What an Ancient Greek Wrestler Taught Us About Building Strength



Nearly 2,500 years ago, a Greek man, Milo of Croton, a man of incredible strength and athleticism, taught us the three basic principles of building muscle: Start very light, don’t miss workouts, increase in very small increments.

Milo, from Croton in Magna Graecia, today’s southern Italy, was almost certainly the most successful wrestler of his day, becoming 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).

It is said that Milo built his incredible strength through a simple, but profound strategy.

One day, a newborn calf was born near Milo’s home. The wrestler 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.

The core principles of strength training and how to build muscle are encapsulated in this legendary tale of Milo and the bull.

Anecdotes about Milo’s almost superhuman strength and lifestyle abound. His daily diet allegedly consisted of 9 kg (20 lbs) of meat, 9 kg (20 lbs) of bread, and 10 litres (18 pt) of wine.

Other legends say he carried his own bronze statue to its place at Olympia. One report says the wrestler was able to hold a pomegranate without damaging it while challengers tried to pry his fingers from it, and another report says he could burst a band fastened around his brow by inhaling air and causing the temple veins to swell.

The Ancient Greeks typically attributed remarkable deaths to famous persons in keeping with their characters. The date of Milo’s death is unknown, but according ancient historians, Milo was walking in a forest when he came upon a tree-trunk split with wedges…

The death of Milo of Croton by Joseph-Benoît Suvée (18th century, oil on canvas)

In what was probably intended as a display of strength, Milo inserted his hands into the cleft to rend the tree. The wedges fell from the cleft, and the tree closed upon his hands, trapping him.

Unable to free himself, the wrestler was devoured by wolves.