Unlock a Warrior Mentality with Spartan Training
“Come back with this shield, or upon it.” — A Spartan mother’s farewell to her son before he went to war.
Confession: I wanted to be a Spartan.
When King Leonidas (re: ripped, Scottish accent-wielding Gerard Butler) led his 300 Spartans (re: other ripped actors) against King Xerxes and his million (more likely, 150–250,000) strong army, never before had I been so motivated to train.
“This… is… SPARTA!”
Those lines, those abs, and the popular 300 rep workouts that ensued defined years of training post-2006, and still have a following even this day. The reality, of course, is always different. Spartans never trained like Hollywood actors, for one thing. They certainly weren’t as bulky either, given that they were often fed little and had to enjoy (endure?) the infamous Spartan black broth.
So, if not for muscle-building or abs-sculpting, what can Spartans and their training teach us today?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
“300 has to be one of the most over the top examples of pure machismo ever put to film. What’s impressive is that the true story of the Spartans is possibly even more incredible.” — The Bioneer.
From prioritising and developing phenomenal resilience to their incredible mentality, let’s look to the Spartan in you.
How Did Spartans Train? As Soldiers, not Athletes
We unfortunately know relatively little about the specifics of their training, but some things we do hold to be true.
Sparta was a militaristic society, and Spartan boys would begin in earnest, entering the ‘agoge’ (a sort of boot camp) at the age of 7 where they would train and, later, go to war until the ripe old age of 60. The training during the early years was so brutal that it wasn’t uncommon for a few of the boys to even die. Even Spartan girls were expected to be fit and strong, and unlike their contemporaries they would be taught discus, horse-riding, and dance: all in the belief that only strong women gave birth to true Spartans.
Regarding training specifics, it is unlikely that they did interval training and certainly didn’t bother with hypertrophy (muscle-building) on account of its lack of utility, but we can reasonably assume that they focused on training that prioritised resilience and agility. Wrestling for its agile combat, climbing for its utility on campaign and strength-endurance component, dancing to heighten proprioception, as well as various combat drills and weapons training that prepared them for actual fighting.
Key to Spartan training, more than perhaps any known soldier or army, was the sharp distinction made between training athletes and training soldiers.
Athletes, in order to progress, practice intense training usually in a specific dimension (such as strength in strongman competitions), often require surplus food (think of the 12,000 calories consumed by Michael Phelps in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics), and definitely plenty of rest (9–10 hours, more than the average individual). Even a slight deviation in any one of these variables (amongst others) could significantly reduce an athlete’s performance (try running a marathon if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep).
Athletes, then, make poor soldiers.
And Spartans were first and foremost soldiers. The best. Indeed, Sparta’s contemporaries acknowledged that it would take several men in any other city-state to rival a Spartan. Why? Because Spartans endured punishment like no other, deprivation and training like no other- and they were all the stronger because of it.
How to Train as a Spartan
While not everything can (or should!) be replicated (from the ruthless agoge to stealing) in the Spartan training program, there are a few things that the modern Spartan can learn.
In recent years, the benefits of training in the cold, showering in the cold, and generally just embracing the cold (a la Wim Hof), have become paramount. But this resilience in the face of the elements, amongst other discomforts, is something the Spartans perfected.
- Training barefoot
Spartans, for example, often wore no footwear. According to the ancient Greek historian Xenophon, the Spartans believed it allowed them to climb and move faster, and to be more agile. Not only would this have toughened their soles (and souls), but we now know of the added benefits that come from having our skin in contact with the ground.
Anchoring your feet to the ground increases proprioception and balance through the greater activation of the smaller muscles of the foot, while the massaging of the fascia also leads to greater flexibility. Staying grounded, or connected, to the earth can also encourage correct running technique, including learning to land on the forefront rather than the heel.
2. Lack of clothing
In addition to being barefoot, Spartans only wore a single thin cloak, a phoinikis, which they wore throughout the year. In the hot or cold, or the gritty, hard earth, this would have forced Spartans to tolerate and adapt to the elements.
There are certainly benefits to training in the heat or the cold, including boosting the immune system and extra sunlight in the winter months can help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Of course, there are dangers, and you probably shouldn’t be outside in shorts and t-shirt (unless, of course, you’re the Ice Man). Regardless, training outdoors is easily within our reach and offers so much.
3. Lack of food
Spartans were fed little. It was seen that it was better to withhold food so that a Spartan would be used to hunger, and they wouldn’t complain on campaign.
For us, it’s a difficult task, not least because modern society is an abundance of food. Perhaps the closest we could come to this is some similar form of intermittent fasting, which in itself has numerous documented benefits. Not to mention that we don’t have to eat every other hour, anyway. If you really want to push it to the extreme, you could even opt for the One Meal A Day regime. Spartans would undoubtedly have approved.
The most important lesson for Spartans was a mental one — they were, above everything, loyal to the state. From birth through to their idealised death (dying in battle), Spartans were bred for war and to serve the state. This dogmatic mindset certainly has its drawbacks, but that singular mindset also translated to an almost unbreakable mindset. Surrender for a Spartan was unforgivable.
Translation for us: that’s loyalty to our goals.
If we want real progress, we need a destination in mind, and we need to consistently and relentlessly pursue it. Every fitness journey has obstacles, whether that’s injury, plateau, or some other lack of motivation. But with undying focus, that is loyalty to our goals, we can overcome these challenges. We don’t surrender—we carry on, through blood, sweat, and tears, we carry on until we achieve what we set out to do.
Hypertrophy and raw strength were not a priority for Spartans. Resilience and agility were far more important. Add to that the mentality of never retreat, die in the fields, train on mountain tops—that’s a Spartan. That’s a warrior.
Spartans, it is said, were trained to be warriors from the moment of birth. In an elite warrior culture, wherein the Ancient Greek historian Plutarch described that weak or deformed babies at birth were cast off the Mount Taygetus or left in the wilderness, you were forced to be strong no matter what. The agoge, too, with its training, beating, and hazing rituals was what emeritus professor Paul Cartledge refers to as “trial by ordeal”.
Such was the brutality of their conditioning that it is said that Spartans going into battle was more comfortable than their training.
Whilst we can’t— and probably shouldn’t — replicate the militaristic and no doubt traumatic culture of Sparta, we can definitely take away the Spartan mentality of giving our all in our training. We’ve all had workouts where we fought through the pain and fatigue and smashed a new personal best, or we achieved some new skill or feat, or we conquered something we thought difficult or impossible. With a Spartan mindset, we can strive to make every workout a warrior workout.
Learn from Spartans — But Don’t Be One
Spartans were not perfect warriors.
They lacked sufficient training in the gymnasium (they largely shunned athletics), and neglected resistance training and building strength. They were also incredibly dogmatic, and refused to adapt or evolve over the course of their history, eventually fading away in the middle of the 3rd century BC.
Despite this, they are quite possibly the greatest soldiers ever.
They weren’t athletes. They didn’t carry much muscle, nor did they have exceptional strength. But they were agile, resilient, and had a focused mentality that ensured they were never broken. Try breaking a Spartan, and he’ll break you first. It was in their military culture, in their warrior training, in their bruises and bones and blood.
So, what can we — as modern, comfortable homo sapiens — learn?
- Train outdoors.
- Train in the cold, the wet, the heat.
- Train barefoot.
- Train tired, or hungry.
- Train for agility, endurance, and resilience (functional or skill training, like climbing and wrestling).
We can’t—and shouldn’t — try to be a Spartan. But we can still learn from them.
“Absorb what is useful discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” — Bruce Lee.
Perhaps the most important lesson as I’ve taken away from them (apart from not wanting to be one anymore), is to not be afraid of discomfort. Comfort is stagnation, and subjecting our bodies and minds to the occasional discomfort may be for our benefit. So get outside, embrace the elements, get wet… and train.
Here’s to Spartan mentality.
© Jamie D Stacey 2021
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