Grab fitness by the horns: Workout like ancient Olympian Milo of Croton

Milo of Croton, the most accomplished Olympic wrestler in antiquity, was renowned for his Herculean feats of strength, which included snapping a band tied around his temple just by furrowing his brow as well as single-handedly carrying his own bronze statue to its final resting place.

Of course, ancient athletes like Milo in the 6th century B.C. did not have access to cable-weight machines, elastic bands, or dumbbells. Milo did, however, understand the timeless secret to gaining muscle — increasing resistance — and he put it into practice.

Preparing for the Olympic games four years ahead, Milo started small. Wandering into a pasture, he scooped up a newborn ox, flung it over his shoulders, and hauled it across the field. The next day, finding the same calf, he repeated the practice. Day after day, month after month, Milo maintained his signature calf carrying drill until, after four years, Milo was no longer lifting a calf but a full-grown ox.

Milo’s technique was said to have been
inspired by the myth of Hercules wrestling the shape-shifting god Achelous

When the Olympic games finally arrived, Milo carried the ox the entire distance to the competition, showcasing the strength-training potential of increasing resistance at regular intervals. Upon arriving at the competition, Milo demonstrated another key ingredient to building muscle — consuming large quantities of protein. Slaughtering the ox at the games, he ate the entire animal raw in one sitting for all his opponents to witness.

Whether carrying oxen or eating them, Milo’s initiative to do the impossible earned him a place in history, but like the mythical Greek heroes that inspired him, the traits that made Milo great also proved to be his ultimate downfall. One day, traveling alone through the Greek wilderness, Milo noticed a tree that had been split with a wedge. Hoping he found a new exercise regimen, he decided to tear the tree apart with his bare hands. But when the wedge slid free, the trunk snapped shut, trapping him. Unable to free himself, he was tragically eaten by wolves.

Milo of Croton, by Jean-Jacques Bachelier

In the millennia since Milo’s death, his workout routines have not been entirely abandoned. Former world heavyweight champion and reigning bestselling grill spokesman, George Foreman, is often ranked as one of the hardest-hitting punchers in prizefighting history. In addition to running ten miles a day, pulling jeeps like they were dog sleds, and chopping wood like he was Rocky Balboa in a montage, Foreman prepared for his matches by carrying bovines like Milo of Croton.

The exercise has found use outside athletics as well. To play a marine-turned-dragon hunter in the post-apocalyptic thriller Reign of Fire (2002), Oscar-winning actor Mathew McConaughey retreated to his ranch and conditioned his body through wrestling cattle. For many in the modern world, however, livestock are not as readily available as they were in ancient Greece. Nevertheless, Milo’s principle of increasing resistance to build strength is still available in infinite variety. Whether lifting free weights, lugging around newborn babies who don’t stop growing, or bringing home bigger and bigger buckets of ice cream, we can all be like Milo of Croton — just in smaller, more forgettable ways.