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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 31 0

More Dumbbells

I could make the obvious joke and point out the knee jerk reaction of many in the strength community who said, “Yeah, Dr. Ken wrote about dumbbells from a lot of self knowledge, he is a dumbbell because of his adversity to kettlebells!” To me that would have been funny but allow me to be brief and clear. There is nothing “wrong” or incorrect about doing any training with kettlebells but it is not an efficient tool and for some applications not a safe tool relative to the use of a dumbbell. Again, I will relate to the fact, and it certainly is an undeniable fact, especially for those of us old enough to have lived through the so-called “Golden Age Of Training” of the mid-1950’s to late ‘60’s, that you just never saw a kettlebell unless it was stored in an elderly former lifter’s basement, or stuck in a corner at the local YMCA. I can recall reading some of the 1961 and 1962 Weider magazines when he was selling “kettlebell handles” that could be attached to one’s adjustable dumbbell bar.

Vintage Weider bodybuilding ad

Vintage Weider bodybuilding ad

The “science” behind the handles, and that’s a word not to be thrown around too seriously when it comes to the Weider pronouncements and so-called “research” circa 1960’s, not when the Weider Research Clinic was little more than a sign on a broom closet, was based on a change in leverage that the handles would allow. This in turn would make the exercise more effective. Well, if one makes a movement less efficient, yes, it can be construed as being more difficult, especially if it drifts into the descriptive arena of “awkward” but even then, the handles were a hard sell and had few takers. By the late 1960’s, the only kettlebell handle offering made by Weider was as a pair of handles included as part of the “Superior Big 16” barbell-dumbbell sets offered and the advertising line was “Kettlebell Set for broad, he-man shoulders.” The “sell” was the suggestion to use the handles for lateral raises or front raises, thus the reference to broad shoulders, as their use was otherwise limited. Eventually the handles fell both out of use and the Weider catalogue of products. Dumbbells however, could be found anywhere that weights were lifted, including the York Barbell Club where Olympic weightlifting ruled the day.

Dumbbells, like barbells, have varied in materials, construction, quality, and shape throughout their history. My wife disappeared for an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon this past fall and excitingly returned to the house with the announcement that our neighborhood was having three simultaneous garage sales within a few blocks of our home. This was not thrilling news to me but I more or less humored her and asked what had been such an “exciting” find. For the grand total of fifty cents, she had purchased a pair of wooden dumbbells that she dug out of a pile of “stuff” and the owners were more than happy to see the dumbbells leave their premises for that princely sum. My very intelligent and industrious wife immediately fell into the research and her exciting find proved in fact to be just that: a pair of wooden one pound dumbbells manufactured approximately ninety years ago by Standard Narragansett Machine Company of Providence, Rhode Island. A great discovery and an indication that from the first use of hand held weights or dumbbells, the materials used were limited only by the availability of what was in the locale and the imagination of the user or maker.

Vintage wooden bumbells

Vintage wooden bumbells

Although a number of lengthy treatises have been written about dumbbells and their origins, I have no doubt that they have been manufactured or “home made” using wood, iron, stones, cement, and possibly old cannon balls! If one looks at the mid to late 1940’s editions of Strength And Health Magazine, large scale “weight training” was undertaken by the military to hasten the troops’ preparation for entry into combat. They utilized what we might presently term “circuit training” and had the troops in basic training doing barbell exercises with “barbells” made from concrete filled soup cans that were attached to the ends of a length of pipe. I am quite certain that photos could be found of hand-held weights/dumbbells made in the same manner. I know that many of my early dumbbells were made in my father’s iron shop from either scrap pieces of solid round stock or pipe to which I welded inside and outside collars and the appropriate number of plates so that I had a rather extensive set of permanent dumbbells.

Brian Saxton, former Atlanta Falcons, NY Giants, and Boston College tight end presses with Dr. Ken’s homemade pipe-and-plates dumbbells

Brian Saxton, former Atlanta Falcons, NY Giants, and Boston College tight end presses with Dr. Ken’s homemade pipe-and-plates dumbbells

For those who have in fact made their own dumbbells, it quickly becomes obvious that one cannot “just make dumbbells” if they want to do so safely. The first order of business would be to accumulate enough plates to make the neccessary number of dumbbells in the desired denominations. From seventh grade onward, I became very proficient and persistent at dogging the guys in school whom I knew lifted weights. The standard barbell and dumbbell sets that were sold at local sporting goods stores and the occasionally stocked department store consisted of a five foot bar, two short dumbbell bars, inside and outside screw-on collars for the three bars, and enough plates to construct what was advertised as a “110 Pound Set.” It usually did not take more than a month or two before the erstwhile Man Mountain Deans would give up their quest for Herculean size and strength, and another few weeks past that until they were ready to recoup some of the monetary investment they had put into their barbell set. Usually these wound up under the bed, in the rear of a closet, or stuffed behind other little used items in the garage or basement. I would volunteer to pay next to nothing which was at least more than their perceived worth of the set at the moment, and most importantly, remove the weights myself. On more than one occasion, I made an indelible impression on the citizens of Point Lookout, Lido Beach, and Long Beach as I walked up to two to three miles from the pick up point to my house, with the loaded bar held across my back. With anywhere between 110 and 250 pounds I would traverse the distance to my home gym, huffing and puffing the entire journey, but determined to “get the deal done.” There was no way my working and disinterested parents were going to invest any time into my lifting obsession, even when I toned down my involvement with the description of my twenty-four hour per day “jones” as a hobby. Thus, I was left to my own devices, which was limited to walking, to get to the site of purchase, and then get the merchandise back to the house. In retrospect, in addition to providing entertainment and a certain amount of reinforcement that “this boy is probably crazy” to the neighborhood, any lower body power later exhibited while playing football, running sprints on the track team, or involvement with other physical activity no doubt was positively influenced by what had to be dozens of trips of greater or lesser distance to buy, transport, and then stock my home gym with discarded weights. It wasn’t until I read a copy of the September-October 1963 edition of the original Iron Man Magazine that I discovered the amazing story of Joe Reginer. Mr. Reginer had spent decades building his own equipment, much of it from junk yard refuse he reconstructed into very useable, functional equipment that was similar to many of the machines now seen in modern gyms. He had over fifteen thousand pounds of plates and literally thousands of pounds of “stuff” that resembled barbell plates or could be used for lifting purposes. When he moved from Chicago to San Diego, his 7500 pounds of barbell plates wound up in Los Angeles.

The Iron Man article says it best so… “Since Joe did not own a car, he traveled to Los Angeles each Saturday on the train, carrying two suitcases. These two suitcases were carried back and forth to San Diego with a total of 250 lbs. of weights, 125 in each suitcase. Upon arriving in San Diego, he would take a bus to his home and still have to carry them several blocks up a hill to his house.”

The article noted that when much younger, he transported four 75 pound steel plates home on a bus and with no seats available, had to stand and hold them the entire trip as they were so cumbersome he did not believe he could pick them up once he placed them down again. This was the same guy who while stationed on Okinawa during World War II made a 250 pound barbell out of plywood. The only thing I could think of was “Unreal but this kind of thing must have made him unbelievably strong” and the article written by Leo Stern as per the observations made by him and Bill Pearl indicated that Mr. Reginer was indeed, strong! These types of feats also made my piddling walks with up to two hundred pounds or so rather “punky” by comparison.

Falling under the heading of “Its tough work but someone has to do it” a photo from approximately 2001, Dr. Ken spotting Summer Baskin. To Summer’s credit, those 20 pound York Hex Head Dumbbells rather quickly became a lot heavier as she trained for her first strongman competition. Summer’s brother Whit Baskin was a top ranked strongman competitor until injured and comatose in December of 2000. Summer decided to enter the Northeast Strongman Championships in Massachusetts where Whit would be honored and a fund raising donation would be made. She made amazing progress, became quite strong and muscular and entered a few contests over the next two years. Her training, like that of her world class brother, consisted of conventional barbell and dumbbell exercises and of course, specific strongman events.

Falling under the heading of “Its tough work but someone has to do it” a photo from approximately 2001, Dr. Ken spotting Summer Baskin. To Summer’s credit, those 20 pound York Hex Head Dumbbells rather quickly became a lot heavier as she trained for her first strongman competition. Summer’s brother Whit Baskin was a top ranked strongman competitor until injured and comatose in December of 2000. Summer decided to enter the Northeast Strongman Championships in Massachusetts where Whit would be honored and a fund raising donation would be made. She made amazing progress, became quite strong and muscular and entered a few contests over the next two years. Her training, like that of her world class brother, consisted of conventional barbell and dumbbell exercises and of course, specific strongman events.

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Ken Leistner

About Ken Leistner

American strength training writer, personal trainer, strength consultant for the National Football League, and chiropractor. He is often known as "Dr. Ken". Read More >

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