Strength Training from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

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Today, targeted and comprehensive body training has reached the center of society. In retrospect one is tempted to say that we have gone a “long way”. The beginnings of “body culture” go back a lot further, as this first part of the fMi series shows.

The fitness and health industry would not be what it is today if the pioneers had not promoted physical fitness and muscle training early on. But where does the origin actually lie and which forerunners do current trends and developments go back to? These are all questions we will examine as part of our extensive series of articles about the history of our industry.

A look at history shows that physical fitness has always played an important role and has evolved and developed more and more in different forms and forms over the millennia. What is examined today based on evidence or is supported by sports science is by no means solely due to modern times.

It is in the nature of things that the physically fit and strong men in the sense of the Darwinian worldview have always prevailed – the principle of “survival of the fittest” was already in place in the Stone Age and little has changed over time changed. The first sporting exercises and games can already be seen in Stone Age cave paintings, although it is certainly not yet possible to speak of systematic training or competition. Reliable evidence of sport and games can be traced back to the earliest periods in ancient Egyptian history, that is, up to 5,000 years before our era. So far, so good – but that still has very little to do with today’s fitness sport or health-oriented strength training.

Table of Contents

Ancient Greece – between Dietetics, Muscle Cultivation and Olympia

The direct forerunners of today’s strength and muscle training go back to around 2,000 years BC. BC back to ancient Greece. Physical fitness was of fundamental importance to the Greeks, after all the well-being of an entire people depended on the will to fight and the physical constitution of the army. The Greeks already practiced strength training and practiced bodybuilding.

One of the model athletes of the time was Milon von Kroton (* around 555 BC), who later became a. a. made a name for himself as a professional wrestler. He raised a calf in his youth and even grabbed a whole cow when he was an adult. Milon became Olympic champion in wrestling and won between 532 and 516 BC. A total of five times the coveted title for men. This is also why he was considered the strongest person in the world in his day. So much for the myth and history – but what many do not know is that Milon von Kroton trained according to a strict training plan, the so-called “tetrad cycle”. This cycle was accompanied by clear training and nutritional recommendations as well as defined rest and stress periods. The athlete followed the recommendations of his mentor and trainer Pythagoras,

Who would have thought that the first forerunners of systematic muscle training can be traced back to an otherwise more mathematically inspired philosopher? In Milon’s time, not whole weights but whole calves were lifted into the air – and still with a system! Herodicus, Epictetus, Hippocrates and Co. were further important pioneers of their era, who dealt intensively with the systematic relationships between training, nutrition, psyche, exercise, rest and medicine and analyzed them in the context of dietetics etc. Through the ancient Olympic Games, these systematic forerunners of physical education were continuously developed and increasingly professionalized.

Gymnasium – Forerunner of Today’s Health and Fitness Studios?

Anyone who believes that the athletes of that time did not find any professional training facilities is on the wrong track. Back then, so-called “high schools” were the melting pot of the Hellenistic cult of sport and body and the breeding ground for many top athletes and Olympic athletes. The term “gymnasion” has its origins in the Greek word “gymnos”, which means “naked”. And bare facts were absolutely common at that time. No muscle shirt, no performance trousers – they trained how God created the model athletes.

These centers quickly became the focus of gymnastic and physical physical education and from then on acted as the figurehead and flagship institution of the Greek physical culture. They were generously supported by patrons and politicians, financially supported and gradually expanded into elite social teaching facilities for sport and education by the affiliated schools of philosophy. Thus, the Athens high schools were the first prototypes of today’s fitness and health studios and the nucleus of many important philosophical and training scientific food for thought, models and approaches that are still highly relevant to this day and have lost none of their topicality.

Fitness with the Romans – “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano”

When the Romans in the 2nd century BC Chr. Subjugated the Greeks, they took over and developed the know-how about training, diet and relaxation programs etc. in addition to the culture and the sports at that time. “Mens sana in corpore sano” is not only known since the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal (1st and 2nd centuries AD). “A healthy mind also lives in a healthy body” and besides training also the right regeneration is part of it.

Many of the forerunners of today’s spas, cryochambers, saunas, steam baths and Co. can be traced back to Roman thermal culture – only then were they called Caldarium, Frigidarium or Tepidarium. Further references to the healing effects of exercise and physical training on health can be found in the early works of the doctor and anatomist Galenos von Pergamon (around 150 AD), who described the first targeted resistance exercises and approaches to therapeutic gymnastics. If you like, the first origins of health-oriented strength training can be seen here.

More Than Just “Bread And Games” – Fitness As An Event

In addition to the heroic, steeled gladiators, who fought for life and death in the “Circus Maximus” in bloody battles, the connection between physical fitness, training and “spectacle” played in the old Rome plays an important role.

What is known today as kettlebells, burpees or functional training goes back to the ancient Romans. Around 2,000 years ago, gladiator schools and elsewhere used targeted training with dumbbells, round balls and your own body weight in order to prepare yourself optimally. What worked for the Roman people for the event and for the amusement of “bread and games” still worked in the 1990s: fitness and sport as an event and happening aroused emotions and was present in the media. With the American Gladiators, for example, at least the “modern gladiators” in various forms have survived to this day. The only difference: Today it is not the thumb of the emperor and the mob that is at the mercy of things, but the Facebook like or the ratings.

Ave Caesar – Bootcamp à la Romana

The hard military drill in the legionnaire schools and Roman garrisons – “bootcamp à la Romana” so to speak, was anything but fun for the legionaries at that time. Push-up jumps, dangling, carrying, towing, obstacle course, endurance runs etc. – all this is not far from today’s fitness competitions such as the HYROX Challenge, the NINJA WARRIOR series, the StrongmanRun, the Highland Games or various other formats.

In contrast to Julius Caesar’s times, customers today pay for having the drill instructor in the boot camp or in the CrossFit box “get ready” for these events. The methods remain the same, only the focus and purpose of the training have changed. How time flies – and who thinks that muscle training was just a “man’s thing” is extremely wrong – because the first mosaic images of women exercising with dumbbells also date from this era and are dated to around 300 AD.

Middle Ages – Knights, Rust and Llittle Progress

Due to the collapse of the Roman Empire (around 476 AD) and the increasing influence of Christianity, the importance of physical education and targeted physical training at least for the general population waned in the Middle Ages. The fact that many Christians were formerly sentenced to bloody gladiatorial battles certainly contributed to the fact that Roman sports and the cult of steeled muscle athletes largely disappeared in the “dark epoch” and people were more committed to salvation.

The serfs worked in the fields of the feudal lords and only the knights and mercenaries trained their bodies and their skills in order to survive in the tournament fights or on the battlefield. A good physical constitution was undoubtedly required, after all, otherwise the armor, which weighs up to 25 kilograms, would otherwise probably not have been able to be worn.

After a lot of shadows in the Middle Ages, there was also light again for fitness training – in part 2 of our series you can learn more about the renaissance of modern strength training and go with us on a journey through time to the forefathers of modern strength training and bodybuilding.

Since we are unfortunately no longer able to interview Milon von Kroton personally and holy calves do not live forever, after the admittedly fast journey through time through the first forerunners of the fitness and strength training history it is time to finally speak to one of the “modern forefathers” who will lead you through this series of articles with us.

Conclusion and Outlook by Albert Busek

On October 14, 1959, I had a dumbbell in my hand for the first time in the adjoining room of a sauna in Munich. It was more than a key experience, it was a revelation. From that moment on I knew where my path would take me. At that time there was no fitness studio in Munich and weights could only be found in weightlifting clubs, where individual and targeted body training, i.e. bodybuilding, was taboo. 

This type of training was largely unknown to the public in this country and was perceived as a strange subculture, if at all. At that time there were about 30 studios in the Federal Republic, most of which were very small. Today, targeted and comprehensive body training has reached the center of society and in retrospect one is tempted to say that we have gone a “long way”. The beginnings of “body culture” go back a lot further, as this first part of the fM series shows. 

The Middle East can be described as the “cradle” of body training. Resistance training (see illustration) was already in Egypt 4,500 years ago and the “Lifting Stone” found in the ancient Olympia sanctuary testifies that strength training was very popular at the time. The Romans adopted and developed this culture, whereby the “mosaic of girls in bikini” from the 4th century comes pretty close to the situation in today’s fitness studio. Resistance training has been going on in Egypt for 500 years (see illustration) and the “Lifting Stone” found in the ancient sanctuary of Olympia testifies that strength training was very popular at the time. The Romans adopted and developed this culture, whereby the “mosaic of girls in bikini” from the 4th century comes pretty close to the situation in today’s fitness studio. Resistance training has been going on in Egypt for 500 years (see illustration) and the “Lifting Stone” found in the ancient sanctuary of Olympia testifies that strength training was very popular at the time. The Romans adopted and developed this culture, whereby the “mosaic of girls in bikini” from the 4th century comes pretty close to the situation in today’s fitness studio.

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