Going back in Time for an Ancient Greek Inspired MMA workout

Ancient-Greek-ExerciseI’m all for going the gym, don’t get me wrong. I do, however, prefer to get outside and train in nature. Now, this isn’t something new. Strength training has been around since the ancient Greeks, just not with barbells and dumbbells. Instead the “go to equipment” of the time was heavy stones, heavy logs, ropes, sandbags, hills, wrestling and boxing. These workouts were structured for combat, maximum fitness, maximum athletic potential and extreme levels of intensity. Sound similar to MMA? I thought so.

Training was structured around the practising of fundamental movements and skills akin to walking, running, sprinting, jumping, crawling, climbing, lifting, carrying, throwing and unarmed combat.

Milo and the Calf 

It’s not surprising that the Olympics are derived from these fundamentals.

There hundreds of stories from the ancient Olympics, but there is one that has always stuck with me. There’s an ancient story about an Olympian wrestler named Milo of Croton. Milo started out as a small built child who had no access to weights. He did, however, grow into an amazingly tough, well built wrestler. He did this by carrying his pet calf on his shoulders as a child for a short distance. This is something he practised daily. The funny thing is however, as he grew, so did the calf. As he grew into a man, the calf became a fully grown bull. The first day of the Olympics came around and Milo was observed walking the length of the track carrying a fully-grown bull on his shoulders.

Milo’s story truly inspires me every time I read it. But, what does this story have to do with MMA training or outdoor old school training? The two biggest takeaways from his story in my mind are the idea of progression and goals.

Had Milo attempted to lift a fully grown bull as a small, scrawny child he would have failed miserably. He started small and made progressions. The Bull would have become heavier daily, his body would have had to deal and adapt to new weight and struggles every single time he picked up the animal. He grew spectacular strength and size by making his body deal with small but tough changes every time he trained.

The point of Milo’s training was geared solely towards competing at the Olympics. He needed to be physically and mentally tough to out wrestle the other competitors. He new what he needed to do and trained accordingly. This is some incredible foresight and goal setting.

Odd Object Training 

Milo was clearly onto something with his training. You and I don’t, however, have access to a calf for daily training. Head outside and you do however have an amazing selection of odd objects to choose from.

Like I mentioned above, the ancient Greeks trained with stones, logs, ropes, hills and sandbags. These are all very real training options you have at your disposal.

Why bother though? What is the benefit of training outside, rather than in a gym with weights?

So many routines for MMA you see on the internet are based around weight lifting. While weightlifting is a very valuable asset for any athlete, it is often the “safe” option when it comes to MMA training. The bulk of the prescribed lifts are performed in a strong, stable position where the body is put in the optimal set-up for each given lift. Again, this is great. I am all for strength training, but the nature of sports, particularly MMA is incredibly dynamic and unpredictable. When you have weight on a bar, the weight is machined for precision. The weight is evenly distributed and evenly loaded. Odd objects such as logs have an uneven centre mass. The weight is often at the bottom, meaning the lifter is constantly fighting to keep the weight up. This requires more muscle activation, more body awareness, more coordination and more power.

Odd objects allow for the same movements as any other strength implement, push, pull, swing, press and squat. The good thing about odd objects however, is the unstable nature it provides, filling in the gaps left by traditional weight training.

You have all heard the term “farm boy strength.” This is a very real thing that farmers have developed through years of working consistently with odd objects. These men and women are strong in every plane of motion, every unstable position and no muscle is left out. With the uncertain nature of any given odd object lift, you are unable to get into the “groove” you would with barbell reps. Every rep and set will be slightly different from the last and promises strength in muscles you previously were unable to train in the gym.

Your Outdoor Training Equipment 

Odd object and outdoor training really is limitless. Use your imagination and you will always have a solid workout at your hands.

Below are the more “common” odd objects you will encounter in your ancient Greek MMA training.


Is there anything more ancient Greek and hardcore than lifting heavy rocks?

The beauty of stones is they are plentiful and come in a vast array of shapes, weights and sizes. When training with stones be aware that it is going to be incredibly tough. Expect any onlookers to stare with equal amounts of shock and awe. That goes for any of the implements listed here really!

Training with stones promotes triple extension lifting. This lifting is the simultaneous straightening of the ankles, knees and hips, which is found in every single athletic movement. In terms of MMA, this triple extension is found in takedowns, clinch control and roundhouse kicks.

When training with heavy rocks and stones you will quickly find how much pulling strength is involved, this kind of back training is again something MMA specific. Grappling requires a lot of pulling and back development, so training with rocks has a great cross-over, particularly to the grappling arts.

Take advantage of the fact stones come in so many weights and sizes. Use heavy, rounder stones for deadlifts and squats. Choose longer medium weight ones for cleans and presses. Mix things up and use smaller stones for one arm snatches and single arm presses. Choose two small but heavy stones for Farmer’s walks. Fat stones for pinch grip work.

For a quick metabolic finisher, I like to take a medium sized stone. Clean, squat and throw forward it as far as possible. Immediately sprint after it, turn and repeat for as many reps as possible in an allotted time. 10 minutes of this will smoke your lungs, legs, shoulders and core, forcing you to dig deep. All this whilst building up incredibly explosive power.

A stone dating back to the 6th century was found on Mount Olympia (which is now on display at the museum of Olympia) weighing 315 pounds and was carved with the inscription “Bybon son of Phola, has lifted me overhead with one hand”. There is another found on the island of Santorini that weighs close to 1060 pounds, again from the 6th century that has the inscription “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me off the ground”. If an exercise was good enough 2600 years ago for ancient Greek warriors, it’s still good enough today. 


Sandbags are the quintessential odd object. They have been found in training journals dating back to ancient Greek wrestlers. Strongmen and wrestlers today still use sandbag work in there training and with very good reason.

Sandbags come in many shapes and forms. These can vary significantly in price and style. There are plenty of fitness companies jumping on the sandbag bandwagon, creating all sorts of bastardized versions for commercial use. Anything with handles, avoid. This completely negates the point of training with a sandbag. Opponents don’t have handles, so don’t train with handles.

IronMind SandbagEither look for a strongman version or just get hold of a military duffel bag, just tape the handles down. Fill the bag with smaller bags of sand, pea gravel or dirt, whatever it takes to get some weight in it. Companies like Iron Mind have been getting things right at worlds strongman events year after year, I bought my first Iron Mind sandbag nearly 3 years ago and it is still as good as new. I have used duffel bags in the past, but as cheap as they are, they don’t quite have the longevity of a purposely made sandbag. Check out the Iron Mind bag here.

The beauty of training with a sandbag is how easy they are to implement into routines. Any exercises you can do with a barbell, the sandbag offers a tougher version. The sandbag will move about as you perform the lifts, forcing the body to make adjustments to compensate. There is nothing closer to clinching and wrestling an opponent than sandbag training. Check out the video below from Travis Stoetzel, showing his wrestling with a sandbag routine.


Ok, so the ancient Greeks may not have had access to tires, but I guarantee if they did, they would be using them.  Much like the rocks, tires come in all sorts of weights and sizes. Tractor tires are great for flipping. They require full body coordination, strength and brute force. Check out the video below of Derek Poundstone flipping a monster 950lb tire and the sheer level of strength and determination to do so.


Smaller tires are great for dragging, pulling and throwing around. Stack a few on top of each other and perform prowler type sprints. Tie a couple together, take a length of rope and hand over hand drag for time or distance. Tires can take a lot of punishment so they are great for going hard.

I personally love hitting tires with a sledgehammer. Nothing hits the core, shoulders and grip as well as getting the heart rate up high quite like sledgehammer swings. Set a timer, swing flat out for 30 seconds, have 15 seconds rest and repeat up to 20 times. This is a very short, but very brutal way to condition the body and one that any MMA athlete should be looking to add to their program.

Logs/ Trunks 

mma workoutWooden logs have been long used by the Special Forces to build toughness and hardship for years. The logs used by the Special Forces weigh around 300 lbs and are a mighty 12 foot in length with a diameter of 12 inches. These logs are used in teams to build strength, coordination and team work.

Working with smaller logs is a great way to train alone. Squats and lunges are the obvious exercises for logs, but with a little creativity they can be used for presses, landmines and even power moves like caber tosses. The log adds an element of sheer size to content with, the longer the log, the more you will have to dig deep to stabilize as you perform any given movement. Check out the video below of the legend Matt Kroczaleski performing a set of walking lunges followed by squats using a 200lb log.

Partner Exercises 

Partner exercises are often a very overlooked way of training, which is a huge shame. When you put two people together to train, something wonderful happens. The two athletes will begin to push each other as the competitive nature comes out. You and your partner will alternate between being the weight and the one doing the exercise. This process means you can rely on each other for moral support and push each other when it gets tough.

Training with the weight and resistance of a partner is the single closest thing to fighting. Ancient Greeks will have used partner training frequently for strength, conditioning and applicable fighting strength.

Essentially any exercise can be performed with a partner. The key is to use someone who is minimum your own body weight. Squats with the partner across the shoulders, squats Zercher style, squats bear-hug style, Deadlift your partner who is balled up on the floor. Lie flat on your back hand to hand with your partner leaning over you and perform pseudo bench presses. Likewise set-up in the push-up position, have your partner lie on you back to back for double bodyweight push-ups.

Your partner can assist you in the tougher bodyweight exercises such as handstand push-ups.

Core training is amazingly tough and effective with a partner. Wheel barrow walks for distance or time. Plank wars where you and your partner set up in the plank position face to face, you each raise one arm and grab the partner’s wrist, gable grip style. From here you then begin to tug at each other attempting to pull the other person over, you must fight to remain in the plank position at all times.

Perhaps my favourite and I feel the most effective use of a training partner is weighted carries. Not only do these build strength in very practical ways they also increase stamina and mental toughness. I have written an article previously about partner carries so check it out here.

At the end of the day, odd object training however, is just another training method. You are looking to become the strongest, fastest, most well conditioned fighter you can become. Odd object training is something you may want to add to mix things up and force the body to grow and adapt in new ways.