Did the Romans Lift Weights?


If the statues of Roman gods and heroes are any indication, the ancient Romans were strong and healthy people. However, the modern-day barbell wasn’t around back then, so how did they stay so physically fit?

The Romans lifted weights in the form of rocks, heavy clubs, and halteres, which were a primitive form of the modern dumbbell. Not all Romans had access to halteres, but the Roman elite, legionnaires, and gladiators likely trained with them often. 

The remainder of this article will focus on the exercise routines of ancient Romans, including both the legionnaires and the gladiators. It will also discuss Roman gyms (bathhouses) and what people did there.

Also see Did the Romans Have Ice? to learn more.

old dumbells
What activities did people do in Roman gyms? See below

Were There Gyms in Ancient Rome?

There were gyms in ancient Rome. Some were called gymnasiums; others were called palaestrae. Both were sites where Romans could “work out,” but the palaestrae were specifically for wrestling or boxing. The gyms were larger, had more training options, and were frequent socialization spots. 

Initially, both gymnasiums and palaestrae were Greek inventions; the very word “gymnasium” actually comes from the Greek word “gymnós,” which means “nude.” That’s because all Greek athletes trained and competed without clothes, as the naked male body was thought to be more aesthetically pleasing to the gods. [1]

Though the Greeks may have invented these structures, the Romans soon adopted both of them for their use. Eventually, the Romans would incorporate both of these facilities into larger, more elaborate complexes that they simply called “bathhouses.” 

These Roman bathhouses were a place for people to bathe, socialize, and relax, and the gymnasiums within them were much different than the modern gyms people visit today. For example, gyms in ancient Rome weren’t just for exercising. 

While people did go there to train, wrestle, box, and run, they also used the gyms as centers of learning, reading, socializing, and what today would be called “networking.” That’s why it made sense to incorporate the gyms within the bathhouses so that people could take care of all their business in one convenient location. 

Also see Did the Romans Have Steel? to learn more.

Roman weight training
What kind of exercise routines did the Romans do? See below

Components of Roman Bathhouses

Aside from the public baths, gyms, and palaestrae, Roman bathhouses had plenty of other rooms and features, explaining why they were so large and sprawling. Some of these other rooms include: 

  • Frigidarium: Also known as “the cold room,” the frigidarium was usually the largest, most centrally located bath in the bathhouse. It wasn’t heated, and the water was icy cold.
  • Tepidarium: This room also had a bath, but it was lukewarm; the room itself had only indirect heat sources.
  • Caldarium: Also known as the “hot room,” the caldarium had a hot tub-like hot water bath and was continuously heated. 
  • Private baths: While not all Roman bathhouses had these, some did. These were small rooms with diminutive baths that held only one or two people.
  • Apodyterium: These were the changing rooms, much like a modern-day locker room.
  • Outdoor gardens: Here, the Romans could relax and enjoy the beauty and pleasant smell of plants, trees, and flowers. 
  • Natatio: This was less a room and more of an outdoor swimming pool.
  • Sudatorium: Also known as “the sweat room,” the sudatorium was the equivalent of the modern sauna. 

Additionally, there were other common rooms that need no explanation, such as: 

  • Toilet
  • Lecture hall
  • Massage rooms
  • Library
  • Fountains
  • Spa-like rooms where Romans could undergo certain “health” treatments

Also see Did the Romans Have Paper? to learn more.

What Activities Did People Do in Roman Gyms?

The Romans did four main things in gyms and bathhouses: exercise, bathe, socialize, and get massages. Roman physicians considered exercising, bathing, regular massages, and a healthy diet to be the foundations for maintaining good health, and the gyms and bathhouses provided those opportunities.

Unlike the Greeks, who initially forbid women from entering the gyms, the Romans encouraged both men and women to visit the bathhouses. The specific activities a person took part in mainly depended on that person’s gender. [2]

Men often boxed, wrestled, ran, lifted “weights,” or experimented with fencing. They also sometimes played some ball games together, though these weren’t official sports like ball-based sports are today. 

On the other hand, women were more likely to swim or play a game called Trochus, in which they used a stick to roll a specially designed hoop. Women weren’t encouraged to lift any kinds of stones, clubs, or halteres. 

Also see Did the Romans Have Tattoos? to learn more.

old weights
What is the Tetrad System? See below

What Kind of Exercise Routines Did the Romans Do?

Exercise routines in ancient Rome varied depending on who was performing them. For instance, women and men exercised differently, as did Roman gladiators and legionnaires. Common activities included swimming, running, weight training, and wrestling. 

The section above outlined the standard exercise routines of ordinary men and women. This section will look at the Roman gladiators and legionnaires. 

Roman gladiators trained using the Tetrad System. [3] It consisted of four days of training, with each day focusing on a specific workout style. They exercised by practicing with weapons, wrestling, running, and lifting halteres. A typical gladiator four-day training system probably looked something like this: 

Day 1: Known as “preparation day,” the first training day focused on high-intensity exercises that lasted only a short period. These helped prepare the body for the following day’s more intensive training sessions.

Day 2: Exercises on the second day lasted for extended periods. They were incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally.

Day 3: On the third day, gladiators would either rest or participate in low-impact, easy exercise that focused more on the technical aspects of certain activities than the physical. 

Day 4: The final day of exercise combined the prior three days and was “medium intensity.” It was genuine exercise that worked up a sweat but was nowhere near as strenuous as what the men did on day 2. 

The gladiators wouldn’t rest after day 4; in other words, they didn’t take three days off every week. Instead, they’d start the cycle over again immediately on the fifth day. 

Roman legionnaires underwent an equally grueling training schedule, particularly as recruits. The recruitment period lasted four months and was unbelievably intense. Their “workouts,” however, consisted of much more practical components. 

They were drilled while wearing gear sacks that weighed as much as 60 pounds (27.21 kg), forced to march for miles and dig trenches on command. They ran; they constructed fortresses and holds; they’d perform weapons training with heavy shields and wooden swords.

They also did plenty of legitimate exercises, such as weight training, swimming, wrestling, and more common activities still seen in modern workout routines today. 

Conclusion

The Romans may not have had weights like those today, but they did have gyms and performed weight training and other exercises to stay fit. 

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

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