How Has Gym Equipment Changed Over Time?

Well … it finally happened. Gyms are beginning to open around the world. Lifters rejoice! Now I’ve previously discussed my own training struggles down the global lockdowns. For the first time in my life I was unable to go to the gym, had virtually no access to a barbell and … somehow … I survived.

More seriously the closing of gyms during the pandemic forced me to be creative in my training and, in a strange way, made my training more fun. This was the first time that I trained seriously with sandbags, home made kettle bells and resistance bands. In time I was lucky enough to purchase some adjustable dumbbells and a barbell. My training has arguably never been better because it has never been simpler.

But then the gyms opened. And now I am stuck in a very real dilemma. Do I continue training at home or do I now pay for a gym membership? If I have the basics do I need more? What are the basics anyway? So I did what I always do, I turned to history for the answers.

What Makes A Gym?

A home gym will never be complete. I am forever on the lookout for little gadgets and gizmos that add variety to my training. But, at its heart, my home gym now revolves around two barbells (one Olympic and a trap bar), adjustable dumbbells, a bench and Olympic plates. I have a collapsible chin up/dip station and a prowler I bought second hand. It’s pretty perfect although I now train outdoors in my Irish garden. Checking the weather forecast before lifting is a strange experience but I realize how lucky I am.

When I heard commercial gyms are open again I asked myself a serious question. What am I missing? Sure it’d be great not to squat where my dogs pee and it would be even better if I could use a leg curl, lat pull-down and leg press but don’t enough alternatives exist?

This led to a more pointed question – what is the minimum expectation I have in a gym? It needs a squat rack and free weights. After that, everything is a nice addition. Now I have previously expressed my huge admiration for Dan John and his simple but effective programming. So yes, Dan John has corrupted me but there is a larger issue at play here.

Modern gyms, be they a powerlifting dungeon or a plush 24 hour gym, sells themselves on the equipment and atmosphere they offer. As lifters, our expectations have changed. I recently chatted to a good friend of mine who complained that his gym only had one reverse hyper extension machine. One! During lock-down the same friend filled water bottles with cement for hammer curls.

This got me thinking about the history of the gym. More specifically the history of what gyms traditionally offered. As we will see, gyms have become more and more specialized in our time. Indeed the last decade, in particular, has seen an explosion in very specific gym gear.

Spit and Sawdust: The Early Gyms

In Ancient Athens the gymnasium had space for calisthenic exercises, wrestling, and perhaps some form of weight training. They also had the equivalent to hot baths and you could catch a philosopher giving a lecture after a workout. As a society, I think it is fair to say that we have devolved in our gym etiquette. That is unless you and your training partner discuss metaphysics in between sets.

The first gymnasiums were a one stop shop of anything and everything it seems. But they died away in the Ancient World. For this reason we are better off discussing early gym equipment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It was during this time that Europe, in particular, truly became alive to the value of physical education and gymnastics.

Now we do not need to go into the specifics, which includes a lot of Napoleonic War history, but the early 1800s saw a number of educators, philosophers and military leaders agree on one simple idea. People needed to exercise more and they needed somewhere to do it.

These places to train went by many names – gymnasiums, Turner clubs, physical education classes etc. – but they all shared the same purpose. People went there to train. The equipment they had during this time was largely gymnastic equipment like climbing ropes, pommel horses, climbing frames and mats. You strengthened your body through a mixture of body-weight exercises, combat sports and maybe dumbbells.

The only free-weight equipment that people used at this time were Indian clubs and rather light dumbbells.

The Free Weight Era

The gyms mentioned above were largely the template for most of the 1800s. Sure the equipment got bigger, the dumbbells got heavier but that was largely it. No reverse hypers sadly.

Now some brief exceptions did exist. Frenchman Hippolyte Triat may have had early barbells in his gym during the 1850s but this was very much a rarity. Heavy dumbbells, barbells and kettle-bells only became a prominent feature in gyms during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The catalyst here was the ‘physical culture’ movement which, defined simply here, was a time when European and American societies began to seriously engage with gym cultures. Led by individuals like Eugen Sandow, Bernarr Macfadden or Thomas Inch, men began to lift a new generation of dumbbells and barbells. For women, Katie Sandwina, Victorina, and several others provided some inspiration although female gymnasium cultures lagged behind those aimed at men.

In the early 1900s entrepreneurs like Alan Calvert in America or Bill Pullum in Britain began to sell barbells and dumbbells in greater numbers. They were complimented by other entrepreneurs selling developers, Indian clubs and resistance bands.

So by the time of the Great War in 1914, your typical gym was likely a hybrid between the gymnastic gyms of the early 1800s and a new gym era defined by free weights.

The Machine Age

Dumbbells, barbells and pulleys were the magical trifecta in gyms for many years. Everything, or nearly everything, revolved around these three things. Sure, rudimentary leg press machines existed, but they relied on dumbbells. Likewise people used ‘iron boots’ to do leg extensions and curls, but they needed dumbbells to use them.

While benches and squat racks were added to gyms as new inventions, barbells and dumbbells also evolved in the 1920s and 1930s from fixed weight or shot loaded weights to plate loaded. This meant that you could easily increase, or decrease, the weight you lifted.

Things began to change in the 1950s and 1960s when fitness entrepreneurs and celebrities Jack Lalanne and Vic Tanny began opening fitness centers for the general public. Many individuals were not interested in using free weights so, instead, equipment like the Smith Machine was put on the gym floor.

Soon people like Harold Zinkin, who created the Universal Machines, and Arthur Jones, who created the Nautilus Machines, began marketing machines in gyms which could be used to develop the body. The gym goer in the 1970s no longer had to rely on free weights to develop their body. Machines were all the rage.

The Modern (ish) Day

Obviously not all gyms began using machines but a substantial number went with a mixture of machines and free weights. Since the 1970s innovation has tended to focus on machines rather than dumbbells and barbells.

During the ‘functional fitness’ craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Swiss balls, bosu balls and foam rollers began a requirement of any gym catering to the general public. From the early 2000s the move towards Crossfit and strength added monster lifting stations, battle ropes, prowlers, reverse hypers, glute ham raises and everything in between.

As I see it, we are currently in a rather wonderful cycle in the fitness industry. Strength has become cool. Thus the reverse hypers and glute ham raises so favored by powerlifters are slowly becoming equipment for the general public. Likewise Crossfit has made assault bikes, prowlers and battle ropes trendy. It is awful for the gym owner, who is constantly adding more and more equipment to the gym floor. But it is rather wonderful for the gym goer.

Making Sense of All This

Large, commercial gyms, now cater to a variety of groups. They offer machines, free weights, cardio equipment and Crossfit gear. Few groups make use of all this equipment on a regular basis. The gym, however, must provide it.

Our expectations of what a gym should offer have changed drastically over several decades. When I began training in the early 2000s, a good gym was one without big crowds and a decent lifting platform. Before Covid hit, I expected tires, Olympic calibrated plates, power cages, specialized machines and an assault bike for cardio.

So gyms are open and my home gym is something from the fitness stone age. My barbell, dumbbells and plates are now the bare minimum many expect. Maybe it is old age but I have never been happier in my training. Simplicity and low expectations become my uninspirational motto.

So enjoy the gym folks, I’m happy in my back garden gym where neither rain, nor snow, nor energetic schnauzers will stop me lifting.

2 thoughts on “How Has Gym Equipment Changed Over Time?

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  1. Awesome article, and I agree, I prefer train at home, more cheaper, no annoying people, you train when and how you want

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