The Culture Of Muscle & Fitness Through The Ages

Muscle & Fitness Through The Ages

Since the dawn of time man has aspired to physical perfection.

Like artists, writers and pets that can play musical instruments, those in peak physical shape are lauded by society.

From that dim-witted, strapping neanderthal who could punch a woolly mammoth in the face to the dim-witted, strapping neanderthal who can bench 200kg in your local gym, we worship anyone with a modicum of muscle mass.

Case in point: have you developed a radical new mathematical formulation to explain the secrets of the universe?

No-one cares and you’re a virgin.

Do you have 21 inch arms?

Congratulations, you’re the toast of the party, with a sexual back catalogue that reads like a Game of Thrones script reconceptualised by a 14-year-old-boy who has just taken 500mg of viagra.

Now, come with us as we peel back the vistas of time and take a look at the culture of muscle and fitness through the ages…

The Ice Age

Being fit and strong was part and parcel of everyday life in the Ice Age.

In order to survive, your average “Droog” or “Gorg” had to have a excellent command of throwing, running, climbing trees, lifting heavy boulders, carrying animal carcasses, and chasing sexy cavewomen.

Of lesser import was: grooming, a rudimentary grasp of pronouns, nuanced gender politics, monogamy.

A simpler, better time.

Preferred workouts

Running away from dinosaurs, throwing rocks and boulders, carrying slabs of mammoth meat, clubbing rival clansmen to death.


Far from the nuts, plants and seeds that today’s paleo fitness crowd would have us believe, the meal of choice for cavemen was, in fact, Dinosaur Ribs, which is, of course, obvious to anyone who’s seen The Flintstones.

Eminent lifters

Tarzan, Barney Rubble, The Slag Brothers from Wacky Races.

slag brothers wacky races

Ancient Egypt

By the time the Ancient Egyptians arrived on the scene, keeping in shape had become less a question of survival and more a leisure activity.

Drawings found on the walls of various burial chambers depict a flourishing system of physical culture (and a terrible aptitude for painting – let’s face it, they barely mastered stick men).

When the tomb of Beni Hasan was discovered, for example, murals dating back to 3,500 BC were found showing men and women lifting bags of sand above their head (see below).

ancient Egypt workout

Either that or they’re participating in some kind of homosexual martial art, it’s hard to tell.

Other inscriptions unearthed elsewhere also show figures wrestling, jumping, rowing, swimming, playing ball games, and harassing Caucasian women at market stalls.

Who knew there was more to life in Ancient Egypt than writing on walls, worshipping cats and cursing treasure?

Preferred workouts

Building pyramids, yoga, transporting crops in baskets, chariot racing.


Scarab beetles, snakes, sand, the boiled hooves of asses (honestly not making that last one up).

Eminent lifters

Slaves (literally), Imhotep, the warrior goddess Sekmet (head of a lioness – she’d batter you).

Ancient Greece

The Ancient Greeks were the first civilisation to celebrate the beauty of the “classic physique”.

Temples, theaters and gymnasiums were ornamented with marble statues of naked musclemen, poets eulogised great deeds of strength in epic poems, and the Olympics and its athletes dominated national life.

Heck, even the cherubs were given sick pack abs and biceps.

And, yes, while this last point may recast them as a nation of sporty paedophiles, the Ancient Greeks did develop several sophisticated principles of physical training which are still in place today (see our article on Training Secrets of the Ancient World).

Preferred workouts

Nude wrestling, fighting hordes of skeleton warriors, carrying bull calves, sodomy.

jason and the argonauts skelton fight gif


Figs, fish, wine.

Eminent lifters

Hercules, Milo of Croton, Gerard Butler.

Ancient Rome

When the Roman Empire rose to prominence in the first century BC, training for fitness became synonymous with training for war.

Out of this violent physical culture arose the sport of the day: gladiatorial combat.

roman gladiator wild animal fight

The Coliseum in Rome played host to condemned criminals beating each other to death, defending themselves from wild animals, and generally just being imaginatively executed for the enjoyment of a baying crowd.

Basically the Jeremy Kyle Show if it was produced by Hermann Göring and set in a dystopian future.

Preferred workouts

Building roads, skewering wild animals with tridents, orgies, war.


Fish, wine, grapes.

Eminent lifters

Maximus Decimus Meridius, that guy who helped Jesus carry the cross, Emperor Maximus Thrax.

The latter was particularly noteworthy, standing, according to ancient sources, at over eight feet tall, with fingers so girthy he could wear his wife’s bracelet as a ring.

Reportedly, Emperor Maxiums could also pull up trees by the roots, crush stones into powders, and execute horses with a swift kick to the head.

Not the sort of guy you want to get stuck talking to at a party.

The Vikings

The vikings were perhaps some of the hardest and strongest bastards ever to grace the face of the earth.

Indeed, this hard-as-nails streak is clearly genetic, as it’s still on display today courtesy of their Scandinavian descendants – both in terms of rape and murder (The Killing) and strength (World’s Strongest Man).

Such hardheartedness and spunk can perhaps be explained by having to endure centuries of volcanic eruptions, sub-zero temperatures and terrible pop music.

Plus, I’ve been to Scandinavia and can confirm that there is literally f-all to do, which although doesn’t excuse the profusion of sex crimes, blood feuds and terrible facial hair, does go someway to explaining it.

Preferred workouts

Rowing, manning sails, chopping wood, tilling land, raping and pillaging, caving your best friend’s head in with a shield over a petty squabble about grain.


Wild boar, meatballs, the blood of their victims.

Eminent lifters

Thor, Big Bjorn Bastardsson (I’ve made that up), Ivar the Boneless (not made up – an absolute git of a guy who pioneered the ‘Blood Eagle’ execution technique, whereby, among other mutilations, a victim’s lungs were pulled through their broken rib cage and out of their back).

kirk douglas viking

The Middle Ages

During the middle ages, physique and muscle development was firmly geared towards the sport of jousting.

For the uninitiated, jousting is basically a more violent, horseback version of “The Duel” which was made famous by godawful 90s TV show Gladiators.

However, rather than attacking each other with giant cotton buds while wearing colourful underpants, medieval jousters carried 12-foot lances, not to mention the 130lbs of steel armour which would be weighing them down like heck.

See the below video of rapey hardman Gregor Clenane spearing someone in the neck for a demonstration of jousting in action.

Post-joust, everyone would jump into a communal bath before ending the night with a few flagons of ale, a bucket of red meat, dancing the conga to Greensleeves, and seducing a buxomly betitted wench.

A scene that, I’m reliably informed, was not too dissimilar to John Inverdale’s Rio Olympics wrap party.

Unfortunately, if you weren’t one of the landed elite, as far as health and fitness were concerned you could basically forget it (with the exception of having to perform demeaning manual labour).

Preferred workouts

Gentry: jousting, hunting.

Everyone else: working a mangle, scooping up warm excreta from a cobbled street, coughing up bloody mucus into a bucket.


Cabbage stew, scraps of meat from the bone, ale, dysentery.

Eminent lifters

Before he was fat and ridden with venereal disease, Henry VIII was “a bloody big bastard” (not my words, the words of Richard Starkey), boasting the meaty physique of one of today’s leading rugby props.

Indeed, at a time when the average height was approximately 5ft 4in (a figure possibly skewed by widespread beheadings), King Henry towered over his kingdom at 6ft 1in.

He had a bit of a temper too – get on his wrong side and he’d thump you.

The Victorian Era

Attitudes to physical culture in the 19th century were largely chracterised by Charles Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest”.

Anyone familiar with the novels of Charles Dickens will be able to tell you that this created a schism between the ‘haves’ (bequiffed rugby playing toffs a la Tom Brown’s Schooldays) and the ‘have-nots’ (orphaned children).

The former went off to colonise the globe by killing coloureds and stealing land, while the latter were slowly ground to death in workhouses.

However, both tasks required excellent physical fitness, marking the Victorians out as a nation in fine fettle.

Yes, keeping fit was as Victorian as town criers, moustaches, syphilis, and leaving children outside in the snow.

Preferred workouts

Climbing chimneys, caber tossing, bending steel bars, killing kaffirs.


Gruel, mouldy bread and dripping, yeast, cholera, snuff.

Eminent lifters

Flashman, Lord Kitchener, Eugen Sandow.

eugen sandow

The modern fitness industry

Ushered in by a crop of charismatic musclemen including Steve Reeves and John Grimek and further popularised by the Pumping Iron crowd, Schwarzenegger, Ferringo et al, the modern bodybuilding and fitness era is now a commercial juggernaut.

Millions are spent each year on gym memberships and sports supplements, and social media is a sea of autofellatio, awash with fitness evangelists filming their workouts, taking pictures of avocados and posting inspirational quotes.

It’s got to the point where even people who, let’s face it, have the same athletic aptitude as a one legged sloth having a stroke are posting memes about leg day.

In fact, if you’re a creationist, forget the Bible, just scroll through any personal trainer‘s Instagram posts for a far more elegant rebuttal of Darwinism.

i've no idea what i'm doing dog meme

Preferred workouts

Bro splits, Crossfit, anything being marketed on social media.


Chicken and rice, avocados, whey protein shakes, anything being marketed on social media.

Eminent lifters

Anyone with more than 500 followers on Twitter.

The future

After defeating Google and Apple in World War 3, Facebook has become a totalitarian dictatorship, presided over by a bodiless hologram of Mark Zuckerberg, which controls every facet of life on the entire planet.

Exercise has been completely outlawed and the only way to improve your fitness and physique is to purchase upgrades from the official Facebook App Store.

Food has also been outlawed, and nutrition now consists solely of downloading the allocated nutrients for the day into your body directly from Facebook.

neo plugged into matrix

Preferred workouts

Downloaded directly into your bloodstream from Facebook.


Downloaded directly into your bloodstream from Facebook.

Eminent lifters

Anyone who can afford to purchase the requisite upgrades.

Signing off

So there we have it – a historically watertight summation of humankind’s quest for physical perfection.

Feel free to impress colleagues, lifting buddies and anyone on social media with what you’ve learnt.

Let’s face it, it’s got to be more interesting than yet another album of holiday or baby snaps (I would rather have my ballbag stapled to a ravenous rottweiler than have to scroll through the slideshow from hell that is little Emily’s first haircut).

If there’s anything you’d like to add to the list – do let us know in the comments below.

Until next time, adieu!

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  1. What a great post!

    I love mythology and I love fitness and bodybuilding.

    I would like to see your comments on my blog, I would be very glad to answer them:

    1. Thanks for the kind words, I’ll have a read of your site

  2. The revolution of fitness.

    Great and informative!

    1. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I love what you write about the vikings greetings from Norway

    1. Takk for at du leste!

  4. Great article!

    Interesting read on how fitness has changed over the years!

    1. Thanks for reading, appreciate it.