Who wouldn’t have heard of the Spartans – the warrior tribe of the city-state of Sparta of ancient Greece. Spartans were known for their well-disciplined life, rigorous training methods, and toned bodies. They were once the most powerful and dominant land army in Greece. The word Spartan has almost become synonymous with the extreme fitness of body and mind.
But fitness, as it stands today, is not as recent a concept as many would think. It has its roots much deeper in time than we can all imagine.
From the dawn of human civilization, fitness has been a necessity because of the nomadic lifestyle. In the present times, it has become a luxury because one has to find time for fitness in their daily routines. Times have certainly changed! In the olden days, a man had to wander from place to place in need of basic life-sustaining items.
He now has not only things of necessity but also those of luxury. And yet, one has to make efforts to find time from an oversubscribed, preoccupied, and fast-paced life for keeping one’s body fit. This is indeed ironic.
Nurturing fitness, which is an essential part of good-living, by and large remains overshadowed by the busy routines of daily work-life today.
Fitness as a concept has seen various transformations across the world through the eras. On one hand, places like Egypt and Greece were constantly contributing through various games and sports, on the other hand, there were some parts of the western world where awareness came in as late as the 19th century.
The Dark Ages plummeted the world with plagues, famine, and wars, whereas the era of the Renaissance revived the celebration of the human form. It is through these ever-changing times, that the Spartans left an indelible mark in the fitness history of the world.
When we talk of an example of extreme levels of physical fitness, tremendous mental and physical strengths, and unbelievable prowess, the first name that comes to mind is that of the Spartans.
In those times, their name alone was enough to break the morale of the enemy. It is said that the training methods of the Spartans were so tough that fighting in battles seemed easier in comparison.
So how exactly did the Spartans find conquest over their mind and body? What did they do that made them what they were? Read on to find answers to these mind-boggling questions.
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Spartan Military Training
Indeed, spartan training was tough, ruthless, and challenging, but there was also a method in this madness. Through the historical accounts that exist on this topic, one thing is clear, that the human body can be stretched to unimaginable limits, in pursuit of this physical fitness.
Historical accounts tell us that the Spartans used to keep a lookout for the boys with strong physical characteristics since their birth. A boy, at birth, was inspected for acceptable physical traits that would indicate his potential of turning into a great soldier one day.
Shockingly, those that did not hit the mark, were usually left to survive on their own as orphans or perish. So for them, the concept of strong physical traits was imbibed as soon as the baby was born. It was an obsession that took over all the other emotions.
When Spartan boys turned around 6-7 years, their military training began. They were taken to a fitness camp known as an agoge. Here, the focus was not only on building physical fitness, but also to get conditioned to become mentally strong, through various other means and techniques that were employed. They were also taught survival techniques, endurance, and discipline. They were trained in both armed and unarmed warfare.
The Spartan boys had to remain barefoot when training. Spartans believed that this would not just toughen them but also increase their endurance and agility. Remaining barefoot, allowed them to feel the ground below and increase their proprioception, or spatial awareness.
This concept can be applied to modern running as well. When we run, we usually allow our heel to touch the ground first, followed by the front of the foot and then we take long strides. This can be due to our shoes, the designs of which are such that make the heels touch the ground first.
When we are barefoot, which is how our bodies were meant to be with evolution, we tend to rest our foot on the ball of the foot, then the heel, and we go forward taking smaller strides, which is the correct way of doing it. Though running barefoot has its disadvantage of potential injuries, but the concept behind it can still be applied to the present times.
The Spartans were allowed to cover their bodies with only a single piece of cloth (cloak) known as the phoinikis. They believed that the body, by simply being exposed to tough environments, can learn how to adapt to extreme weather conditions.
This also toughened them mentally by increasing their body’s range of tolerance. Spartans were trained to fight in both extremes of temperatures, be it chilly or hot weather. They had to be conditioned to withstand the ruthless battlefield in all kinds of weather.
For sleeping, the Spartans had to make their beds out of seaweeds which were pulled out by hand from the rivers. This not only increased their grip but also again made them tough by fighting against natural forces. Food was kept limited to keep their bodies lean and fit and the food that was provided was very modest and barely edible.
It is quite surprising that they were even encouraged to steal! The Spartans saw this as an act of making them more cunning and aggressive in their endeavors. They were punished if caught, so, for them the act of stealing was justified but that of getting caught was not. This shows the lengths they went to, to train the mind in a certain direction.
The Spartans had to stay in barracks and could not return home. At the age of twenty, they became full-fledged members of the Spartan army and were forbidden to marry till at least 30 years of age.
When they did, they had to choose a woman of good fitness to birth healthy offsprings who could tomorrow enter their army again. To bear healthy offsprings for them, the women too had to keep themselves in the best of health and fitness.
Spartan Athletic Training
The Spartan athletic training was quite different from their military training as were their diets. The athletic training was not as tough. They were allowed to rest adequately for their body to recover and the training itself was not as arduous as the military fitness protocols.
Xystos was the name given to a special kind of gym that was meant for gymnastic training. They were given training by coaches who were previous champions of the sport. Wrestling was a popular sport.
They did not have any weight categories and it was a free-style kind of wrestling where all kinds of grappling were allowed. In pankration, a fighting contest, all kinds of stances were allowed except for biting and damage to the eyes. The hoplitodromos was a foot race that was run barefoot while wearing armor.
They were also given healthy protein-rich food because they believed that nourishment was needed for muscle building in athletics, in contrast to little or no food in the military training, which was meant to help them adapt to hunger and other harsh situations of war.
Present-Day Fitness Scenario
Between the era of the Spartans and the present 20th Century, time changed by leaps and bounds. It was only after the 20th Century that the world saw the actual growth of the fitness industry. This space became highly commercialized with a lot of equipment, methods, and techniques coming to the forefront. People’s acceptance of them also grew exponentially.
All this eventually leads us to the much-debated and discussed question of what exactly needs to be done to maintain fitness? What is the correct way of achieving it? The very rigorous and brutal Spartan way or an easy relaxed way of non-stressful training.
Though the Spartan ways may seem extreme and in many ways not practical for present-day society and concepts of training, yet there are many takeaways from how the Spartans were trained. These methods can be improvised to fit modern times and adopted.
Take Away From the Spartan Workout Methods
The spartans used training methods that were intense and tough.
- They did weight training regularly. In the absence of weights, they used heavy rocks for lifting and throwing. For resistance training, they used whatever was available to them like logs, animals, and even each other. In the modern-day, even without fancy equipment, exercises such as tire-flipping, pushing and carrying heavy objects and dead-lifting, etc can be done. Functional training is the buzzword these days in fitness circles.
- They commonly did push-ups and pull-ups which are used even now for building upper body strength.
- A lot of foot races were held to increase endurance. Track events are very popular even today, all over the world.
- Wrestling was also a famous sport among them, which is still done today as a sport and also for entertainment.
In the end, one should know, that in the present times, unlike the ancient era of the Spartans, the fitness literature out there is huge. It is best to consult a fitness coach to understand the kind of workout regime and diet that would suit your body-type and interest. The idea is to get the best health return in the time and effort spent in training.
Also, currently, the fitness industry is experiencing the biggest boom ever witnessed.
So, one should endeavor to explore various sports and workout practices and start incorporating small things in their day-to-day routine in a disciplined way. To sum up, whether you go the Spartan easily or not, you should surely aim to workout without excuses and while being motivated towards clear fitness goals– anyhow, anytime, anywhere!