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.
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
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
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 invented. Attributed 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
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!
An excellent article, never imagine that the medicine ball had such an ancient history. I was very funny the story of the sultan.
It’s remarkable isn’t it? Funnily the Sultan story is very similar to one about Indian clubs
Any ideas why the medicine ball along with the Indian club and the kettlebell fell into relative obscurity and perceived obsolescence in the immediate aftermath of WWII? I suspect the dominance of the bodybuilding publications of Hoffman and Weider, neither of whom ever produced these items to the best of my knowledge, may have been a major cause.
Hi Jan, I suspect that the profitability of dumbbells and barbells was likely a deciding factor. Weider and Hoffman advertised weightlifting and bodybuilding, which required larger amounts of weight to be used while exercising. Indian clubs weren’t going to build the kind of muscular bodies that were needed. Kettlebells is an interesting one as Alan Calvert sold them in the early 1900s. This article may be of interest – https://barbend.com/kettlebell-history/
Thank you so much for your reply and the link. Nice to see my suspicions confirmed by more knowledgeable people. I can remember that when I used to peruse the muscle mags from Hoffman and Weider many, many years ago, the weight training packages of one or both included “kettlebell handles” that you could slip over a dumbell bar. I could never figure out how they did much to improve training…and still can’t. I started serious dumbbell training about 56 years ago. Four years ago, I took up kettlebell training. I enjoy kettlebell training, but I’m not convinced they bring much if anything to the table you can’t get with dumbbells. As a matter of interest, I met both Hoffman and Weider (on separate occasions). This would have been around 40 years ago.
Hi Jan, no worries at all. I hope you enjoyed it. Victoria is doing some great work. I’m the same as you, I enjoy Kettlebell training but it is very much a secondary interest versus dumbbells and barbells. Really? Do you mind me asking how you met them??
Sorry to be so late in getting back to you on this. As to my meeting Bob Hoffman, as best I recall, I was at a powerlifting championship at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium. I rounded a corner, and there was big Bob Hoffman of York, PA. I greeted him and told him how much of an influence he had been on me, and he praised me as a “big, husky guy.” Amusingly, I first became aware of Bob Hoffman when I was about 11 or 12 through a book by him entitled “Sex Technique” that someone had given my uncle as joke. I didn’t mention that to Hoffman, though.
Weider I met at a bodybuilding event in Harbor City, CA. I was with weightlifting coach Bob Hise, at whose shop in Glendale I used to spend some time, and Hise introduced me to Weider. As I recall, I mentioned I had been inspired by one of his muscle magazines back in 1946 when I was four years old. Hise and his family sure had no use for Hoffman, I’ll have to say!
That is an incredible story Jan! Thanks for coming back – being called a big husky guy by Hoffman was praise from Caesar wasn’t it? The sex technique book really was something else. Funnily that’s how I first came across Charles Atlas – again a gag gift.
That’s fascinating about Hise – I would have assumed there’d be some love for Hoffman who came before him!
Well, I think Hise was rebelling against Hoffman’s domination over weightlifting in the USA. I believe that’s why he called his operation “Mavrik.” Autocrats and monopolists are seldom universally loved. Hoffman was still very much in business at the time I knew Hise. I sure consumed a lot of Hoffman’s protein tablets in my younger days.
Just in case you are wondering, I asked Bob Hise if he were any relation to the earlier weightlifter and strongman J.C. Hise. “A distant cousin,” he replied.
Of course, I grew up with the Charles Atlas ads in the comics. Not long ago, I read a blog post by a guy who had taken the Charles Atlas course recently and found it quite beneficial. I doubt whether it would be to anyone who had done much serious resistance training, though.
Do you know much about Atlas’ competitor George F. Jowett? Some people seem to have held him in high regard, others have claimed his courses were more or less knock-offs of Atlas’. When I was very young, his ads claimed, “I can make you commando tough.” Later he modernized that to “astronaut tough.”
That’s a really interesting point and I suspect you’re right. You also read my mind on the Hise connection – my first thought was immediately J.C.
We actually have Jowett’s Anvil where I work which is a rather special thing. The interplay and borrowing between Jowett, Lederman and Atlas is quite blatant isn’t it?
Wow. Intriguing History.
I never knew the Ball has a complicated history.
Now I see how it is a powerful tool for building strength.
It stumped me as well – fun history isn’t it?
Back again, and thank for your knowledgeable answers to my previous queries. I have been aware of medicine balls for most of my rather long life but for much of that time believed they belonged back in the era of Walter Camp. However, when I got into the world of unconventional/alternative fitness a few years back, slam balls aka dead balls were a novelty to me. Do you have any idea when slam balls, as distinct from the more traditional medicine ball, were developed and came into vogue?
Here’s an addition to the medicine ball history timeline. Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, an instructor and curator of Harvard’s gymnasium was pictured with a medicine ball around 1860. This was first image of the medicine ball in the US.
Yes Lele! Awesome point. I believe Louis Moore’s article on Molyneaux includes an image of him with the medicine ball?