The Sweaty Historical Origins Of Our Favorite Exercises And Equipment

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Vote up the stories that most make you want to get moving.

Like them or loathe them - behind every piece of fitness equipment you see at the gym lies a story and a different motivation. Some pieces began life as actual torture devices, not the voluntary temporary hells we put ourselves through to work off that extra slice of pie. Other machines were made with loftier intentions, such as efforts to make exercise more accessible or to help foster a sense of pan-Germanism at the height of the Napoleonic Wars

This collection looks at the hidden stories behind the best, worst, and most unusual staples of modern exercise culture.

  • The First Gym To Use A Membership Model Opened In Brussels In 1848
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    11 VOTES

    The First Gym To Use A Membership Model Opened In Brussels In 1848

    Gymnasium derives from the Greek gymnos (“naked”) after the ancient Greeks who famously got buff in the buff. The succeeding cultures of the medieval and pre-modern periods didn’t have the same appetite for structured exercise, and it really wasn’t until the turn of the 19th century that gyms started to take off again. 

    By the early 1800s, private gymnasiums began springing up in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. These were generally focused on gymnastics and calisthenics rather than weight training.

    The first venue dedicated to weight training, the Gymnase Triat, opened its doors in Brussels, Belgium, in 1848, but soon moved its location to Paris. The first multipurpose gym in the US opened in Boston two years later. 

    11 votes
  • The First Bench Press Had No Bench
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    9 VOTES

    The First Bench Press Had No Bench

    The bench press is one of the better-known weight training exercises. The compound movement primarily works the pectoral muscles but also develops the deltoids and triceps. Variations of the exercise have likely been performed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, but the first definitive example of the lift performed from a lying position only goes back to the turn of the 20th century. 

    George Hackenschmidt was a 19th-century strongman and fitness pioneer known as the "Russian Lion." If you've ever performed a hack squat, he's the guy you can thank (or curse). Hackenschmidt first performed the bench press from the floor in 1899; he managed to clear 350 pounds, a feat few can match even with a bench. Those who followed in his footsteps started to utilize a different start position - from the abdominals. The “belly toss” method was disdained by those who felt it  relied more on momentum than strength.

    By the 1930s, the belly toss was given the heave-ho by the Amateur Athletic Union, and lifters began to use wooden boxes and benches to perform the movement properly. By 1939, the standards used in the modern era were formalized internationally and the bench press as we know it today was born. 

    9 votes
  • Pilates Was Created By A German Prisoner Of War Who Spent A Lot Of Time Watching Cats
    Photo: Glacier / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Joseph Pilates was a German-born circus performer and trainer who happened to be touring in England just as World War I broke out. Along with other unfortunate German nationals, he was interned in a facility on the Isle of Man for the duration of the conflict. With an abundance of time and a literally captive audience, he devised a fitness program inspired by the movement of the island’s famously tailless cats

    According to Sports Illustrated reporter Robert Wernick, who interviewed Pilates in the 1960s:

    The answer came to Joe when he began carefully observing the cats and analyzing their motions for hours at a time. He saw them, when they had nothing else to do, stretching their legs out, stretching, stretching, keeping their muscles limber, alive. He began working out an orderly series of exercises to stretch the human muscles, all the human muscles.

    Pilates was repatriated to Germany in 1919 and emigrated to the US in 1926, where his program reached a wide audience and continues to be popular in the present day. 

    20 votes
  • Medicine Balls Were Used In Ancient Greece
    Photo: George Kendall Warren / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    17 VOTES

    Medicine Balls Were Used In Ancient Greece

    The sheer versatility of heavy exercise balls has allowed them to truly stand the test of time. Ancient Persian soldiers trained with sand-filled bladders to build up their strength, a practice that may have gone as far back as 1,000 BCE. The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (yes, that’s where the oath comes from) used a version of a medicine ball to help patients regain their strength after injury. Stuffed animal skins were also used as a training tool by gladiators.

    By the early 20th century, the personal physician of Herbert Hoover devised a game involving a medicine ball dubbed “Hoover-ball” to keep the president in shape. Those who regularly indulged in the game on the South Lawn of the White House were dubbed the “Medicine Ball Cabinet.”

    17 votes
  • The First Barbells Looked Quite Different From Today's Plate-Loaded Models
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    14 VOTES

    The First Barbells Looked Quite Different From Today's Plate-Loaded Models

    Compared with the dumbbell, the barbell was invented practically yesterday. The first barbells trace back to the strongmen of the 18th century. Heavier weights weren’t really in vogue for fitness enthusiasts until the industrial era. In fact, one of the first texts to even mention a barbell was a Victorian fitness manual for women. Donald Walker’s Exercises For Ladies was the follow-up to his earlier work, British Manly Exercises. He recommended the use of the “Indian Sceptre” to tone and strengthen arms; at the time, swinging heavy Indian clubs was a preferred exercise. 

    Hippolyte Triat was an innovative French strongman and gymnast who opened a gymnasium in Paris in the late 19th century. Among his wares were “Barres À Spheres De 6 Kilos” (bars with 13-pound spheres) and “large dumbbells and bars for two hands.” Other strongmen of the era used those distinctive globe-style barbells as part of their acts. However, it’s in the pages of another women’s fitness manual that we find the first recorded use of the word barbell: Gymnastics for Ladies, published in 1870 by Madame Brenner.

    A major step forward came with the ability to adjust the weight. American weightlifter and businessman Alan Calvert founded Milo Barbell in 1902; he also wrote and published training manuals to promote his wares. The company’s name referred to Milo of Croton, an ancient Greek wrestler who used the practice of progressive overload to achieve great strength. The idea caught on and Franz Veltum, a German inventor, gave the world the first disc-loading barbell around 1910. 

    The bars used for the 1928 Olympics were longer than older models - 7 feet in length - and now form the standard 45-pound bars we see in gyms today. 

    14 votes
  • Calisthenics Go Back To Ancient Greece, But The Term Was Coined In The Industrial Era
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    10 VOTES

    Calisthenics Go Back To Ancient Greece, But The Term Was Coined In The Industrial Era

    The term calisthenics is a portmanteau of the Greek words kallos (“beautiful”) and sthenos (“strength”). As the name implies, the practice of using one’s own body to achieve beautiful strength is credited to the Greeks, though other ancient cultures had their own versions of bodyweight exercises. Perhaps the most rudimentary but effective calisthenic movement, the simple push-up, is sometimes credited to the Roman emperor Constantine, but there’s also evidence to suggest a variant was used in military training in ancient India. 

    The practice might be thousands of years old, but the term "calisthenics" is a 19th-century creation by fitness enthusiasts with a keen interest in the Classics. With different regional variants cropping up, a fair amount of debate existed over which system was best for physical education in schools. This so-called Battle of the Systems was waged over much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

    In the US, physical education veered away from calisthenics and toward organized sports in the 1960s, with the establishment of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In more recent years, the rise of street workouts with minimal gear has seen a revival in interest in beautiful strength. 

    10 votes