Making Dumbbells for Everyone
Before getting into the construction of home made dumbbells and discussing the archaic “revolving sleeves” that were part and parcel of every 110 pound set of standard weights sold throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s, I want to present an e mail from Jan Dellinger. For those who don’t know, Jan was York Barbell Company’s representative from approximately 1976 into the early 2000’s.
He probably held every job the company had to offer but after John Grimek retired, was best known for being the one guy in the office who could actually answer lifting related questions. He remains one of the true historians of all aspects of the Iron Sports and as the one person who worked side by side with the great Grimek, has all of the behind-the-scenes stories. From Jan with my comments, below:
Loved your DUMBBELLS,MORE DUMBBELLS, DUMBBELLS FOR EVERYONE trilogy. The remembrances of Rodney Dangerfield were priceless. I only knew your dad as a hardcore iron worker…not that he was involved with the nightclub biz. [ From Dr. Ken: My father was the last guy anyone would have wanted to get involved with if his mood wasn’t “right” and he used that to his advantage in the night club business. His fifth grade education did not in any way inhibit his street smarts and this served him well in his second job, four to five nights per week. Between what I interpreted as a chip on his shoulder related to his lack of formal education, lots of “street cred” as the young people refer to it, and no doubt being less than happy about working two full time jobs during his entire life, he was a good choice to cool people out in anyone’s night club. ]
Beyond being a recycled sales gimmick, I never quite got the latter day fascination with kettlebells. Although I have to admit that once the weight room of the school where I work purchased a few moderate-weight pairs of K-bells, I had to do a bit of overhead pressing and curling with the nostalgic apparatus, mostly to say that I played with them a little. Oddly, I much prefer the swing movement with a dumbbell.
Needless to say, I echo your “you-can-do-anything-with-a-dumbbell-that-you-can-with- a-k-bell” sentiment. I might also add that not all of the kettlebell gurus who seem to be of the opinion that they invented them are just on the internet. I’ve encountered more than a few athletic coaches who attended a (as in “one”) certification seminar with the device and now believe they have been to the mountaintop–Olympus, I presume–and found the Holy Grail. [ From Dr. Ken: One of the better known kettlebell instructors/leaders of the movement is no doubt a nice guy but early in his commercial venture to bring this “new and advanced” training method to the citizens of the United States, he bad mouthed me. Running me down verbally, in print, behind my back, or to my face comes with the territory of being a semi-public figure. Being known in lifting circles as I am throughout the many decades I have been training, competing, and writing and lecturing about training related matters obviously does not compare to being a true celebrity as per political figures and entertainers but in our small, insular world, it does make one known. This also leaves one open to criticism. Strength training is very much like religion to many individuals or at least to a certain personality type that strength training seems to attract and any deviation from what they might believe is the best way to train, brings harsh reaction. It becomes “personal” with many, not just something to be discussed, examined, evaluated, and either agreed or disagreed upon. Thus, I never took any criticism I received seriously or personally, other than an opportunity to review my own thoughts and philosophy which would then lead to more study and an even better understanding of the material in question. However, this individual did publish work which criticized me and it was based upon false information. His comments, related to what is in fact a long list of injuries I have suffered, were made with the assumption that all or most were weight room related and of course, to discredit my approach to training. What he did not bother to research or even inquire about and thus did not realize, is that almost none of these injuries were weight room related. My body was torn up playing football, judo, and boxing more than anything else. Bouncing and providing security for rock and roll groups also caused some significant and permanent damage but I always attributed the work in the weight room as keeping me upright and functional. This bit of news eventually got back to him and I received a phone call wherein he apologized but believed “we were on to something.” To more or less quote the conversation, I was told that “We have differing views on training and we can argue this in print. Then we can argue in public at a seminar and at a series of seminars. We can write articles countering each other. This will put (his product) before the public and we both can make money from this.” Obviously, with a family, professional office, many athletes to attend to, and community service related work, I had no time for this nor interest but please have no doubt believing Jan’s comment that the public has been “gurued” on kettlebell training. Without sounding too cynical, the gurus have in fact made quite a bit of money off of what to me at least, is little more than a strictly commercial endeavor. To many, it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread (dating myself, there was a time if you bought bread from a store or bakery, it was not sliced, you did that yourself, at home. Being able to buy already-sliced bread was huge to the public, thus “the greatest thing since sliced bread!”) and in truth, kettlebells remain another tool, just another weapon in the arsenal to get one stronger.]
Your mention of the cast iron kettlebell handles from Weider ads of long ago brought back a number of memories. One was that Joe’s sales pitch for them was right out of George Jowett’s mags, or more specifically his shoulder booklet course. This is not just Joe-bashing as York ads from the late ’30s or so did the same, and seemingly copied the graphics from said Jowett booklet for inclusion in their ads. Thus making it clear of course, that nothing in weight training is new, nor was it even decades ago.
Pipe and plate dumbbells, huh! Alan Calvert’s Milo Barbell Company offered pipe and plate sets in the early 20th Century, which were billed as an “economy set” as compared to ones which featured a solid steel bar. Allow me to repeat the comment from above, “Thus making it clear of course, that nothing in weight training is new, nor was it even decades ago.”
Of course, I learned along the way that kettlebell handles do not have to be cast iron. During my years at York Barbell, basement inventors–”reinventors” in most cases–would send us samples of things they hoped would strike our fancy sufficiently to want to market them. Sometime in the 1980s, someone sent us kettlebell handles made from PVC pipe and glued together. For their intended use they were just fine. In fact, I still have them in my basement, although I run an 18-inch long steel bar thru them and practice one-hand deadlifts, using them as the handle. I’ve been waiting for the glue to dry out and the thing to break or bend, but so far they have stood up to 250 pounds. I wish I was younger and stronger as I would like to see at what poundage they start to give.
Among the things the late (and very great) Vic Boff tried to impress on me about the training habits of his generation, or maybe it was the one before, was their ingenuity at improvisation. Basically, making what they had at their disposal work over the long haul.
Found a great example of this 10 or 11 years ago in the Philly warehouse of handbalancing great Robert Jones, who was very identified with Milo Barbell and was a confidant of BoHo’s (Bob Hoffman) for years after he bought out Milo.
Sorry to drone on. Just wanted to offer some positive commentary about your dumbbell installments.
Jones had a 15 or 20-pound solid dumbbell which he made adjustable weight-wise by boring a hole in each end and threading the inside of the holes to accept a standard 5/8″ bolt. Hence, one could bolt extra plates onto the ends of the solid dumbbell to increase the resistance in relative safety…at least by the legal standards of the day. At least, a home trainee did not have to invest in a slew of solid dumbbells.
Another photo of the wonderful old wooden dumbbells located at a garage sale by
In addition to the many short pieces of one-inch hot rolled stock I would cut in my father’s shop for my various dumbbell construction projects, I would on occasion find myself with the numerous five-foot bars that the standard 110 pound sets came with. In time, as I collected the unused, little used, or about-to-be-discarded sets of various friends, classmates, or less than committed trainees I would hear about, I would have a collection of potentially unused lengths of iron. Some were of better quality than others but all were 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch, thicker than the round stock in my father’s inventory. Over time, I found that the thicker diameter bars were much more suitable than the one-inch round stock for the larger dumbbells, arbitrarily anything over 100 pounds. The thicker bar was a bit easier to control and the increase in diameter, no matter how seemingly minor, better dissipated the force of that heavy dumbbell as it was held throughout the course of a set. If one examines the higher quality dumbbell and fixed barbell offerings from companies such as Ivanko Barbell in San Pedro, California, it can be quickly discerned that they offer a thicker handle for fixed barbells, EZ Curl type of bars, and dumbbell sets. This is done specifically to allow for this more efficient force distribution in one’s hand and safer execution of the exercise. When Kathy and I opened our Iron Island Gym on February 3, 1992, we offered three full sets of dumbbells. Our primary set of dumbbells, from Ivanko, went from 5 pounds to 55 pounds in two-and-one-half-pound increments, then to 200 pounds in five pound increments. All of the dumbbells from 100 to 200 pounds had slightly thicker handles, not to offer “more grip work” for our trainees, but rather to offer better control and more comfort. Our fixed Ivanko barbells and fixed EZ Curl bars also followed suit with everything over 100 pounds set onto one-and-one-quarter-inch diameter bars. This made a noticeable difference when handling heavy weights and my early dumbbell construction dictated these equipment decisions for the gym.
Wisconsin strongman and chef extraordinaire Tony Scrivens farmers walk, a great “finisher” or primary exercise that can also be done with heavy dumbbells
In last month’s column I noted that every barbell set manufacturer offered a “rotating sleeve” on either their barbell and/or dumbbells. As a reminder to the younger generation(s) of lifters reading this, powerlifting was not a formal, organized sport with any type of national championship until 1964. Olympic weightlifting was the only “legitimate” lifting sport with bodybuilding seen as a non-athletic event fraught with the myths of numerous social ills and evils. Thus, the inclusion of Olympic lifts and “Olympic type” of lifting or exercise movements was seen as necessary in any course of training instruction. Your standard “basic program,” “beginner’s, intermediate, or advanced programs” always displayed a clean, clean and press, push press, jerk, or snatch as part and parcel of the overall course of instruction. With the focus upon selling more inventory, both Hoffman and Weider, even for their strictly bodybuilding courses, included these basic, multi-joint, Olympic weightlifting or weightlifting themed movements within the body of the instructional materials. On a non-rotating 1-1/16” bar, many of the exercises could be painful or destructive to the wrists and/or elbows. Though I doubt that safety was an issue or within the consciousness of either Bob or Joe when it came to making money, a rotating sleeve placed over the shaft of the bar did in fact make the Olympic lifting type of movements safer. Thus, included in the standard barbell set, the rotating chrome sleeve, flimsy and absent of anything such as bearings that might have made rotation of the bar smoother, still improved the bar movement in the trainee’s hands. Without a sleeve and with heavy weight on the barbell, the trainee would have to literally open the hands a bit when cleaning the weight from the floor to the shoulders.
In 1963, the Iron Man rotating sleeve for the standard barbell set would cost an additional $.3.30!
This action would allow the non-rotating bar to roll in the hands enough to “catch” it at the top of the movement and avoid the physics-determined tug and pull on the wrists once the barbell came to what amounted to a screeching halt at one’s shoulders. The sleeve was a chromed tube that slipped over the five or six foot length of one-inch bar, and was secured by the inside collars that would be placed upon the bar after centering the rotating sleeve. The bar-within-a-tube had enough clearance to allow for the barbell to spin enough to make one think they were “almost lifting on a sort-of-real Olympic barbell.” Of course, for any trainee that had actually lifted on a “real” Olympic barbell, the action wasn’t close! However, whatever “give” was available due to the presence of the rotating sleeve gave a safer option than going with the bare bar. Of course the thin-walled tube often became distorted with even moderate use and the threat of a “short stop” as the bar’s rotation picked up momentum always existed.
Former Hofstra University football star Frank Savino demonstrates heavy one arm dumbbell row
The short length dumbbell bars also were provided with a shorter, chromed tube that allowed the dumbbells to rotate, at least a bit. The unintended advantage of the tube or sleeve was the added thickness these provided to the dumbbell bar, placing more stress upon the grip. That was perhaps the only positive of its presence. Anyone who has used a “solid” dumbbell or “gym” dumbbell where barbell plates are placed upon the dumbbell bar’s shaft and secured with an end cap and a variety of bolt or screw devices knows that a rotating sleeve on a dumbbell bar is not really a necessity. One could argue the case for the longer barbell as the aforementioned paragraph notes but few dumbbell movements are done where a rotating sleeve is necessary. Far more important for dumbbells, especially very heavy dumbbells, is a means of securing the plates to the bar.