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The Actual Ways The Romans Got Fighting Fit

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Vote up the advice most useful for conquering the fitness world.

When you imagine elite fighters in the ancient era, chances are you’ll think of the coordinated might of the Roman legion and the individual flair of the gladiator. There were similarities with how the Greeks pursued fitness, but also some key digressions. By examining how both the Roman legions and the gladiators got into fighting shape, we can still learn a great deal in the present day.

This collection looks at the uncompromising methods the Romans used in pursuit of martial excellence. From the forced marches of raw recruits to the plentiful helpings of barley, the fitness secrets of the Romans will be revealed.

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  • Specialize In One Area
    Photo: Howard Pyle / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    169 VOTES

    Specialize In One Area

    In the Roman arena, there were four primary classes of gladiators and a host of subdivisions that rose and fell in prominence over the years. The four main classes were the Samnite, Thracian (or Thraex), Myrmillo (or Murmillo), and Retiarius. Generally speaking, match-ups usually pitted a heavy class against a lighter class, as that was believed to offer the best spectacle for the audience. A Myrmillo armed with a sword and shield would typically face a Retiarius wielding a net and trident. 

    A gladiator chose his style based upon his strengths, and once his class was chosen, he stuck with it. Any gladiator foolish enough to try to master more than one style was pretty much guaranteed to have a very short career in the arena. Success, and therefore survival, was far more likely for the gladiator who mastered one particular skill set. 

    The Roman legions were similarly disposed to focus on complete mastery of a small number of key skills rather than competence across many. As a result, the Roman army produced the finest heavy infantry in the world and used mercenaries to fill the skill gaps. 

    Taking a Roman approach at the gym nowadays would suggest focusing on a small number of exercises as opposed to doing a little of everything. For muscle-building, you really only need six compound lifts to get some serious results. 

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    223 VOTES

    Function Matters More Than Looks

    While TV and movie adaptations of gladiators tend to feature actors with finely chiseled physiques, the reality was quite different. Aesthetics were for the Greeks; real gladiators had curves. A layer of subcutaneous fat was cultivated by any professional warrior seeking to survive in the arena.

    For one thing, it protected against those glancing wounds that a leaner body would not be able to endure. Secondly, getting bloodied was pleasing to the crowd, almost like how professional wrestlers blade today. A little color from an otherwise trivial wound excited the masses and a bloody brawler could live to see another day, even if he lost.

    Today we could look at the world's top heavyweight boxer, Tyson Fury, as a testament to how little superficial muscles actually matter. The strongest athletes on the planet might not turn heads on the beach, but if you're seeking to be the absolute best, looks are just not that important. 

  • Use Progressive Adaptation To Keep The Results Coming
    Photo: Marco Dente / Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    142 VOTES

    Use Progressive Adaptation To Keep The Results Coming

    To conquer the world, you need some serious staying power. The Roman legions used a simple but brutally effective method for building up the endurance of soldiers. Within the first four months of enlistment in the army, Roman recruits would first learn to march 18 miles in five hours while carrying packs weighing about 45 pounds. They would then learn to do 24 miles with faster steps in the same amount of time. This process would take about four months of grueling training. Along with marches, recruits gained discipline and stamina from hours of hard labor

    You probably don’t have the time or inclination to do such mammoth marches yourself, but the underlying premise of progressive adaptation is a smart way to build endurance. In other words, getting more from the same amount of time. While they still put in some serious miles, distance runners don’t actually run full-length marathons very often in training. They instead look to build speed endurance by running shorter distances at a faster pace. 

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    128 VOTES

    Take Recovery Seriously

    One area where ancient Greek and Roman ideas about fitness intersected was in the importance of an appropriate cool-down. The strigil was an instrument used by Greeks and Romans alike to scrape off oil and grime at the end of a workout. Galen was a Greek physician who settled in Rome and served as the personal doctor of multiple Roman emperors. He was an advocate of using hot and cold baths after training to help boost recovery. 

    One of the best-preserved examples of Roman baths can be found in the appropriately named English town of Bath (yes, that’s where the name comes from). Today, ice immersion and saunas after training are commonly used by top athletes, although the research behind the value of either is still disputed. 

  • Setbacks Are Only Temporary
    Photo: John Trumbull / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    84 VOTES

    Setbacks Are Only Temporary

    The Romans knew the sting of defeat better than just about any major power in history. It was Rome’s ability to absorb those many setbacks and keep pushing on that ultimately paved the way for its tremendous impact upon history. As an emerging power in the third century BCE, the Romans lost several battles, first to Pyrrhus of Epirus and later to Hannibal Barca. Despite these great losses, none more devastating than the defeat at Cannae, the Romans always bounced back. 

    In fitness or really anything worth doing, progress is never a linear upward line. The Roman path to success certainly isn’t the easiest or for the faint of heart, but it works in the end. Sheer dogged determination can overcome just about anything.

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    173 VOTES

    Make The Practice More Difficult Than The Real Thing

    One way the Roman legions became so effective in close combat was by training with heavy wooden shields, javelins, and swords. These would have been about twice as heavy as the equipment actually wielded on the battlefield. For the Romans, the first phase of the battle was to disrupt the enemy's charge with the pilum. Training with much heavier wooden javelins ensured the real thing would be all the more devastating. Preparation for the hand-to-hand phase followed a similar premise - troops engaged with much heavier practice weapons to build great strength and endurance.

    In modern times we might not have much use for swords, but the principles are still widely used by professional coaches and athletes. The German soccer coach Thomas Tuchel, for example, is known to make use of tiny soccer balls and to greatly restrict the size of the field for training. By making practice more difficult and stressful, the real thing seems much easier to the players. 

    On a more general and individual level, you can try this out for yourself by adding extra resistance to movements. This could be done with sprints using a sled or performing bodyweight exercises with extra weight attached. Whether you're seeking to conquer the world, or just get an edge in your local rec league, follow the Roman example.