Milo of Croton - the father of progressive overload training
A guest article from Asa Williams
Ancient and Classical Greece produced many strongmen, the names of Bybon, Glaukos and
Polydamas of Skotoussa being just a few examples. However, one name has lived on and remained in the collective consciousness more than any other, that of Milo of Kroton. His story has been a staple of visual art, perhaps most notably in Puget’s and Falconet’s works, as well as finding his name mentioned in a number of notable literary works including Shakespeare, Dumas and Rabelais. His name has become synonymous with strength, to the point that Ironmind’s famous periodical was named after him.
The term ‘athlete’ is what separates Milo from the other strength figures of the era. They lifted rocks and other odd objects, outside the disciplines the Greeks recognised. He however was an incredibly successful wrestler, born in the early 500s BCE. Kroton, in the south of Italy, was a Greek colony, already well known for sports. In 576BCE seven runners from Kroton took the first seven places in their event indicating an interest in the Games and an understanding of the prestige they held in the Panhellenic world (entirety of the Ancient Greek world). This means that Milo would have been born into a polis (Greek city-state) that recognised the status of athletics in a Panhellenic context and encouraged it amongst their citizens. As a noble it was expected that he practice a sport regularly in the palaestrea (wrestling school). He spent his life outside the arena associating with other nobles
and is noted for his links to Pythagoras whose daughter he allegedly married. What should be noted however is that rather than the famous philosopher this may have been a wrestling coach with the same name. As our sources are somewhat uncertain, and the very early Olympics semi-mythical we must let them take us where they will.
Between 540 and 510 he was almost unbeatable, winning either 6 or 7 Olympic titles (depending on the source although some say 5) including one as a boy (17-20 years old), and according to Eusebius of Caesarea had 6 Pythian Games, 10 Isthmian and 9 Nemean victories (all major Panhellenic contests). Winning all four of these major competitions in a clean sweep was called a Periodonikēs and he accomplished this 5 times. Despite this incredible success he was most well known for his strength. His name is associated with the invention of progressive overload. He allegedly raised a young calf into an adult bull and would carry it on his shoulders every day; gradually accommodating to the resistance and growing daily in strength. According to Diodorus Siculus he consumed 20lbs (9kg) of meat, 20lbs of bread and 10litres (21 pints) of wine daily. In a similar story he carried a four-
year-old bull across a stadium before killing it with a blow of his fist and eating the entire thing in the same day. Modern strength athletes are often known for their extreme diet, but this theoretically takes the biscuit (and beef). According to my (very rough) calculations that is 50, 000 calories in food alone. The amount of food he consumed is mentioned by Plato (himself a very accomplished wrestler and strongman) as well as the works of Aristotle. His forearms were famously powerful, and he would clench a pomegranate in his hand and challenge all-comers to remove it. He allegedly could withhold this delicate fruit through the power of his fingers, without bruising it, from whomsoever tried to remove. Another great feat was when he balanced on a greased discus and pushed away, through his sheer power and balance (implying incredible core strength) to any who tried to dislodge him according to Pausanius. Perhaps my favourite of these great claims is that he could tie a ribbon around his head and burst it simply by flexing. A theory behind this trio of feats is a misunderstanding of Olympian zanes (victor statues); in these the champion would be wearing a ribbon, holding an apple and standing on a disc that would serve as base to the statue. If misinterpreted, then these could represent the feats we have just listed.
This power had practicalities beyond party-tricks too. In several sources Milo was associated with the philosopher Pythagoras and saved his life through his strength. Strabo claims that as the disciples of the philosopher (amongst whom could be found Milo allegedly) were eating, the house they were in started to collapse. As the walls shook a pillar collapsed. Milo put himself in the place of this column and held the house up, saving all within. This great feat of heroism would lead to his eventual downfall. There were more games to win before that. In one of these successes he displayed his power once more by carrying his victory statue, by himself, up the shrine’s stairs. Having been frequently compared to Herakles in the arena he decided to blur the boundaries between myth and reality in war.
"Milo the athlete, who through his unrivalled physical strength was the first to rout those who
ranged against him. This man, a six-time Olympic champion, whose courage matched his bodily power is said to have gone into battle wearing his Olympic wreaths and rigged out in the manner of Herakles with lion skin and club."
-Diodorus Siculus (Bk. XII. 9).
Despite this glory, changes were afoot. Historians like Pliny and Solinus labelled him as being invincible posthumously. This was almost true. He was huge, powerful and far heavier than any wrestler he took on. In 512BCE, the unthinkable happened. He was defeated by his compatriot Timastheo. This young man kept him at a distance, not allowing him to use his power and forcing his bulk against him. Thousands of years later a boxer named Muhammed Ali took on an apparent force of nature named George Forman and exhausted the bigger man. This was not dissimilar and spelt an end to the era of Milo and his wrestling style. After his retirement wrestlers would come to rely more on throws and twists than sheer brute power. The new style was called “akrocheirismos”. Milo would never adapt to it and left the arena.
He did not return, and we have very little evidence of his time spent outside of athletics. He was bested in a stone lifting competition, with Claudius Aelinus as our source, by the giant shepherd Titormus. After this we have very little evidence of his life. His death however has taken on a legend of itself. As an old man Milo travelled throughout Italy. One day, whilst walking through some woods, he noticed a tree with a cleft. He decided that to prove his strength to himself, his pride having increased since he saved Pythagoras, he would attempt to pull the tree open and split it in twain. It closed back on his hands and left him trapped as a pack of marauding wolves devoured him. This has been the source of many depictions of Milo and is perhaps how he is remembered best, as a fallen great, slain by his own hubris. Perhaps a more likely story is that he perished with his house, burnt for hosting Pythagoras during the civil war. Regardless, the legend of the man is still living.
The era Milo was born into was one of great change regarding athletics. With the advent of Hoplite warfare, the age of the hero was gone from war. No longer could a single man stride forth, in the style of Akhilles or Diomedes, to confront others hand to hand. The Hoplite style was founded on democracy and by making men equal in war meant the hero could not shine or earn adulation. The age of heroes was over. He was taken from the battlefield to the Paleastrea. Here, and only here could someone have crowds cheering them on. Nobles flocked into athletics in the new era of democracy. Here men could engage in the single combat of their ancestors, as poets like Pindar and Simonides composed odes in the victor’s honour. This was a throwback to the time of Homer and his heroes. Unlike hoplite warfare this was not about who had the better army, this was about the better man. For over 30 years that man was Milo of Kroton, the bull-carrier. In terms of his legacy, his name lives on to this day, in popular culture, in Greek proverbs still used, as an example to those training with basic equipment. Eat big, lift heavy, get huge; Milo was ahead of the curve. When Pausanius ranked his greatest ever Olympic athletes, only one man was ever going to be number one. Milo.