Nearly 2,500 years ago, a Greek wrestler, Milo of Croton, was regarded as the strongest person who had ever lived in the known world.
A man of incredible strength and athleticism, he taught us the three basic principles of building muscle: Start very light, don’t miss workouts, and increase training in very small increments.
Milo, from Croton in Magna Graecia, today’s southern Italy, was almost certainly the most successful wrestler of his day, becoming six-time wrestling champion at the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece.
In 540 BC, he won the boys’ wrestling category and then proceeded to win the men’s competition at the next five Olympic Games in a row.
He also dominated the Pythian Games (7-time winner), Isthmian Games (10-time winner), and Nemean Games (9-time winner).
It is said that Milo built his incredible strength through a simple but profound strategy.
One day, a newborn calf was born near Milo’s home. The wrestler decided to lift the small animal up and carry it on his shoulders. The next day, he returned and did the same.
Milo continued this strategy for the next four years, hoisting the calf onto his shoulders each day as it grew until he was no longer lifting a calf but a four-year-old bull.
The core principles of strength training and building muscle are encapsulated in this legendary tale of Milo and the bull.
Anecdotes about Milo’s seemingly superhuman strength and lifestyle abound. His daily diet allegedly consisted of 9 kg (20 lbs) of meat, 9 kg (20 lbs) of bread, and 10 liters (18 pints) of wine.
Ancient Greek legends about Milo of Croton
Other legends say he carried his own bronze statue to its place at Olympia. One report says the wrestler was able to hold a pomegranate without damaging it while challengers tried to pry his fingers from it, and another report says he could burst a band fastened around his brow by inhaling air and causing his temple veins to swell.
The Ancient Greeks typically attributed remarkable deaths to famous persons—in keeping with their characters throughout life. The date of Milo’s death is unknown, but according to ancient historians, Milo was walking in a forest when he came upon a tree-trunk split with wedges.
In what was probably intended as a display of strength, Milo inserted his hands into the cleft to rend the tree. The wedges fell from the cleft, and the tree closed upon his hands, trapping him.
Unable to free himself, the wrestler was devoured by wolves.
Milo’s legendary strength and death have become the subjects of modern art and literature. His death was a popular subject in 18th-century art.
In many images of this period, his killer is portrayed as a lion rather than wolves. In Pierre Puget’s sculpture, Milo of Croton (1682), the themes are the loss of strength with age and the ephemeral nature of glory as symbolized by an Olympic trophy lying in the dust.
His death is also depicted in paintings. It is the subject of an eighteenth-century oil on canvas by Joseph-Benoît Suvée and a work of art by the eighteenth-century Irish painter, James Barry.
In literature, François Rabelais compares Gargantua’s strength to that of Milo’s in Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Shakespeare refers anachronistically to “bull-bearing Milo” in Act 2 of Troilus and Cressida.
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