You may have heard about a new exercise tool being used at our local YMCA. I had seen members using these odd-looking weights called kettlebells in their class routine and wondered about them.
These objects, which look like a small bowling ball with a large handle, do not resemble the classic round dumbbells we often associate with weight lifting and related exercises - and possibly Charles Atlas! However, they reflect the history of physical culture and offer the advantage of new aspects of exercise.
The origin of the weights called "dumbbells" is an interesting one. During the era of the development of physical culture in the latter Victorian period, men such as Eugen Sandow, also known as "Sandow the Strongman," (pictured) used similar weights to promote muscle development and his depiction of "The Perfect Man" in promotion of physical culture and his subsequent vaudeville circuit act. Accessible and useful weights with handles began as regular bells; however, for obvious reasons, they had to be rendered silent, non-speaking, or "dumb" by removing the clapper from the bells; thus they were "dumbbells." Kettlebells are a modern modification.
It is often amazing to those of us of a senior age to see the significant role and popularity of physical culture with its emphasis on running and exercise and wellness in contemporary society. Successful businesses such as "Lifetime Fitness" inhabit prominent buildings in the Twin Cities.
Races such as 5 and 10 kilometer events and city-wide marathons are common and well attended. The average person probably would not have recognized nor been aware of such activities in the late 1970s and 1980s before the publication of the running books of Jim Fixx.
However, the importance of physical culture and its ramifications were topics discussed by the Greek philosophers of the pre-Christian era. Plato, Socrates, and Pythagoras wrote of the role of wellness and the need for the balance of life activities.
As the world civilizations increased, the interfacing of religion , wars, and health occurred; disease and survival conditions permeated human activity and literature. Medical events superceded wellness and preventive acts.
In the late Victorian age, physical culture and health became notable due to the unlikely association of body building, circus performers, and the enterprise of vaudeville. In 1890, a Prussian body builder, Friedrich Wilhelm Muller (later Eugen Sandow), often called "The Founder of Modern Body Building," began his career.
Initially a body builder in Europe, he recognized the appeal of the developed body and its artistic attraction. With the assistance of manager Florenz Ziegfeld, he became a success in vaudeville. He befriended several British and American men of importance, including Edward VII, George V, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Thomas Edison. Many of these and others attended Sandow's Institute of Physical Culture in London. "At a time when most men were sedentary and unhealthy, constitutionally disinclined to take any kind of exercise, and when British and indeed most of European society feared the onset of physical and moral degeneration, Sandow's self-improvement system claimed to be able to transform weaklings into paragons of health and strength." Sandow wrote several books on health-related subjects, emphasizing self-direction.
Sandow's biographer, David Walker has stated: "He also deserves credit for initiating the very modern craze for physical fitness(2009).
We shall learn more about Sandow, his influence on his contemporaries, the history of the YMCA, and "the modern craze of physical fitness" in subsequent columns.