Clubs.” Jan Todd, Ph.D. 1995. Volume 3, Number 6. http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0306/IGH0306c.pdf