In antiquity, stories of ancient heroes were used to inspire youngsters towards greatness. One story tells of Milo of Croton, the greatest wrestler of his generation.
Milo was so strong that after his victory at the Ancient Olympics, he carried a life-size bronze statue of himself to its stand in the alleyway of heroes at Olympia.
Just like the Olympics today, ancient athletes spent considerable time training in order to win their individual matches, as well as immortality; stories of their feats are still being recounted after generations.
Milo is one such athlete; stories of his discipline and training are legendary.
He came from the city of Croton in Magna Graecia (now in southern Italy) and was a six-time Olympic champion, also winning numerous titles at the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.
One mantra of modern training that Milo also used is called progressive overload, where you add heavier and heavier weights as you progress. The story goes that one day, seeing a small bull that had recently been born, he hoisted it onto his shoulders and walked around with it. He got such a good workout out of it that he decided to do it every day.
As the bull grew stronger and larger over time, and so did Milo.
Forget Spartacus as the greatest gladiator of all time. He’s more famous for leading a revolt than what he accomplished in the arena.
Remember this name: Spiculus.
Spiculus was the Mike Tyson of his day, the greatest fighter of his generation. Men trained in order to be able to look and fight like him, and women threw themselves at his feet.
One way that Spiculus trained was with The Tetrad System. This divided training into 4-day cycles, each focusing on a different type of training.
Day 1 was the day of preparation and consisted of short, high-intensity workouts that prepared the athlete for the next day’s workout. Translating this to today’s training, this would include training methods like high-intensity interval training and sprints.
Day 2 was the killer day. It consisted of long, strenuous exercises and served as an all-out test of the athlete’s potential. He was meant to give 110% during this day. In today’s training, this would involve your main lifts: squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and other main exercises we use with barbells and dumbbells.
Day 3 was the rest day. Athletes would either rest or perform only very light exercise. The ancients knew that you needed rest in order to recover and incorporated this principle in their training systems. Sure, they may not have had Thera guns or fancy cryo chambers, but they still had plenty of options to prioritize recovery.
Day 4 came after the rest day and consisted of medium intensity exercises. Consider this like your “auxiliary” day. This day for them included lots of skill work rather than a focus on strength and endurance. After Day 4, the entire cycle was rebooted and started again.
Different gladiator schools used different systems, but The Tetrad System was one of the most popular systems of its time. What’s most remarkable about this style of training is it’s still an extremely underrated method. Because our society is set up on a 7-day week, very rarely do have training schedules that don’t revolve around the days of the week. From the standpoint of work and life, this makes perfect sense, but the 7-day cycle is completely arbitrary.
If you’ve been looking for a way to spice up training and increase the frequency, consider the Tetrad System. Keep rotating through the four days, just like the gladiators did. That would mean you’re hitting your main lifts every four days, compared to everybody else who’s only training them once every seven days. Consider giving a tetrad workout program a shot.
Galen, an ancient Roman physician (no, I’m not talking about the smart chimps from Planet of the Apes) got his start at a gladiator school. After treating so many gladiator’s injuries, he developed several principles for training.
The key three were:
Do a proper warm-up and gradually increase the intensity of your workout. Galen taught the gladiators to never start exercising at their full speed.
This principle was stressed by many ancient physicians. In order to prevent injury, you need to cool your body down after an intense effort. Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, recommended that everyone take a slow walk after exercising.
Rest was very important to the gladiators. In order to aid recovery, many gladiator schools included bathhouses. Like athletes today trying to get rid of all the lactic acid build-up, gladiators would soak in pools of hot and cold water to ease their tired bodies.
Seneca compared the life of a gladiator to that of a stoic; the stoic philosophy was incredibly popular in the ancient world and helped many people deal with the stresses of day-to-day life, including gladiators.
Marcus Aurelius (who you might recall from the first few scenes of The Gladiator) was a stoic philosopher who kept a daily journal to keep himself grounded. It was published after his death as Meditations and gives guidance on how to live a good life and stay sane in a world of chaos.
My favorite quote is about how to deal with annoying, petty, or malicious people:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”
You have certain amounts of control over some things and zero control over others. You can control what you eat or if you enter each arena with your game face on, but you cannot control the weather.
If you’re wasting time complaining about things that are out of your zone of control, focus your mental energy on trying to improve things that you can control.
One important aspect of stoicism is learning to accept things as they are or that are inevitable. You’re going to grow old. You’re going to die; it’s inevitable. Stoicism helped people accept that.
A gladiator would enter every arena ready for combat, knowing that he might die that day. This was a given that he had to accept.
Building a healthy mindset was as important to ancient gladiators as was building a strong, capable body. There are certain risks and inevitabilities in life, both of which you can never escape. Like the gladiators, you need to learn to accept them and not let them negatively affect your life.
The gladiators were the heroes of antiquity’s myths and real-life arenas. They played a similar role the Jedi’s (how to be a real-world jedi) and Superheroes (how Batman actually trains) of our time do, inspiring those around them with their seemingly inhuman abilities. However, we’re now the gladiators of today, the one’s who are carrying the torch of hard training. Sure, we’re not fighting to the death like we once were, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be our own hero in the journey of life.