The predecessors of modern strength training equipment may seem primitive compared to the mechanical wonders that grace today's clubs, but on closer inspection, the influence of these early products is readily apparent. In fact, strength training would be weakened without the innovations of decades past.
Bill Pearl, 69, has seen many of these innovations firsthand. He has been weight training since 1945. Over a period of 20 years, he won the Mr. America and Mr. U.S.A. body-building competitions, and he was named Mr. Universe five times. He has owned health clubs across the United States. He has written books and made videos on exercise. And he has studied the history of health and fitness. Who better to describe some of the products that changed the way people look at strength training?
The Adjustable Barbell
Convenient barbell sets just didn't exist prior to 1910. The closest thing to an adjustable barbell came from Professor Louis Attila, who, according to Pearl, opened the first private health club in the United States in 1894. Attila made the Global barbell. Each side of the Global barbell had a plug the user could remove; this allowed the exerciser to increase the weight of the barbell by filling it with sand, shot or water. As you can imagine, the amount of time this required didn't encourage the average person to take up weight lifting.
"Because it was so difficult to change the bar, the industry was going nowhere," Pearl says.
Alan Calvert changed that in 1910. He improved upon Professor Attila's idea by creating the Milo adjustable barbell set, which, like modern free weights, worked with plates - 5 lb., 10 lb. and 15 lb. plates to be precise. Thanks to the Milo barbell, exercisers could finally change weights comfortably and quickly.
"This revolutionized the industry," Pearl claims. "Everybody was buying these sets and training at home because you had a barbell that could go from 10 lbs. or 30 lbs. all the way up to 150 lbs., or whatever they so desired."
Can you imagine working your pecs without a bench? Well, up until around the mid-'30s, gyms didn't have benches. People would press weights while lying flat on the ground. Not the most effective way to exercise the chest, and not the safest way either.
In 1935, crude benches and support racks started appearing in gyms. They weren't as sleek as the upholstered models found in today's health clubs, but they still beat lying on the floor.
At first, flat benches were the only kind available. Variations came in the early 1950s, with incline and decline benches making their way into gyms.
Pearl saw his first incline bench in 1953 in a gym in Oakland, Calif. Ed Yarick, the gym's owner, had taken a 2 by 12 board and stuck it between a doorjamb at an angle. Pearl walked into the gym and saw Steve Reeves, the former Mr. Olympia and star of numerous Hercules movies, working out on the board.
"Hercules was lying on this thing at an angle with a barbell doing incline bench presses," Pearl recalls.
A board stuck in a doorjamb may not seem impressive compared to today's high-tech equipment, but keep in mind that this was a new way of thinking. Yarick was certainly proud of his ingenuity. "He told me, 'This will completely revolutionize the sport of body building,' " Pearl says.
Strength training got even easier near the end of the '50s when Harold Zinkin invented the first Universal machine, which was a four-station unit with weight stacks.
"That just catapulted the industry yet again," Pearl says. "It was gone."
Approximately a decade after Universal gained popularity, Arthur Jones and his Nautilus machines arrived on the scene. However, the original Nautilus system was not the type of machine people automatically associate with Jones.
"The first Nautilus machine that Arthur made was a multi-station unit like a Universal machine," Pearl says. "I actually told Arthur, 'You'd do better off, in my opinion, if you break the machine into sections so you can distribute it throughout the gym.' " Arthur Jones did break the machine into individual exercise units, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While today's strength equipment has improved upon the original designs, the basics of yesterday's innovations still apply. Modern manufacturers have taken the ideas further by improving upon the functionality of equipment, making the machines conform more comfortably to the way the human body moves.
The biggest innovation of late, according to Pearl, comes courtesy of electronics. Computerization that guides people through their strength training routines is creating the next big revolution.
"The computer is doing [today] what the old Milo barbell did in 1910," Pearl says.
What Were They Thinking?
Fitness historian Dr. Terry Todd explains the logic behind some forgotten exercise equipment.
The Spring Exerciser
The Iron Horseshoe
The Iron Boot