How Would You Fare In Ancient Rome?
Who hasn’t watched Russell Crowe in Gladiator and thought ‘What a badass’. Perhaps you prefer 300? Either way we all know that Roman Gladiators were some of the toughest and fittest people the world has ever seen.
One of the most amazing things is they managed to be in such amazing shape despite having no access to modern fitness equipment. This article explains the tough training regimes of Roman Gladiators. Covering what we know about their routines, equipment, weapons training and mental approach.
At the end of the page are suggestions for those of you who would like to put a little Gladiator training into their own routines.
Gladiator Training Was as Much Mental as Physical
It was not only physically demanding to fight with your life on the line – it was mentally tough too. Their lives literally depended on them being in peak physical condition at all times. They needed the mental strength to take on all comers and they had to deal with the fact that each fight could be the end of their life.
Gladiators provided entertainment and theatre. This masked a very serious side. Any bout could end in death, if not during the fight itself – then at the whim of the emperor. Gladiators were expected to accept their death with dignity.
Gladiators Used the Tetrad System
The Tetrad system is the best known gladiator training regime. It was first developed by the Ancient Greeks and was a four day cycle with each day focus on a different type of training.
Day one was the preparation day, which consisted of short high intensity workouts to prepare the gladiators for the next day’s training. This is somewhat similar to the high intensity interval training that is popular today. One of many examples of how the Gladiators were well ahead of their time.
Day two was the complete opposite. All the exercises were long and extremely strenuous, testing the gladiators physical performance as well as their mental toughness. Gladiators were expected to give 110% for the entirety of the training.
Day three was rest day, even the ancients knew how important rest was to a gladiator, some schools would still have some training, but this would be very light and technical, mostly focusing and resting.
The final day was medium intensity, this was a mixture of all of the other days. The following day would be straight back to day one and the cycle would repeat.
Fitness Equipment in Roman Times
Much of the equipment we have today draws similarities to the equipment used in ancient times. Gladiators would often train with Halteraes, which are very similar to dumbbells and were used like they are today to perform different resistance exercises to build strength.
A lot of the equipment used by gladiators were balls, large stones that sometimes had grips cut into them were used. This put an emphasis on all muscle groups and meant a variety of different exercises could be performed. Think medicine balls and kettlebells, which are used today to vary our workouts and target specific muscle groups.
Wooden Gladiator Training Weapons
Training with real weapons was not the norm. These could lead to real injuries – far from ideal before a contest. Wooden weapons were used, though with a twist! These were twice as heavy as the real (metal) equivalents. This built up more strength in just the right areas, so that the Gladiators did not tire.
Hitting repeatedly with these wooden weapons against a Palus was encouraged. This was large wooden post, you can see an example in the BBC History video below. This looked like very hard work!
There were several types of Gladiator specialising in different weapons. Swords (with or without shield) were the most common. Other types included tridents and nets, spears and even specialists who wielded a sword in each hand.
With so much combat literally hand-to-hand, training includes moves more akin to MMA training or wrestling than real combat. This fine-tuned reflexes. It also helped to prepare for those times a combatant was disarmed during a fight.
How You Can Train Like a Gladiator
From studying the Gladiators it is plain to see that they had a great understanding of how to build strength, using Halteraes, large stones and exercises like digging to help build their strength and muscle size. A modern day version of this is to use free weights and machines, think progressive overload – Going up in weight every set and really challenging your muscles.
Another aspect the gladiators trained regularly is speed and explosiveness. We can mimic this today with circuits. Include things like squats, pull ups, push ups and medicine ball slams. Always perform these at a high intensity.
High intensity interval training is another thing you can do to build your speed and explosiveness. Think jog 120 seconds, sprint 30 seconds and repeat for 10 minutes.
If you want to go the whole way then consider taking some weapons training. Make sure that you practice in a safe environment with a qualified instructor using wooden versions of the originals.
You can enjoy Gladiator experiences as a tourist in Rome. For those who are more serious, this video of a real Gladiator boot-camp in Germany looks cool!
Final Take-Away: Push That Little Bit Harder!
It’s impossible to recreate the motivation that having your life on the line would have given. On the other hand, we can all benefit from the focus and mental toughness that the Gladiators personified. Pushing yourself harder, training with ‘weapons’ up to twice as heavy as the real ones and mixing strength training, agility and focus all have a place in modern fitness routines.
The actual weight or intensity of the cardio is less important here. It is all about having the mental toughness to carry on when your body is telling you to stop. To push yourself that little bit harder to hit those elusive fitness goals!
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