The history of exercise equipment dates back to the time of early civilization. Before that, the need for survival kept people in pretty good shape regardless of whether they were hunters, gatherers, or farmers. When they started living in large groups and specializing, their day-to-day workload changed and for many, the need for exercise was born. Fitness training began with the early Greeks when Hippocrates wrote “that which is used develops, and that which is not used wastes away.” In other words, use it or lose it.
Physical training was introduced by way of two kinds of competition that arose between groups of people — games and war. Military conflict and athletic competition between city-states created the need for gymnasiums, calisthenics, strength training and exercise equipment.
Early exercise equipment consisted primarily of weights and tools for gymnastic training. Stones, sandbags, water jars, various yokes and bars made up the components of early weight training equipment. Early gymnastic tools were precursors of modern equipment consisting of swings with bars, ropes and rings. A variety of solid balls were used for coordination and strength training as well. Running and calisthenics were commonly used to develop coordination and stamina. Extra power and speed was developed by running up and down hills and mountains.
Much later, the Greek physician Galen described strength training using an early type of dumbbell. But the history of exercise equipment doesn’t really begin until the late 19th century with the appearance of the barbell. Early barbells were made with hollow globes filled with water or sand. About the same time, modern gymnastic training equipment came into being in Germany with Friedrich Jahn’s equipment that included wooden horses, balance beams and parallel bars.
Serious exercise equipment started appearing in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The first stationary bicycle was produced in the 18th century and was a large machine that worked both the arms and the legs. The first rowing machine appeared in the mid 19th century, and looked like the midsection of a boat.
Later in the early 20th century came machines to improve physical fitness. Many of the machines were adapted from earlier applications. The treadmill, for example, was initially invented with industrial applications in mind, during a time when steam engines were not practical and before electric motors were in widespread use. Later it and other weight and pulley systems were adapted for use in gymnasiums as exercise equipment and as features to improve safety for strength training. By 1933 the treadmill was in widespread use and in 1952 was being used in medical applications.
Also in the 1950s, Jack LaLanne created several new exercise machines including the cable pulley machine, the Smith machine, used in weight training, and the leg extension machine.
The step treadmill hit the market in 1983. It was a revolving staircase, similar to an escalator and called the stairmaster. Modern step machines with individual foot platforms came shortly afterward with the development of the stairmaster 4000 in 1986. These machines provided an excellent cardio workout along with lower body strength training.
Finally, the history of exercise equipment comes to the development of modern home gym equipment including universal machines like the Solo-flex and Bowflex, along with devices like the mini-stairstepper. The mini-stairstepper is a device that provides all the advantages of the step treadmill in a small portable device that can be easily moved and stored.
After the Bowflex and the mini-stairstepper, what new wonders will be added to the history of exercise equipment? No doubt, there is a cadre of inventors all working diligently to show us, and to take their place in history.