The gentleman in the photo is Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett. He was the first African-American on the faculty at Harvard University. He also served as the first director and curator of the Harvard College Gymnasium from the time that it was built in 1859 until his death in 1871.
The photo above was taken around 1860. Professor Hewlett has his foot on a medicine ball. He also is pictured with some dumbbells, indian clubs, and a wand. These four implements were known as "The Four Horsemen of Hand-Held Exercise Tools". The Four Horsemen, along with gymnastics and boxing, were the tools that Hewlett (and other physical educators) used to hone fine, disciplined, well-balanced young men during the "Golden Years" of physical culture in the United States.
What do I mean when I say the "Golden Years" of physical culture? Well, it was a time in the United States when the word "obese" was not commonplace, especially not in children. The average man and woman was able to accomplish everyday physical tasks and feats of strength with ease. Transfats and fast food were not invented yet. Most people regularly engaged in gymnastics, swimming, boxing, wrestling, and other sports. And Type 2 diabetes was a rarity instead of an epidemic.
Now, our "Four Horsemen" that you'll find in every gym are the treadmill, the leg press, the chest press, and the Smith machine. If you just used these four machines, you could certainly get a modest workout done, but your overall fitness level would be a far cry from the fitness levels of Prof. Hewlett's students.
Today's culture would do well to take some notes on the exercise trends and lifestyle choices of the "Golden Years". So with that in mind, and in the spirit of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, let's take a trip into the past and examine how we can use the original "Four Horsemen" to achieve peak levels of fitness and function.
This month, it will be the medicine ball.
The medicine ball is perhaps the oldest form of strength and conditioning. Before man-made materials, one of the heaviest, most abundant, and most varying things to lift in nature were stones. More than likely, lifting and throwing stones of various size was a source of recreation and sport in pre-historic times. Persian wrestlers were documented using sand-filled medicine balls in 1000 B.C. The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, had patients throw animal skins stuffed with sand for rehabilitation and injury prevention. This medical use for the ball is why they call it a medicine ball.
Today, you can get a wide variety of medicine balls weighing from 2 to 30 pounds. Most have rubber, polyurethane, or vinyl on the outside, and are filled with different materials to give them either more or less bounce. There are also some neat medicine ball hybrids with handles or ropes attached to them that are great for some dynamic core exercises.
Medicine balls can be used for some traditional strength exercises like squats, lunges, presses, etc. Because they are easy to hold and maneuver, med balls work well for many compound exercises and functional movements. Here are a few of my favorites:
Med ball chops (above) are a great warm-up movement sequence for nearly any activity.
For anyone who needs to put things up on shelves or into overhead bins, the Med Ball Squat and Press (below) is unrivaled:
Or how about a leg exercise that also involves core rotation to engage your hip muscles and abdominals:
One of the other great qualities of a medicine ball is that it provides an unstable surface to perform some exercises on. This can help improve balance and stability for some movements, like push-ups (below):
But the most important property of a medicine ball is its ability to be thrown and caught. When you throw something, it is the ultimate expression of power. It is a combination of strength and speed, which is all important in most sports and even in simply catching yourself from falling. Similarly, when you need to catch a heavy object, there is a reflexive contraction of all your stabilizing muscles that you can not mimic voluntarily. So catching a medicine ball is also great stability training.
There are many medicine ball exercises that can be done against a wall. But if you don't have a solid wall to throw against, here is one of my favorites:
Try doing as many reps as you can in 30 seconds. It's a great cardio workout as well.
So this was just a cursory overview of one of the "Horsemen". But I hope that it opened your mind to some of the possibilities of medicine ball training.
Next month, we'll focus on another Horseman, the wand.