Nearly 2,500 years ago, the most successful wrestler of his day, Milo of Croton, roamed the hills of Italy. He was a man of incredible strength and athleticism. Many reading this will know of him and his story.
Milo was a six-time wrestling champion at the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece. In 540 BC, he won the boys wrestling category and then proceeded to win the men’s competition at the next five Olympic Games in a row. He also dominated the Pythian Games (7-time winner), Isthmian Games (10-time winner), and Nemean Games (9-time winner). [1, 2]
In the rare event that an athlete won not only the Olympic title, but also all three other games in one cycle, they were awarded the title of Periodonikes, a grand slam winner. Milo won this grand slam five times! That’s an amazing athlete!
What can Milo’s incredible strength teach us about how to build muscle and improve our health and fitness?
The answer is in the story of how Milo developed his strength…
It was a simple, but profound strategy:
One day, a newborn calf was born near Milo’s home. He decided to lift the small animal up and carry it on his shoulders. The next day, he returned and did the same.
Milo continued this strategy for the next four years, hoisting the calf onto his shoulders each day as it grew, until he was no longer lifting a calf, but a four-year-old bull. 
Side-note, this is quite an exaggeration. Having grown up on a farm, I can tell you that no-way-in-hell did he put a four-year old bull on his shoulders! Not only would that mean hoisting (an awkward) 2,000 lbs. up onto his shoulders (which is impossible in and of itself), but four-year old bulls are about the meanest animals around. If a bull doesn’t want to do something, no one, or no thing is going to change his mind. Ha! A bull is 2,000 lbs. of pure muscle! They’re powerful enough to jump six feet in the air, and can run through a solid steel pipe fence when they want. I’ve seen it!
Nevertheless, the core principles of strength training were well understood by the ancients, and are encapsulated in that great, legendary tale of ‘Milo and the bull.’
Strength Training: The Core Principles
The health and fitness industry is filled with unnecessary complexity and thousands of experts sharing conflicting ideas on social media. If there is anything I’ve learned during my 27 years in this field, it’s that mastering the fundamentals is far more valuable than worrying about the details for the vast majority of people.
(Unfortunately, it took me a while to learn that lesson, but eventually I did…)
Let’s discuss three of the core principles of strength training that are hidden in the story of Milo and the bull.
1- Start very light: Focus on volume before intensity.
This first principle is so much more important than most realize. After many years studying neurology, I now understand how important it is.
Milo didn’t try to lift a full-grown bull on day one. He began with a newborn calf. This was clearly an easy weight for him. Super easy.
But that’s the point. Yes, progression is important. But fast progression threatens the brain putting it into survival mode. Failing under the load of a weight multiple times in a workout will set you back, from strength and muscle gains. The brain has to feel safe before it will allow you to progress.
When beginning a new strength move or training program, go light. Super light. Your body and brain will reward you for focusing on volume, repetition, and easy weights in the beginning.
The highly successful Soviet weightlifting team of the 1950’s and ‘60’s were known for lifting the same load for many months at a time. They didn’t progress their weights very often. But when they did they made huge leaps. Their brains had allowed for a lot of muscle growth and strength potential as a result of the volume and repetition. As a result, they made huge gains when they attempted more (about every 6 or 8 months)!
One of the worst things you can do is lift too heavy too soon. This is threatening to the brain and it will go into survival mode rather than muscle-building mode.
2- Don’t miss workouts.
Milo’s strategy wouldn’t have worked if he only picked up the bull a few times per year, or just did it for a month and then did something else for a couple months. The calf would have grown too much in between attempts and Milo would have grown too little…
Yet, this is exactly the strategy many of us employ. Once or twice per year, (often around the New Year, or just before summer), we try to pick up a bull by getting incredibly motivated and exercising like never before—only to fizzle out a few weeks later.
The useful strategy is to start with something incredibly small, an exercise routine that is so easy you can’t say no to it. Then repeat it often and improve slowly.
(This has been particularly useful to me lately. It’s almost embarrassing for people to see me doing something so easy inside Athlon. But I’m staying consistent again, finally. And that’s paying off!)
3- Increase in very small ways.
Every day, Milo’s calf grew just a little bit. An ounce here, a pound there. And yet, these tiny gains added up to a very significant weight in a relatively short amount of time.
It works the same way in the gym. Do you think you could squat one more pound this week, or in two weeks, than you could last week? Most people probably could.
If you added just one pound per week for two years, you could be squatting 100 pounds more than you are today. How many people do you know that are squatting 100 pounds more today than they were two years ago? I don’t know many.
Tiny gains add up, fast.
The older, more experienced, and advanced I get, the more I realize the power of the simple, basic, beginner fundamentals.
When I was awarded my black-belt, my sensei told me, “now you’re a beginner,” and we began training the basic patterns and techniques all over again, from a new, advanced perspective.
They’re called fundamentals for a reason. Don’t ignore them. They’ll get you where you want to go much faster and more effectively than the sexy stuff. ;-)
Until next time,
- Greek Athletes and Athletics by H.A. Harris. pp. 110–113.
- There are seemingly endless stories of Milo’s feats of strength and although some of them are certainly embellished (his daily diet reportedly included 20 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of bread, and 18 pints of wine), there is no doubt that Milo was one of the greatest strength athletes of his time and that the lessons we learn from his stories hold true today.
- Human biology (5th edition) by Daniel Chiras. p. 229.
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