A Brief History of the Barbell

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Whether you bodybuild, power lift, cross fit or simply keep fit, there’s no denying the importance of the barbell to your training. Easily adjustable, stable under enormous weights and challenging to the nth degree, barbells are a time honoured means of building muscle and strength.

Yet despite the barbell’s unrivalled popularity amongst the current gym going population, we tend to know very little about its short history. Borrowing from the work’s of historians such as Jan Todd, today’s article seeks to present a brief history of the gym-goers favourite device.

An Early History of Barbells?

Unlike the dumb-bell which can be traced back to Greco-Roman times at least, the barbell itself appears to be a relatively new phenomena. Indeed, in her article on the history of dumb-bells, Indian clubs and barbells, physical culture historian Jan Todd has traced the barbell back to the mid-nineteenth century. Todd’s findings have been backed by the works of David Webster and Randy Roach, both of whom find little evidence for the barbell’s existence prior to the 1800s.

Though it is nigh on impossible to discover why this was the case, there are some interesting factors to consider:

  • First, although some form of strength training has existed in Western Europe since the dawn of time, it has generally been confined to the margins of society. Indeed, in non-militarised civilisations, health and fitness as a hobby only really emerged in the nineteenth-century.
  • Stemming from the above, the natural home of the barbell, the gymnasium, was almost non-existent. Those organisations in mainland Europe which did promote exercise tended to focus, almost exclusively on gymnastics.
  • Finally and perhaps more significantly, there seems to have been little economic incentive to produce such devices. Production costs and a small demand would have surely acted as a barrier to construction

Guess work aside, Todd’s article has suggested two regions responsible for the barbell’s birth during the nineteenth-century.

Mainland Europe and the ‘Barres A Spheres’

The French Connection

In the first instance Todd identified the French trainer, Hippolyte Triat as one such innovator with regards the barbell. As recounted by the great French physical culturist Edmond Desbonnet in the early 1900s, Triat was a hugely influential gymnasium owner in France in the mid-1880s. Triat’s gymnasium, one of the largest in the world at that time, can be be seen below

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Triat’s Gymnasium. Stark Archive (Link).

In advertising his gymnasium to the wealthy and health inclined, Triat’s advertising brochures made reference to ‘Barres A Spheres De 6 Kilos’ or ‘Bars with Spheres of Six Kilos’, something one would assume was a precursor to the modern barbell. Secondly, Triat also made reference to ‘Gro Halteres et Barres A Deux Main’ or ‘Large Dumbbells and Bars for Two Hands.’ While its rumoured that Triat’s gymnasium held dumbbells weighing up to two hundred pounds, we sadly cannot say with certainty what weight his rudimentary barbells were.

Now Triat’s gymnasium certainly begs the question about where he drew his inspiration? Again returning to Todd’s article, she cites the wooden wand tradition of the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. As early as 1743, medical men and health practitioners were suggesting that the use of lightweight wands could rehabilitate deformed figures and even induce health. Such wands were prevalent in both the United States, England and Europe in this time. Owing to their light weights however, and the many in which they were used (swung as opposed to lifted) we can suggest that they served as inspiration and nothing more.

English Influences

Though Triat seems to have populated barbell training, he cannot be credited with naming the devices as such. This honour instead, goes to Madame Brennar, an English physical culturist whose 1870 work, ‘Madame Brennar’s Gymnastics for Ladies, A Treatise on the Science and Art of Calisthenics and Gymnastic Exercises’, specifically mentioned a barbell.

This ‘barbell’, according to Brenner was an ‘appliance [that] partakes partly of the ‘Wand,’ and partly of the ‘Dumb-bell.’ Such devices were between four and six feet in length and thicker than the ordinary wooden wands being used for lightweight exercise.

An Austrian Showman

Another person of import here is the Austrian showman Karl Rappo who according to both Edgar Mueller and Edmond Desbonnet, was the first professional strongman to use globe-ended barbells, such as those pictured below, as part of his stage routine.

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Sadly little has been written on Rappo’s life although a small excerpt can be found here. Of relevance for us is that he was born in 1800 and died in 1854 in Moscow. Thus he lived and worked roughly during Triat’s time and also before the publication of Brennar’s work.

German Ingenuity?

According to Edgar Mueller, it was the Turner clubs in Germany which helped to popularise the barbell to a much greater extent. Beginning with a brief discussion of a Turner gymnasium in Munch in the late 1870s, Mueller recounts how barbells with solid globes on the ends were used before hollow spheres were filled with sand or led on either side of the barbell. Eventually some barbells were sold to the general public.

What is significant about Mueller’s findings is that it seems to mark a move toward adjustable barbells. If the barbells were filled with sand or led, they could be adjusted to suit the strength demands of the user, as opposed to fixed weight barbells which could prove significantly more challenging to progress with (as anyone who has tried to jump from 80 pound dumbbells to 85 pounds will attest!). Interestingly, some have credited Professor Attilla, the man who once mentored Eugen Sandow as the mind behind such adjustable dumbbells. This however is a contentious claim.

At this point, its prudent to turn our attention away from Europe and over to the United States, were musclemen and women were helping to innovate in their own unique ways.

American Exceptionalism?

As previously discussed on this site, the United States was itself an interesting place for physical culturists in the nineteenth century especially on the East Coast. Though many trainers and trainees existed during this time, none gained the popular attention as much as the Harvard and Boston strongman George Barker Windship. While Windship was primarily a proponent of the Health Lift, an exercise decide mimicking a rack pull (see here), Windship also experimented with shot-loading weights. Indeed in 1859, Windship fixed two 68 pound ‘shells’ either end of a wrought-iron handle thereby creating a dumbbell of 141 pounds. This dumbbell, according to its maker was ‘capable of being increased to 180 pounds by the simple process of pouring shot into the cavities of the shells, after having first separated them from the handle.’ Thus Attila’s claim regarding adjustable weights appears somewhat dubious.

Nevertheless a more significant American contribution to the weightlifting community came in the early 1900s when Alan Calvert of Philadelphia founded the Milo Barbell Company. Though the first barbells sold by Calvert were shot-loading barbells, Calvert would within the space of a decade produce plate loaded barbells of varying weights. Across the pond in Great Britain, the great Thomas Inch was producing likewise and indeed the two men would have quite the rivalry for a very brief period.

milo_ad1902 Milo Barbell Ad

Innovation Never Sleeps

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Though several innovations would be made in the opening decades of the twentieth-century amongst the weightlifting community, the next step towards our modern barbell undoubtedly came in the late 1920s when the German trainer Kasper Berg began promoting seven foot barbells, which nowadays acts as the standard length. Quite significantly for Berg, his barbells would feature in the 1928 Olympics, thereby lending the device an enormous credibility in the weightlifting world.

Indeed ever since the inaugural Olympics in 1896, the games were a seminal means of disseminating new information and techniques in weightlifting. One noticeable development following the games was the creation of the York Olympic Barbell, promoted by Bob Hoffman and sold to American lifters throughout the US. The economic competition between Hoffman and his competitors would slowly but surely drive down the price of barbells over the coming decades.

Another seminal moment would come in 1957 when a certain Swedish manufacturing firm was approached with an interesting proposition by one of its employees. Frustrated by the regularity with which his barbells were bending and breaking, Mr. Hellström, an avid weightlifter, approached his company, Eleiko about a new design for the common barbell. Reinforced with a special hardened steel, the bars proved incredibly durable over long periods in the gym. Soon it wasn’t long before they became the standard of the weightlifting community in all walks of life.

Summing Up

While we will sadly never know who founded the barbell, the following post has highlighted a number of interesting things. First that innovation in the weightlifting community is a long, arduous process. Second that the popularity of exercising has encouraged new ideas as more people took charge of their physical fitness. Finally, the post has hopefully provided some motivation to get down to the gym and pay homage to the two-century process behind the barbell.

As always, happy lifting!

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