The Long History of the Medicine Ball

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Few pieces of equipment have a century’s long history. Aside, perhaps, from the Indian club, most of the machines or devices we exercise with today count their origins to the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Sure some may argue that dumbbells have long been used by trainees but a simple look at Ancient Greek halteres makes clear that the modern dumbbell bears little resemblance.

The relatively new nature of exercise equipment obscures the fact that there is one piece of exercise equipment, used in almost every gym, that has a centuries long history. Enter the humble medicine ball. No other piece of equipment is treated with as much disrespect as the medicine ball. It is slammed, thrown, lifted, kicked and, at times, even hit with sledge hammers. Our relative ill treatment of it aside, the medicine ball is also one of those few devices that serves a variety of goals and training methods.

Few of us, myself included, acknowledge the long history of the medicine ball. With that in mind, today’s post tracks the long history of the medicine ball, beginning with its time in Ancient Greece, its re-emergence in the nineteenth century, right up to its modern day use.

MIKE MENTZER, ‘The Essential Nutrients’, HEAVY DUTY NUTRITION (1993), 11-14.

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In order to maintain health and provide for optimal growth, our bodies require more than 40 different nutrients. These various nutrients can be found in the six primary food components: water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.

WATER: Whether or not you believe live began in the sea, the fact remains that life exists in an inner sea within our body, two-thirds of which is water. All of life’s complex biochemical processes take place in a water medium, which accounts for the fluidity of our blood and lymph system. Water is our waste remover through urine and feces; it lubricates our joints, keeps our body temperature within a narrow range; and last but not of least importance to the bodybuilder, water is the primary constituent of muscle tissue.

Mike Mentzer,’High Calorie Diet: 6000 Calories,’ Heavy Duty Nutrition (1993), 16.

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Many young men take up weight training because they are underweight. Individuals who have been underweight most of their lives usually have high metabolic rates, i.e., they burn calories at a rapid rate, making it difficult to add mass to their frames. Having such high BMR’s, these individuals are especially prone to overtraining. In such cases, the individual should train very hard with moderately heavy weights for a few sets per bodypart, and no more than three days a week. An underweight bodybuilder who wants to gain muscle and isn’t worried about adding a little fat must increase his caloric intake by as much as 500 calories a day above his daily maintenance needs. If he were to discover (using the method previously described) that his daily maintenance need is 5500 calories, he should up his daily intake by 500, making a total of 6000 calories a day.

The Life and Times of Professor Dowd

Born in Nelson Flats, New York, in 1854 Dowd was, if his own accounts and obituaries are to be believed, a somewhat unathletic child in his youth. Writing some decades after Dowd’s passing, W.A. Pullum, a renowned British physical culturist, claimed that Dowd “showed nothing in his youth to indicate that destiny marked him out to become one day a great physical culture figure.” Pullum went on to claim that while Dowd did not suffer from any serious illness, his physique, according to his peers was “rather on the meagre side.”[i] This idea of the young weakling was, as explained by Ana Carden-Coyne, a common trope in health biographies.[ii] By disclosing one’s own personal shortcomings during a previous stage in their lives, health entrepreneurs could advertise their miraculous transformation using a specific dietary protocol or workout. The most dramatic example of this was of course Charles Atlas who, during the 1930s and 1940s, advertised using his now famous “Insult that made a man of Mac” comic strips.[iii]

Ireland’s First Bodybuilding Show

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Since beginning my study of physical culture several years ago, I have been fascinated by  the extent of Irish physical culture. Part of the British Empire in the early twentieth century, Ireland was very much influenced by the broader spread of physical culture in Great Britain. So close were the two regions that the Irish physical culture industry was largely predicated on what was happening in Britain, but more specifically, in London.

Thus in the late 1890s and early 1900s numerous Irishmen, of all age ranges, began writing in to British physical culture periodicals seeking advice, support and kudos for their interest in purposeful exercise. Without simplifying things too much, Irish physical culture at this time was very much a poor imitation of broader British developments. When a British Amateur Weightlifting Association was founded in the early 1900s, a smaller Irish branch was opened the same year. Where Britain had physical culture magazines, Ireland had physical culture newspaper columns. What Britain did, Ireland followed and this extended to bodybuilding competitions.

Guest Post: The History of Intermittent Fasting

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Among many kinds, intermittent fasting (IF) has proven to be an effective approach to maintain and improve a healthy lifestyle. Fasting can be done to lose weight, detoxify the body, or for religious reasons. Scientifically, there has been a large amount of research that supports health benefits driven by fasting. Even though it has been largely tested only on animals, the results are still promising. Fasting reduces oxidative stress, improves memory function, preserves learning, and enhances biomarkers of disease.

A Drug Free Mr. Olympia? The Strange Case of the 1990 Mr. Olympia

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Bodybuilding, at a professional level, is a sport fuelled by anabolic steroids. This is not to take anything away from the competitors themselves, but is rather an acknowledgment that those at the elite level often resort to chemical means in order to further push the limits of human strength and muscularity. Certainly the Mr. Olympia competition, the Super Bowl of the bodybuilding calendar, has always been an arena for the freakish and dedicated to flex their muscles in search of the big prize.

That Mr. Olympias have used anabolic steroids should come as a surprise to no one. Heck even Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to dabbling with steroids during his political career despite the negative reaction this risk. This preamble is my way of saying that the idea of a drug tested Mr. Olympia is strange. Yes, we have natural bodybuilding shows but elite, professional, non-tested shows have always proven the most popular form of competition.

With this in mind, today’s post looks at the one moment when the Mr. Olympia contest introduced an explicit drug testing protocol which, it was hoped, would stem the tide of drug abuse within the sport. Examining why this came to be, we’re going to look at the background to the Mr. Olympia, the event itself and the consequences of a drug free Mr. Olympia. In case you’re wondering, it went about as well as you could have imagined!

The History of the Dumbbell Pullover

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Earlier this week I was given a very generous gift. The gift in question was a complete set of Wills’ Cigarette Cards. Produced for an Irish and English audience in 1914, the cards depicted various physical culture exercises one could engage in to keep fit and healthy. The irony that the cards could only be obtained by buying a packet of cigarettes was evidently lost on the manufacturers.

In any case I gleefully went about examining my present and stumbled across the below photographs. Said to be breathing exercises with dumbbells, the movement represents an early iteration of the pullover exercise.

As is so often the case, I set to work uncovering the history of this particular movement with the result being this very article. So today, we’ll begin by examining the popularity and history of the pullover from the early to late twentieth-century. The pullover exercise has fallen from grace in the lifting community, from a once hallowed movement to a more niche and often poorly executed assistance lift.