The Torturous Treadmill And Other Exercise Name Origins

Feel the burn, people!

New Year’s resolutions often involve the desire to lose weight. Sometimes, you make the attempt on your own (jogging comes to mind, no special equipment needed except for some decent running shoes), while other forms of exercise require specialized machinery and a gym.

Let’s run down some of that hardware terminology (and learn their interesting origin stories too!) so there’s one less intimidation to keeping that resolution.


The treadmill seems like a rather innocent piece of machinery, right? Just climb on, push the button, and you’re jogging in place.

However, the tread-mill as it was originally known was developed to “reform idle and stubborn convicts,” according to Yes, it was made for prisoners. Off to the tread with ye!

“Prisoners would step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster®. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. (Hence the name treadmill.)” It was eventually abandoned as being “too cruel.” See, we knew there was a reason we were avoiding the gym!

The treadmill made a more conventional return in the 1960s with the discovery of the benefits of aerobics.

Elliptical trainer

No, this one wasn’t also an old torture device, sorry. Created in 1995 as a low-impact training machine, there’s no reason to fear this one, as it’s been said that it’s as equally useful to beginners and athletes.

Our definition for this rig is “an exercise machine like a stationary bike without a seat, so that exercising is done in an upright position, and having pedals that the user moves in an elliptical pattern, believed to minimize strain on the knee joints.”

Wait, you say! What’s an elliptical pattern? We were ready for that one! These are also called elliptical machines or merely ellipticals.


kettleball is a cast-iron or steel weight in a ball shape with a handle at the top (or perhaps a tea kettle without the spout, hence the name?). All the cool weightlifters are using it.

But, actually, it is the national sport of Russia (girevoy sport), and they can be swung, thrown, juggled, pressed, held, moved, and manipulated in many ways. Just keep your eyes open if someone is doing this exercise near you. Flying kettleballs should be kept in the bedroom?

Medicine ball

A medicine ball is about as low-tech of an exercise item as you’ll find. It’s merely a big, heavy ball covered in leather, and two people toss it back and forth. Sounds rather boring, though you could probably add a few more people to your group and get a real game going (think: Hacky Sack).

This equipment seems to go back to the low-tech days too (some 3000 years ago). But, the term wasn’t coined until 1889. As health and medicine were considered to be synonymous terms at the time, calling it a medicine ball was natural enough (theory according to the website

BOSU ball

A BOSU ball is an inflated rubber “dome,” attached to a fixed platform or base. It looks like half of a big rubber ball.

The name is an acronym for “Both Sides Up,” and it’s used for balance training. The ball can be used either way: dome side up or platform side up. This one sounds fun!

Resistance bands

These are really just simple bands of stretchable elastic that you pull in opposite directions (not a hard one to decipher). As you (attempt!) to pull them apart, you feel the resistance. (This is where you are “making it burn.”)

They go back to the early 20th century when they were merely lengths of surgical tubing. Nowadays, they come with grips and handles and are color-coded to show different levels of resistance. About as high-tech as a rubber band can get.


We’re talking old-school equipment right here. Picture them in the corner of some hazy, sweaty, smoky gym, probably in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. (But, actually they can possibly be traced back to Greco-Roman times.)

Dumbbells are “a gymnastic apparatus consisting of two wooden or metal balls connected by a short bar serving as a handle, used as a weight for exercising.” Dumbbells are also known as “free weights,” meaning there’s no cable or pulley attached.

Where did the dumb part come from? Our definition also notes they were “originally an apparatus like that used to ring a church bell, but without the bell (hence dumb ).” And, if someone calls you a dumbbell, point out to them how much you’ve been pumping iron, and maybe they’ll take it back.


Another oldie but goodie. A barbell is “an apparatus used in weight-lifting, consisting of a bar with replaceable, disk-shaped weights fastened to the ends.” These can be traced back to the mid-19th century. If you’re lifting these, you are highly motivated.

But, remember, always get a spotter, because if one falls on you, you may not be back at the gym for a while . . . .

The pec deck

We’ll take a look at anything that rhymes. As you might guess, the pec deck addresses your pectoral muscles. Pectoral is defined as “of, in, on, or pertaining to the chest or breast; thoracic.” (Anatomy tip: There’s the Pectoralis Major and the Pectoralis Minor. Two separate and distinct muscle groups.)

To use this machine, you basically sit down on this little seat, and squeeze two overhanging parts of the frame together. As you bring them toward one another, you feel your upper body muscles squeeze together, as they lift a set of weights. notes that golfers, tennis players, and boxers benefit from using the pec deck.

Rowing machines

Our definition of a rowing machine is “an exercise machine having a mechanism with two oar-like handles, foot braces, and a sliding seat, allowing the user to go through the motions of rowing in a racing shell.”

Have you ever seen the collegiate sport of rowing? That back-and-forth motion? That’s precisely what this looks (and feels) like. It utilizes the upper half of your body as well as the lower half. reports that there are cardiovascular, muscle toning, and weightloss benefits associated with this workout, and it’s also a stress reducer. And, don’t we all need some stress relief after this year?

What about burpees?

Want to explore the origin of some more basic exercise moves (without the clutter of all this equipment)? Check out our explanations for burpees and other exercise moves to keep moving!

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