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Dumbbells, Dumbbells, Dumbbells-All you Need for a Full Body Workout since Ancient Times

Updated on March 27, 2012

Dumbbells are the everyman’s, or every woman’s free weight. Far more so than barbells, the dumbbells are portable and easy to store. They can be loaded up for heavy lifting or light enough for rehabilitation, and they have a long history. In fact, much of the modern infatuation with the dumbbell can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, who placed great value on exercising to improve athletic performance and aesthetic appeal.

Their equipment of choice included variations of modern dumbbells called halteres. Often weighted with lead, these were curved hand weights made in different shapes and used as resistance (and possibly assistance) in jumping, running and other activities.

While the halteres resembled the modern dumbbell only in the sense that they were hand held weights, there is evidence of the familiar implement we know today in a famous drawing from the 2nd century A.D. The drawing appears in the Piazza Armerina, and depicts bikini clad women exercising (or performing) with light dumbbells in both hands.

Still another in the pages of the "De Arte Gymnastica” shows well-muscled men exercising with conical shaped dumbbells, heavy sheets of stone or lead (called “tabula plumb”) and other implements. In fact, some version of the modern handweight has been found in India, where the Indian clubs (jori) were common, China, and later in the Roman Empire. Dumbbells have stood the test of time, and perhaps a rennaissance period beginning in the late 1860’s, before barbells were manufactured.

During this time period, the first adjustable dumbbells were invented, but they were still designed as two weighted spheres on either end of a handle. The weights were adjusted by removing an end cap to adjust the amount of lead shot. These early designs set the stage for the wide variety of dumbbells used in modern strength training and conditioning today, and there are quite a few.

"girl in bikinis" mosaic located in Sicily.
"girl in bikinis" mosaic located in Sicily. | Source
Plain ol' hex dumbbells
Plain ol' hex dumbbells | Source

Put a Hex on it

CAP, Champion, Body Solid, Troy, Ivanko or the local Walmart special, hex dumbbells are universal in their appearance and are an inexpensive solution for commercial gyms everywhere. Why? In their unprotected form, gyms can buy new sets of hex dumbbells up to 100 lbs. for thousands less than chrome or rubber-coated dumbbells. They have easy to read, fixed weights stamped on them and won’t roll all over the place. For the home gym with plenty of space, these benefits still apply, with one more: a dumbell rack, while convenient, is not 100 percent necessary. Just stack the flat-sided free weights in a corner and be sure to put the heaviest on the bottom!

On the other hand, hex dumbells can be hard on hands, bodies and surfaces because of those straight sides and the resulting corners. This is where the rubber-coating comes in handy. It protects skin, helps absorb the impact from drops, and very important: It reduces noise. Of course that extra coating is going to cost you, but quality coating will last a long time.


Adjustable Dumbbells

Hex dumbbells are convenient and easy to find new or used at a decent price. But they require space, which is at a premium for many people who workout at home. For years this problem was addressed first by the plastic-coated concrete weight sets, complete with plastic grips over steel handles. Technology came to our rescue with the advent of the spinning collar system, and thinner steel weight plates slipped onto solid textured handles became common.

For an inexpensive and space-saving set, this is still en excellent option, but it looks archaic next to the instant change dumbbells we have now. Enter Bowflex, Powerblock and a dozen copycats. These manufacturers took the idea of adjustable, space-saving dumbells to a new category. No plates sitting on the floor, no long adjustment times spinning collars on and off. These dumbbells sit on the floor or in a custom stand, and with a turn of a dial or a slip of a pin, the weight is changed.

In the beginning these were available from 5-52 and 5-45 pounds respectively. Now Bowflex offers 90 pounders and Powerblock up to 130 pounds-EACH.

This fancy, convenient adjustment comes at a high price and has more moving parts to worry about, but it looks stylish, and saves a ton of space. It could potentially save you money as well, depending on what type of dumbbell set-up you would have bought otherwise.

These two systems are very different, with Bowflex emphasizing comfort with their ergonomic handles, and Powerblock utilizing a handle partially enclosed inside the ‘block.’ Loyal fans of each brand speak with great praise of these systems.

The dumbbell has evolved over the centuries to a fancy and expensive piece of equipment. But whether you use the latest technology or an old set of rusty adjustable weights, the concept is still the same: Exercise, exercise, exercise, preferably with a set of dumbbells in your hands. They may just be the world's oldest and most versatile exercise equipment!


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