A recent spate of travel has made access to heavy weights a near impossibility. Hotel and College gyms with dumbbells up to 30 kilos and in some cases, with not a barbell in sight have forced me to be inventive with my training. In the past such occurrences would have caused me a great inconvenience but thanks to the advice of a friend, I finally capitulated and bought a set of resistance bands.
Admittedly I’d been sceptical. Resistance bands for me, conjure up images up Charles Atlas-esque resistance training that although promising much, could not compete with actual weights. Nevertheless, my head has been turned, and although not a fully fledged convert to resistance training, I can’t deny how useful they’ve been recently. My very unexotic travels have however spurred my interest in the equipment. So in today’s post we’re going to examine the history of resistance bands. Where they came from, who popularised them and some useful tips on how to use them should you be stuck on your own travels.
The Early History of Resistance Bands
At this juncture it’s important for me to state that today’s article, though concerned with resistance bands, will crossover into the world of chest expanders and strand pullers ever so slightly. After all, the idea of using cables for resistance undoubtedly influenced the multi coloured elastic bands referred to in the introduction.
Now to date the first mention of a chest expander I’ve found to date comes from the 1851 Great Exhibition in Victorian England. A smorgasbord of sporting and medical equipment, the expander was marketed as a sort of pseudo medical device for Victorian men and women with weak chests. Unfortunately for us, we have no conception of how many sold, how they were used and, infuriatingly, how they actually looked (my historical researching skills at their finest here).
In the United States, a Swiss man named Gustav Gossweiler was granted a patent in 1896 for his resistance apparatus pictured below.
Now although this device was more akin to a Chest Expander in its design, it was nevertheless pivotal moment. Though Gossweiler patented this device in Switzerland the year before in 1895, it’s hard to discern whether he is the first inventor of this type of device. You see in England around the same time, the Whitely company, who would soon join forces with Eugen Sandow, were promoting their own expander similar to the Swiss man’s. And this is to say nothing of the use of therapeutic chest expanders during the 1880s.
The Age of Physical Culture
From the late 1890s onwards one sees chest expanders and strand pullers emerge as a prime product for mail order retail. Eugen Sandow and countless others put their names to a variety of devices based on the premise of cable resistance.
What is significant about this, in my opinion at least, is that the physical culturists helped normalise chest expanders and strand pullers for the general public. Whereas previously such devices were seen as medical apparatus, as evidence by the 1851 Exhibition where the chest expander was marketed for doctors, the physical culturists of the early twentieth century advertised the device specifically for those seeking to improve their physiques. In this way, the devices were promoted alongside dumbbells, barbells and Indian Clubs as one more device that lifters could use.
At this point however, we are going to diverge away from the history of chest expanders and strand pullers in the knowledge that they will make up an article in the future. Now we set our sights firmly on the elastic resistance bands currently in my travel bag.
A New Device is Born?
What is so frustrating about this particular topic is that its nigh on impossible to discover the first individual to market elastic resistance bands. The best I can, until someone corrects me, is to trawl through old online patents in search of something old. Luckily this hasn’t been a complete waste. In 1940, Raymond E Nilson was granted a patent for arguably the first elastic resistance band. What he lacked in artistic skills, Nilson perhaps made up for in ingenuity.
Although in existence, such devices hadn’t yet hit the gyms. In one of my favourite quotes, Titan recalled that bands could be found in sex parlours but not the gym during the 1950s and 60s. That being said, Thera Bands were introduced during this time and gained great traction in the physical therapy community and would eventually cross over into the athletic community.
But Come On…When did we get the Powerlifting Bands?
This is a question I can answer! I hope… According to that bastion of integrity, the internet, an American man and former Football Coach, Dick Hartzell introduced bought the light and heavy duty training bands found across gyms throughout the world. A coach from Youngstown, Dick patented the devices in the early 1980s and thanks to his connections within the world of football, was able to sell the products directly to some of the top teams within the NFL.
Aside from Football, Dick was also an avid strength enthusiast. A strong man in his own right, Hartzell was known to those within the powerlifting community as well. In 2006, Dave Tate noted Hartzell’s longevity within the powerlifting community and the reverence held for his brand of products. How Dick’s products first entered the domain of powerlifting is difficult to ascertain (this research is doing wonders for my self-confidence) but what we do know is that powerlifting gyms such as Westside Barbell were using bands in their training from the early 1990s, supposedly after Louie Simmons met with Hartzell.
As we all know, whenever Westside sneezed in the 1990s and early 2000s, the rest of the powerlifting community caught a cold. Safe to say that Simmons, using both his own and Hartzell’s ideas, helped popularise the training bands that have saved my ass on many a trip.
Useful Exercises with the Bands
For those seeking to use Therabands in their training, similar to those invented in the 1960s, Jim Stoppani’s video below will save me typing!
For our powerlifting friends, you can do no better than Mark Bell’s tutorials on the Rogue Fitness youtube channel. Bell’s a champion powerlifter, and by all accounts, one of the chillest guys in the sport. The below video details squatting with the bands, but if you’re interested, Rogue has a series dedicated to the bands
And on that note… Happy Lifting!
I’m a little surprised that the Jiffy Gym wasn’t mentioned. This was a one piece rubber band about 3-inches wide. The ends were serrated and enlarged for gripping. Some versions had hollowed end portions through which handles could be inserted. I bought one for a dollar around 1955, when I would have been 12 or 13. I can recall taking it to the upscale private school I attended. None of us could extend it for any length, but the coach, a very muscular former Marine, did pull it to a considerable extent, albeit with great effort. One boy who tried it was able to pull it back sufficiently to smack another in the face with it. The victim cried out, “Arrgh, you got my good eye!” As I recall, both were sons of Hollywood “movers and shakers,” but I have no recollection who their fathers were.
That is such a good example of why I love writing for this website Jan. Thank you for bringing that to my attention! These posts are largely me just trying to fill in the gaps, so the more people contribute the better. And oh my – that story is wonderful!!
A nice article but lacking in further detail or photo’s of the varied manufacturers of equipment from the 80’s to 2022. I had a T-shaped device in 1996 I can’t recall the name of but it used a variety of rectangular shaped – radiused end resistance bands of varied strength and with hole to mount on the tools being used. Was trying to find that equipment name that led to my search and found your article.