Muscle made simple: Strength lessons from Milo

Legend has it that a mountain of muscle possessing punishing power with unmatched athleticism roamed the hills of northern Italy a long while ago. 

This man was known as Milo of Croton. 

Milo of Croton was a six time Ancient Olympic Games victor in Greece. He then went on to crush his opponents winning seven crowns at the Pythian Games at Delphi, ten at the Isthmian Games and nine at the Nemean Games.

To cap it off, Milo was also a Periodonikēs, which is considered a “grand slam” title given to the winner of all four festivals in the same competitive cycle. Milo did this five times. His dominance in the sport spanned over 24 years.

His accomplishments were kind of amazing. Arguably more fascinating is the story about how he achieved such an imperious feat. 

The story remains that Milo built his strength with a simple strategy - a timeless approach in fact.

His method still stands today as a core principle in strength training: progressive overload.

One day a calf was born near Milo’s home. In preparation for his athletic career and the Olympics, Milo decided to lift the small calf onto his shoulders.

He did this the next day. And the next day. And again the day after that.

 Milo continued this practice for four years, shouldering the calf as it grew larger and larger until one day he was then lifting a bull onto his shoulders.

Determining whether the story holds true or not isn't the angle of this piece.

However, we can tease out a few lessons that we can apply to our strength training goals whether we're a 23 year old young buck or a 44 year old used crockpot. 

Sadly, the strength training world mirrors that of the presidential campaign right now. The ego measuring contests that go on are laughable. It just seems like a lot of wasted energy when most of it could be used to do something better. Ya know, like help people?

I suppose you could claim that every tribe needs a their Draymond Green. But I also think a message penetrates at a deeper level when someone like Tim Duncan says something. 

You won't find me verbally assaulting another trainer or their methods in this post. There won't be any strategies that require a Master's degree to understand. No gimmicks. No trickery. 

All you will get are three lessons that I took away form Milo's story that highlight the importance of keeping things simple in order to make progress over the long haul. 

If you're okay with that, keep reading. 


Lesson #1: Don't bite off more than you can chew

On the first day, Milo didn’t attempt to pick up a four year old bull. It wouldn’t have been possible for him. He started by picking up a newborn calf. Given his athletic background I’m assuming this was easy for him.

This principle applies to you and me as well. Don’t walk into the gym and load 100kg and try to perform a snatch for the first time. Don’t walk into a complex diet that has you overhaul your whole eating pattern at once. Start with something that is easy.

A few examples could be:

  • Do 15 push ups, 15 squats and 15 sit ups every day for two weeks.
  • Set a time cap on how long you can be at the gym. Give yourself 10 minutes to do as much work as you can then leave.
  • Perform three sets of deadlifts three times a week.

These all sound ridiculously easy. But that’s the point. Otherwise, if it was too intimidating or complex you probably wouldn’t attempt anything.


Lesson #2: What you do everyday matters more than what you do once in a while

Milo shouldered the calf every day. He stayed consistent. This was the only way he could build up the strength needed to one day shoulder a bull. If he had tried to lift the bull every eight months, instead of every day, the calf would have grown faster than his strength development leaving him unable to lift it.

Many of you try to lift the bull every eight months. Once in a while you get super motivated to exercise and attempt to take on more than you can handle. You lift too much. You burn out. You cause injury. Then the motivation fizzles out and you’re back at square one.

That’s why starting small is important. When you start small it allows you to build confidence and momentum. When you start small and put forth habits that you confidently feel you can sustain, it makes it a lot easier to be consistent. This is a key ingredient to long term strength gains.


Lesson #3: Know what you are training for

Milo had a goal. His mind was set that he wanted to compete in the Olympics. This fueled his training. He shouldered the calf every day because he had a purpose to do so.

This is easy to identify in individuals because you can tell when somebody is focused with their strength training. I can walk into a gym, and without exchanging any words identify the people who have a purpose in the weight room.

The point is that having a purpose makes it easy to train. It gives you a target. Without it, you’re like a ship without a sail; allowing the winds to take you where it pleases.

No. You don't have to train to step on the stage or the platform. 

Maybe it’s a wedding.

Maybe you want to be able to surf when you’re 60.

Maybe you want to channel the inner athlete in you and feel exhausted like you did during two-a-days when you played high school football. 

Maybe you want to feel healthy again and not have to drag yourself up the office stairwell. 

I don't know what it is for you. But, I do know that attaching something meaningful to your training will make consistency a lot easier. 


Wrapping Up

You have access to 387 training programs, 41 diet plans and a gym probably just opened up 100 meters from your driveway. 

Whatever you decide, please keep things simple. Hopefully, the story of Milo helps you do that. 

Good luck.