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.

An Ancient Training Method?

From written texts and surviving murals, we have quite a bit of evidence to suggest that people in Ancient Greece and Rome exercised with some form of light or heavy ball. Jack Berryman’s study of Hippocrates, the man widely regarded as the ‘Father of Modern Medicine’ noted that the Greek physician recommended some form of ball games for patients to improve their health. Earlier studies, like that of Edward Marwick Plummer, suggest that Athenian athletes used balls as part of their gymnastic training, although Plummer is silent as to how heavy they may have been.

Moving to Rome, we have two strong examples of medicine style balls being used by people. The first is the famous ‘Bikini Girls’ mosaic from the Villa del Casale of Piazza, shown below.

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Dating to the fourth century AD, the mural shows two separate instances of balls being used. In the top left we see a woman with a larger, presumably heavier form of ball whereas the bottom right shows two women engaged in a light ball game. The Piazza’s mural gives us an amazing visual indication of the ball’s long history.

Wonderful art aside, a more detailed example comes in the form of Galen’s On Exercise with a Small Ball. Published in sometime in the second century,  Galen’s work sought to provide a brief training tract for lay people struggling to maintain their health. Much like Hippocrates, Galen was one of the foremost medical authorities of his day. His word and his recommendations thus carried quite a bit of significance.

On the small ball, Galen wrote that

The form of exercise most deserving of our attention is therefore that which has the capacity to provide health of the body, harmony of the parts, and virtue in the soul; and all these things are true of the exercise with the small ball.

He also argued that it is

Extremely beneficial for health, and brings about a well-balanced condition, without any undue accumulation of flesh or excess thinness

And that

Since the exercise with the small ball has in addition to those already listed, the advantage that it does not involve any danger, then surely it must be the most beneficial exercise of all.

How many people followed Galen’s prescriptions is hard to know but between Galen and the ‘Bikini Girls’ mural, we have enough evidence to suggest that some form of ball was used for gymnastic and medical purposes. Similarly some have claimed the ball was used in India and Persian to build strength among soldiers and wrestlers, although the evidence for this is much harder to find.

The Birth of the Medicine Ball 

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Although exercises with balls were likely done during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it has proven difficult to track down exactly when the medicine ball, as we would understand the term, first came into use. The first usage of the term medicine ball comes, however, in the late nineteenth century, specifically 1876 when it was said the device was inventedAttributed to a Mr. Roberts of the Boston Y.M.C.A. gymnasium, the medicine ball was presented as a versatile means of exercising the totality of the body. It was said that

R. J. Roberts, who is at present instructor in the Y. M. C. A. gymnasium of Boston. Mr. Roberts enjoys the distinction of being the first man to put the “medicine ball” into use in a gymnasium

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From later reports, it seems that Roberts was aware of the ball’s potential for trainees. It is claimed he said of his invention that

Inside a dozen years, the ‘Medicine Ball’ will be in use all over the world…

For anyone interest, Roberts published his own work on exercise, which included notes on the medicine ball. From Roberts’ publication, the medicine ball’s popularity grew among trainers in gymnasiums and inside the military.

In 1906, William Cromie published a general fitness book on the medicine ball. Interestingly, Cromie dated it’s origins to the Ancient World, rather than Roberts. Readers were told that

The Sultan once consulted his physician in regard to a troublesome malady. Believing that only fresh air and exercise were needed, and knowing how little the world values plain, simple things, the doctor said : “Here is a ball which I have stuffed with rare and precious herbs. Your Highness must beat this ball with a bat and toss it in every conceivable way each day till you perspire freely.”

The Sultan followed these directions, and was cured of his disease without realizing that he was only taking exercise. Probably the ”Medicine Ball” would be more used if we, like the Sultan, were deceived ; but of a certainty our diseases in the main will, like his, be eradicated from our system if we indulge in daily exercise.

Cromie wasn’t the only trainer equally impressed with the medicine ball as Bernarr Macfadden, the man responsible for America’s first bodybuilding show, proved equally enthused.

Away from the public gymnasium was the world of military training. Although the US military was relatively late adopting a formal programme of training – Gatzemeyer’s dissertation dated the first official manual to the 1910s – individual gyms adopted the medicine ball prior to this time.

Taken together, that is the public gymnasium and the military, this meant that from the early nineteenth-century, exercisers and trainees in the United States were both familiar with, and fond of, the medicine ball.

Regarding the device’s recent upturn in popularity, I suspect that the growing interest in ‘functional training‘ has much to do with it. That however, is a different story for a different day.

As always … Happy Lifting!

 

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