by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
There is a rather intense conversation that occurs between Socrates and Epigenes in a section of Xenopohon’s The Memorabilia of Socrates. At one moment, Socrates states to his companion:
No citizen has any right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training: it is part of his profession as a citizen to keep himself in good condition, ready to serve his state at a moment’s notice. […] what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and the strength of which his body is capable! (Mem. iii. 12.)
Socrates continues to berate Epigenes for his weak body and propounds the innumerable benefits of having a strong and able body. Though Socrates’ comments are more likely centered around the responsibility of the Greek citizen to be strong enough for battle as opposed to being focused on the importance of physical health in general, his dialogue is certainly most useful to refer to in the context of modern strength training.
Socrates’ emphasis on the cultural and mental importance of exercise is testament to the value of fitness in the ancient world. Gymnastics were a key aspect in ancient Greek schooling, and Greek boys would complete extensive amounts of training from younger than 10 all the way to adulthood and, often, beyond. Wrestling was also a notable sport that the Greeks regularly engaged in, and the sandy floors of the courtyards of palaestrae were believed to have been used for the sport. It would seem that the Greek ideal, that which is solidified in stone, marble, and gold by such sculptors as Phidias of Athens and Lysippus of Sicyon, is likely a true representations of the body shapes of ancient Greek men.
Decorative image from the BBC depicting wrestlers in ancient Greece.
In ancient Egypt we also find a similar penchant for intense physical training. Weightlifting is believed to have been a sport undertaken by both men and women, as well as athletes. In the tombs of Prince Bagti III and of Beni Hasan we are even to find paintings of Egyptians exercising with weights.
I am not always open to the idea of modelling oneself on the traditions of old. The popular, yet highly inaccurate, ‘palaeolithic’ diet is a prominent example of the fondness of the modern man to believe that all that is ‘traditional’, ‘old’, or ‘natural’ is best of all, and the ridiculous nature of what the ‘paleo’ diet propounds frustrates me quite; the idea that by eating protein bars labelled as ‘paleo’ purely due to their omission of sugar and grain is one of the most preposterous notions I know of. However, with regard to the inarguable importance of exercise and strength training to the ancient Greeks and other ancient civilizations such as China and India, I must admit that I find some joy in the fact that my actions may have been approved of by Socrates.
I have written before on the joy I find in physically exerting myself; I am a regular cold water swimmer and have recently forayed back into the gym with hopes of achieving the strength required for complex calisthenics. My past relationship with exercise was characterized by incessant cardiovascular fitness which saw me run oftentimes for an hour a day or more. I would occasionally alternate my runs with long cycle rides. Though there were certainly some benefits to the intensive regime I carved out for myself, including brilliant sleep, stamina, endurance, and endorphin rushes, my reliance on long-distance cardio led to several injuries and a constant fatigue that I rarely shook off. Furthermore, the reasoning for my excessive running was aesthetic; in order to maintain my slender frame, I had to progressively run more and eat less. The cycle was endless.
During quarantine, I sprained my ankle from some haphazard trail-running and was forced to take a break from lower-body exercise. As is normally the case for me, I began obsessively researching a) how to quickly get back to health and b) what forms of exercise I COULD do while impeded from doing cardio. Calisthenics seemed the way to go.
I have always been a fairly strong woman, especially in my lower body, but upon attempting such basic strength moves as push ups and pull ups I realized how much I had been neglecting my upper body. I could do 20 push ups, sure, but my form was off, and I was most definitely not dipping deep enough towards the floor to define my movement as a true ‘push up’. My pull ups were non-existent. And so, I decided to undertake one of the most difficult physical challenges I have ever pursued in my life: to do 20 full push ups in a row and 10 full pull ups. For once, the movement I was choosing to engage my body in was not aesthetically driven, but rooted in pushing the boundaries of what my body was capable of.
There is nothing inherently wrong with striving towards an aesthetic goal. We live in a deeply aesthetically focused society, and if one desires to engage in exercise with the pure intention of achieving a specific look I can hardly reprimand them for it. But relying entirely on visual aspirations can be problematic in execution; every human is built so differently that the bone shape of one person compared to another means that even if they did the same workouts, ate the same amount of food, mirrored their lives entirely, they would still look completely different. Moreover, certain aesthetic goals require severe caloric restrictions due to the fact that the aspects of the body that are commonly demonized by the media and thus are most targeted to alter – thighs, hips, and lower stomach on women, and stomach and back on men – are biologically programmed, in the case of most body types, to keep some amounts of fat on them for the purpose of survival. Therefore, in order to rid oneself of these areas of fat, one would need to lower one’s intake drastically for an extensive period of time, alongside regular intense exercising. Remaining at a sub-optimal caloric intake and over-exercising can often result in changes in hormones, which can in turn result in the loss of the menstrual cycle for women (amenorrhoea), and other hormonal and chemical imbalances in the body for men. Lowered libido is also a frequent consequence of consistent under-feeding.
This isn’t to say that one cannot achieve the body that one strives for; in some cases, it is indeed possible, especially if one has genetic physical qualities that are similar to the person or body that is their ‘end goal’. It is vital, however, that one recognize that a specific ‘look’ or ‘shape’ is not actually always physically possible without surgical procedures.
I myself was most definitely driven by aesthetic goals for much of my young adult life, and my body felt and continues to feel the negative repercussions of having eaten so little and exercised so much for so long. My choice to change the way I exercised was partially geared towards altering how I viewed my body; I wanted to move away from viewing my body as an object to be perceived and enjoyed by others and instead to appreciate it as a device that I could use to find purpose and joy through movement. In the words of Socrates, I wanted to find the beauty and strength of which my body was capable.
This process was not a quick one. Unlike running, where I could simply increase my mileage each day or week without much difference to my fatigue levels, the first ‘session’ I did on the metal bars in the park near my house saw me wake up the next morning with the most acute back and arm aches of my entire life. My whole upper body felt as though it had been thrown onto concrete. I was spent, and it felt marvelous.
The push ups came more easily, though achieving proper depth and form took longer. I began experimenting with alternating hand, foot, and body positions to work different muscles in my back, shoulders, and arms. Even though I did the majority of these exercises in the same place – my living room – I never became bored of challenging my strength and stamina, and I never tired of how incredible it was that I could work so hard using nothing but my own body. There was something so very exhilarating about seeing one’s body change and adapt at such a rapid pace, and the feeling of consistent progression in strength was almost addictive for me. But this addiction was not destructive, anxiety-inducing, and compulsive as my addiction to running had been. This addiction was fueled by the moments I spent alone whereupon I would suddenly do something that made me laugh out loud because I was so shocked that I had actually been able to do it. It was thrilling.
The growth of my body was at once satisfying and jarring; as someone who once strived to be as small and fragile as possible, watching my body become bigger and bulkier was deeply challenging. But how glorious it was to finally push away the vulnerable body that I had once believed was integral to my happiness, my beauty, and my success. For the first time in my life I was beginning to appreciate my body for what it could DO as opposed to what it looked like. I remember the elation I felt when I first did a full chin up. It was as though I had discovered the connection between my mind and my body; I felt in that moment that I could strive for anything I put my mind to.
There is a monologue in Chekhov’s Three Sisters that almost mirrors Socrates’ comments in The Memorabilia. In this monologue, Irina, one of the three sisters, proclaims:
‘A human being has to labor, whoever he happens to be, he has to toil in the sweat of his face; that’s the only way he can find the sense and purpose of his life, his happiness, his delight. How fine to be a working man who rises at first light and breaks stones on the road […] even  better to be an ox, better to be a simple horse, just so long as you work[.]’
Although Chekhov uses this speech to satirize Irina and her middle-class pretensions, I find there to be a certain beauty in her words here. For it is indeed wonderful to work one’s body physically, to sweat, to suffer, to return home at night with aching bones, weary and spent. I mean this less in the context of being an actual workman toiling for his keep, but more in that using one’s body and realizing the extent that one can push oneself is a joyous thing. To feel strong and able as a woman is to reject the perpetual narrative that convinces us that to be small is to be attractive and to be weak is to be desirable. I feel now that I am taking up the space that is mine in this world, that I am finally becoming someone that I am proud of. Long may this journey continue.
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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com.
Other articles by Hazel Anna Rogers include On Ancient Travel Writing, Grimes Music and the Future of AI Art, and When I Was A Yogi.
The blog’s last post was on retrofitting classic cars with electrical power.
Carl Kruse is on the Princeton Academia site.