The impact of weight training on ancient greeks and romans

WORKING OUT with weights has a long history. One of the highlights of the ancient Greek Olympics was the display of weightlifting prowess by strongmen from around the world. These weightlifters were as legendary as the mythical giants Atlas and Hercules.

In ancient Greece and during the Roman Empire, weight training helped one acclimatise to wearing heavy metal armour, wielding heavy spears, swords and axes.

To this end, the Greek philosopher, Plato, enthusiastically advocated rigorous physical exercise for men and for women. The decline and fall of the Greek and Roman empires, and the halt to the ancient Olympic Games led to a change in the common man’s attitude towards weight-training. During the Middle Ages, and through much of the post-Renaissance period, weight-training shrank to a small category of circus performers, boxers, and strongmen competitors. The depiction of lean males in painting and sculpture of that period reflected the public distaste for bulky male figures. The advent of the modern Olympic Games reawakened interest in weight-training.

The Games provided a platform for strongmen to show off their skills, and athletics coaches soon discovered that a systematic weight-training programme dramatically improved the performance of sprinters. The rising profile of the Olympic Games paralleled the 20th century explosion in our understanding of biomechanics, sports physiology, nutrition and the treatment of sports injuries. The popularity of motion pictures, especially the cult of Steve McQueen, meant that bodybuilding became more than just a means to an athletic goal: it was a way to sculpt one’s body in the image of one’s choosing.

The discovery of anabolic steroids and their widespread use among bodybuilders hardened the activity into a freak show that reached its peak in the Mr. Universe competitions that an Austrian farm boy called Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated so completely. The 1970s documentary, Pumping Iron featured Ah-nold talking about bodybuilding . The 1980s began a swing back to “natural” bodybuilding, powered by the rising awareness of the side effects of steroid abuse. Nevertheless, hardcore steroid-based bodybuilding is still the leading crowd puller at the Mr. Universe shows, and the Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and Van Dammes are partly to blame for the unrealistic crowd expectations that fuel this risky behaviour.

In the West, the craze for more and more home runs means that even today, professional baseball players bulk up by doping themselves — a practice that is, shockingly, legal.

Bodybuilding is simply one of the best exercises for both the sexes, for the young and the old. It is possible to bulk up and sculpt one’s figure without taking steroids, and over the next few weeks, this column will explain the physiology and practice of safe and effective bodybuilding.


I’m into bodybuilding, but not for sport. I don’t want to look the the Hulk, but more like Bruce Lee (who, in my opinion, was a great man both in his mentality as well as his physical skill.) As you may see in my picture on the left hand side of your screen I appear skinny. I’m not, and I think that one needs to be one with their mind, body and soul! What is a strong mind without a strong body?

I am way too lazy and one of the main reason that I am in shape is because of my job at the moment. If it wasn’t for that I’ll probably be skin and bones. Since women have been approving of how I look without a shirt, I have continued. They get amazed when they could speak to me and I could hold a conversation longer than they can. Just wanted to add that.

— I am, sadly, a somewhat sedentary westerner myself, and thus greatly in need of this discussion. Many chess players have discovered that the mind works best in conjunction with a good body. All of the recent World chess champions have done exercises of some sort. The Greek root for gymnasium and gymnastics originally mean’t training. Exercise toughens and hones one and contributes to an overall balanced life.

It is interesting to hear that lifting weights originally had a purpose outside of itself, (“weight training helped one acclimatise to wearing heavy metal armour, wielding heavy spears, swords and axes”) and was not a whole purpose unto itself. People like Seneca the younger frequently denigrated people who bulked up, but in a well balanced life exercise has an important place.

The spectacle that you allude to, of weight lifting (putting on mass) being turned into mass entertainment is indicative of the culture in general, where vicarious spectator pleasures instantly gratify the masses.

I have an interesting theory on weight training; no one does it for health purposes. I will concede that people may begin to weight train with health in mind, however, if the praise of peers is not soon received, they will soon quit.

I have been working out since high school, and began seeing serious results by the age of nineteen. I remember so vividly the praise and admiration of my friends, family and most importantly, (as Smooth stated) women :sunglasses:. I am twenty three now, and I find myself still going to the gym, but not with the same fervor I had when I was younger. One day I had an epiphany, and realized that I did not enjoy going to the gym, and that I actually never did to begin with. What I enjoyed was the self-esteem, the power I suppose, of being considered buff. As much as I hate to say it, the vanity. Being in good shape has become such a part of my identity, I cannot imagine myself happy with an average build. For this reason I still workout, although motivating myself to do so has become rather arduous. I also continue to workout because if I did not, I would be giving up what I perceive to be a huge asset with respect to meeting women; I don’t know of any man that could find the complacency in himself to lose such a valuable asset.

My father on the otherhand, has been overweight for years. He recently began running on my mother’s treadmill. When I asked my mom what had instigated my dad’s sudden desire to workout, she said it was a television program on health. She then added that he was losing weight, and looked thinner. This last comment my mother made really garnered my attention, as my father had sporadically exercised in the past, but quit within a month or so. The difference this time was that he saw results. Not in the form of a mirror, but in the form of his wife’s acknowledgement of his progress. I instantly recalled several times when peers would make similar comments to me, and those remarks motivated me more than anything else to continue working out.

I sometimes ponder what makes a man like Arnold Schwarzenegger (sp?) continue to exercise and keep so much mass. I imagine it has to do with the fact that it has become so much a part of him, that he continues to workout because it would be similar to having an arm or leg amputated. Of course this is an extreme analogy, however I think it embodies how much of a role your body image plays in developing who you think you are.

Perhaps all of my conjectures are off base, and it would not surprise me if someone well-versed in psychology had no problem dispelling my assumptions.

Anyhow, as to what effect weightlifting had on the Greeks and Romans, I do notice that I am considerably more productive intellectually if I keep up my exercise routine. During weeks where I am unable to get into the gym, I am noticeably more ornery and apt to be less productive. Whether or not the causal relationship between intellect and execise is the result of my own psychological disatisfaction with not maintaining my body image, or because there are actual mental benefits to having a healthy body, I do not know. I imagine it is a combination of both factors. Either way, the Romans and Greeks must have gained some sort of intellectual benefit from execising.

Matthew E. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your above post. It was honest and straightforward and touched upon a lot of the things I have been thinking in the past few weeks. It is very hard for us to admit our failures and weaknesses. And in a topic like personal image we see all of our "vanity” and “insecurities”. It is the equivalent, and I might be exaggerating, of a man admitting in public that he has a small penis.

To give a background at the opening moves of my life that led into this present middle game I will tell you the following. Growing up I was skinny and short. The worst possible combination of genetic structure possible if you ask me. By the age of 13 I was positive that I possessed a Napoleon complex, which was proven by my creation of a society called The XXI Empire of Mind & Reason; my brain child. (we aren’t a terrorist organization, or looking for world domination. Nothing evil.)
At the age of 16 I was still 5’2’’ weighing in at a mighty 92 lbs. I guess I was lucky that I had some very tall, “buff” friends that were interested in expanding their minds and not expanding the width of my face. As XXI gain popularity so did I, and so did my ego. I didn’t need to worry about my appearance, being 16 looking like a 12 year old, because I was proof positive that in my hood, I was one of the smartest around. Whether it was in chess, stratego, video games, or general knowledge I had it. I was a big fish in a small pond. Getting women into bed for me was just another form of chess, from my first opening words to the final moves on my bed. Performing magic as well was another talent I needed to learn to make up for my physical inadequacies. But when I turned 18 I hit a growth spurt.

=== F A S T F O R W A R D ===

I joined the Marine Corps when I was 21 at 5'9'' 118lbs, not into fitness but into business instead.  While I was playing in the sand (my nickname for operation Iraqi freedom) my Gunnery Sergeant spoke to me heavily on the benefits of having an excellent physical appearance.  I started working out not for health reason, but for business reasons.  As a magician/mentalist I am basically in the entertainment business.  And as an entertainer having an appealing image doesn't hurt.  Women can be used as leverage to men with simple minds, but attracting women was simple to me.  Being fit was just icing on the cake.  
I started working out and when the war started I stopped, because I was kind of distracted from the explosions and all that good stuff.  When I came back, even though I had lost weight during the last seven weeks before I left, I was still more fit than before.  The compliments, and the people asking me for advice on how to work out was a thrill.  For the first time I was looked at as a person who had a more primitive appeal.  No longer were my peers considering me a nerd with a little popularity, but now I was a pimp!
I got back into working out in August and have seen excellent results in the last three weeks.  Even though I am committed with my current girlfriend, it never hurts that other women (especially in San Diego) look.  Even if those looks are imaginary.  They could be looking at me the same way they used to before, but now that I have these defined triceps, biceps and shoulders I am much more cocky.
Going back home to New York was a great experience.  Not only has my knowledge on business, philosophy, fitness and various other subjects have increased, but so has my fashion sense, physical appearance and net worth.  These things, which I would say don't matter to me (but my actions speak differently), are all tools.  Tools that help me climb the social ladder.  
I'm getting off the subject.  But working out has its benefits.  After a twelve-mile run, my mind feels like it is razor sharp.  I attribute it to all the blood flowing into my brain.  I used to smoke marijuana religiously before joining the military.  I used to smoke and then write poetry, stories, freestyle rhymes, or draw.  But mostly I would debate with others or play chess high.  Being that I cannot do this anymore, and I really don't want to, I instead have gotten addicted to that natural physical state that I have heard called 'runners high'.  And the feelings are pretty similar.  Well at least to me.

i like this topic…

id like to add, that in putting your body through a rigourous workout, a persons body will release an amount of endorphins (feel good stuff) to counter pain and help excite regeneration of torn and worn out tissue. every do that 10 mile run and feel like you have just had sex for about a few hours afterwords? now like any “high” state you grow used to it. describing how many people are only sporadic about their exercising.