I am going to start this article off with a confession. Despite the fitness and strength training industry’s ever-enduring fascination with the legend of Milo and his bull, I absolutely despise this story! The reason I despise it is that it is used by so many professionals to explain how progressive exercise, and in particular, progressive overload in strength training works, yet presents a gross exaggeration of the long-term use of progressive resistance.
I’ve mentioned the myth of Milo several times on my old website, GUS, but I was inspired to go into it in-depth by a short entry on the website Health and Fitness History, a very good website which explores just what its name relates. In this entry on the history of strength training, there is a brief description of the Milo of Croton legend.
Milo was a successful Greek wrestler who lived during the 6th century BC. As the story goes, and I’m sure you’ve heard it many times, he carried a newborn calf up a hill (or a mountain, or some certain distance) every day. Each day, the calf would grow a bit, thus weigh a bit more. So, each time that he carried the calf, he was carrying a little more weight. This represented a form of progressive resistance training. In the end, he carried a full-grown bull up a hill (or whatever), meaning he could now carry the equivalent of five or six hundred pounds. And awkward pounds at that. You may not have known, as I did not, that according to the article,
…he supposedly carried it his customary distance before slaughtering, cooking, and eating the entire thing in one day. A bull at that age would likely weigh over five or six hundred pounds, and would yield a little under half that weight in beef. While it’s difficult to imagine a man at any size eating the weight of two average men in a twenty-four hour period, it is physically possible that could have Milo trained in the manner described, though this is generally regarded as only a legend.
So, now, I think we can view this in its proper light, as a legend, not a lesson. No, a man could never eat an entire bull in one day. But, I want to look at the last part of that statement, because it is generally held to be true by most people in the fitness industry: That Milo could indeed have used this progressive system to attain the ability to carry a full-grown bull up a hill, and that this represents an accurate portrayal of how strength training works. Before I do this, however, I do want to say that I am not trying to “call out” or really even rebut the article from Health and Fitness History, as I do not think they were making an absolute statement, nor was it the point of the article to elucidate the realities of progressive overload. I am just pointing out that this story is generally accepted to describe or represent actual strength attainment. And yes, many people really do believe that strength training works this way.
Has Anyone Ever Tried to Train Like Milo with a Calf?
Yes! There is at least one documented attempt at training like Milo. In October of 1945, 17-year old Allen “Buck” La Fever, of Somerville, N.j. started lifting Phoebe the cow when she was one month old. She weighed 75 pounds at the time. Buck lifted Phoebe up every day. He was actually remarkably successful, more successful than I would have thought, and, frankly, more successful than I would imagine most people would be. He lifted her until April when she weighed 365 pounds. After that, he had had it.
But, to be clear, what Buck did was not nearly the same as what Milo supposedly did. He started out by lifting Phoebe up in his arms, much like you would lift your dog if he was large. He did this at least unitl she weight around 105 pounds. Then, he changed his lift. He attached a harness to Phoebe and placed her between two large sawhorses. He then stood on with one leg on each sawhorse and, pulling by the handle on top of the harness, lifted her until her legs came off the ground and Buck was standing upright. Yes, he deadlifted her. Although I am not privy to every detail of his training, he was using this deadlift method at least by the time she weighed 180 pounds.
In reality, then Buck was not all that successful. He drastically changed his approach, and thus the actual feat, by altering the lift and giving himself a distinct mechanical advantage. To have picked up Phoebe off the ground, holding her full weight in his arms, as if she was a baby, was obviously not in the cards. As it was, he was able to attain a position much like you would adopt during a trap bar deadlift and pulled/squatted her up a much lesser distance than he started with, using a position of condition leverage, since her position did not as drastically alter his center of gravity. Basically, Buck achieved, sort of, a 365 pound deadlift with a cow, in about 5 months.
Here is the problem you may not have considered: How much could Buck have “deadlifted” using this same method, when he first began training with Phoebe? You see, she started out at 75 pounds and Buck could lift her up in his arms. Logically, we can assume that buck could have deadlifted, at that point, a much larger cow. I would venture to guess that buck already could have deadlifted, with some practice to get the feel and balance, around a 150-pound cow and possibly more. Are you beginning to see what really happened? He didn’t pull a Milo at all. He did, however, get stronger. He was a strapping farm boy, though, and undoubtedly no stranger to hard work and heavy lifting. Whether he would ever have been able to lift a full-grown Phoebe we will never know since the original “bet” was that he couldn’t lift her past 265 pounds, and I suppose he figured that 365 was enough. In my opinion, however, he shouldn’t have won the bet, since I think anyone would understand “lifting a cow” to mean lifting her off the ground with no implements, holding your body in one’s arms. 1
A Little Weight at a Time
The whole idea here is that Milo added a little weight to his carry each day. The bull weight a “little bit more” each day and this was how he slowly progressed. So, if you do the same thing with any type of weight, such as a barbell, and add a little bit of weight to the bar each time you work out, you will eventually, and inevitably, be lifting a 500 or 600-pound bar. You’d have to ask then why isn’t everybody doing this? Well, of course, the answer you’d get is that they are too lazy and not dedicated, etc.
Now, I have no idea how much a fully-grown bull would have weighed in ancient Greece. We do not know what Milo fed his bull, which we might assume to have been an ox, or what growth characteristics the particular breed would have. It may have weighed more than 600 lbs. Modern bulls can weight up to 2400 pounds! But, assuming a steady diet of forage, this bull could have gained 1 to 2 pounds every day. So, if Milo indeed carried the bull every day, he’d probably be adding “just a little weight” each day. We can assume, though, that the gain of weight would vary somewhat, and on some days the bull would gain more weight than on others. So, Milo’s progression would not have been as controllable or efficient as our own, but, perhaps, these fluctuations would not have been great enough to affect his overall training.
But such a feat would have taken around 18 months, as this is about how long it takes a bull or cow to become fully grown. So, now, imagine that, with a barbell, you add 2 pounds every day, and perform squats. Since Milo kept his distance the same, you will keep your overall volume (reps and sets) the same. And, although we do not know if Milo’s time varied, I think we can hold to the spirit of the myth: That he carried the bull the same distance in the same span of time. So, you will do the same volume of squats in the same time period, when all the rest periods are considered.
So, starting out with an empty bar that weighs 45 pounds, and you add 2 pounds to the bar every day, in 18 months you will be squatting over 1100 pounds. Not feasible? Of course not.
But, let’s amend our training. Milo carried the bull every single day? Well, he must not have read all those articles about rest and recovery. Let’s reduce our training to twice a week. There are 52 weeks in a year. We add 4 pounds a week to our squat training. In 18 months we are squatting 254 pounds.
Are you a little disappointed? Suddenly, by trying to be realistic, this whole Milo thing seems a lot less exciting. It’s not a bad squat, but it doesn’t mean your training was super-efficient, either. I suppose you could increase your weight increments, but what follows will probably disappoint you.
Strength is More than Just Simple Progressive Overload
So, simple progressive overload, when only ONE parameter is manipulated, may not be such a great illustration of efficient progression in strength training. You could probably get to the that 254-pound squat faster than 18 months with more efficient training if indeed, such a squat is within your strength ceiling (average male, for sure).
If you think you could squat every single day and add 2 pounds to the bar every single day, then you believe in magic. You believe in Myth. You could not do this. But, here is when I throw you for a loop. You could not do this even if you reduced the training to twice a week or even once a week!
Milo Would Have Failed to Carry the Bull!
You see, Milo never ever would have been able to carry even a small bull up a hill, using the method he was supposed to have used. What would have happened is the same thing that would happen to you: He would stall. At some point, he would hit a wall. He just wouldn’t be able to progress in this fashion any longer. Yes, EVEN THOUGH the weight increments were small, at some point, the body will fail to continue adapting, and progression will stall. And, for poor Milo, well, once he took a little time off, he would have had to grapple with a much larger bull. He’d have to deal with more than just two added pounds! It simply would not have worked.
With our barbell, we have more freedom. We could add, say 5 pounds to the bar each time. Well, if we do this, we will simply stall faster. If we stall, we can rest and attack it again with the same weight, and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, we can reduce the weight. If after building back up we still don’t progress in terms of weight on the bar, we have other options. We can simply add reps, or additional sets, etc. If we add weight, we don’t have to use the same amount each time. We can add a little or a lot.
Training Methods Always Eventually Stop Working
Now, no matter what kind of method we use to train, what we are really looking to do is to increase our maximum weight on the squat. So, at some point, no matter what kind of method we are using to train the squat, we might also plateau. Remember before I said we would stall. This means we simply were unable to progress, or in this case, sucessfully add weight to the bar and hit the same volume. There will also come a time, however, that even though we are adding things, like reps, sets, density (reducing time), and even small weight increments, this training does little to change our maximum squat, or one rep maximum: We have plateaued.
So, do you see what Milo was up against? His feat, carrying that bull, was a complicated undertaking, in terms of training. Even if he replaced the bull with weighed implements, which did exist in Greece at that time, and he could use these in a progressive manner, he would have had to be very creative and really have a lot of knowledge in order to, in the end, perform this feat.
While strength training is not rocket science, it is not as simple as a straight and inexorable gain due to simple linear loading. You cannot just add a little bit of weight each time and end up lifting a gargantuan weight. No, even if you only add one pound to the bar, it would not work. Now that we’ve come to it, didn’t you wonder why everybody isn’t lifting 1000 pounds, if all they really have to do is add one pound to the bar each time they lift? It is not only a myth, it is a ridiculous story. But what is more ridiculous is that actual strength coaches use it to describe progressive overload.
See more about progressive overload:
- “Speaking of Pictures…Boy Emulates Milo the Ox Lifter.” Life Magazine, 20 May 1946, pp. 8–10, books.google.com/books?id=u0kEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA8&dq=Milo%20of%20Croton%20eaten%20by%20a%20lion&pg=PA11#v=onepage&q=Milo%20of%20Croton%20eaten%20by%20a%20lion&f=false