You Are What You Train

The way you train dictates the way you perform.

In athletics, there’s a concept called the Principle of Specificity, which tells us: if you want to get good at something, you have to train that thing.

On its face, this concept may seem so obvious as to be meaningless. But there’s wisdom here that’s easy to miss: you are shaped by the way you train.

If you’ve been training Jiu-Jitsu for a while, you’ve probably developed a disdain for traditional self-defense instruction. And for good reason: you’re simply not going to learn to defend yourself by taking a one-day class on eye gouges and groin strikes against an unresisting opponent. If anything, these low-quality self-defense classes are more dangerous than they are helpful, because they may make their students overconfident in their ability to defend themselves in a real altercation.

These unrealistic self-defense classes are a violation of the “you are what you train” concept: you’re just not developing and using skills in a realistic environment.

If you want to get good at something, there’s no substitute for just doing that thing.

As an example, if you want to be a Jiu-Jitsu competitor, you need to compete. There’s just no way around it. No matter how hard you try, your in-class training can’t duplicate the experience of competition. That’s one of the reasons why pro competitors make a point of competing as much as possible: they want the experience.

To be clear, this does not mean you should train at 100% intensity all the time. In the early days of MMA, fighters took the “you are what you train” mantra to the extreme, often having training sessions in the gym that were as violent and dangerous as the actual fights they were training for. Look into how these guys wound up, and you’ll quickly discover that you don’t want to train like they did. It’s a near-certain way to shorten your career, decrease your performance, get sidelined by injuries, and destroy your future quality of life.

So yes, it’s true that “you are what you train,” and we want our training to emulate the environment we plan to perform in…but we also need to be mindful of the requirements of the human body and optimize for recovery.

Also, “you are what you train” does not mean you should train ONLY that thing. In fact, concepts such as interleaving and transfer of learning teach us that switching it up and cross-training can have significant skill development benefits.

Additionally, your training does not need to exactly mirror your performance environment - you just need to make sure it’s developing equivalent skills. For example, you wouldn’t use a bodybuilding regimen to prepare for a Jiu-Jitsu tournament, because the type of functional strength a grappler needs is completely different from an aesthetic sport like bodybuilding. But you probably will want to incorporate a strength training regimen that develops functional strength similar to what you’d use on the mats.

The “you are what you train” concept also explains why some phenomenal coaches are poor athletes, and vice versa. The skills required to coach effectively are completely different from the skills required to compete effectively. It’s hard to develop them both simultaneously.


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