Spartan Training – How to Train Like the Legendary Greek Warriors

By on October 24, 2018

Spartan Training

The ferocity, fighting prowess, and athleticism of the Spartan warrior is the stuff of legend. So much so, that “Spartan” has become a synonym for words like “brutal” and “challenging.”

In this post, we’re looking at Spartan training. By this, I don’t just mean “tough” training – I mean training that is genuinely inspired by what we know of these legendary warriors.

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We’ll discover why Spartans trained barefoot. What type of resistance training they used (if any). And which traits they valued most.

At the bottom of this page, you’ll find a full “Spartan training routine” that you can try for yourself.

Myth vs Reality

But do the real Spartans really live up to the hype? It is true that a single Spartan Warrior at the time was considered to be worth “several men of any other state.”

And it is “true” that 300 Spartan Warriors managed to face off against thousands of Persians and humiliate those armies with their superior combat skills.

(I use inverted commas because the details get a little blurry. Leonidas led 300 Spartans alongside 7,000 Greeks, but after the majority of those armies retreated, only 300 Spartans remained with some Thespians and Thebans.)

Spartan Combat Training

That said, there are also some common misconceptions and myths surrounding Spartan Training and it likely isn’t quite what you imagined.

So, the question is: how did they train and what can we learn from Spartan training?

What We Know About Spartan Training

Unfortunately, we actually know relatively little about the specifics of Spartan training. There are a few things we hold to be true though.

It is commonly believed that newborn children considered too weak for combat would be discarded at birth to either die in the wilderness or demonstrate their ability to survive. We also know that training began around the age of seven. At this point, Spartan men would be entered into a kind of Bootcamp called the Agoge.

Spartan Training Agoge

From then on, they were required to live and train among their peers. A culture of competition and teasing was encouraged. At age 12, the boys would graduate and be considered youths. Thus the Spartan training routine intensified.

Training in the Agoge

Spartan youths were required to train barefoot. This would not only toughen them up but also develop superior athleticism and agility. I’ve discussed the benefits of minimal footwear on this site many times before; freeing your feet allows you to tap into greater proprioception, to anchor yourself to the ground, and even to increase flexibility by massaging the fascia.

See also: How to Run With Perfect Form Like the Tarahumara Tribe – Posture, Breathing, and Footstrike Explained

Spartans had only single, thin cloak to wear (called a Phoinikis) regardless of the weather. Again, this was intended to toughen them up psychologically, but it would also help them to adapt to extreme temperatures.

Spartans could fight in the bitter cold or sweltering heat. Again, the benefits of cold exposure have been discussed on this site previously. It is said that they made beds by pulling reeds out of revers by hand – no doubt great grip training.

Spartan Training Robe

Spartans would only be given a small amount of food each day. The aim was to keep them lean and hungry – and sufficiently motivated.

Moreover, if they wanted more food they were encouraged to steal. The punishment was brutal if you were caught, but this taught cunning and foraging skills. This was part of the Spartan training!

The crime was not the steeling; it was not doing it well enough!

The food they did receive was also unappetising and included the likes of “black broth” which was made from pig’s blood (though did also contain some actual pork for protein).

We can safely assume then that Spartan warriors would have been a particularly ripped and lean bunch. Perhaps the abs in 300 are historically accurate!

Lifestyle and Epigenetics

At the age of 20, these young students became full-time members of the syssitia and Spartan army. They continued to live in barracks however and were not permitted to marry and become full-time members of Sparta until age 30.

We also know that Spartan women were encouraged to exercise in order to encourage the birth of strong children. There’s actually some scientific basis for this if we consider epigenetics.

See also: How your diet, exercise, and psychology affect your genes

Spartan Women

Likewise, men were encouraged to choose women that would offer strong genetic stock.

A quote from Plutarch’s Life of Agesilaos reads:

According to Theophrastos, Archidamos was fined by the ephors for marrying a short woman, “For she will bear us,” they said, “not kings, but kinglets.”

This likely contributed to the notion that Spartan’s were particularly massive. And this illusion of greater size was also encouraged by growing long hair.

Who Were the Spartans Really?

All this paints a picture of an elite warrior culture of men, whose training began even prior to their conception. The focus of this Spartan training was to build tough fighters who could thrive under any conditions. This was arguably more important than any specific physical training.

Sound familiar? This is very similar to the way that Navy SEALs are trained today!

See also: Mental Toughness: Think Like a Navy SEAL / Spartan Warrior!

The competitive and mean-spirited atmosphere ensured testosterone was high. The harsh conditions made them physically and mentally bulletproof. It has been said that for these warriors, going into battle was relatively more comfortable than their Spartan training!

Sets and Reps – The Minutia of Spartan Training

So that’s the ethos and the spirit of Spartan training. What about the actual practical application?

Spartan Traiinng Calisthenics

We do have reports of the physical training that Spartans underwent from sources such as the Greek biographer and writer Plutarch, but these are generally regarded as being unreliable.

Plutarch, for instance, was born during the mid-1st century AD, a little late in the day (Sparta ceased to be as we know it by around the mid 4th century BC).

Strategy vs Force

Spartan Warrior

Successes following the battle at Thermopylae may be explained by the Spartan army’s reputation, along with tactical decisions. This was the only Greek army known to be subdivided into platoon-sized units with their own officers and to march in-step to flutes.

Spartan generals understood manoeuvres such as wheeling and countermarching, and commands could be passed down through the ranks. And they were decked in matching red and bronze uniforms that made them appear as a singular mass on the battlefield.

These seemingly “basic” features set the armies apart moreso than physical prowess. A modern “Spartan training program” that focuses on resistance training, HIIT workouts, and weapons training wouldn’t be particularly accurate then!

Spartan Gymnastics Training

Spartan Workouts vs Athletic Training

From age 12 onwards the youths would learn survival skills such as foraging and camping. We might also presume that a Spartan training program would incorporate weapons training and calisthenics. However, there is no concrete evidence to suggest this.

Ancient Greeks made a sharp distinction between Athletic training and warrior training.

According to the historians over at the AskHistorians subreddit, Ancient Greeks made a sharp distinction between Athletic training and warrior training.

An athlete requires a moderate amount of stress exposure to trigger an adaptation, but must then rest and recover. Without this recovery period, they will not experience optimum performance benefits. The Ancient Greeks knew this.

The Ancient Greeks knew of the importance of protein for building muscle. Thus, the diet and regimen of an athlete should be highly strict and consistent. A warrior on the other hand needs to be able to survive on little food and endure extreme sleep deprivation.

From Plutarch’s Life of Philopoimen:

They told him (and it was the truth) that the habit of body and mode of life for athlete and soldier were totally different, and particularly that their diet and training were not the same, since the one required much sleep, continuous surfeit of food, and fixed periods of activity and repose, in order to preserve or improve their condition, which the slightest influence or the least departure from routine is apt to change for the worse; whereas the soldier ought to be conversant with all sorts of irregularity and all sorts of inequality, and above all should accustom himself to endure lack of food easily, and as easily lack of sleep.

On hearing this, Philopoimen not only shunned athletics himself and derided them, but also in later times as a commander banished from the army all forms of them, with every possible mark of reproach and dishonour, on the ground that they rendered useless for the inevitable struggle of battle men who would otherwise be most serviceable.

Agility, Gymnastic Ability, and Arduous Physical Labour

The training that Greek warriors actually underwent appears to have been more focussed on gymnastic ability and on agility. Here is a quote from Nepos describing Epameinondas, the Theban commander. Credit to the Reddit user Iphikrates for digging this stuff up:

After he grew up, and began to apply himself to gymnastic exercises, he studied not so much to increase the strength, as the agility, of his body; for he thought that strength suited the purposes of wrestlers, but that agility conduced to excellence in war. He used to exercise himself very much, therefore, in running and wrestling, as long as he could grapple, and contend standing, with his adversary.

A quote from Aristotle’s Politics explains meanwhile that the Spartan training incorporated “laborious exercise” in the belief that it would “make their boys animal in nature” and contribute to “manly courage.”

This may have helped to develop the extremely functional “farm strength” that comes from using the body in a highly dynamic manner for long periods.

Sports Training for Spartans

Some sports might have been incorporated into a warrior’s training, but specifically those that built agility and an “all-rounder” body.

Many  warriors and athletes, including Bruce Lee, have made the connection between dance and improved proprioception.

Wrestling is a likely candidate (according to some sources, though not others) and dance. This shouldn’t be a surprise as many other warriors and athletes, including Bruce Lee, have made the connection between dance and improved proprioception.

Spartan Wrestling

It’s also more than likely that Spartan training utilized drills and challenges that directly related to the skills they’d use in combat – such as climbing and marching long distances to build immense stamina.

Conclusions

So, we know very little of Spartan training but we know just enough to draw some basic conclusions.

Spartan’s did not train to build large muscle. Raw strength was actually considered relatively unimportant. One report (Xenophon’s Agesilaos) suggests that the hoplites – the civilian units – actually had the superior physiques.

Spartan Physique

Their workouts did not in any way resemble those of modern athletes or Crossfitters. Instead, what really set Spartan’s apart was their military training. Their psychological and physical resilience. And their agility and proprioception.

They were agile, fierce, and unyielding.

Training in the cold, barefoot; ripping weeds out of the ground with your hands… that will turn you into a truly formidable opponent.

Throw in some gymnastic training, undying loyalty to your troops, and a never-say-die attitude and it’s no wonder that the Spartans were feared for so many years!

What we can learn from Spartan training

What Can We Learn From the Spartans?

There are definitely things we can learn from this type of training. Our modern lifestyles have made most of us incredibly “soft” by comparison. The Spartan’s focus on stamina and agility may have explained why only the young Spartans were able to catch Iphikrates’ peltasts on food, even encumbered as they were by their equipment (Xenophon, Hellenika).

See also: How our modern lifestyles affect fitness

That said, there were also clear deficits in Spartan training. It has been suggested that the Thebans’ victories of the Spartans in the 4th century BC may have been a result of the greater time that the former spent in the gymnasium, wrestling and exercising.

So, as Bruce Lee would say, we should absorb what is useful and disregard the rest!

Spartan Falls

A Short Spartan Workout/Spartan Training Program

For fun, and as an example of a workout that will test your mental toughness, I have written out a short “Spartan Workout” for you to try or to incorporate into your routine.

This workout is full-body. Exercises have been selected for their functional value. The order has been chosen in to increase blood flow by alternating between upper and lower body moves.

Bodyweight movements have been selected to build explosive agility, as well as to challenge the grip and stamina.

Training outdoors

This workout is designed to be performed outdoors, topless or wearing very little, even (particularly!) in bad weather. Be sensible though – don’t attempt this if you are unwell!

It should also be completed barefoot.

If you have no experience with training barefoot, then I recommend using minimal shoes (or sandals for authenticity) to start with and building up to this – incorrect running technique while barefoot can do more harm than good as you are likely conditioned to run with a heel strike after years of shoe-wearing. Likewise, don’t train topless in the rain if you have a compromised immune system. Keep in mind though that if you are healthy, cold exposure does not cause illness. In fact, regular exposure to this stimulus is likely to strengthen your immunity.

Performing This Routine

The only equipment you’ll need for this is a pull up bar, so I recommend finding a trim trail or playground where you can perform the routine. A tree branch will do the job just as well, or even better thanks to its rough texture and inconsistent width/angle. A punch bag or set of battle ropes are optional extras.

Spartan outdoor training

This circuit should be repeated three times with a two-minute rest between each circuit. You can do more if you are up to it. All exercises are to be performed AMRAP style – As Many Reps As Possible.

Occasionally there’s a bit of a hand balancing in there to help build that gymnastic strength and agility, while also providing a short break from the resistance cardio.

Spartan Training Running

Like my Batman program, this Spartan Training routine is not a routine for beginners – build-up to it. If you want to make this your main program, then start by doing the circuit twice a week with one run a week.

It goes a little something like this:

The Spartan Training Program

Optional: 4-6 mile run

2 Minute Rest

1 Minute High Knees

20 Second Rest

1 Minute Explosive Push Ups (Clapping push ups to failure, then fast push ups)

20 Second Rest

1 Minute Tuck Jumps

20 Second Rest

1 Minute Muscle Ups to Failure, then Pull Ups

1 Minute L-Hang to Failure, Followed by Bodyweight Hang

1 Minute Handstand Push Ups to Failure (Followed by Pike Push Ups, or All Pike Push Ups if You Can’t Do Any HPs)

20 Second Rest

1 Minute Pistol Squats (30 seconds each side) OR Jumping Squats

20 Second Rest

1 Minute Bicycle Sit Ups

1 Minute Battle Ropes if You Have Them, Shadow Boxing If Not (Fast)

20 Second Rest

1 Minute Tuck Planche/Crow Pose

20 Second Rest

1 Burpees

2 Minute Rest

Repeat X 3

Of course, this Spartan training routine probably nothing like what the Spartans did. But it also doesn’t contradict anything we know. Moreover, it will build up the same kind of stamina, agility, and mental toughness as a Spartan training program. Good luck!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Judy Adams says:

    I have not searched for it to verify, but do know that the young boys in Sparta training were to run laps for a couple of hours before lunch, and a whip was used on them from behind to keep them motivated. It was a short type of whip, more like a quirt, and not meant to inflict injury but a sharp sting as a way to ignore any kind of harassment from behind while running. They did wear short underwear type of clothing with a belt to keep the genitals tight while running.

  2. JCLincoln says:

    There were 4 million men in the Persian army, not counting women and entourage. The Persians didn’t come to conquer Greece, they came to conquer the area known today as Europe. You don’t send an army of 4 million to conquer a country of only a couple million people.

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