The old adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” while maybe not universally true, speaks to the level of helplessness that’s inherent to our very being. No matter how hard you work, no matter how prepared you try to be, there comes a time when there’s nothing left to do but succeed or fail. There, in that moment, all you can do is try your best and pray that your best is enough.

In a recent appearance on SOFREP Radio, Jack Murphy, Ian Scotto and I were talking about the differences in our fitness mentalities. Ian thoroughly enjoys the fitness lifestyle. I lift for the same reasons I sharpen my knives, clean my guns, and change the oil in my car. Jack, however, mentioned that he has trouble differentiating between the act of working out and it’s ultimate use as a tool for violence.

“When I work out, I feel like I’m preparing for war,” he explained. Even as a kid, Jack Murphy took to exercise with the intrinsic understanding that eventually, the endeavor culminates in taking lives. He didn’t grow up drinking in dirt floor bars and trying to find excuses to turn rugby games into fist fights like I did, and as such, his appreciation for physical preparation took on a different flavor, but beyond that fundamental difference in our approach, our paths aren’t without common ground.

There are no atheists in foxholes.

For some, religion plays as significant a role in their lives as a loved one, and while I respect that in my spiritual brothers and sisters (and even in my spouse) I’ve always struggled with my own set of beliefs, and through that struggle, a number of superstitions have taken hold. Not everything I do comes with a rational explanation: I wrapped my right wrist for every football and rugby game I played in, from high school, to college, to the Marine Corps. The wrist does give me trouble from time to time, but that’s not why I did it. As a young man, I found that I could deliver a pretty damaging blow to the sides of opposing player’s helmets with a clubbed up wrist, and eventually, I came to feel naked without it. Finally, as I approached my first playoff game in the Marine Corps, our trainer asked why I wrapped my own wrist before every game.

“Because I wouldn’t be any good without it.” I explained, grabbing two roles of tape from his table and forgoing the line to receive professional help in the endeavor. I didn’t need a trainer to wrap my wrist the right way, I needed it wrapped the way I’d always done it.

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My old college rugby team didn’t shy away from superstition or tradition — demanding terrible prices be paid from new ruggers that score their first Try (comparable to a touchdown in American football). Shooting the boot is undoubtedly a form of hazing that has likely been banned since, but in my day, your first Try meant your first date with the boot: a cleat, worn in the day’s game, filled with beer and passed around the team for additional … ingredients. Dirt, spit, and worse finds its way into the alcoholic elixir and there, surrounded by a few dozen of your closest friends, you chug the poison from the cleat to the cheers of the crowd. Soon, you find yourself buying ever shorter shorts despite Rugby jerseys sporting collars and, often, long sleeves. Tradition, superstition, holds that the shorter your shorts, the faster you run.

When your shorts are shorter than your underwear… then you really start moving.

In the gym, I lift by myself and have for years. Workout partners have come and gone, but the problem with the buddy system is that you come to rely on your buddy to justify your workout. When your buddy can’t make it, you give yourself a pass on skipping a day; after all, you’d have no spotter. Then your buddy takes a week off, then a month, and before you know it, you’ve both got Type 2 Diabetes together and you’ve got a buddy to help with insulin injections.

You’d think, then, that my workouts are free from cultural superstitions like one might find in a weight room occupied by a football or rugby team — after all, no one would shoot their own boot but as I thought about Jack’s comments, relating working out to his practical experiences in combat, I started to see the ways my own practical experiences continue to influence my methods. Many of the things I do in the gym are informed by old habits, born out of superstitions or practical applications now long behind me.

I walk circles around my makeshift gym between sets, keeping my heart rate elevated and often counting softly to myself — just as I did between rounds when training for a fight. I don’t put clips on the bar when under the bench, even when using weights I know I can manage because, when lifting alone, clips are an act of hubris. Securing the plates to the end of the bar means I’m certain I won’t fail — and if you ever find yourself certain of such a thing, you’re probably not working out right. I very rarely allow myself to fail so badly I have to tip myself over and let the plates fall on the concrete floor of my garage — though the cracks surrounding my bench will tell you it isn’t unheard of — but really, it’s my fear of bad luck that keeps the clips off the bar.

You can’t win ’em all.

My superstitions have become so ingrained in my methodology, that I often have trouble rooting them out from the litany of practices and procedures I’ve adopted over the years. Some are easy to call out: a lucky shirt, a favorite song for max-days. Others are a little more nuanced: the order of my lifts when pursuing a new personal best is a good example. One might argue that I’ve developed a system that lets me maximize my potential when choosing to go really heavy, but the truth is, it’s more about building myself up with a series of lifts I feel good about than warming up. What began as an exercise in self confidence has become an exercise in superstition: I stick to what I know works on my max days, and fear reprisal from the lifting gods when breaking from tradition.

Much like my friends that attend church on Sunday mornings, the daily sermons echoing through my basement in the form of clanging plates and muffled grunts are physical manifestations of a combination of practical knowledge and unsubstantiated belief. Faith, my religious friends remind me, doesn’t rely on evidence to prove its worth. Ultimately, proof is faith’s undoing after all, because with proof, belief becomes nothing more than fact and there’s no room for magic in that.

These Old Man Fitness columns always place an emphasis on seeking a scientific grounding for your workout decisions, and with good reason. Most supplement companies are nothing more than modern day snake oil salesman and barely a week goes by without some new workout fad taking the internet by storm (and ultimately proving to be little better than the last one) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a little superstition — a little faith — in your regimen. If you need a scientific justification for the power of believe, I remind you of the placebo effect, wherein people manifest physical changes in their body through nothing more than the belief something is happening.

There doesn’t always have to be a logical explanation for the ways you prepare your body for the challenges you present it with, just as long as you find the balance between what helps you and what’s just predatory marketing. You’ll never catch me buying a laser to zap my love handles or rubbing crystals on my aching joints.

… But you’ll never catch with me clips on the end of my bar either.


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.