Halteres: The Dumbbell of Ancient Greece


Previously on this site we’ve looked at fitness in the classical age and today we’ll be continuing that theme with a brief examination of the Greek Halteres. The halteres were the Greek equivalent of the modern day dumbbell and had a variety of uses from athletics to aesthetics.

Whilst many date the creation of the halteres to the 5th century BC, records relating to the halteres can be found as far back as 700 BC. Weighing anywhere from 2 to 9 kilograms, Halteres were initially used to help Greek athletes train to extend their long jump distances. Holding halteres in each hand, athletes would increase their long jump distances by swinging the halteres backward and allowing the force of the weights to carry them further. How much influence could halteres have for an athlete’s jump? In 2002, Alberto E. Minetti, of Manchester Metropolitan University, calculated that using such a technique added roughly about  17 cm (7 in) to a 3 m (10 ft) long jump.



Athletes holding halteres

But not everyone believes that the halteres primary use was for athletes looking to improve their jump. Norman E. Gardiner postulated in Athletics of the Ancient World, that halteres were used primarily as a jumping aide and for purposive drill. Gardiner wrote,

“[the halteres exercises] were probably taught as a musical drill, for as we have seen, the time in these exercises was commonly given by a flute player. The jumping weights were. . . used much in the same way as dumbbells . . . for athletes are often seen swinging them in attitudes which can hardly have any connection with jumping.”

Halteres and Weight Training

By the 5th Century BC, many strength enthusiasts in Ancient Greece had begun to include the halteres in their own training regimes. From there, it appears that the popularity of the crude dumbbells grew to such an extent that by the 2nd century AD, the famous physician Galen wrote about the necessity of using use halteres to strengthen the body for battle and to ward off disease. Galen himself was well acquainted with the halteres, having used them to train gladiators in Asia Minor during his time there.

Ancient Greek Workouts

According to Antyllos, halteres workouts consisted of three main exercises

  1. A Curl Movement:   Halteres were curled up from waist to shoulder height, similar to the modern day Bicep Curl.
  2. Lunges: Unlike modern day lunges were dumbbells are often left to hang at the side of the body, the ancient Greeks would hold the halteres out in front of them at arms length to further develop the shoulder muscles. Some authors have postulated that the emphasis on training for military combat resulted in this interesting take on the lunge as strong shoulders would be needed in battle.
  3. Dead-lifts: Unfortunately Antyllos was quite vague about the execution of this exercise depicting this exercise as one in which the trunk is bent and then straightened. Returning once more to Gardiner, he guessed that trainers would bend down and pick up the left hand halter with their left hand, and then the right hand halter with his left. They would then replace them and repeat.

Problems with the Halteres

In his Description of Greece, Pausanias described the halteres as “half of a circle, but elliptical and made so that the fingers pass through as they do through the handle of a shield.”

Whilst the halteres were simple to make, they were awkward to standardize. Creating two halteres of the same weight and size was difficult at best. As such it is most likely that training with halteres only made up part of an athlete or soldiers’ regime in Ancient Greece.

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