The History of Powerblock Dumbbells

This, admittedly, is an article promoted by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the past three months, gyms in my area have been closed or reopened on restricted times. The market for home gym equipment has seen unprecedented levels of demand and adjustable dumbbells are selling for two or three times their original value.

Today’s post looks at Powerblock, one of the more popular sellers of adjustable dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells were not invented by Powerblock, but they did, as we’ll see, help promote them among a new generation of lifters.

A Brief History of Adjustable Dumbbells 

The popular use of adjustable dumbbells can be traced to the opening decades of the twentieth century when physical culturists first began selling workout equipment. One of the first instances of this came when Eugen Sandow, an individual we have discussed in detail, sold a spring loaded dumbbell.

Sandow Spring Grip Dumbbells. Source.

As a brief history lesson, the spring loaded dumbbells were based on a rather intriguing idea. Sandow’s workout programmes were based on the idea that individuals should concentrate as much as possible when performing an exercise.

To achieve this, he devised spring loaded dumbbells. In essence, they were modelled on a sandwich. In between two bars of metal were springs. To use the dumbbells, exercisers had to squeeze the two bars together while the springs provided resistance.

It was a fairly light form of dumbbell lifting but it was adjustable. Lifters could make the movement easier or harder by removing springs.

So Sandow’s products were important, not lest because they were copied by a number of his contemporaries. As cool as the spring grips were, they were not particularly useful when it came to heavy lifting.

Far more important, and influential, were globe barbells and dumbbells. Such objects, which predated plate loaded bars, saw hollow spheres attached to the end of a bar. Weight could be added by either loading sand or mercury fillings into the globe. In time this evolved into adding or subtracting small plates from the bars.

A pioneer in this regard was Alan Calvert of Milo Barbell. Calvert was America’s first major producer of barbells, kettlebells and dumbbells. Many of his devices were ‘adjustable’ in that weight could be added or subtracted. They weren’t the snazzy adjustable dumbbells of today, but it was something.

Interwar Innovations

So Calvert and those following him, like York Barbell’s Bob Hoffman, paved the way in producing some form of adjustable dumbbells. They were effective but perhaps not the easiest devices to use. Innovation, in the fitness industry, never rests and it wasn’t long before people began to tweak and change designs.

I’ve done a deep dive through Google Patents and come across some of the earlier adjustable dumbbell and kettlebells devices from the interwar period (1918-1939). Sadly I’m still struggling to find out more information about these individuals but one such example came from L.C. Reeves and Mortimor Webb.

Designed for men, women and children, the below device was said to help with bodybuilding and strengthening exercises.

 

Another example could be found in 1933 when R.A. Wood sought a patent for the below exercising bell. Again check out the ease with which weights could be added or removed.

Designed for men, women and children, the below device was said to help with bodybuilding and strengthening exercises.

The Second Wave

If Calvert and those in the interwar period marked the first wave of innovation in this space, the next came in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a time when health and fitness truly infiltrated the mainstream.

For men, the success of bodybuilding films like Pumping Iron moved bodybuilding from a niche activity to something anyone could do. Likewise for women, the birth of aerobics ensured that health clubs catered to every sex, shape and size.

As more and more people expressed an interest in working out, it was perhaps inevitable that products would be made to cater to them.

One such example comes from Marvin Jaegar’s 1988 adjustable dumbbell which worked on a plate loading/subtracting system.

Another example was Edward K. Hettick’s design from 1985. We can see here a move towards very simple, user friendly form of dumbbell which, importantly, came in very heavy weights.

The Birth of Powerblock 

It is within this second wave that the prime focus of today’s post, the Powerblock emerged. First produced in 1993, Powerblock were several decades in the making. As retold on the company’s own website, the designer of Powerblock, Carl Towley, had spent several years trying to devise the perfect dumbbell for home use.

Owing, in part, to his job as a repairman for a health club in Santa Cruz, California, Towley was interesting annoyed by the constant clutter found on gym floors, a scene we are undoubtedly all familiar with. My last visit to a commercial gym – which thanks to Covid-19 was several months ago – was a firm reminder that many exercisers are content leaving/throwing/neglecting dumbbells on to the floor for others to step over. Towley wanted to alleviate this problem by designing an adjustable dumbbell suitable for both commercial and home gyms.

Having spent a not inconsiderable amount of time researching and revising old plans, Towley finally stumbled across the idea of a U-shaped pin to be used for the dumbbells. Now for those who own the dumbbells, you’ll undoubtedly know what I’m talking about.

For those that don’t, the U-shaped pin inserted into the side of the dumbbell’s internal weight stack. This allows for an easy means of increasing and decreasing the weight.

With his prototype in mind, Towley founded Powerblock in Owatonna, MN in 1993. Using a small building with no heat, which meant that workers often had to wear winter coats indoors, the Powerblock dumbbell became a reality. Rather remarkably the early years of Powerblock were documented and later put on Youtube.

Powerblock quickly became one of the fastest selling, and most coveted, pieces of equipment for home gym users across the United States and, in time, the globe. Competitors exist, some of whom have brought their own innovations to the table, but credit must still be given to a small factory in Minnesota with no heat.

As always … Happy Lifting!