Why Are Dumbbells Called Dumbbells?

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Dumbbells are a popular and effective tool for strength training and exercise. They’re versatile, easy to use, and come in various weights and sizes, making them suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.

You can get a full-body workout with a set of dumbbells or use them as I do: as an accessory to the main barbell lifts. I love doing Arnold shoulder presses and bicep curls with dumbbells.

But while doing some of those curls the other day, I got to wondering: “Why are dumbbells called dumbbells?”

I mean, it’s kind of a weird name when you think about it.

I decided to investigate. 

The Ur-Dumbbell: The Ancient Greek Haltere

Not only did the ancient Greeks give us democracy and virtue ethics, but they also bequeathed us the forerunner of what would become the modern dumbbell. Soldiers and athletes would train with various weighted implements to get stronger. One of these strength-training tools was the haltere. 

The haltere

The haltere varied in shape throughout antiquity but most commonly took the form of a semicircle with a hole in it; users would place their fingers through the hole to grip this piece of handheld exercise equipment. Halteres were typically constructed from stone and metal but were also made with wood and wax; athletes would add lead to these wooden and waxen halteres to increase their weight.

Halteres were used similarly to how we use modern dumbbells. Athletes would hold the weights while performing curls, lunges, and deadlifts. They’d also swing them around the way you would an Indian club.

An ancient Greek athlete holding halteres while doing the long jump.

Halteres were used for training in the long jump as well. Athletes would hold the weights in their hands and jump with them to build up power and strength in their legs. They’d also use halteres to jump further. As they jumped, they’d swing the halteres forward to help propel their momentum and then swing the weights backward, letting them go just before landing.

The Romans copied the Greeks and used halteres to train their athletes and warriors. The Greek physician Galen recommended soldiers utilize halteres to get stronger. 

Image from De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes showing modern dumbbell-looking halteres.

During the Renaissance, ancient Greek and Roman training methods saw a revitalization. Health books of the period forwarded Galen’s recommendations for using weighted implements for exercise, and the haltere found its way back into Western culture. The most important Renaissance book that promoted strength training with halteres was Mercurialis’ De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes. Along with training regimens inspired by Hellenistic culture, the book contains elaborate illustrations of jacked Greeks and Romans hoisting things, including halteres, to get stronger. But the halteres that Mercurialis depicted looked different from the oblong semicircles that actual Greeks and Romans used. Instead, they looked like two cones stuck together at their heads, forming a rod in the middle you could grasp. 

They looked like modern-day dumbbells.

Dumbbells Become Dumbbells

Thanks to Mercurialis’ De Arte Gymnastica, by the 18th century, training with handheld weights became a common and accepted form of physical exercise. But when did the haltere start being called a dumbbell, and why was it called that?

Jan Todd, a professor of exercise history, has scoured the historical record on these questions and couldn’t come to a definitive answer.

But what she uncovered offers clues about how the haltere became the dumbbell. 

In 1711, the British poet and essayist Joseph Addison wrote this in his popular magazine, The Spectator:

When I was some years younger than I am at present, I used to employ myself in a more laborious diversion…it is there called…the fighting with a man’s own shadow; and consists in the brandishing of two short sticks, grasped in each hand, and loaded with plugs of lead at either end. This opens the chest, exercises the limbs and gives a man all the pleasure of boxing, without the blows.

It sounds like Addison was shadowboxing using handheld weights that resemble what we know as dumbbells. But in that essay, he never used “dumbbell” to refer to his hand weights.

However, when describing another of his exercise routines in a different essay in the same issue of the magazine, he does use the phrase “dumb bell”:

For my own part, when I am in town, I exercise myself an hour every morning upon a dumb bell that is placed in a corner of my room, and [it] pleases me the more because it does everything I require of it in most profound silence. My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me whilst I am ringing.

An 18th-century dumb bell machine. Image from the Gentleman's Magazine, 1746.

The dumb-bell exercise apparatus, which was used even by a Founding Father. When Benjamin Franklin was 80, a friend asked him in a letter what accounted for his longevity. Old Ben responded: “I live temperately, drink no wine, and use daily the exercise of the dumb-bell.”

When Addison says he was exercising himself upon a “dumb bell,” he was likely referring to a piece of equipment that included four arms with lead balls on their ends. The apparatus was installed a level above the one on which it would be used. A rope attached to the device ran through the floor to where the user stood below. He would pull the rope up and down, turning the apparatus’ weighted arms like a flywheel. This rope-pulling movement resembled that used to ring a big bell (like a church bell), though this “ringing” did not, of course, result in any sound. Hence, the device was called a “dumb bell” — “dumb” as in “doesn’t make a noise.”

So why did the name “dumb bell” get transferred from this piece of 18th-century exercise equipment to haltere-esque handheld weights?

Perhaps it was because the arms on the dumb-bell apparatus kind of resemble the dumbbells we know today. 

Or maybe readers of Addison’s magazine conflated the two articles he wrote together and started thinking of the handheld weights he referenced as “dumb bells” too.

The world may never know.

While there isn’t a definitive answer as to when and why handheld weights became known as dumbbells, it’s clear that by the end of the 18th century, they were regularly being called such (the term “barbell” wouldn’t arrive on the scene for another century). 

It’s also clear that dumbbells have a health-enhancing, strength-improving track record that stretches from antiquity through the present day.  

Long may they continue to be hoisted. 

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