Milo of Kroton

Milo of Kroton: was "the most illustrious of athletes..." (Strabo, Geography, 6.1.12). Born over 2,000 years ago in an ancient Greek colony of southern Italy, he won the Olympic wrestling championship six times between 540 BCE and 516 BCE. So great was his strength that once, when a building collapsed, he supported the roof while his friends escaped unharmed.

The story of how Milo got his strength has been told for over 2,000 years. Briefly, his father gave him a bull calf for his son to raise. One day, his father asked him, 'How big is your bull today?' Milo ran outside, picked up the calf and carried him inside to show his father. Each day, his father asked him 'How big is your bull today?' and each day Milo ran outside, picked up the bull and carried him to his father. This went on for a number of years. As the bull grew, so did Milo’s strength."Milo's Story.

We know now that the story is not literally true. It's a fable and as all fables, it has a moral. In my opinion, the moral of the story is this: Build strength by increasing the load so slowly that you hardly notice the increase in weight or effort required to lift it.

This is the opposite of the gym-lore that says you must feel wrecked after working out. Working out like Milo, day after day, year after year, you should never grunt or groan or make a face as you lift and lower weights. Neither should you risk injury that would force you to stop training for a month until you heal. No physiotherapist or chiropractor should be needed to sort out your back. No surgery should be needed to refasten a tendon to the bone. The story of Milo and his bull calf is a mini-manual that shows both how to progress in building muscle and how to avoid injury.

My own experience confirms for me the truth of the fable. In February 2005, I bought my first set of dumbbells, the whole package weighing 44 pounds (20 kg). I was amazed to watch the young man in the shop lift the box, sling it onto one shoulder and carry it to the counter. I had tried to lift it with both hands and knew I couldn't do it. The sales clerk bagged the weights in four plastic shopping bags, allowing me to make two trips to my car carrying one-quarter of the weight in each hand. Yesterday in the gym, I was loading the leg-press machine with 90 pounds on each side, for a total of 180 pounds (not counting the weight of the bar). I had to add four 44-pound weights plus two 2-pound weights, half on each side of the machine. I was lifting the 44-pound weights with one hand and not struggling with them. That means, after 10 months, following Milo's slow and steady approach, I became strong enough to lift with one hand a weight four times what I carried to my car in each hand that first day. During the last ten months, I remember struggling occasionally with weights, and realized I was doing something wrong. So I slowed down the progression to heavier weights to avoid struggle.

I conclude that gym-lore prescribing struggle with weights is nonsense, inspired either by machismo or by the religious notion that the body must be beaten into submission to the will. Slow and steady like a tortoise, I will run this race and win, even if it takes five years to reach my goal.

Other Gym-Lore Sense and Nonsense Related to the Fable of Milo and the Bull Calf

  • Don't swing the weights: This rule makes good sense and follows from the fable of Milo and the Bull Calf. It says that, if you cannot control the weights, then the weights are too heavy. You must be able to raise the weights slowly under control. If you throw the weight up, you are not lifting it properly—you are swinging it. Technically, you are using momentum. If you swing weights in this way, you are putting your ligaments and tendons at risk. You must not drop the weights, but lower them under control. (Allowing gravity to take the weight without resistance also uses momentum.) Lowering weights under control is just as important as raising weights under control, because the negative part of the motion (extension) strengthens muscle as much or more than the positive motion (contraction).

    Dave Draper, a champion among champions, calls his weights "Brother Iron" and "Sister Steel" suggesting a caring, even respectful attitude. Move the weights carefully and with respect for safety as well as effective training.

  • Move the Weight Through the Full Range of Motion: This one is nonsense. Sure, it looks good and sounds good. Ignore it, unless you feel the need to support your local orthopedic surgeon and chiropractor.Make certain that you do not move weights through the full range of movement. Do not straighten the arms and legs or bend the arms and legs as much as possible. The extremes of motion place the greatest stresses on the joints: ligaments, cartilage, and tendons. (Ligaments attach two bones together; tendons attach muscles to bones; cartilage cushions the point of contact between the bones.)

Modern Exercise Science and Milo of Kroton

Using controlled experiments and sophisticated laboratory equipment, modern exercise science has progressed far beyond both ancient and modern gym-lore. Nevertheless, the story of Milo and his bull calf demonstrates that we can still learn from the ancient Greeks.