A Brief History of Strength

Bill Pearl describes the products that helped sculpt the art of strength training in the 20th century.

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.

Selectorized Equipment
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 Vibrator
Through the 1960s, vibrating belts were a mainstay in many women's spas and health clubs. Gym owners either believed that the vibrating action of the belt would help women spot reduce and firm their muscles or believed that their customers would believe it. While "passive" exercise such as this does have some practical use, the vibrator's inability to create any meaningful change in women's bodies simply turned many of them away from health clubs and other forms of exercise.

The Psycho-Expander
In the early 20th century, a large chest symbolized health. However, rather than train the pecs, physical culturists tried to expand their ribcages with deep-breathing exercises. The Psycho-Expander was one of several devices marketed to appeal to both men and women.

The Spring Exerciser
Similar to the iron horseshoe, this device resisted being pulled so that its ends come closer together, and the resistance increases as the distance between the ends decreases. Far less effective than free weights or even most resistance machines, the spring exerciser was never very popular.

The Iron Horseshoe
Early bodybuilders used a variety of resistance devices that have now faded from the scene. Horseshoe-shaped exercisers such as this one, which was marketed by the Weider Barbell Co. in 1951, contained an exceptionally tight spring and were used to train the arms and chest.

The Iron Boot
Before the invention of our modern leg machines, iron "boots" were widely used. Sold by many companies, iron boots began appearing early in the century and remained popular until the development of leg curl and leg extension machines. A small bar placed through the sole of the boot allowed the boots to be loaded with plates so that leg extensions, leg curls, leg raises, and upside-down cycling could be done with resistance.