How The Ancient Greeks Actually Got So Fit

List Rules
Vote up the best tips to sculpt you into a Greek god.

Few places placed as much importance on physical fitness as the city-states of ancient Greece. In the pursuit of athletic excellence, the Greeks developed ideas and methods that are still remarkably applicable to the present day. Such fundamental fitness concepts as a proper warm-up and cool-down have their origins in the sandy gymnasiums of Athens and Sparta. While the dress code of the modern gym is a little stricter, the lessons gleaned from those ancient workouts are well worth a look. 

This collection examines the stories behind how the Greeks got into such amazing shape. From using a newborn calf to achieve Herculean strength, to letting it all hang out on the gym floor, the workout secrets of the Greeks will be unveiled. 


  • You Are Your Own Gym
    Photo: E. Norman Gardiner / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1,078 VOTES

    You Are Your Own Gym

    Calisthenics is a system of exercises using body weight to improve strength and fitness, with origins in ancient Greece. The Greeks referred to bodyweight exercises as kallos sthenos (beautiful strength). The term was revived in the 19th century by fitness enthusiasts with a keen interest in the classics. 

    The advantages to bodyweight training are obvious - no need for expensive exercise equipment when your body and gravity can provide all the resistance needed. From the simple push-up to the advanced muscle-up, there are suitable exercises for all levels.

    Given the fact there wouldn't have been many treadmills or dumbbells around in ancient Athens, beautiful strength evidently got the job done. 

  • 2
    960 VOTES

    Build Speed And Endurance With Sand

    To build speed and power, ancient Greek sprinters trained on sand rather than on hard surfaces. The principle behind this was that sand was more difficult to run on, so the activity would develop muscles in the legs and build up aerobic endurance.

    Athletes also ran in full battle armor to add to the resistance, a practice that paid off handsomely when it was actually used in the Battle of Marathon. The Greek troops ran to quickly close the distance with the Persian infantry to avoid hails of deadly arrows from the archers. 

    There are some key benefits to running on sand. For one, the impact on the joints is lessened by the softer surface. The instability of sand also has the benefit of recruiting smaller muscles, and the difficulty actually burns about 1.5 times the calories of running on a conventional surface. Digging the sand of the gymnasium floor was also a useful exercise favored by boxers. 

  • Don't Forget The Cool-Down
    Photo: Anonymous / Walters Art Museum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
    1,047 VOTES

    Don't Forget The Cool-Down

    The αποθεραπεια ("recovery") was an important part of training in ancient Greece. Athletes would first scrape the oil, sweat, and grime off their skin using a strigil (pictured). Next came a massage and then a relaxing bath. The Greek physician Galen wrote of the benefits of both hot and cold baths after training, while Hippocrates advised athletes to walk after training to boost recovery.

    The ideas around the cool-down have stuck around for thousands of years for good reason; ending the workout correctly helps prevent injury, regulates blood flow, and restores the body's temperature. 

  • 4
    953 VOTES

    Go Hard Or Go Home

    The Greeks trained with ferocious intensity and focus. Few events captured the essence of going all-out like pankration. It was something of a precursor to mixed martial arts, but with even fewer rules. The sport's name meant "all of the power," and very little was off-limits in this terrifying event.

    Only biting and eye-gouging were frowned upon by referees armed with rods to enforce the rules. The Spartan version didn't even have those restrictions. The fight went on until one competitor gave in or the referee ordered the contest to end. Philo of Alexandria gave a vivid description of a pankration determined by one fighter's will to continue:

    I already witnessed once in a pankration contest a man who hurled blows with hands and feet, all of them well-directed, leaving nothing undone that might bring him victory, but who gave up, was worn out, and finally left the stadium uncrowned.

    The man being battered, on the other hand, was compact with solid flesh, mean, tough, exuding the athlete's spirit, and all muscle, like a stone or iron  -  he didn't give in to the blows and broke the force of his opponent by the toughness and firmness of his endurance until he won the final victory [emphasis added].

    Suffice it to say, those foolhardy enough to step into the arena trained for this event like their lives were on the line - because they almost certainly were. Pankration was also harnessed for military training, and at the battle of Thermopylae, the last remaining Spartans fought with their bare hands.

    It's little wonder the Persians had such a hard time gaining a foothold in Greece.

  • 5
    613 VOTES

    Have A Goal To Aim Toward

    The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 BCE (they may have begun even earlier) when a cook named Koroibos won the only event of the games - the station race (about 600 feet). He earned the grand prize of an apple for his heroics.

    Over time, the games expanded to encompass more events, including running, boxing, wrestling, pankration, and equestrian events. The prizes also grew in splendor, as did the glory bestowed upon the victorious athlete. 

    Ancient Olympic champions were crowned with an olive wreath and given a jar of olive oil. The decorative amphoras used to hold the oil were treasured works of art. The Panathenaic Games were held every four years in Athens and included team sports open only to citizens of the city. Each of the 10 tribes of Athens competed for cash prizes and oxen.

    Whether it was for individual pride or the glory of the tribe, Greek athletes strove to compete in multiple games. Having a grand prize to aim for ushered in a new era of professionalism in athletic training. The pursuit of sporting excellence was both a strong incentive and a unifying influence in the Greek world. 

  • Listen To The Experts
    Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    537 VOTES

    Listen To The Experts

    For the Greeks, physical fitness wasn't seen as simply a lifestyle, but a civic duty. The city-states needed scores of physically fit citizens for protection. 

    The philosopher Socrates never actually wrote anything down, so it was left to his former students Xenophon and Plato to record his ideas for future generations. Socrates's views on fitness were mentioned in a lecture to a young man in poor physical condition:

    Besides, it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord.

    Greek physicians took a keen interest in the training of athletes to better understand anatomy and the function of the human body. Philostratus wrote one of the earliest treatises on sports, Gymnasticus, some 2,000 years ago.

    The fundamental idea of a structured workout comprising a warm-up, main exercise, and cool-down was first devised in Ancient Greece and based upon empirical evidence.