If you’ve ever taken the time to sit and read a bodybuilding magazine from cover to cover, you’ll likely come to a few interesting conclusions: the first is that advertising often tries really hard to pretend it’s expert analysis, and the second is that supposed experts in the fitness field often contradict one another, and even themselves, when it comes to the “best” workouts, methodologies, nutrition plans and lifts are. To be fair, a large part of these contradictions are tied to marketing endeavors: every new product invariably also needs to be the best one, otherwise people wouldn’t buy it but there’s another, less nefarious element at play here as well:

Different people respond to different things, well … differently.

There are, of course, many scientifically backed constants in the fitness world: burn more calories than you take in, and you’ll find yourself smaller than when you started, emphasize the development of fast twitch muscle in your regimen and you’ll likely end up bigger, and of course, if you try to learn how to use a machine via the guess-and-check method, some asshole is going to record it and share it on Twitter. It’s really not so much the broad strokes of fitness that are subject to interpretation and individual variances, it’s the ground level execution you may find needs adjustment.

I’ve spent most of my life training for one of only three things: football, rugby, or fighting. While I’ve participated in other sports (haven’t we all) those are the only three physical endeavors that broke the plain of adulthood and accompanied me into my higher mileage years — but with years worth of experience behind each, I can personally attest that not everything I’ve been taught has benefited me on the field or in the cage. The fact of the matter is, there are two things to take into account every time you learn a new technique for any of those sports: 1) does this new technique aim to improve my game, or just change it? And 2) how does my body respond to the endeavor?

When it comes to collision sports like football or rugby (dancing is a contact sport), change for the sake of change isn’t worth all that much — though I could make an argument that changing your game when fighting can lead to a better rounded proficiency (and when lifting for better rounded results). So with that element a wash, let’s focus on the second one: how does your body respond to this new thing?

When studying martial arts to demonstrate mastery of a discipline, it’s imperative that you learn to mirror the movements of your instructors, but when training in martial arts for the sake of a fight, it’s far more important that you learn how those movements translate into violence inflicted or violence mitigated — and optimally, you’ll find yourself capable of plenty of each. In the pursuit of that interest, you may find that, although you’ve developed a competency in a new technique, it works better for you if you adjust your wrist position slightly or the positioning of your legs. Sometimes, you may find yourself uncomfortable with a technique in general — and as such, hesitant to use it in force-on-force applications.

When you have to subdue a drunk Marine in a hotel room, you fold him in half the way you’re most accustomed. (Everything and everyone was fine once he woke up)

This is where the modern “mixed martial arts” mindset comes in: you train in multiple disciplines, adopt the techniques that work well for you, and discard the ones that don’t. You may be able to sink a triangle choke perfectly according to instruction, but if you find doing so takes you off your game, you’re better off keeping that technique in the “under development” category of your brain and utilizing what you know you’re capable of, if and when you find yourself in a dangerous situation. There are no points awarded for attempted techniques in competition, and there are no accolades for almost stopping an attacker in real life.

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Of course, this mindset involves mental discipline — there’s a significant difference between what doesn’t work and what you just don’t like doing. Just like in writing, you can break rules for effect, but you’ve got to know them and practice them first; otherwise there’s no difference between you and someone that was never taught at all.

There’s a common legend about the colored belting systems employed by martial arts disciplines that says all warriors wore white belts, but as a student traveled, learned, and trained, that belt gradually grew dirtier and more battle worn, eventually making the transition to black at around the same pace as the fighter’s skill set developed to match. That legend has little basis in reality (belting systems are actually an advent of the 19th century and most agree they were introduced by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano).

Legend or not, there’s an important lesson to be learned from the story: the idea that, to become a master, you had to travel and train under different teachers in different variations of a discipline, honing your skills against different opponents was meant to emphasize the concept of developing a well-rounded skill set that was, in many ways, as much about thinking as it was about doing. Being a fighter is a mindset as well as a skill set, and despite the risk of sounding like I attribute too much spiritual vigor to my workouts, I honestly feel that being an athlete is no different.

Same approach, different opponent.

Over the years, I’ve trained in pankration [Greek wrestling], Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay thai, various Filipino martial arts, scholastic wrestling, and of course the hodge-podge of techniques employed by the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program and, if you really pushed me, I could probably demonstrate some of the differences inherent to each, but honestly, they’ve all kind of blended into the sloppy Marine with a solid right cross and a propensity for submissions that I am today. Like my friend from South Africa that immigrated through Tennessee, my fighting style has developed an accent all its own — unique when compared to the elements it’s made of, and more defined when I lose my temper.

My fitness regimen has likewise become a unique collection of practices I’ve found to be especially effective for me. My metabolism (despite betraying me at around 30) still allows for looser discipline in my diet than many of my peers, my body’s knack for building muscle on my lower body faster than my upper ensures that I won’t ever be accused of skipping leg day and, to be totally honest, I’ve always been weaker on the bench than I ought to be based on my overall fitness levels. These and a million other small variables have, over time, informed my fitness endeavors, and once coupled with a laundry list of injuries I need to allow for, it has developed into a style all its own.

But here’s the thing people hate hearing: my method works for me, and ultimately may not be as effective for you. Your list of variables are different, the injuries you’ve accumulated over the years don’t affect you the same way, you may have more trouble adding mass or putting on weight may be your biggest challenge. If I can claim a “black belt” in fitness, it’s truly derived from my years spent traveling and learning under various schools of thought, not because I once passed a test that dubbed me a “trainer.”

People who are first getting into fitness are often looking for a sheet of paper with a list of exercises, sets, and reps that will guarantee them someone else’s success. That’s a fine place to start, but as you continue along the road to your own fitness goals, whether its to run a marathon or to squat 500 pounds, allow yourself to grow, to absorb new things and, when necessary, to dismiss the things that don’t prove as effective for you. If greatness could be easily reproduced using a checklist, it wouldn’t be that great at all.

Remember, seek scientific evidence to support your fitness decisions, but as you develop a relationship with your body, seek insight from within. When you see yourself respond well to five sets rather than four, to doing cardio before your workout rather than after, or you find that doing front squats aggravates old injuries, learn from it and move forward.

Get that fitness belt dirty by trying to master new things, and embrace the wisdom born out of finding what doesn’t work, as much as what does.


About Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings writes on a breadth of subjects ranging from fitness to foreign policy, all presented through the lens of his experiences as a U.S. Marine, athlete and scholar. A football player, rugby player and fighter, Hollings has spent the better part of his adult life competing in some of the most physically demanding sports on the planet. Hollings possesses a master’s degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.