The Glyptothek is the only museum in the world exclusively dedicated to ancient sculpture. Many visitors come to marvel at the mastery of the Greek and Roman artists. But to be honest, there is plenty to enjoy even if you’re simply ogling the exemplars of classical physical beauty, with their (literally) chiselled abs and biceps. Is that really what Greek women looked like? How did the Romans keep fit? And what can we learn from them today? Munich personal trainer Alexandra Horn comes up with some answers as we visit Königsplatz together.
Have you ever gone to the Glyptothek with a client before?
No. I am a big fan of the Glyptothek so I’ve been here many times, but never professionally.
Perhaps your clients could find some motivation to train here.
That could actually be true. The bodies here are certainly more impressive than the ones you see on Instagram.
Though that can also be a bit daunting.
It says here on the noticeboard at the entrance that the Greeks didn’t seek to represent figures naturalistically, but rather in an idealised form. There is always a religious connection too; it is often gods being depicted, so these are not your average Ancient Greeks. Maybe the Greeks had a better understanding than we do today of the difference between the ideal and reality. It would do a lot of people good to realise that their Instagram idols’ bodies are actually unrealistic, in the sense that it’s an enormously rare gift of nature, or the result of extraordinarily hard training, or even down to cosmetic surgery.
The Greeks did experience some everyday pressure to look good though. Even Socrates, an intellectual, complained about his fat tummy and went running. The poet Aristophanes drew up precise beauty standards for men: “a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks and a little prick”.
I didn’t know about that last one!
Penises are usually depicted as rather small on Greek statues – not for the sake of modesty or something like that, but simply because the Greeks thought it more aesthetically pleasing.
The ideal of the tiny tongue is not something you are faced with much, but otherwise those beauty standards are pretty relevant today. The Greeks have helped shape who we are to a considerable extent. This one we’re looking at right now is a prime example.
The “Munich Kouros”, a grave statue dating from the 6th century BC.
He certainly does have broad shoulders – and you could also say those are strong buttocks. The “Munich Kouros” certainly hasn’t made the mistake some body-builders make of only focusing on the upper body and skipping leg day!
“Otherwise those beauty standards are pretty relevant today. The Greeks have helped shape who we are to a considerable extent.“
Unfortunately, we don’t really know how the Greeks exercised their bodies. They do seem to have already been using barbells though. And then there’s the legend of the wrestler Milo, who is reputed to have carried a calf on his shoulders every day. As the animal became heavier over time, Milo became stronger and stronger.
This story suggests that the Greeks had discovered the principle of progressive overload. Even today, many amateur athletes don’t know that training is about constantly changing the stimulus as you work out, since otherwise the body simply gets used to the exercise and fails to get stronger.
What kind of stimulus would you need to look like the “Munich Kouros” here?
I think that the Greeks used a lot of natural movement patterns in their working out – wrestling, jumping, sprinting and so on. Along with those I would recommend running or cycling, for example. But you would also need to train with heavy weights. Squats are a good choice, as are deadlifts: an exercise in which you lift a weight up from the floor, using a stable, forward-bending position.
Now we are standing in front of the “Barberini Faun”, which dates from the 3rd century BC and is probably the best-known exhibit at the Glyptothek. That washboard stomach is fit for the cover of any fitness magazine.
I like the holistic approach. As a flesh and blood person, the Faun would not only have to do an insane amount of stomach crunches to get that six-pack, he would also have to pay particular attention to the oblique abdominal muscles, which are important for turning and stabilising the upper body, as those muscles are also very well defined here. For visual effect, the entire abdominal musculature only really becomes apparent if you have less than ten percent body fat, and achieving that requires a very disciplined lifestyle.
But a lot of Munich people do lead that kind of life. There are very well-travelled people who say there’s almost nowhere in the world where the locals look after their bodies like they do in Munich: the hordes who jog along the Isar, the packed gyms, the sunbathers in the Englischer Garten with their faun-like washboard stomachs and the many mountain climbers.
Perhaps Munich has an Ancient Greek character in this respect. Just like the Ancient Greeks, people in Munich know that a sporty lifestyle is simply the healthy choice. It can also be a self-reinforcing process once it starts. If you see your neighbour going out for yet another run, you might find yourself pulling on your trainers as well. People compare themselves with one another.
“For visual effect, the entire abdominal musculature only really becomes apparent if you have less than ten percent body fat, and achieving that requires a very disciplined lifestyle.“
Women won’t find a great deal to compare themselves with at the Glyptothek.
That’s true. However, we have just found one beautiful female example here. Of course, her body fat percentage is a little higher than that of her male counterparts, but her proportions are great and also very modern.
The figure we are looking at is a Roman marble study modelled after the famous “Aphrodite of Knidos” by the sculptor Praxiteles, created in the fourth century BC. This piece is considered the first nude female statue of antiquity. It is believed to have originally stood in front of the wall of a temple, but specifically because visitors demanded to see the statue from the back as well, a door was added later.
A good idea. When looking from the side, I thought her bottom was a bit flat at first, but when you look from the back it looks great – round and firm. The “banana line” – that crease between the thigh and the bottom – is particularly perfect.
“They feel comfortable in their bodies and are at peace with themselves. We can learn a lot from that – even today. Maybe I really will visit the Glyptothek with a client sometime.“
There is actually one genre of representations of Aphrodite in which the statue is turning to look at her own bottom. In the 2nd century AD, the poet Alciphron wrote about a competition among women to see who had the most beautiful derrière.
So the Greeks were also ahead of us with that trend. As a personal coach, I have of course noticed that women are currently placing more and more importance on having a good bottom.
And what exercises can you do to develop the perfect banana line?
Squats are also good for that too, the same as with the “Munich Kouros”. Or you can do kickbacks, where you move an outstretched leg backwards against some form of resistance to train the gluteus maximus in isolation.
Would you also recommend those types of exercises to Aphrodite herself if she were a client of yours?
Why not? You can see she looks after herself and is willing to put the time in. I’ve just noticed that all the statues here are in proud poses. They are standing straight, their shoulders are back, the chest is thrust out. That’s good for the body. It’s not enough to just do sport twice a week; it’s just as important that in everyday life and at work, you don’t stand crooked or sit in a cramped or hunched position. But to a certain extent, it’s also about mental attitude here in the Glyptothek.
The “Barberini Faun”, the tranquil, self-confident “Aphrodite of Knidos”: they all exude a sense of inner serenity and contentment. They feel comfortable in their bodies and are at peace with themselves. We can learn a lot from that – even today. Maybe I really will visit the Glyptothek with a client sometime.