Monday, August 31, 2009

The Ancients Trained With Dumbells - Gord Venables

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Louis Abele about to press 315 for an American record.



by Gord Venables (1942)


There has been much discussion concerning whether the use of dumbells antedated the use of bar bells or vice versa. A study of the history of physical education does prove, however, that both of these very useful health, strength and bodybuilding devices have been in use for thousands of years. It is believed that man, much as we know him today, has lived on this earth for at least 25,000 years. Our only record of the earliest human inhabitants of this earth is in the form of bones, weapons, and some crude drawings. Written history is approximately 6000 years old. But in the earliest recorded history we find considerable reference to training with weights.

The records of the Egyptians tell of training with weights. The descendants of ancient Mongolian races, long inhabiting the North and South American continents, brought with them in their migrations of thousands of years ago a knowledge of the value of the progressive training with weights. Stones in various forms provided the first weights of these peoples of Mongolian origin, both stones to be used in each hand, and stones with a long shaft joining them together which were the earliest models of bar bells. In Japan today, in particular, and also in China in the regions far from modern cities, bar bells made of wood and stone are common.

The Greeks, who were a superior race mentally and physically, have given us many references to dumbell training and the use of other weights. The American encyclopedia has this to say of the ancient people whose name is synonymous with all desirable physical qualities: “The Spartans were the most rigid in exacting for their youth a gymnastic training. Even the girls were expected to be good gymnastic performers. The exercises for pupils in the gymnasia consisted of a sort of tumbling, war dances for both sexes, hopping, climbing ropes, wrestling for the throw, jumping and springing with weights, the use of leaded dumbells, riding, diving, swimming, rowing and swinging to supplement the indoor work.” In Homer’s Iliad we have the first written record of Grecian training, including “jumping and springing with weights.” Undoubtedly a modern poet, if he visited the York Bar Bell gym, could no better describe the practice of the Olympic lifts he saw being practiced there – the straddle hop, the one hand snatch, the one hand swing, most of the dumbell lifts – in any way better than to say they were “jumping and springing with weights.”

In Leonard and McKenzie’s “History of Physical Education” we have a great many references to dumbell training in the world of the ancients and later in the period which is known as the Middle Ages. In a description of the Roman forms of training, the book referred to, which is a textbook on physical education, has this to say: “Other movements were exercises of the arms with dumbells in the hands, the fencing with wooden swords,” etc. And concerning the training of the Greeks, “No clothing of any sort was worn during the exercises. These seem to have included most of the forms practiced in later centuries: running and the broad jump with and without wooden weights in the hands, throwing the javelin and the discus for distance, training with leaded dumbells and above all wrestling, besides the rudiments of boxing and a form of the pancranium, a struggle which combined certain features of both wrestling and boxing with others of its own.”

There is a great void in our written records concerning exercise between the time of the Romans and Greeks, over 1900 years ago, until the 1500’s and 1600’s. In the physical education textbook referred to we find this report of the training at the time of the French Renaissance, 1490-1553: “He practices (referring to the training of the youth of the time) wrestling, running, broad and high jumping, swimming, rowing and sailing a boat, climbing ropes, masts, trees and walls, throwing stones, hurling spears, shooting with bow and with firearms, hanging and traveling sideways on a pole fixed in two trees, and putting up leaded dumbells.” And in England at about the same time Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) wrote a volume concerning the education suitable for a gentleman’s son. Chapters 16, 22, 26 and 27, comprising a considerable part of the whole book, are devoted to physical training. This book went through a half dozen issues during a period of 50 years and even recently was reprinted in London and New York, as it contains so much sage advice. Quoting from this famous book, “Of sundry forms of exercise necessary for a gentleman. Exercises whereof cometh both recreation and profit, include exercises with heavy dumbells of lead or other metal, lifting and throwing the heavy stone or bar, shooting of the long bow, the principle of all other exercises.”

John Milton wrote the “Tractate on Education” (1644), in which at this time he associates bodily exercise with mental and moral training. In his model school he would have the young men between the ages of 12 and 21 live together in the barracks like the Spartan youth. “About an hour and an half ere they eat at noon should be allowed them for exercise, and due rest afterwards. The exercise which I commend first is exact use of their weapon, to guard and strike safely with edge or point, and to train with dumbells; this will keep them healthy, nimble, strong and well in breath; is also the likeliest means to make them grow large, tall and strong, and to inspire them with a gallant and fearless courage.” In many books, too numerous to mention, we have copious references to dumbell training. Early in the 1700’s a number of medical writers were urging the necessity of a good form of physical training in the scheme of education, and directing attention to the importance of bodily exercise in the restoration and preservation of health. In London, in 1705, Francis Fuller published “Medicina Gymnastica,” a treatise concerning the power of exercise. A German translation was made after the book was passed through seven or eight editions in England. Freidrich Hoffman, 1660-1742, a distinguished German physician referred to several times by Gut Smuths in his “Gymnastics for the Young,” published in Latin a book on “Motion, the Best Medicine for the Body.” Later volumes, “The Incomparable Advantages of Motion” and “Bodily Exercises and How They Preserve Health.” In 1780 a popular volume called “Medical and Surgical Gymnastics, the Use of Exercise of the Body in the Cure of Disease.” In the 1700’s interest in physical training with weights in various forms rapidly forged ahead. A common form of exercise for men was to walk with weights held either overhead of at sides, gauging their gains in gains in strength by the exact time when the limbs began to pain them due to fatigue.

During Elizabethan times, in the early 1600’s, dumbells became so popular in England that they threatened to replace the long bow as the chief means of bodily development. These men of the Middle Ages, not so far advanced in many ways, discovered that the greatest strength and the best developed physiques came from practicing exercises with dumbells. In 1728 another famous book was published, titled “A Physiological, Theoretic and Practical Treatise on the Utility of Muscular Exercise for Restoring Power in the Limbs.” The exercises included in this book were to be performed with dumbells and were little different from those included in modern courses. During this period of the world’s history, the use or weights with progressive practice, advancing from the lighter forms to heavier weights as strength and physical ability increased, became very popular, for physical educators and physicians alike had found this forming to be the best means to heal, overcome or cure physical injuries or handicaps of many sorts.

We moderns frequently look down upon these people of two and three hundred years ago, but the many books they have left for us show that they knew physical training, methods of progressive weight training, and their favorable effects better than most of our physical educators and medical men today. Exercise, with progressive weights or other apparatus which permits graded progressive increases in resistance, combined with proper eating, sufficient rest, is the best way to overcome ills, injuries and physical deficiencies of all sorts, as well as to build strength and muscle. It seems that almost nothing is beyond the power of physical training. There are so many cases of men who have overcome so many types of aches and pains, sciatic, rheumatic conditions, paralysis in its many forms, atrophied or withered limbs, stiff limbs and a long list of serious ailments.

Delving into history throughout all the recorded ages we find that the value of dumbells as strength and health builders was well understood. Although the use of light dumbells has been generally known and approved of in the last half century in particular, and hardly a school, college or other gymnasium does not have its collection of light dumbells, few are completely aware of the great strength building value of dumbells. And by strength I don’t mean only muscular strength, but internal strength as well, organic and glandular. All the great strong men were habitual users of dumbells. In fact the majority of their was at times done with dumbells. Consider a few of them. Eugene Sandow, Arthur Saxon and others set many records and standards for strength and physical development, some of which have not been approached. Saxon, the world’s best one hand lifter, an expert in all forms of dumbell lifting, was so strong that a usual manner of ending his act was to place a 232 lb. bar bell upon his shoulder, place his 168 lb. brother upon this barbell, sitting on top of his shoulders, so far a weight of 400 lbs, and then invite eight men from the audience to hang upon the bell. With this great weight, ranging from 1600 to 2000 lbs., he would walk back and forth across the stage or whirl round and round in merry-go-round fashion, bringing laughter from the crowd when they saw the dizzy, apparently drunken manner in which these men walked off the stage. Most of Louis Cyr’s (generally believed to be the strongest an who ever lived) training was with dumbells. In the York Bar Bell gym we have the famous Cyr bell, the shot loading dumbell with which Cyr bent pressed 273 lbs. to break Sandow’s world record of 271. Cyr holds the world’s record in the back lift, 4300 lbs., and the majority of his strength was gained through the use of heavy dumbells. I have mentioned perhaps the three greatest: Sandow, who combined showmanship, lifting ability, and marvelous posing with his exceptional body; Saxon, who did not care about posing but traveled around the world astonishing huge audiences with his strength and lifting ability, and Louis Cyr, a man who weighed well over 300 lbs. and compared more than favorably in strength, size for size with an elephant. There were literally hundreds of other famous strong men of the same and a later period who trained almost exclusively with dumbells.

Our discussion so far has cited the fact that dumbells had long proven their worth as curative and health-building mediums, the fact that the strongest men of all time were regular users of heavy dumbells proves that they are excellent for building strength. And the fact that the best built men of the past and present are dumbell users once again proves that they are excellent as well for producing a magnificent physique. Siegmund Klein, famous perfect man, uses dumbells a great deal in his training. Frank Leight, New York City policeman, winner of many strength and physique honors, concentrates on the use of heavy dumbells in a large part of his training. John Grimek, Mr. America, uses dumbells more than any other training medium. The forward raise done alternately is one of his favorites, one and two hands swing, two hands cleaning with heavy dumbells, alternate press with dumbells ranging up to 125 lbs., side and bent press, clean and jerk, all forms of heavy lifting are included in the Grimek training schedule.

The cases where a man has reached a sticking point, and then through heavy dumbell training has again forged ahead in building his strength and physique, are legion.

The very light dumbells found in many gymnasiums have little value as strength and muscle builders. Any exercise is better than no exercise, but we obtain from exercise what we put into it, and with very light dumbells only slight gains are made. The old timers did not have the adjustable dumbells we have at present, so graded progress was more difficult. Most gymnasiums would have a pair of 50’s, perhaps a pair of 75’s, 100’s and a single dumbell weighing 150-200 lbs. or more. While a pair of 50’s are very easy in most exercises for men who train at the York Bar Bell gym, for instance, or any other advanced weight men, they are very heavy for others. There is such a variation in the strength of the various muscles of the body that only a full range of weights will accommodate complete training. I have mentioned that the back lift record is 4300, the harness lift record, lifting the weights with a harness about the shoulders is 3600, the hip lift, belt around the hips, weight suspended between the legs is 3200. Bob Hoffman has made the best bent press of any of the world’s modern lifters, 282, yet 100 lbs. in the one hand military press is very good. Few of the strongest men use more than 25 lbs. in the lateral raise, only the best can use 50 lbs. in the crucifix, the forward raise, or the lateral raise lying. Very powerful men such as Jake Hitchins, who specialize on the movement, can employ a pair of 100 lb. dumbells while lying on a box or bench. But the average man finds 25 lbs. sufficient in this movement. As before mentioned, John Grimek finds a pair of 125’s not too heavy in alternate pressing and alternate rowing. He also can perform the most unusual feat of two hands swinging with a pair of 110 lb. dumbells.

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