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Ancient Greeks and Bodybuilding

June 28, 2017

The ancient Greeks bring far more to the bodybuilding culture than epic physiques and feats of strength. Unbeknownst to many of us, they actually have had a huge influence on what we consider to be “manly men” (ladies, you can be “manly men” too, these qualities are awesome in general. I don’t want to leave you out, but I like alliteration). 


To start us off, let’s consider the heroes in Homer's epic poems, the Illiad and the Odyssey. We have Achilles who is the “supreme warrior" in the Illiad; and Odysseys who is the “supreme strategist” in the Odyssey. Now, these two Heroes are what I would consider the archetypes of brains and brawn. Achilles was the strongest, fastest, most proficient warrior, and Odysseus was cunning, resourceful, and charismatic. The Greeks revered these qualities and considered them virtues called arate (or excellence of any kind) and andreia (or “manliness”). These ideas have more or less trickled down to modern day and we may parallel professional athletes to Achilles, and lawyers to Odysseus (or Superman and Batman respectively).


But, how does this apply to bodybuilding? Quite simply you must embody traits of both Achilles and Odysseus, or the virtues arate and andreia, to be the best bodybuilder you can be. During the offseason and contest preparation periods you will be training hard day in and day out to craft your best physique, similar to Achilles training for combat and heroics on the battlefield. Further, you must be resourceful during training to avoid plateaus, specialize in weak body parts, and manage fatigue. When dieting you must be resourceful to maintain your diet during harsher and harsher periods of caloric restriction. To be fully successful on stage and look like a Greek statue you must embody qualities of their heroes.


The Greek virtues extended beyond the qualities of Achilles and Odysseus with time, and the expanded virtues are no less relevant to bodybuilding success. After the Illiad and the Odyssey the Greeks placed a great deal of emphasis on the ability to control or suppress outward emotion and remain calm, cool, and collected in the face of any peril. So now in addition to arate and andreia we have sôphrosune, which refers to the quality of temperance or the ability to maintain self-control. We can still see this in today’s day and age as men typically do not cry (or try to hide it) during emotional scenes in movies.


This final virtue may be the most important for success in bodybuilding. This sport is considered by many to have “no days off.” As a competitor you are always thinking about improvement during training and how what and when you are eating may be impacting your progress. During the offseason, many are uncomfortable being out of contest shape and this may take a toll psychologically. For many it is also harder to “see” progress during the offseason and a lot of trust in your training is required to be truly successful. For the most part these types of thoughts may be fleeting and easily managed during the offseason, however during contest preparation they can become overwhelming. You may become hypersensitive to “less than optimal” circumstances when energy and morale are low from the chronic diet and you may spin out of control and rationality. Many personal accounts from competitors will reference periods of irrational thoughts and actions, and the resulting strain on relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. This is why sôphrosune, or self-control over your emotions is so important to success as a bodybuilder. Exhibiting this virtue can help smooth out the highs and lows of contest preparation preventing rash decisions and self-sabotage during the “gauntlet” of the sport. Severe caloric deficits and hard training may persist for the better part of a year during an important competitive season. If you do not maintain a level head this hobby will cost you a lot more than a show day. 


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