This article looks at what we can learn from the Gladiators. A look at their effective methods whilst discussing updates thanks to technological advances in training methodology.
Many of the ideas and concepts behind Gladiator training are recognisable and relevant even today. For instance, their knowledge of callisthenics, resistance training, periodisation and progressive overload, warmups and cooldown routines, as well as recovery processes. For an ancient form of training, the Gladiator schools were way ahead of their time. Here we will cover some of their knowledge and what we can learn from it.
The Roman trainers were big believers in progressive overload. So starting smaller and working up. Challenging yourself in increments, allowing for adaptation to take place, and then starting again with even heavier weight. The goal was to gradually build the fighters’ muscles up in size and strength. Like Milo and his bull (see Gladiator Training Section). Naturally, this is where we want to go, onwards and upwards. So the program will be seeking to gradually increase reps, sets and weight to make progress.
(Left) Milo and his bull. (Right) Modern day progressive overload training. The basics remain the same, centuries later.
Periodization was used to develop physical attributes of power, strength and speed. This training would focus on one particular area at a time, then another during the next training session. So power training during one session, endurance training the next. Physical training has come a long way since. We now know it’s best to focus on one area for say a week or so at a time. So this is something we will look at, developing muscular strength, power and endurance during specific periods over the course of the training.
Gladiator trainers knew that strength and power were required to drive the force of their fighters’ blows. They utilised a number of resistance training methods to assist with this. To build strength, weights such as the Halteraes (stone dumbbells) were used. Many of the weights that gladiators would use in their training were natural in origin (think logs and stones etc). Not too many perspex dumbbells lying around in ancient Rome. Today we have dumbbells, kettlebells, free weights, machines and other resistance equipment. More ergonomic than your traditional Roman gym equipment. For this training, we’ll go Gladiator and look at training equipment that challenges balance and stability. Works all the stabiliser muscles as well as the major muscle groups.
Resistance training in the ancient and modern worlds.
For the development of strength, we shall look at moves and equipment favoured by strongman gyms. Strongman training is a form of resistance training that emphasizes functional strength and power, involving exercises such as lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling heavy objects. People training in strongman gyms are taught the value of carrying awkwardly shaped objects. They learn to make use of spherical cement weights (like atlas balls), water-filled log presses and skeletal metal structures called yokes.
Strongman training is a great way to build strength, muscle mass, and overall fitness, while also developing mental toughness and improving body composition.
Some of the benefits of strongman training include: improvements in muscle mass, grip strength and overall strength. This type of training also greatly enhances cardiovascular fitness, and improves body composition. Finally, due to its physical and mental demands increases mental toughness and resilience.
Power - Explosive Exercises
Another aspect the gladiators trained regularly is speed and explosiveness. We can mimic this today with circuits. Include things like box jumps, jump squats, pull-ups, dynamic push-ups and medicine ball slams. We will seek to perform these at a high intensity. We shall also look at HIIT training and sprints.
Plyometric training can be a valuable addition to any fitness routine, as it can improve power, speed, agility, and bone health while also burning calories and improving athletic performance.
For endurance training, we shall look at aspects of the harder styles of HIIT, CrossFit and circuit training. The rounds will be tough but worth it. High reps with longer sets. There will be a few endurance type runs in there but nothing too challenging.
Endurance training is a great way to improve your physical and mental health and increase your energy and stamina. This type of training gives you energy to go the extra mile.
Callisthenics was another form of resistance training in the Gladiator trainers’ toolbox. Complementing the resistance training to hit the muscles in areas the weights could not. For our purposes, we shall look to add more resistance by performing bodyweight exercises in a variety of ways. For example, variations of push ups and burpees etc.
Calisthenics are a great way to target areas of the muscles that some resistance can’t. They are also a great way to get the ‘extra squeeze’ out of fatigued muscles towards the end of training.
Despite what the TV and films depict, Gladiators were not bodybuilders, but fully functioning killer elite. Everything from their movement, their attacks and evasions were designed with the perfect efficiency. A trainer did not want his fighters to be too muscle-bound and lack agility, or so slim and agile that they had no power behind any of their blows. A gladiator had to be the perfect balance between speed, strength and agility. To obtain this they undertook many forms of what would now be termed ‘functional training’. Training in drills that mimicked their movements in the arena to make them more efficient in attacks and evasions when the time came. We will look at forms of functional training with similar effects. Functional training involves things like flip giant tires around, hitting them repeatedly with sledgehammers, and hoisting bags of sand high above their heads.
Functional exercises such as the tire flip provide a full-body workout, targeting multiple muscle groups at once. They also build strength and endurance, improves cardiovascular health, develops power and explosiveness.
Lots of the ancient wrestling schools in the Mediterranean sphere undertook forms of sandbag training. Even in Roman times, it was identified that this type of training was great for functional strength building in a way that standard equipment can never reach. We now know the full benefits, that it is good for stabilisers and a lot of things can be done with sandbags. One example of an exercise with a sandbag is rotation. This would be done by putting sandbags on your shoulders and then rotating your trunk from side to side.
Another exercise with sandbags is putting them on your shoulders and doing squats. There are a variety of other types of exercises that can be done with sandbags and that were done in the ancient world for training and getting stronger.
The humble sandbag requires the use of stabilizer muscles to maintain balance and control during exercises, leading to improved stability and balance. It also requires enhanced grip strength: The irregular shape of the sandbag makes it challenging to hold onto. This can improve grip strength and forearm endurance.
Combat training and Weapons drills
Unless you plan to simulate actual gladiator sparring with a mate in your own backyard, this one will be trickier to mimic. Any and all martial arts drills will be of assistance here, with or without weapons. Shadowboxing, MMA or boxing techniques. If you wish to drill with weapons (use sticks and do be careful!). There are plenty of Arnis type baton drills available on youtube. The aim is to work on agility and endurance required to battle nonstop for 15 to 20 minutes. All the attacks, plus the ducking, weaving, picking your spots and keeping your wind up, associated with modern combat sports.
If you want to go the whole way then consider taking some weapons training. Make sure that you practise in a safe environment with a qualified instructor using wooden versions of the originals.
Steel mace training improves shoulder and grip strength, enhances coordination and balance, and increases rotational power.
Alternatives for the sword include the steel mace (of which I am always a fan). Great for functional, shoulder, core and grip strength. Furthermore, steel mace training adheres to the type of thinking of the Gladiator’s trainers. Have their fighters train with heavier objects, when they have to use the real thing, it will be much lighter. You may also practise drills with real martial arts weapons (for example, Kendo style shinai or wooden bokken) or Filipino Escrima batons.
Weapons training drills can improve cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility, enhances hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and balance. Training also promotes mindfulness and focus. And boosts confidence, self-discipline, and mental toughness, as well as providing an outlet for stress relief.
No weapons? No problem
Pick up a heavy bag and practise striking methods (punches and kicks) for several rounds. If you don’t have access to a bag or weapons, don’t despair, you can always shadowbox. If you want to make it as challenging as the Gladiators had it, perhaps you could simulate the armour a gladiator would’ve worn, and wear a weighted vest whilst training.
Using a weighted vest in training can naturally make exercises more challenging and therefore more effective at building strength and endurance. However, it is important to use a weighted vest safely and gradually increase the weight to avoid injury.
The Romans were ahead of their time in another area, bathing for cleanliness and overall health. They were well aware of the benefits of bathing in hot and cold bodies of water. Gladiator trainers used hot and cold pools and spas as recovery baths for the fighters. This helped to relieve aches and pains from the trials of training and combat. They also promoted muscle and skin repair.
There have been numerous benefits associated with hot/cold spas/saunas/pool immersion over the last 100 yrs or so. (see the Finnish sauna tradition). These include improved energy, alertness, concentration, better circulation, weight loss, improved immune system, better moods, reduced inflammation, glowing skin and hair, and reduced muscle soreness after exercise.
The Finnish tradition. Saunas can improve cardiovascular health, reduce stress and fatigue, and promote relaxation. Ice pools, on the other hand, can help reduce inflammation, enhance circulation, and alleviate sore muscles. Together, these therapies can offer a rejuvenating and invigorating experience that promotes overall well-being.
Spas also assisted in promoting good sleeping patterns. Adequate sleeping patterns are obviously important. Poor sleep = poor recovery. Make use of saunas, massages and spas for recovery days. Get your stretches in and consider ice recovery training. If you don’t have access to those there are always cold showers!!
The trainers were also big on stretching out the muscles pre and post-training. But also on days off to promote active recovery. Today we have access to experts in numerous disciplines of stretching such as dynamic/static stretching, yoga and pilates. We have equipment such as foam rollers and muscle guns to help us ‘iron out those kinks’.
Granted we don’t have the urgency to do our best as the Gladiators did. We are unlikely to be facing mortal danger in our daily lives. However, we do face death, every day. Not to be too morbid but Death can come from anywhere and strike at any time. So why not be prepared for it? Resolutely accept it in our lives, make peace with it when it does come but agree with yourself to live a fearless existence.
Marcus Aurelius, an endless supply of Stoic wisdom. His ‘Meditations’ continue to be studied and admired by readers today for its wisdom, insight, and practical advice on how to live a good life.
The Romans and Stoicism
Stoicism* was a Greek philosophy inherited by the Romans. One central stoic belief was on ‘memento mori’ (acceptance of death and showing no fear). Like the gladiators of old having a resolve to be indifferent to death and treat it like it with contempt, as though it were nothing.
Seneca compared the life of a gladiator to that of a stoic; the stoic philosophy was incredibly popular in the ancient world and helped many people deal with the stresses of day-to-day life, including gladiators.
We can develop our own version of a ‘do-or-die mentality. Pushing ourselves as hard as possible, through the pain barrier. Being utterly devoted to the training and the lifestyle and pursuit of pushing ourselves hard.
Now, what can we say about the Gladiator diet? The Gladiator diet was of its time. In an era where protein was sparse, a Gladiator would need to carb up as much as possible. Which explains the need for barley. Naturally, with our modern knowledge of nutrition and diet, we know we don’t need quite so many carbs. In place of barley perhaps we can substitute for porridge packed with whatever fruits, seeds and nuts we think appropriate. Meat on the other hand is always necessary for building strength and muscle (unless we are vegan/veggie). With this, we can agree with the gladiator trainers. Regular portions of meat with vegetables should play a large part in this program’s diet. Ancient Gladiators had versions of sports drinks to fuel exercise and aid recovery. We have many protein shakes available today, whey and hemp-based drinks that will prove more effective than their ancient counterparts.
A healthy diet is important for maintaining overall health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. It provides the body with the necessary nutrients and energy to function properly and can help maintain a healthy weight.
Since this workout will be high energy/high output we need to ensure we are compensating by eating the right foods to balance the books.
For our Gladiator training we will be considering:
- Basic principles of progressive overload.
- Periodization and varied intensity.
- Strength training.
- Speed drills.
- Weapons/boxing drills.
- Endurance building.
- Developing a Gladiator mindset.
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.