“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout by Kevin Vost

“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout

by Kevin Vost


Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights. –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4 [1]
Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind. –  Seneca, Epistle 15 [2]
And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour…. –  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19 [3]

Body by Stoics

While the ancient Roman Stoics of the first century AD, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca, clearly championed the proper use of our human thinking capacities to attain inner peace and live virtuous lives in accord with nature, they did not neglect the fact that nature has equipped us with physical bodies of sinewy flesh. Epictetus lists our bodies among those things beyond our power which we cannot completely control, but while the care and development of our bodies should not be a primary goal, this does not imply that the body should be neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair or to grow to unseemly proportions. Self-generated physical problems can impede our capacities to participate in the roles the Playwright has prepared for us and can impair our cognitive capacities as well. Indeed, modern research suggests that the catchphrase “Use it or Lose It,” appears to apply to both physical and mental capacities throughout the course of our lives, and especially in our later years.
Hear Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, on this matter of body and soul:

Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other parts, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life. [4]

Musonius then recommended the kinds of ascetic practices that would accustom our bodies to enduring heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and the endurance of other physical discomforts.

Personal Training Advice from the “Lame Old Man”

Epictetus called himself “a lame old man” later in life, apparently because of a broken leg suffered during the years of slavery in his youth, caused, according to some sources, by his master twisting his leg while Epictetus calmly warned him that in continuing to do so he could break it – and did. While Epictetus was certainly then no competitive athlete, he not only frequently used physical metaphors for training and growth in philosophy, he sometimes provided very useful advice for the training of the body, in terms of both why and how one should exercise.
For example, let’s look at this article’s first quotation. There, in Book 1.4 of the Discourses, Epictetus declares that progress in philosophy is shown not in the books one can read or write, or the Stoics one can quote, but from the results, the actual changes in a person’s life –  how one lives his daily life in terms of aversions and desires, choices and refusals actually in accord with nature. His example is from the realm of physical training and it is still so on target today. Epictetus wants to see the athlete’s “shoulders,” not his training equipment. In our time, exercise contraptions and workout programs are legion, with new ones devised almost daily it seems, but if you want to show Epictetus how you are progressing with your training, show him your latest exercise device or written workout program at your own risk, because he might well tell you to go jump in a lake!
What Epictetus would want you to do is roll up your sleeve and show the results of your training. The proof of your progress in physical training is indeed in the pudding of your bodily development, not only of course, in how your muscles look, but in what they can do, in terms of making you physically stronger, more enduring, and better at the athletic activity or physical labors of any sort that you choose to pursue. So then, one very wise principle of physical training we can glean from Epictetus is that to train our bodies rationally we must keep an eye toward the results we obtain (or the lack thereof) from whatever equipment or program we employ, so that changes may be made if progress is not shown.
Not only does Epictetus give us this sound advice to focus on visible, measurable results of bodily training, he starts us on the road toward the right kinds of training we ought to pursue. For example:

The athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be, and then they act accordingly. If a man wants to be a long-distance runner, he adopts a suitable diet, walking, rubbing, and exercise; if he wants to be a sprinter, all these details are different; if he wants to contend in the pentathlon, they are still more different. [5]

Now, bearing in mind that most readers of this article are probably not long-distance runners, let alone sprinters, or pentathletes, I will note again that it is of practical importance to all of us to keep our bodies strong and enduring, and will note for the first time, that the main focus of this article will be particularly upon the “strong” part, how to properly train our bodies for physical strength, without ignoring or impairing our capacities for endurance. This leads us to another great Stoic with some serious bodily impairments, but surprisingly sound advice on how to make our bodies strong.

Tremendous Training Tips from a Thin-Legged, Asthmatic, Short-Statured Stoic

Lucius Annaeus Seneca once wrote that he didn’t care that someone had joked about him being bald, with poor eyesight, skinny legs, and short, because “what insult is there in telling me what everybody sees?” [6] Apparently Seneca was quite content not to worry about things he could not control regarding his own body –  and what others might have to say about it! Still, Seneca has also provided us several golden nuggets of wisdom on the proper care of the body. His youth was marked by bouts of poor health, especially from asthma, it seems. He experienced such severe attacks of loss of breath that he described them as “preparations for death.” He even admitted to thoughts of suicide at times, which he would not pursue out of concern for his father.
In response to inborn physical frailties, as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt would become famous for eighteen centuries later, Seneca undertook a regimen of rigorous physical training to compensate for his weakness and develop bodily strength and endurance, including such activities as swimming in frigid waters. Our primary interest here though is in the second quotation we used to start this article.
Seneca advised that the philosopher should not waste a lot of time on physical training, returning quickly from brief, efficient training, to the things of the mind. He notes that it is the rational capacities of mind that define what is finest in man, and regardless of how muscular and powerful a man might become, he’ll never be a match for a first-class bull! Fortunately for man though, precisely because of those reasoning abilities he can craft rational and efficient training programs to maximum strength and fitness attainable by human beings. So what about those short, simple, time-saving exercises Seneca recommended? He mentions “running, brandishing weights, and jumping,” which suggests to me that we jump ahead 1900 years from Seneca’s time to the modern exercise world of HIT and HIIT.

How the Stoics Hinted at HIT (and HIIT) 2,000 Years Ago

It was in the 1960s, almost exactly 1,900 years after Seneca’s death that an eccentric self-taught genius, inventor, and big-game hunter named Arthur Jones developed the Nautilus line of exercise equipment and became the foremost exponent of the idea of High Intensity Training (HIT for short), whether or not one used his machines to build strength. HIT principles are founded upon what Epictetus astutely observed: that different athletic events and goals require very different kinds of training. Indeed, as Epictetus contrasted the distance runner with the sprinter, Jones did just the same for those involved in strength-related sports, at that time primarily weight lifting, powerlifting, body-building, and to some extent, American football. [7]
Jones asked those seeking strength to look at the legs of a long-distance runner and those of a top-notch sprinter. The distance runner performs for long periods of time at a moderate level of intensity of effort, and the greatest marathoners, for example, are extremely light and lean, with rather small leg muscles. The legs of an experienced sprinter tell a very different story, a story that was dramatically illustrated during the last Olympics when coverage of the 100-meter dash immediately preceded that of the 5,000 meter race (about three miles). The sprinters bristled with muscles and looked like lithe and lean bodybuilders in both their lower and upper bodies, while the milers had that extremely lean, almost emaciated look. This is not to disparage distance runners in the least, for they have physical goals of their own, but to provide a powerful lesson for those who seek to build healthy and usable bodily strength and size.
Jones argued that the crucial mistake made by people who train for strength is to train like the long-distance endurance athlete, rather than the sprinter. In other words, it is the measured use of very hard and brief (e.g. “high intensity”) bursts of effort that stimulate muscle growth, not prolonged bouts and repetitions of only moderately difficult exertion.
To sum up a huge body of knowledge and give a few practical tips to readers, this high intensity (HIT) manner of training calls for:

  • High intensity, that is, using a weight suited to oneself so that one “fails” or cannot complete any additional repetitions at the end of a set of the desired number of repetitions.
  • Progressive resistance, so that when one succeeds with a targeted number of repetitions with a certain weight, the weight is increased slightly in the next workout, until the goal is achieved with the new weight. In this way, intensity always remains high. [8]
  • Limited duration of workouts, doing no more than one intense set per exercise after warm-up, because that one set to failure will trigger a growth response, and additional sets will hamper the body’s ability to recover. Jones used to say “You can work hard or work long, but not both.”
  • Limited frequency of workouts, training a particular exercise as infrequently as once per week.
  • Proper rest to allow for growth. Strength training breaks down muscle tissue and alarms the body to produce more muscle in adaption to that stress, and it can take several days before the damage is repaired and additional muscle tissue has been gained in the process called Indeed, as a person grows stronger, he may require more rest between workouts because of the greater demands each workout will make on recuperative capacities.
  • Proper form in the execution of strength-training exercises, because quick, jerky movements, for example, can call in the forces of momentum, while a purposely slower movement, in protocols varying from 2 seconds lifting and 4 seconds lowering the weight to even 10 seconds or more in each direction, ensure that only muscle action moves the weight.
  • Focus upon a limited number of compound exercises in which involve the rotation of more than one joint and which activate large masses of muscles, for example, squats, leg presses, dead lifts, bench pressing, overhead pressing, chinning, and rowing motions, because of the way such exercises stimulate the production of growth hormone and testosterone that lead to overall body development with a minimum of time investment.

A workout such a this could consist in as little as three exercises, what I call “a push, a leg, and a pull,” to involve almost all the major muscles of the body, with a few other “isolation exercises” involving rotation around only one joint like curls, leg extensions, etcetera, for those who would care to do them. Let me flesh out an example:
A Suggested Simple, Sample, “Stoic” Strength-Training Workout

Exercise Sets/Repetitions per Set
“A Push” (Choose one of the following: barbell, dumbbell, or machine bench press, incline press, or overhead press; or pushups, parallel bar dips, or handstand pushups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand exercises like pushups.
“A Pull” (Choose one of the following: barbell deadlift, barbell, dumbbell, or machine row, machine pulldown or chin-ups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand chin-ups for very strong individuals, (though chins can be intensified by moving more slowly up and down removing all momentum, and in fact, this method can be used to intensify all bodyweight only movements.)
“A Leg” (Chose one of the following: Barbell Squats or Front Squats, Leg Press, Bodyweight deep knee bends.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but would require higher repetitions for deep knee bends without addition weight.
Optional Extras: (If so inclined, add 1 – 5 additional exercises targeting muscles of interest such as curls for biceps, triceps, abdominal, neck, or calf exercises.) Same set and repetition scheme as above, though many people prefer higher repetitions of up to 20 or more for exercises with short ranges of motion, such as those for abdominals and calves.

All exercises are to be performed in a slow, controlled manner with proper form and natural breathing, striving to increase if possible by one repetition or a few pounds more on each exercise in each subsequent workout. This workout can be performed as infrequently as one time per week, in as little as 20 minutes. And how will you know if it is successful? Well, look at your shoulders! That is, see if you are progressing in the amount of weight you can use, the number of repetitions you can perform, the shape and size of your shoulders (and other muscles) and whether or not you feel fitter, more energetic, and better able to face whatever physical tasks are a part of your daily life.

From HIT to HIIT

A few decades after Jones’s work in strength training, we saw a similar development in the realm of intense endurance training that I’m sure would leave Seneca smiling as well. Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata found that very brief, infrequent episodes of traditional endurance-type, cardiovascular, or aerobic training also produce superior results to easier, but longer, steady-state training.   The original protocol called for 5 minutes of warm-up on a piece of equipment like an exercise bicycle, 8 intervals of only 20 seconds off all-out maximum pedaling, followed by 10 seconds of rest after each interval, and 2 minutes of cool-down. If I’ve done my math right, that’s an 11-minute workout, including both warm-up and cooldown, with four minutes of actual interval training, and 1/3 of that spent in rest! Dr. Tabata found VO2max [9] improvements in fit college PE majors who did this protocol 5 days per week exceeded those of students who did traditional 5 traditional steady-state sessions per week lasting 60 minutes each.
I will note as well that since that first reported study in 1996, many others have had success with other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocols of varying interval and rest durations and frequency of workouts. The key finding being, as Seneca notes, that there are indeed, “short and simple exercises that tire the body quickly” and let us get back to the things of the mind!
And to be fair, for Seneca even the philosopher could certainly indulge in more leisurely physical and long-lasting physical pursuits at times, noting, for example, that “we should talk walks outside so that the mind can be strengthened and refreshed by being outdoors as we breathe the fresh air.” In Letter 15, He tells Lucilius he does not intend for him to live bent over his books and his writing implements, but to intersperse reading and riding with bouts of mild exercise like walking or riding, in addition to the higher-intensity exercises he mentioned above.

The Virtues of Fitness for Everyone

Of the Roman Stoics of the 1st century AD, it appears from the extant remnants of Musonius Rufus’s lectures or post-lecture Q & A’s appearing in subsequent sources that he may have been the Stoic who placed the most emphasis on what have become known as the cardinal virtues.[10] While Musonius preached virtue in general, as opposed to vice, he also championed sophrosune (temperance or self-control), andreia, (fortitude or courage), phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom), and diakaiosune (justice).
Medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, and in generally in accord with the Stoics, has noted that “virtue, inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body.” [11] And further, “if a man uses exercise, food, and drink in moderation, he will become physically strong and his health will be improved and preserved. It is the same with the virtues of the soul – for instance, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues.” [12]
So how might the cardinal virtues relate to training the body?

  • Fortitude provides the capacity to endure hard things for worthwhile goals, making it a most fitting virtue to assist those who would endure the physical pain and discomfort involved in performing both high intensity strength training and demanding endurance training. And indeed, as Musonius has noted, when we train our bodies to endure hardships, we also train the soul.
  • Temperance, applies most directly to the self-control involved in following the proper kind of diet that will sustain our training efforts, preserve our health, and preserve us from the kind of gluttony that distracts and weakens the soul.
  • Justice involves giving each person his or her rightful due, and in the realm of fitness, this might involve showing our concern by providing advice and examples of healthy living for all those around us, perhaps with special attention to the unique fitness goals and training needs of members of various groups of people, like the young, women, and the elderly.
  • Prudence is the virtue that gets the job done, finding the right means to obtain the worthwhile ends of bodily strength and fitness, in a safe and efficient manner that leaves us with plenty of time and energy to focus on the things of the soul that matter the most.

So then, would the Stoics have us all become Milos, philosophers bristling with as much brawn as brain? We have seen that Seneca would answer no, that strength and fitness are not the most important goals for human beings, though they are still worthy or some time and effort. Further, if our age, genetic constitution, or some physical injury or defect prevents us from attaining the heights of physical perfection should we not still train to improve our bodies as best we can, if we are physically able? As for Epictetus’s answer, I’ll let him respond to both of these last two questions in his own words:
Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest. [13]

Please note the caveat that any suggestions for exercise in this article are intended for healthy men and women. Even people without known health problems are advised to consult with their physician before starting a new exercise program.
[1] Epictetus, Discourses, Books I-II, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 31. (First published 1925).
[2] Seneca, Epistles 1-65, trans. R. Gummere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97-98. (First published 1917).
[3] Oldfather, 347.
[4] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (CreateSpace.com, 2011), 63, Lecture 6.
[5] Oldfather, Epictetus Discourses, Books III-IV, 169. (Book 3, chapter 23).
[6] Cited in Richard Mott Gummere, Seneca the Philosopher and His Modern Message (Bibliobazaar, 2008), 54. (Originally published in 1922.)
[7] While strength training was pooh-poohed by most coaches and trainers in those days and even in the 1970s when I began training, due to the myth of becoming “muscle-bound,” Jones argued most vociferously that muscles are the body’s engines and that if all other factors are equal, “the stronger athletes will always win.” Today we see everyone from baseball players to golfers lifting weights to acquire the kind of strength they need to complement their skills and maximize their performance.
[8] The ancient Greek Olympic wrestler Milo of Croton (6th C BC) is credited in legend as the Father of Progressive Resistance Strength Training. The story went that when Milo was a young boy he lifted a young calf every day, and as they calf gradually grew into a bull, so too did Milo grow into a bull of a man! Other legends tie him to philosophy as the husband of Pythagorus’ daughter, and Milo is mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and even Epictetus, as we’ll see later in this article. A man of many legends, one holds that near at the end of his life Milo tested his remaining strength by prying open the halves of a split tree trunk. When his strength gave out his hands were trapped and he was eaten by wolves!
[9] A measure of maximum oxygen update measured in milliliters by kilogram of bodyweight per minute.
[10] From the Latin cardine for “hinge” since the other virtues hang form and swing form them, so to speak.
[11] Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 55, art. 2.
[12] C. I. Litzinger, OP. trans. St. Thomas Aquinas Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), p. 89. (Commenting on Aristotle’s Book 2, chapter 2).
[13] Oldfather, 25. (Discourse 1.2).
Kevin Vost, Psy.D., a former competitive powerlifter and Highland Games heavy events competitor, is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and Fit for Eternal Life: A Christian Approach to Working Out, Eating Right, and Building the Virtues of Fitness in Your Soul (Sophia Institute Press, 2007).

15 thoughts on “Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout by Kevin Vost

  1. Alice says:

    Kevin, you have made my day! You have given me new and interesting information about Stoic philosophy AND how to approach my next workout. This is just tremendously valuable and great fun. Truly, thank you for this work.

  2. coldiron says:

    Enjoyed this article. I have believed for awhile now that there is some connection between the mind and body when it comes to physical health and mental health.
    Stoic thinking has helped me in my own strength training. As an example, when I prepare to do a barbell squat and the weight is heavy I usually have a conversation in my head that goes along the lines of: “Of course the weight is heavy, what did I expect? Light weight?” Sounds silly but helps me in my training.
    On a side note, my own training regime is basically the same as the above workout. Simple but can be quite challanging.

  3. A nice balanced approach as always with the stoics. My daily routine includes 40 kilometres of cycling; time-consuming at about 1 hr 40 minutes, but it’s as good as walking for contemplation as well. Have to get to work on the shoulders! Many thanks : )

  4. Thanks for posting this. It’s nice to see many similarities between my own regime and the one listed in both content and attitude.
    A more structured way to exercise my body with my mind more appropriately focused is great advice. I will certainly have new goals to improve upon next time!

  5. Kevin Vost says:

    You are welcome. It was fun putting this one together. All the best in your philosophical and physical training.

  6. gorga sciberras says:

    Great and highly informative article…… read it walking on treadmill!!

  7. […] wrote an article a couple of years back for the Modern Stoicism site entitled “Show Me Your Shoulders – The Stoic Workout” for dramatic effect. It would probably be more accurately described as a Stoic workout, since there […]

  8. […] me greatly for building both body and mind. I’ve written about the body part in a previous post, Show Me Your Shoulders: The Stoic Workout. Here, I’ll zoom in on the […]

  9. Lyubo says:

    Thank you for the article. It was pretty useful, both the part of training and the part for stoicism.

  10. […] consider what Seneca said on the matter – keep it simple and save your time; running and “brandishing weights”, he said, are short and simple exercises that get the job done with minimal […]

  11. […] como el Dr. Kevin Vost, en su artículo show me your shoulders desarrollaban la importancia que daban los estoicos ya no del entrenamiento, sino de la calidad de […]

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