Posted on 13 Jan 2016
13 min read
The 6th Century BCE.
As a blood-red sun rises on the Eurotas valley the men of Sparta spill forth from their barracks.
Battle-hardened demi-gods begin anther day of ceaseless toil, honing their bloodied bodies into athletic killing machines.
Naked boxers and wrestlers engage in brutal sparring sessions, warriors race long distances in full battle armour, others are willfully flogged in perverse contests of endurance.
And all are weak and dehydrated, having been purposefully starved by the state to harden them against hunger and other physical defects.
Now, let’s fast forward a few years…
Two chaps in manicured beards and bobble hats sip caramel frapachinos and stroll into their local branch of ‘Energise Fitness’ (“Exist To Inspire”).
As they coast through a ‘Bicep Blitz’ workout (for the third time that week) while barely breaking a sweat, conversation topics include forming an avant-garde synth band, favourite Pret sandwich, and the best retro filter to use at a picnic.
Post-workout, the order of the day is a kooky flavoured protein shake, a motivational Facebook post about climbing the ladder of success, and Googling “does this dream make me gay”.
For the ancient civilisations, training the body was a matter of life or death:
“War is training for sport and sport is training for war.” – Philistratos, AD 200
Now, although I’m being glib here (only a little – most social media fitness gurus are so irritating that having them fed en masse into a sausage machine would be enough to give even Gandhi an erection), there is much we can learn from our ancient forebears in terms of fitness and effectively training the body, some of which I will cover in this article.
Although we have made significant strides in understanding human physiology thanks to advances in science and technology, the most effective approaches to athletic conditioning are still mostly influenced by traditions that have been in place for millenia.
Remember, whereas modern ideas about fitness generally date back around a century, ancient civilisations had thousands of years to figure out what works, so we should probably trust their judgment.
Plus, you’ll need a back-to-basics approach when Kim Jong Un finally unleashes a Kryptonian World Engine and terraforms the planet into a swampy, totalitarian wasteland.
Unless you live in Glasgow, in which case, you probably won’t notice any difference.
And let me just clarify, in no way am I advocating a full-blown Spartan approach to wellbeing.
Although there’s lots to enjoy in the film 300, state-imposed torture, starvation and infanticide is clearly bang out of order.
Also, training with your oiled-up tadger on full display is, apparently, something that gym management don’t take too lightly these days (just ask Will Kennard).
One of the main reasons why people don’t improve in terms of strength or aesthetics is simply lack of structure.
Either they try to do too much too soon or simply fart around doing any old rubbish.
Ultimately both approaches will cause you to stall and loose motivation.
The solution is to learn from Milo of Croton, a legendary ancient Greek athlete who dominated the wrestling event at five successive Olympics from 532 to 516 BC.
As a child, Milo dreamed of being the strongest man in all of Greece.
To gain strength, he started carrying a bull calf on his shoulders.
He repeated this every single day, and as the bull grew in size, so did Milo’s strength.
Years later, on the first morning of the Ancient Olympiad, he strode into the stadium, bold as brass, with a huge fuck off bull hoisted onto his shoulder.
Despite the fact this story is probably a myth (although Louis Cyr is said to have done exactly the same), it does nicely illustrate the principles of progressive overload.
That is, every time you work out you should be gradually improving in some way, no matter how marginal, whether that’s by adding 2.5kg to the bar, performing a few more reps, taking less rest between sets, etc.
If you are gradually increasing the stress placed on your body – in a focused and consistent fashion – then you will steadily progress.
Another reason why people languish at the gym is a lack of any fixed goal.
Doing anything is better than nothing, right?
Well, in a word, no, no it fucking isn’t.
Flitting around from tricep pushdowns to bosu ball jumping squats, basically doing whatever the hell you fancy, will, I guarantee, have all the muscle building efficacy of a cuddle from a sexually curious sealion.
It is imperative to decide what you’re working towards and organise your regimen accordingly.
In this respect, we can learn from the ‘tetrad system’, a training cycle developed by the ancient Greeks.
Philostratus, a Greek sophist alive during the Roman imperial period, outlined this protocol in his work ‘Concerning Gymnastics’:
“By the tetrad system we mean a cycle of four days, each one of which is devoted to a different activity. The first day prepares the athlete; the second is an all-out trial; the third is relaxation; and the fourth is a medium-hard workout. Regarding exercise of the first day, it is made up of short, intense movements which stir up the athlete and prepare him for the hard workout to follow on the next day. This strenuous day is an all-out test of his potential. The third day employs his energy in a moderate way, while on the day of the medium workout or last day, the athlete himself practices breaking holds and preventing his opponent from breaking away.”
This approach, which was adopted by the Roman gladiatorial schools, is a forerunner to the principles of periodisation around which many modern routines are built.
In simple terms, periodisation means structuring your routine to optimise performance for a specific skill or goal.
Or, in even simpler terms, being organised.
For example, if you’re chest is lagging, or you want to skewer the shit out of a tiger using a trident, targeting this area for a specific amount of time is essentially periodisation.
The most well-known version of periodisation is the linear style which progresses a training stress or fitness characteristic (strength, hypertrophy, power, etc) in a linear fashion (progressive overload).
Other forms include, undulating periodisation, which adjusts volume and intensity to expose the body to different stressors, and conjugate periodisation (closely associated with the Westside Method), which frequently changes training stressors with the purpose of training different physical characteristics simultaneously (strength and power).
All successful routines, such as Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, will incorporate different elements of periodisation.
But the main takeaway here is simple: get yourself organised!
As Lee discusses in his article Making The Most Of The Recovery Zone, “trees grow when it’s nice and sunny and not when it’s blowing a gale – that’s when they get strong”.
In other words, while the gym is the place where we inflict stress on our muscles, it’s during the post-workout recovery period that they actually grow.
So if you’re working hard in the gym then spending your downtime binge eating Wotsits and wanking yourself demented till 5am, you’re essentially shovelling shit against the tide.
With that in mind, it’s important that we make the most of the recovery phase, and this is something that the ancient world, through centuries of experience, knew all too well.
While espousing the need for regular exercise, the Indian Caraka Saṃhitā, one of the oldest medical documents in existence, also highlighted the perils of overtraining:
“Physical exercise in excess causes exertion, exhaustion, consumption, thirst, bleeding from different parts of the body, [shortness of breath], cough, fever, and vomiting.”
Similarly, the ancient Greeks realised that adequate rest and recovery needed to be a foremost fixture of any intense training routine.
Philosophers preached that a “too much and too strict” approach to exercise exhausted the human constitution and could cause long-term health problems.
To that end, massages and spa sessions were built into training plans and thorough warm-down sessions were advocated.
Hippocrates, for instance, said that “those who walk after exercising will then have a stronger and more rested body.”
The old devil also had a go-to prescription for any athlete experiencing muscle soreness, recommending that the patient should
“… get drunk once or twice, but not to excess … have sexual intercourse after a moderate indulgence in wine, and … slack off their exercises, except walking.”
Such advice is not without foundation in contemporary physiology, as recent studies have shown alcohol and intercourse to be effective muscle relaxants.
This is in moderation, of course.
Don’t take this advice as a green light to go quaffing gallons of vino while shagging around like a pneumatically powered sex robot.
If there’s one thing Lindsay Lohan has taught us, it’s that this lifestyle is a surefire way to end up looking like a post-battle Viking warship.
Many who fail to train do so under the pretext of lacking time and proper equipment.
Although this is usually cobblers, the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding and the Wieder publishing empire is partly to blame here, as they turned fitness into a money making industry, endorsing time-consuming workout splits, contrived isolation machines and expensive supplements as the only way to build muscle (just pick up a copy of Flex magazine and you’ll see what I mean).
In the ancient world, however, athletes relied predominately on their own bodies to build muscle and strength.
There is much to be said for this simplicity which we have seemingly lost in a fog of fads and bollocks (good name for an album).
Indeed, history is full of people being distracted from what works by something hip and shiny.
Enter most gyms and you’ll be confronted by rows upon rows of slick machines and be hard pressed to find a pull-up bar or open space for push-ups.
Now I’m not advocating a routine comprised solely of bodyweight exercises – to eschew barbell work would be utterly stupid – but they can, and should, be used to supplement your regimen to increase efficacy, or as an alternative when it’s simply inconvenient to get to the gym.
If you have time to scroll up and down Facebook every day deciding which one of your friends you’d rather confine to a Belgian sex dungeon, then you have time to perform 15 minutes of push ups.
And be resourceful.
In addition to performing bodyweight exercises, athletes in ancient Greece trained using whatever they could find.
Lifting stones and animals for strength; smashing a random helot in the solar plexus for some light cardio.
In a modern environment, we can incorporate such ingenuity into our own makeshift routines, for example:
Digging a very deep hole, ‘accidentally’ shoving Beverly from accounts in the face for 20 reps, constructing a giant metal titan in your garden from surplus scrapyard junk and worshipping it as the basis for a new evil sectarian religion.
Use your imagination.
While I acknowledge that using the term “holistic” is any sentence is guaranteed to make you sound like one of those self-important tossjobs called ‘Simon’ who loudly discusses the essays of Alain de Bottton on a crowded train, don’t judge me just yet.
The Romans and ancient Greeks viewed exercise as a philosophical endeavor just as much as a physical one.
To them, it was part and parcel of a ‘complete education’; of a sound body and sound mind being one and the same, to paraphrase the philosopher Thales (or David Brent).
Accordingly, palaestras, or wrestling schools, educated the young on both the body and the mind.
They believed greatness in one discipline didn’t arise just from mere practice but instead sprung up from a way of life which embraced mind, body and spirit as one.
However, today, the benefits that fitness and wellbeing have on brain function seem wholly undervalued.
Just jump on any tube carriage at rush hour and you’ll observe a horde of ghostly office drones with all the vitality of a 60-year-old Chinese factory worker.
The only exercise most of these people get is having to rigorously comb cheap champagne and gloops of semen from their hair after another soulless night out in east London.
In part, this can attributed to ancient Greek and Roman teachings on the mind-body connection being replaced by ‘Cartesian’ notion of the body being a lesser, unconnected vessel of the mind.
It has only been in recent decades that scientists have pinpointed a specific connection between physical activity and cognitive function, discovering, for example, that the secretion of endorphins during exercise affects positive mood state changes and improved concentration, not to mention making physical changes to the brain, such as nerve cell growth connected with learning and memory, increased density of networks of nerve cells, increased blood flow, and increased brain tissue volume.
Accordingly, in various studies, physical exertion, particularly cardiovascular, has been proven to have cognitive benefits on people of all ages.
So, again, it seems the ancient world, by treating the mind and body as one of the same, was certainly onto something.
While the ancient Greek diet of breads, vegetables and fruits is fairly well documented (staples of the Mediterranean diet), for athletes it was slightly different.
Like today, the importance of protein, especially meat, was emphasised to improve athletic performance.
Greek athletes consumed fish and pork and Spartan athletes dined out on bulls, oxen, goats and deer.
While many accounts of this nutritional approach survive, perhaps the most striking example is that of the aforementioned wrestling champion Milo of Croton.
After walking into the Olympic stadium with a bull on his shoulders, as discussed previously, Milo then proceeded to eat the poor bovine bastard, wholly devouring the beast by the end of the day.
Furthermore, according to Athenaeus and Pausanius, Milo’s daily diet comprised: 9kg (20 pounds) of meat, 9kg (20 pounds) of bread, and 8.5 litres (18 pints) of wine a day .
Makes Reg Park‘s muscle building diet look like a toddler’s lunchbox!
However, although the importance of meat is still trumpeted today, other dietary cornerstones from the ancient world have seemingly been forgotten.
Figs, for example, were a mainstay of diets in Rome and ancient Greece, particularly for athletes, who would consume them just before competitions.
Indeed, according to historians, the earliest Greek athlete whose diet we know anything about is Charmis of Sparta, who claimed that it was a diet of dried figs that led him to Olympic Gold in 668BC.
In addition to containing plenty of antioxidants and dietary fibre, figs are also super-high in calories, making them the perfect all-natural addition to any muscle building diet.
Like today, ancient Greece and Rome also relied on certain ergogenic aids (like the supplements of today) to boost performance.
But rather than BCAAs and creatine monohydrate, the ancient Egyptians allegedly used the boiled hooves of asses to improve performance, and one of the fathers of modern medicine, the second century Greek physician Claudius Galen, noted the positive benefits of gorging on testicles.
Sounds stupid, sure, but the way the supplement industry is heading right now, I give it a year before we start seeing scrotums and boiled animal feet on the aisles of Holland and Barretts.
So, there we have it, some top workout secrets from the ancient world.
Now, go forth into your gymnasium and attack the iron with the might of a Hoplite Phalanx!
Eat, drink and fornicate like it’s the last days of Rome!
And, above all, come back with your shield, or on it!
What do you think about these workout tips?
Are they worth putting in practice?
Or is this all just a load of antiquated hoopla?
Let us know in the comments section below!