The Untold History of the Barbell

Barbells are a much more recent invention than dumbbells.

This year, Rogue Fitness announced a $50,000 prize to anyone who could lift more than 501 kilos on an elephant bar, a specially designed barbell capable of handling such heavy weights. Innocuous as this may seem, the use of the elephant bar set off an interesting debate in the lifting community as to whether any attempt with the elephant bar should be considered a deadlift record owing to the elephant bar’s unique physics. (It has more whip than your standard barbell.) Whether or not this is the case is for someone else to decide. For the general lifting community, the debate shed light on the importance of the barbell to the lifting enterprise.

It doesn’t matter if you bodybuild, powerlift, do CrossFit, or just lift on a semi-regular basis, the chances are that you use a barbell as part of your training. Perhaps taken for granted by modern lifters, barbells are in fact a relatively new phenomenon and their evolution was not as straightforward as we may like to believe. Whereas dumbbells can be traced back to Ancient Greece when soldiers lifted stone halteres for reps, barbells are a much more recent development.(1)

So with that in mind, today’s post looks at the history of the barbell from its earliest iterations to the snazzy objects of today.

An Early History of Barbells?

Where to begin when discussing the history of the barbell? Thankfully better, much better, minds than me have asked this question. One of the first academic studies of the barbell was written by Jan Todd, who traced the object to the mid-nineteenth-century when American and European strongmen and health promoters began to toy with the kind of implements needed to build strength, muscles and health.(2) Her findings were echoed by fellow strength chroniclers David Webster and more recently, Randy Roach, both of whom found little evidence of the barbells existence prior to the mid to late 1800s.(3) Why the delay, especially given the longevity of the dumbbell in human history?

Though it is nigh on impossible to discover why this was the case, there are some interesting factors to consider. While militaries had been using dumbbells and Indian clubs from the early 1800s, there was little need for progressively heavier weights at this time. Few individuals had the luxury or desire to dedicate to muscle building. Lightweight training, as was the norm during this period was primarily based upon improving agility and correcting postural issues.

[Does club swinging sound antiquated? Check out the surprising benefits of club training for strength.]

Secondly, the first public gymnasiums, as we would understand them, did not emerge until the mid-nineteenth-century when individuals had the time, money and interest to dedicate to heavy training. Prior to this light weights reigned supreme. There was little economic incentive then to producing barbells or some early iteration of them. This was certainly the experience of Donald Walker, who produced a rudimentary barbell in the mid-1830s.

In his fabulously titled and hugely popular 1834 work British Manly Exercises, Walker promoted Indian club swinging for men interested in both health and strength. Encouraged by the success of his first book, Walker next set his sights on female exercise. His later work, Exercises for Ladies, recommend the use of an ‘Indian scepter’ for exercises rather than an Indian club. Similar to a baton and only minimally weighted, the scepter was nevertheless an indication that barbells would one day have a future. Sadly for Walker, his scepter was quickly cast aside as British audiences proved much more interested in club swinging than scepter raising.(4)

[See the other side: The Untold History of Weight Training Machines.]

Mid-Century Progress

As Walker’s sceptres faded from the public’s memory, a wave of new developments in Europe, Britain and the US were occurring. In France in the 1880s, Hippolyte Triat, a strongman of note, opened his own gymnasium. This was not a regular, small-scale enterprise but rather one of the largest public gymnasiums of its kind. Due to Triat’s own interest and knowledge of strength building, his gymnasium was home to some rather remarkable innovations. Thankfully for us, Triat was not shy in promoting his wares. Advertisements for his gym made reference to ‘Barres À Spheres De 6 Kilos’ or ‘bars with spheres of six kilos’. For aspiring strongmen and women, Triat also made reference to ‘Gros Halteres et Barres À Deux Mains’ or ‘large dumbbells and bars for two hands.’(5)

We don’t know how heavy these ‘barres à deux mains’ were, although some sources cite dumbbells weighing up to two hundred pounds being found in Triat’s gym. Nor do we know where Triat drew his inspiration from. To return briefly to Jan Todd’s article on the subject, Professor Todd speculated that Triat may have drawn his designs from the sort of sceptres promoted by Walker and prior to him, the orthopedics of the eighteenth-century who likewise promoted them.(6) Triat himself was silent on this subject, at least as far as his historical record is concerned.

Triat was not the only individual using barbells during this time either. Karl Rappo, an Austrian strongman who performed in several states in the late 1840s and early 1850s, was likewise said to have used globe barbells during his routine. Unlike the modern plate loaded barbells, these objects were fixed in weight with two rounded balls on each end. They were the type of barbells we would envision when thinking about stereotypical Victorian era strongmen. Now what differentiated Rappo from Triat was the the Austrian did not run his own gymnasium.(7) As far as we can tell, Rappo didn’t advise members of the public to use barbells at any point during his career. The Austrian simply used them as part of his act where they were described, like Triat, as heavy dumbbells.

Keen eyed readers will have noticed however that neither Walker, Rappo nor Triat referred to the term ‘barbell’. The history of the term itself has been traced to a Madame Brennar whose 1870 Madamme Brennar’s Gymnastics for Ladies, A Treatist on the Science and Art of Calisthenics and Gymnastic Exercises was among the first to use the term ‘barbell’. Where Brennar got the idea from is sadly unknown but Brennar’s descriptions of her barbell bore a clear resemblance to the modern object. In describing the term for her audience, Brennar wrote of an ‘appliance [that] partakes partly of the ‘Wand,’ and partly of the Dumb-bell.’(8) These devices were between four and six feet in length and were thicker than the ordinary wooden wands being used for lightweight exercise. A cursory glance at British Newspaper Archives, an online resource containing thousands of old newspaper articles published in Britain, shows a huge growth in the term post 1870.(9) Whether or not Brennar was responsible for the popularization of the term, she was one of the first entrepreneurs to use it.

Barbell Curl Exercise Guide - Squeeze at the Top

The Birth of Modern Barbells

So Walker, Triat, Rappo and to a lesser extent Brennar paved the way for the birth of the modern barbell. What then, was the spark that finally set the lifting world ablaze?

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to pinpoint the man or woman responsible for creating the first modern, heavy barbells. What we can do however is highlight where they became popular. Edgar Mueller, an early German physical culture scholar, who incidentally wrote a fantastic book on Herman Görner, argued that Turner clubs in Germany were a pivotal arena in this regard. In describing old Turner gymnasiums in Munich from the late 1870s, Mueller noted that many of these gyms contained barbells with globe ends such as the one shown below.(10)

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Alan Calvert was the owner of Milo Bar Bell Co. founded in 1902. He was the first manufacturer of Bar Bells in the U.S. Back at that time, dumbbells had been around for about half a century. Any bar bells you saw were usually a one off piece made for a strongman performer. This is why the early bar bells seem so varied: each performer had his custom made. After seeing Eugene Sandow perform multiple times during a Ringling Brothers appearance, a young Alan KNEW he had to have a bar bell. The problem…..NO ONE made them for purchase!! Alan worked on his design for a couple of years and in 1902 received his patent for a SHOT LOADED bar bell. Alan was BIG on small increments. He wanted trainees to have the ability to add as little weight as possible. He felt that shot loaded weights would let even the weakest of trainees progress at an appropriate pace. Think about it, you could add just a few pieces of shot to an implement….CRAZY to think that the importance of micro loading was already recognized over 100 years ago isn't it?! #microloading #strongman_archaeolgy #globebarbell #globedumbbell #shotloaded

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Unlike the barbell precursors found in Triat’s gym, those in Germany were modifiable, albeit with some considerable difficulty. The globes, positioned on both ends of the barbell, contained a small and sealable opening. To increase a barbell’s weight, lifters would pour shot or sand into the globe. While this may seem a trivial modification, it’s worth laboring its importance. The ability to lift heavier barbells meant that aspiring gym goers now had the potential to build more muscle and strength than ever before. Furthermore it lay the groundwork for the eventual emergence of weightlifting competitions from Olympic lifting to powerlifting. Being able to modify the weight of barbells meant that bodybuilding, CrossFit, strongman, and whatever else we do today, was possible.

Admittedly, this change was not without its problems. It was very difficult to evenly load shot or sand into the globe barbells. Furthermore, there were allegations a plenty that lifters were manipulating barbells in weightlifting competitions. After Arthur Saxon defeated Eugen Sandow in a series of lifts in the late 1890s, Sandow began claiming that Saxon had loaded the barbell with mercury which made its weight distribution incredibly uneven. This, Sandow claimed, was the reason Saxon had been able to best him. Barbells, even unevenly loaded ones, became a mainstay among strongmen.(11) An 1891 international weightlifting competition, covered previously on Barbend, is testament to this point. The regular gym goer, except for a privileged few, was still being neglected however. What was needed was an entrepreneur with a vision.

[Learn more about the founding father of fitness, in our bio of Eugen Sandow.]

American Exceptionalism?

Europe was undoubtedly a hotbed of lifting activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. This did not mean, however, that the United States was not equally vibrant. Of relevance for the present history, we should note that the Harvard and Boston strongman George Barker Windship, whose rack pull machine swept across mid-century America, also designed some makeshift barbells. Thanks to Jan Todd we know that in 1859, Windship devised his own shot loading weights to a makeshift dumbbell.(12) Like Triat’s heavy dumbbell, this allowed Windship to create a dumbbell whose weight could be increased at several turns.

A more significant American contribution to the weightlifting community came some time after that in the form of Alan Calvert, the founder of Milo Barbell. In 1902, Calvert began producing his own rudimentary barbell and dumbbell sets. Beginning with a small set of loyal customers, Calvert’s business and influence, began to grow. Through his advertising pamphlets, Calvert inadvertently created one of the first dedicated weightlifting magazines of its kind. Calvert’s greatest achievement however, was the creation of his Milo Triplex, a barbell whose weight could be easily adjusted. Calvert’s invention, as understood by Jan Todd and Kimberly Beckwidth, whose doctoral work on Calvert is available online, marked a seminal moment in the Iron Game.(13) Users now had access to affordable barbells, whose weight varied. Importantly Calvert’s design caught on.

Soon after, similar devices had emerged in Britain and mainland Europe. The same year the Milo Complex hit the market, a German inventor, Franz Veltum, produced a disk loading barbell. This, in effect, was an early version of the barbells we use today, whose weight can be adjusted by adding or removing plates from both ends. Veltum’s barbell was first marketed to German lifters in 1910 under the supervision of the Berg Company.(14) Somewhat frustratingly, it has proven impossible to discover if Veltum or Calvert was aware of each other at this time (Calvert began replicating Veltum’s bars from 1916). In any case, it is fascinating to think that Calvert produced a mass produced adjustable barbell at the same time that Veltum created a disc loading barbell. In time the affordability of Calvert’s creation would be joined with the practicality of Veltum’s.

Innovation Never Sleeps

Though several innovations would be made in the opening decades of the twentieth-century amongst the weightlifting community, an unsung hero in this regard was the simple barbell collar. These objects, placed on either end of the barbell, help to keep plates in place, and thereby ensure the weights do not fall off the bar. Are they simple? Of course. Are they vitally important? As someone whose laziness has resulted in plates and barbells wildly flying through the air during a shaky squat, I would argue yes.

Now admittedly, the barbell collar/clamp/clip is a small and very difficult thing for historians to pinpoint its exact history. What we can say is that around the 1910s, a series of British physical culturists, like Edward Aston, began marketing their own barbell clamps, which allowed plates to be added and subtracted from the bar with even more ease than before. So next time you’re loading up the bar, take a brief moment to thank Aston and his cohort!(15)

Returning briefly to Veltum, his disc loading barbell was slowly modified in the late 1920s when Kasper Berg, of the Berg Company, expanded its length to seven feet. This length is now the standard barbell length found in modern gyms. In response to complaints about the equipment being used in Olympic Weightlifting events, Berg submitted his new design to the Olympic powers that be. Much to his great delight, they proved impressed with its durability and design. The 1928 Olympics in Antwerp saw Berg’s barbell used in each of the weightlifting events.(16) When the Olympic committee commissioned Berg to provide barbells for future Olympics, his contemporary barbell manufacturers took notice. In time, seven feet, disc loading barbells were produced by York Barbell, Jackson Barbell and several other firms.

[Read more: What Are the Different Types of Barbells?]

The Modern Age

When talking about Olympic Weightlifting, there is, of course, a very obvious company which must be addressed, Eleiko. The iconic Eleiko barbells, which first emerged in the 1950s, are for many, the quintessential Olympic barbell. While the period from 1930 to 1950 had seen a series of barbell manufacturers emerge, there was still one problem facing the lifting community. In a problem I have sadly never encountered, barbells were breaking under the immense weights being attached to them.

This, admittedly privileged, problem was enough to force Mr. Hellström, an Eleiko employee during the 1950s, to put his thinking cap on. When not working in Eleiko, then a company most famous for its waffle makers, Hellström was an avid weightlifter with a frustration borne from faulty barbells. In seeking to build a new barbell design, and stop the regularity with which barbells broke once and for all, Hellström designed a reinforced barbell made with a specially hardened steel inspired by Eleiko’s products. When his employers were approached by Hellström about mass producing the product, they proved particularly enthused. Mass production began and in 1963, the Eleiko bar debuted at the Weightlifting World Championships in Sweden. Soon after it entered the Olympic realm and has, since then, become a favorite of lifters around the world.(17)

deadlift

Pretenders to the Crown?

So before concluding, it is important to stress that not everyone has proven enamored with the standard Olympic barbell. Take for example, Lewis Dymeck, who invented the EZ Bar during the late 1950s as a means of relieving pain from his elbows during arm work.(18) Likewise Al Gerard’s trap bar, created during the 1980s, sought to find a new and sounder way of deadlifting.(19) Prior to both of these inventions we had the cambered barbell in the 1920s, which eventually re-emerged as the safety bar squat during the 1980s thanks to Dr. Fred Hatfield. Each bar was invented to fix a perceived deficiency found in the regular barbell.(20)

Trap Bar Deadlift Exercise Guide - Middle Pull

To return to the introduction of this post, Rogue’s elephant bar, which captivated the lifting community during the 2019 Arnold Strongman, was built to address a new generation of lifting feats. Rogue, who only entered the lifting game in 2007, first built a nine ft. barbell capable of sustaining several hundred pounds, for the Arnold Strongman in 2016. The barbell, which bends under the immense weight it holds, has added an extra spectacle to the event. Aside from how impressive it looks, the elephant bar serves as a good reminder that the lifting community will continue to demand, and produce, variations of the barbell at every turn.

Summing Up

While we will never know who invented that very first barbell, the device’s history spans nearly two hundred years of lifting history. Innovation has come about thanks to the enthusiasm shown by circus athletes, bodybuilders, weightlifters and, more recently, strongmen. As a piece of equipment seen as absolutely necessary for the majority of gym goers, the barbell’s evolution was by no means straightforward or simple.

Necessity, finances and inspiration were needed to bring us the modern barbell. For lifters in 2019, we’re reaping the benefits.

Featured image via @massenomics and @tomahawk_d on Instagram.

References

  1. Jan Todd, ‘The Strength Builders: A History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Indian Clubs’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 20, no. 1 (2003), p. 65.
  2. Ibid., pp. 65-90.
  3. David Webster, The Iron Game (Glasgow, 1976), pp. 2-15, Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors: Volume One (Bloomington, 2008), pp. 17-20.
  4. Donald Walker, Exercises for Ladies; Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty (London, 1836), pp. 83-90.
  5. Edmond Desbonnet, ‘Hippolyte Triat’, Iron Game History, July (1995), pp. 3-10. Translated by David Chapman.
  6. Todd, ‘The Strength Builders’, pp. 78-90.
  7. Ibid., p. 80.
  8. Madame Brennar, Gymnastics for Ladies, A Treatise on the Science and Art of Callisthenics and Gymnastic Exercises (London, 1870), p. 33.
  9. From British Newspaper Archives.
  10. Edgar Mueller, Goerner the Mighty (London, 2012), pp. 12-26.
  11. David Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding (Chicago, 1994), pp. 104-109.
  12. Jan Todd, ‘Strength is Health”: George Barker Windship and the First American Weight Training Boom’, Iron Game History, 3, no. 1 (1993), pp. 3-14.
  13. Todd, ‘The Strength Builders’, pp. 78-90; Kimberly Beckwith, Barbellism, ‘Alan Calvert, the Milo Bar-Bell Company, and the Modernization of American Weightlifting’ (Ph.D. Thesis,, University of Texas, Austin, 2006).
  14. Mark Kodya, ‘An Exploration of the History of Weightlifting as a Reflection of the Major Socio-Political Events and Trends of the Twentieth-Century’ (M.A. Thesis, State University of New York, 2005), pp. 20-25.
  15. See for example, ‘Hall’s Barbell Clamp’. Available from the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.
  16. Jan Todd and Jason Shurley, ‘Building American Muscle: A Brief History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Pulley Machines’, in Linda J. Borish, David K. Wiggins, Gerald R. Gems (eds.), The Routledge History of American Sport (New York, 2016), pp. 332-340.
  17. Conor Heffernan, ‘From Waffles to Weightlifting: Eleiko Barbell’, Physical Culture Study.
  18. Conor Heffernan, ‘Who Invented the EZ Bar?’, Physical Culture Study.
  19. Paul Kelso, Kelso’s Shrug Book (Tucson, 2002), Chapter Five.
  20. Conor Heffernan, ‘The History of the Cambered Bar’, Physical Culture Study.
Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan is Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the gym or in the library he likes to try his hand at writing, often with mixed results. He divides his time between his research and his website, which is dedicated to the history of fitness and exercise — read all about it at Physical Culture Study.

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