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Working Smart or Working Hard?

By Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins

(Article re-published with permission from

My dad is a pretty cool dude. He’s into hot rods (I grew up around and working on cars), he likes good rock & roll music, we always watched football together, and he’s the one that was the main driving and supporting force for me when I decided to pour my efforts into working out (a lot of what I do now is still based on stuff he taught me) as a teenager.

My dad was also pretty smart. Among a lot of other things, he taught me the value of effective communication, of common sense, and of working smart, rather than hard.

Let’s talk about that last one for a minute.

He always told me that it wasn’t ever a good idea to work hard when you could work smart. Always find the most effective way to do something. If this means using tools effectively, or finding ways to put in less effort, and it doesn’t mean shortcutting progress or quality, then by all means do it!

I remember one of the first times this valuable lesson hit me – one of those moments where the light bulb goes off over your head and you say “Aha!”

I was helping him work on a VW Bug. If I remember right, I was trying to loosen a nut on the front suspension. I was using an open-end/box-end wrench, and just couldn’t get it loose – it was just too tight. I was torque-ing it for all I was worth, and I just couldn’t get it. He came over, and showed me how to loop another open-end/box-end wrench into the free end of the one I was using to make an overall longer lever. I pushed on the two wrenches locked into each other, and with hardly any effort, the nut came loose. Just seconds before, I was using all my might and getting nowhere. Now I was putting hardly any effort in, and achieving success.

In most areas of life, I’d say that the lesson of working smart instead of hard is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn. However, such isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to strength & conditioning.

In certain fitness circles (and I’m not going to name what, who, or where – there are enough arguments and flame wars going on all over the internet…look around a little, you’ll find them), the idea of working smart instead of hard has come up. It hasn’t been termed that in so many words, but it’s the same idea.

You’ve got some folks that think that performing exercises and/or workouts in certain fashions that allow you to do more work are better for you. You are lifting more weight or doing more reps, so you’re getting more benefit, right?

As ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso says, “Not so fast my friend!”

Most times, working smart rather than hard lets you accomplish your work/goals in an easier fashion. And this is fine, as the work you’re making smart (rather than hard) is what you’re actually trying to accomplish something in.

However, with strength & conditioning (S&C) training, this isn’t necessarily the case. You see, S&C training is preparation for competition – in the case for most of MMA Weekly’s readers, it’s for jiu-jitsu, boxing, MMA, wrestling, or some other combat sport. It’s what you’re competing at that you want to make easier by working smart rather than hard. You’re not competing at your workouts – your workouts prepare you for competition. If you are finding ways to accomplish your workout through anything other than making yourself stronger or more conditioned, then you’re cheating yourself when it comes to being ready for competition.

Let’s look at a basic example (though it might not necessarily have the most carryover to MMA, it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about). Back in my article about technique, I talked about how I could help somebody increase their bench press almost instantly. Learn how to arch the back, squeeze the shoulders, tense the lats, pull the bar apart – all these little techniques will let you bench more weight. It’s not uncommon for trainees who learn how to do these things correctly to add 30 lbs. to their bench press in a matter of a workout or two.

Now, did that trainee get stronger? No – he got more efficient and his benching technique.

I’m not going to get into the whole technique debate, as I’ve done that already. But it applies to the idea of working smarter rather than harder. In this case, the trainee just found a way to work smarter rather than harder. The result? His bench press went up. This is good right? Yeah, but the problem is that we’re not training to compete in a bench press contest. We train to compete in MMA. Did these little tricks help his bench press maximum go up? Sure. Will this ability to suddenly move more weight have carryover to his MMA? Probably not. And the same can be said for a variety of different protocols for exercising.

Now, does this mean we should go out and look to make our S&C training as hard as possible? No, but yes. We don’t want to exercise or train in a way that is potentially dangerous (doing heavy push presses standing on a swiss ball is gonna be a lot tougher than standing on the floor!), but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to work our tail off or look for every “trick of the trade” for our training. Going back to the bench press example above, the little tricks I mentioned are great for somebody training to compete in bench press competitions. They won’t do as much for the MMAist.

It’s like I say about a lot of my training and the programs I put together for people – they might be simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy. My signature I use says it as simple as I can make it – “Train Hard, Rest Hard, Play Hard.” Just find smart ways to do all three and you’ll be set.

Train Hard, Rest Hard, Play Hard.

About the Author

Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins is a strength coach and author living in Cameron, NC. Having trained 15+ years, Wiggy is a strength moderator at, columnist for MMA Weekly, and an avid fan of Mixed Martial Arts Training. His site, Working Class, is dedicated to designing low-tech, high-result Workout Programs for fighters, athletes, and “regular joes.”


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