Workout Design: Hannibal Tactics, Finish Like Scipio
What can these ancient military masterminds teach you about your workout strategy?
Carthage, 2238 years ago.
A nine-year-old boy named Hannibal walks into the main temple with his father to swear a blood oath. The man is Hamilcar Barca, an astute politician and notorious general of the Phoenician colony in Northern Africa. The gifted strategist’s son promises under the eyes of the gods and his father to conquer the Romans, their greatest enemies who had betrayed and humiliated them by breaking a peace treaty during the first Punic war.
Hannibal would become history’s most renowned military tactician after a series of unexpected victories against the massive Roman army during a fifteen-year occupation of Italy with all odds stacked against him, nearly three decades later.
He first defied the impossible by crossing the Alps with one hundred thousand men and beasts to penetrate the Italian northern edge by surprise at the dawn of winter. The Carthaginian general shocked his blood foes who believed the towering peaks were an impenetrable barrier and forced them to react, which was an unusual circumstance for an army used to initiate attacks.
Hannibal arrived along the Trebia river with 40,000 emaciated men and mercenaries for his first real battle against the entire Roman fighting force, counting 130,000 heads. He knew he would have to outsmart his enemies to succeed. The twenty-nine-year-old leader learned everything he could about the two opposing consuls and their armies through spies and prisoner interrogations.
Roman war leaders took turns in command on alternate days when they fought together. There was Publius Cornelius Scipio, a calm and cautious man and Sempronius who was rash and hungered for glory. Hannibal knew a battle against the hot-tempered consul would be easier to wage than against his collected counterpart.
He also studied the surrounding countryside meticulously. The freezing weather forecasted hail, right around the winter solstice. Romans soldiers camped on the far side of the shallow Trebia. Hannibal was on a vast plain on his side of the river; he knew his adversaries preferred fighting on flat and clear grounds to avoid ambushes and noticed overgrown trees and bushes along the bank.
The general sent two-thousand men to hide there overnight. He woke his army up the next morning and sent a band of riders to taunt the Roman camp by throwing javelins and calling Sempronius nasty names.
The Roman consul ordered the entire army to march out, he was furious and didn’t care that his soldiers had not eaten yet. The riders fled back across the river, suddenly. Sempronius was confident; the soldiers then chased them across the open prairie. He could see Hannibal on the far side of the bank, lined up with his infantry.
The consul commanded a charge as hail poured from the skies. The two thousand men led by Hannibal’s brother Mago broke of their ambush to attack the soldiers from the rear at that moment. The Carthaginian general unleashed war elephants mounted by archers simultaneously, scaring the living hell out of the Romans who had never seen such beasts.
Most were butchered and trampled by the animals, while the others drowned trying to escape. The loss was disastrous for the Roman legions.
Now, what do Hannibal Barca and the battle of the Trebia have to do with your workouts? You will not have to conquer Rome anytime soon, hopefully, but anybody who’s ever trained in a gym during rush hour knows the place can turn into a battlefield of people. You may not always have a vacuum environment to execute the exact program for that day.
Squat racks fill up, people talk on the phone while using the leg curl machine, and dumbbells get dispersed across all over the place. Work or business obligations might send you to a foreign country far from your local gym for a month.
You need courage not to give up when things don’t go your way, like losing more than half of your army while crossing the Alps to face the entire Roman army or a packed gym after work, then tactics to overcome these obstacles, no matter where you find yourself.
Study the environment and your enemy, which in the context of a workout is always yourself. Hannibal knew war would be easier to wage if he sent his men on days when the hair trigger tempered Sempronius was in charge.
Is there a better time for you to workout? Are there alternative exercises you could do to reap a similar effect as what was planned for that day? Could your intense workout be replaced by slower mobility and posture work, or vice versa?
A second or third gym membership could be a beneficial tactic for those who find themselves on the road often and fail to exercise enough to elicit the change they seek. Body weight training or yoga are key if you find yourself in a hotel room, or outside in a park with no other equipment. Think like Hannibal.
Finish like Scipio
The Italian Ticinus River, 2,218 years ago.
A teenage boy named Publius Cornelius Scipio watches Hannibal Barca’s army wound his father and trample his people to death with war elephants from afar. He is the son of the Roman consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, surrounded by soldiers ordered to keep him at a safe distance from the battlefield.
The sight of Carthaginians soldiers preparing his father’s execution sends the boy galloping down, followed by the guards supposed to watch him. The turmoil confuses the invaders, which allows young Scipio to rescue the consul and bring him back to safety.
The boy would stay loyal to the Roman army and charm his way into power at the age of 23 despite the fact that it was illegal for someone so young to hold command.
Scipio could barely remember a life without Hannibal. The Carthagenian general was was just as much a force of nature as thunder and the wind for the commander, unlike senior senators. He studied his opponent just as Hannibal had done at the Battle of Trebia. He watched his every move, noted his ability to provoke and inspire foreigners who spoke different languages to pledge their allegiance to Carthage, never letting grief and anger get a hold of his education.
The Roman rebel improved on his teacher as Andrea Klutz puts it in Amazon best seller Hannibal And Me. He knew he would have to be bold and unexpected if he ever wanted to outsmart his enemy. Scipio ignored critics and redefined Roman Strategy with the diplomatic siege of Cartagena, his enemy's main resource provider, which would culminate into a streak of victories that would force Carthage’s politicians to pull their general out of Italy, the ultimate humiliation.
Hannibal never conquered Rome although he had campaigned for well over a decade. Scipio had lived in the general’s shadow and used improved tactics against him by striking him in the heart back home, drained of resources by the fifteen-year long occupation of Italy.
The Romans would eventually destroy the entire Carthaginian civilization brick by brick. Hannibal’s success turned out to be his biggest failure. He was so focused on his goal that he forgot to watch his back.
Now, your workouts have nothing to do with the atrocities of war; we live in different times, almost, but Scipio’s creativity and defiance of the norm allowed him to capitalize on Hannibal’s lack of foresight to free his people from the wrath of their invader. He realized the redundant Roman strategies failed to elicit any changes and had to be bold. Do not be afraid to redefine yourself.
Your body is not an infinite supply of energy and strength. Do you have a recovery strategy that will allow you to sustain your efforts long-term? Are you working on improving the quality of your sleep and digestion? What about stress?
Goals provide guidance and motivation, but they can blind you if you don’t watch your back. Short-term tactics may help you achieve temporary success, but will they protect you for the long run?
Think like Hannibal and finish like Scipio to win forever.