This article looks at emerging concepts in the training of Gladiators, what their trainers were looking to improve and the methods they used to do it.
The study of Gladiators’ training methods has revealed their trainers had a solid understanding of effective training methods. Each form of training was designed to push the gladiators to the peak of physical fitness. This post examines some of the methods they employed.
One of these principles was the principle of progressive overload. Progressive overload (as we know) is the concept in physical training that involves gradually increasing the demand on the body to stimulate further adaptation and improvement. In our training routines, we gradually increase the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions. This challenges our bodies and allows the musculoskeletal system to get gradually become stronger.
There is evidence that athletes utilised the concept of progressive overload. One account (from the 6th century BC) tells how an athlete named Milo of Croton trained for the Olympics. He would train by taking a newly born bull, hoisting it up on his shoulders and carrying it for a set distance every day. Naturally, as the bull would grow larger over time Milo would be hoisting and carrying exponentially increasing weight. By the time the Olympics would begin, he would walk into the stadium with a full-grown bull on his shoulders.
Milo of Croton and his bull. Progressive overload training, ancient Greek style.
Likewise, Gladiator Ludi (trainers) would have their fighters training with gradually increasing weight in preparation for their fights. The ancients knew that if you want your muscles to grow and get stronger, you need to lift increasingly heavier and heavier weights.
Another principle from the ancient world is that of periodization. Periodization is a strategy used in physical training to achieve specific fitness goals by breaking down a training program into distinct phases or periods. Each period has a specific focus and intensity level, allowing for progressive overload and recovery to maximise performance and prevent injury.
Gladiators’ training would generally be right throughout the day. It would be split into units of time during which they would focus on just one skill. For example, weapons work, agility training, strength building, stamina and endurance training. The trainers split the training to allow the fighters to adapt mentally and physically to the demands. As we know, with overtraining in one area comes plateaus, injury and exhaustion. A layoff of that training was then given to allow adaptation to take place. Another form of training would then be used to allow a mental/physical break whilst continuing the Gladiators’ training.
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 focused on a different type of training.
Philostratus was a Greek philosopher who lived during the time of the Roman Empire. As well as writing several essays on physical education he was a pioneer of the Tetrad System. Philostratus elaborates on the Tetrad system in his work ‘Concerning Gymnastics’ where he described the tetrad system as a cycle of four days. He states that each day was given to a different activity.
Breakdown of the Tetrad system
First Day - Day of preparation:
This consisted of short high-intensity workouts to prepare the gladiators for the following day’s training. This is somewhat similar to the high-intensity interval training that is popular today.
Second Day - Day of high intensity:
This day consisted of long, strenuous exercise. Testing the gladiator’s physical performance as well as their mental toughness. Gladiators were expected to give everything they had for the entirety of the training on these days. Maximum intensity training.
Third Day- Day of rest:
This was rest and recovery day. Ancient Gladiator schools knew the importance of recovery in promoting growth and improvement. Some schools would still have some training, but this would be very light physical training with a focus on stretching and technique. So massages, saunas, that kind of thing.
Fourth Day- Day of medium intensity:
This was medium intensity, this was a mixture of all of the other days. Some intense work, some lighter work, combined with drills and stretching.
After four days, the regimen started over again. The following day would be straight back to day one and the cycle would repeat.
This tetrad system was one of the earliest examples of periodisation in physical exercise.
Galen and Exercises
Galen’s writings further expounded this emphasis on periodisation in training. In his writings, he explained the different equipment and exercises Gladiators would use. He also divided exercises into several types:
Greek Physician Galen (Claudius Galenus 130-201 AD) tending to wounded gladiators in the amphitheatre in ancient Pergamum (located in modern day Turkey).
These were power exercises performed with strength but without speed. This appeared to include types of resistance, powerhouse and isometric exercises. Examples of these kinds of exercise included digging, farmers’ walks with weight (including up hills) and powerlifting. Gladiators would use halteraes (see below) or other heavy objects for resistance such as stones, wooden logs or sandbags.
Halteres (a kind of stone dumbbell complete with handles) were used to help gladiators develop strength and power.
It also included exercises designed to improve upper body and grip strength such as rope climbing and hanging from ledges for sustained periods of time. Another exercise involved the fighter holding their arms up (with or without weights) whilst a partner would try to push them in a downward direction.
By incorporating speed and agility drills into their fighter’s training routines, Ludi looked to improve the overall performance of the Gladiators. Improving their ability to move quickly and change direction with precision and control. As well as improving coordination, balance, and reaction time. Improving these attributes would aid with evasive manoeuvres, making rapid attacks and attacking from all angles. This training would involve any type of movement at fast speed basically. For example, shadow boxing, hitting the punching bag, running around with balls, agility drills, sprints etc.
By ‘violent’ the ancients meant power (as in explosive movement). These exercises combined the speed and vigorous components listed above. So quick movements were undertaken with fairly heavy resistance.
The ability to jump and leap was of importance to a gladiator, they needed lightning quick reflexes to jump to the attack when they perceived opportunities. Therefore their training included different types of plyometrics training. Examples of this would be jumping onto high objects (often using resistance). Various types of athletics found in the Olympics would be included in their training (high jump, long jump, etc).
Gladiators had to be able to attack with speed from any angle to have any chance of success.
Obstacle courses were also part of Gladiator training. Gladiators would have to negotiate a course filled with a variety of obstacles each requiring a physical attribute (speed, agility, strength etc) to overcome. The aim of the game would be to finish the course in the fastest possible time.
Much of the training that the gladiators did could be classified as functional training. They were not bodybuilders and certainly weren’t looking for a chiselled adonis-like look. Their chief objective was to train to become fully functional killers. To use training methods that would improve their chances of victory against an opponent in the arena. Their training program was designed to build functional strength to help improve those murderous qualities. Relevant functional strength training to improve their ability to move in heavy armour, with heavy weapons. To have a high degree of stamina and endurance to overcome pain and exhaustion. To have fully functional flexibility and agility to make attacks from any angle, and be able to evade their opponents’ attacks also. For all of these abilities, functional training would be of great benefit.
To improve endurance and stamina, long runs were used to train the Gladiators. According to Lucian (an Assyrian commentator who lived during the Roman Empire), Gladiators would run on difficult surfaces. This included running on sand that provided more resistance and so required more effort to propel themselves forward. This naturally is great for stamina building. Running on sand also strengthened the muscles of the legs and back thanks to the added challenge.
As mentioned above, obstacle courses were used for agility training, but would also be used for stamina and endurance. The fighters would be pushed to finish obstacle courses quickly. The courses would be filled with ditches that the fighters would need to leap over, they might also be required to carry weight for some distance. Everything in the courses was designed to test the fighters’ endurance.
To fight in heavy armour for sustained periods a gladiator had to develop serious cardio to go the distance.
Trainers would not pass up on sprint training. Developing stamina and endurance to tolerate the gruelling battles in the arena was one thing. However, a gladiator had to be able to attack with sudden speed when necessary. For this, they would also train in speed drills to improve quick twitch muscles and response time.
It wasn’t all pain and gain however, Gladiators did get to have some fun with their training. There were many types of ball games they would play to improve their stamina. One particular game was called ‘Harpastum’. Although no one is sure about the rules since they weren’t so carefully documented. From the descriptions that are available, the game sounds a little like Rugby. This game tended to last for several hours, again great for stamina and endurance, also for hand-eye coordination, speed and agility.
Mental Strength (Psychological training)
Gladiators were trained with the realisation that their lives would be short, and would probably not end well. They were motivated to win at all costs primarily because the alternative was to die in the arena. As such, they had to be prepared to die and embrace death at any time. This provided them with unwavering strength and tremendous drive and determination. If a gladiator wanted to stay alive, become a champion or win their freedom they had to win at all costs. They could not let his focus drift for even a minute. One mistake for them in the arena meant it was all over. Their very lives depended on them being not only in the best physical shape but also mentally resilient.
One wrong move in the arena could cost a gladiator everything they had.
Furthermore, it was actually expected that a gladiator should die with honour. When their moment came and they were defeated they were expected to face death like a man. Grabbing the ankle of their enemy and exposing their necks for the killing stroke. All part of the show, for the entertainment of the Roman masses. It was a tough life and an unpredictable fate and their trainers also had to be masters of sports psychology. The gladiators were encouraged and motivated to overcome their fears and become the best.
More on Gladiatores Training
Click on the links below for an insights into this combat systems history, principles, influences and to see the benefits of training in the Roman world.