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Mixed Fitness Arts: A New Breed of Personal Trainer and Strength Coach

By May 4, 2011January 8th, 2014Training Philosophy

If you want to be the best you can possibly be, then you need to blend together knowledge from different disciplines. The times of learning from one field are long gone. Only by studying a broad range of disciplines can you become a master of your craft. In the worlds of personal training, strength coaching, and physical therapy, a new kind of professional is emerging; the mixed fitness artist (MFA).


Around six years ago I started learning Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). This stint lasted around two years. During that time, I got pretty good at fighting. It helps that I fought my twin brother every day of my life until I was around 16 years old, and that I’d been lifting weights for well over a decade. I started practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) one time per week, boxing twice per week, Muy Thai once per week, wrestling once per week, and  MMA/sparring twice per week. I was also lifting weights three times per week.

If you watch some of the top guys in the sport of MMA – guys like Georges St. Pierre – then you know that some of them have experts from all over the world helping them to be the best they can be. They have people helping out with their boxing, wrestling, Muy Thai, BJJ, karate, and strength & conditioning.

During the time I was training, an Olympic level black belt in Karate came to train at the MMA school I attended. He’d been training for 15 years, and I’d been training for one year. We sparred for five minutes and I submitted him three different times. He was not very skilled in take down or submission defense. He couldn’t utilize his karate knowledge against me because I took the fight to the ground where he was virtually useless.

I’m certainly not knocking karate, as many top MMA fighters have extensive backgrounds in karate. But if your goal is to be a top level fighter, you better master stand-up, clinch, and ground work. Otherwise some guy who possesses mastery of all three areas of fighting will mop the floor with you when he discovers your weakness. If your goal is to be a good karate practitioner, then just learn karate.

But to be a a top level Mixed Martial Artist, you need to be able to strike, defend against strikes, clinch, take down, defend against take downs, submit, and defend against submissions. In this day and age the top MMA fighters like Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, and Frankie Edgar are freakishly talented. In addition to possessing few technical weaknesses, they are also extraordinarily athletic, strong, powerful, and well conditioned.

Physical Therapy

The world of physical therapy has become increasingly impactful on strength & conditioning and vice versa. In the past decade top physical therapists and strength coaches have exchanged ideas and insight for the betterment of both professions.

There are dozens of excellent techniques in physical therapy, and a good therapist should possess a solid understanding of anatomy, physiology, orthopaedics, manual therapy, motor learning, pathophysiology, and biomechanics. In addition, they should have picked up some techniques from areas and institutes of specialization such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), active release techniques (ART), Maitland, McKenzie, Feldenkrais, rolfing, muscle energy techniques (MET), myofascial release, trigger point therapy (TPT), active isolated stretching (AIS), positional release techniques (PRT), nerve flossing, graston, dry needling, dynamic neuromuscular stabilization (DNS), muscle activation techniques (MAT), neuromuscular therapy, postural restitution institute (PRI), pin and stretch, cupping, fascial stretching, etc.

A top notch therapist borrows from chiropractic, massage therapy, psychology, and especially strength & conditioning. Screening systems such as the functional movement screen (FMS) as well as the SFMA have become quite popular because they take a look at fundamental movement patterns and attempt to address the disease and not just the symptoms. In situations where chronic pain is present the clinician needs to possess a strong understanding of the psychological component to pain so he can weave this knowledge into his modalities.

The days of just using ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation, ice, and compression are long gone for physical therapists as the new breed is raising the bar. If you want to be the best therapist, borrow from multiple disciplines. Don’t be a one trick pony as your clients will suffer from your lack of diversity.

Personal Trainers and Strength Coaches

Along these same lines, there is a new breed of personal trainer and strength coach emerging.

Today’s top strength coach is like the MMA artist. In a sense, he (or she) is a Mixed Fitness Artist (MFA). He understands biomechanics. He has a sound knowledge of physical therapy. He reads journals and is evidence-based. He understands training adaptations and makes educated decisions regarding his programming. He’s a master and continuous student of exercise form and movement. He maintains the dance between promoting maximal fitness adaptations as characterized by power, strength, speed, agility, and conditioning, and promoting safety as characterized by joint ROM/mobility, flexibility, stability, motor control, joint health, pain, and longevity.

More importantly, he has studied many different disciplines. He realizes that bodybuilders are masters of hypertrophy and body composition and knows how to incorporate their methods into his arsenal. He understands that powerlifters are the masters of strength and maximizing mechanical advantages and knows when and when not to utilize their techniques. He has studied the way that Olympic weightlifters train, the way that top sprinters train, and the way that top strongman competitors train. He can analyze different sports to figure out their specific requirements.

He has read the works of Stuart McGill and Shirley Sahrmann and understands what applies to his craft. He has studied the origins of the field and has learned from legends and pioneers such as Vince Gironda, Joe Weider, Louie Simmons, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Vermeil, Charlie Francis, Dan Pfaff, Mel Siff, Paul Chek, Charles Poliquin, Michael Boyle, Vladimir Janda, and Gray Cook. He knows the issues and understands both sides of the arguments which allows him to make educated decisions regarding his methodology. He does not idolize any of these individuals but respects their innovation and contributions to their various fields. He realizes that there is a merging of physical therapy and biomechanics and that it all fits under the umbrella of good training. He realizes that one particular guru cannot possibly possess all the answers as fitness is so broad that it requires considerable specialization. He learns from practitioners and researchers as both are critical to learning.

He has extensive experience training a myriad of clients and athletes; from the fittest of individuals to the most unfit and sedentary folks. He has developed a comprehensive screening system. He understands how to develop mobility and stability, how to progress and regress exercises, and how to construct programs based on his client’s needs and goals. He realizes that what works for novices may or may not work for elite athletes and realizes that the window for improvement gets narrower as individuals approach their genetic limit.

He knows how to utilize technology to monitor and track his client’s progress. He understands the strengths and limitations of different technologies and realizes that tools such as electromyography (EMG), ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), goniometers, measuring tapes, scales, force plates, accelerometers, linear position transducers (LPT’s), timing systems, stop watches, video cameras and motion analysis software, jump mats, force treadmills, isokinetic dynamometers, and heart rate monitors exist to help him be a better practitioner. While he may not have access to all of this equipment and technology, at least he knows that mathematics is “the language of the universe” and strives to measure and track his client’s progress to make sure he’s doing his job.

He knows that sound general training can get you 90% of the way there, as everyone can benefit from squatting, lunging, deadlifting, hip thrusting, cleaning, snatching, bench pressing, military pressing, chinning, and rowing.

But he’s crafty enough to realize that the analysis of vectors, forces, velocities, timing, joint actions, contraction types, loads, accelerations, and energy systems make up the remaining 10% and take the practitioner to the next level by allowing him to develop sports specific programs which can ultimately make the difference between winning and losing.

He knows how to use all sorts of tools, such as bodyweight, barbells, dumbbells, bands, kettlebells, slideboards, suspension systems, machines, cable columns, sleds, chains, weighted vests, stability balls, towing cords, sandbags, battleropes, clubbells, medicine balls, tornado balls, hurdles, cones, kegs, logs, and tires in order to help his clients reach their goals.

He has experimented with different splits such as total body training, lower/upper splits, push pull splits, and bodypart splits, as well as different systems that stress a particular training variable such as high volume training (HVT), high intensity training (HIT), high frequency training (HFT), and escalating density training (EDT). He possesses a sound knowledge of different types of periodization systems including autoregulation training and understands their strengths and weaknesses. He knows that there are a dozen or so critical program design variables that can all be manipulated to create various effects.

Most important, he knows that his client is very unique. He knows that he needs to learn the workings of his clients’ bodies and figure out their individualities as everyone has different anthropometry, physiology, and psychology. He utilizes the scientific method to maximize his efficiency and is not afraid to experiment in order to improve as a coach, and he makes adjustments according to what he learns.

He possesses a sound understanding of nutrition, supplementation, and endocrinology and knows that clients can’t possibly maximize their results via training alone; what they do while they’re not in the gym or on the track of field is critical as well. He knows that the first rule of personal training is to do no harm but the second rule in personal training is to get clients achieving goals. He’s an excellent motivator.

He knows that training is an art and a science, simply because there is so much science that we don’t yet understand. He knows that anecdotes are important as are journal articles and scientific theory. He realizes that training involves evolution and he’s both open minded and skeptical at the same time. He knows that what he believes today will probably change next year as new science and technology emerge. He understands that the term Biomechanics has two parts; BIO, which means “living” and is associated with biology which is the study of life, and MECHANICS, which means “the branch of applied mathematics dealing with motion and forces producing motion.” He knows that living systems erode, repair, and adapt and realizes that various training methods create structural, neural, and chemical adaptations, which can be good, bad, or both. He understands the relationship between forces and stresses on various body tissues and can predict the acute and chronic response of those tissues (muscles, tendon, ligaments, bone, fascia, discs, etc.) to the stimuli imposed upon them.

He relies on logic, not emotion, and does not take his beliefs to the point of absurdity. He realizes that there is much gray area and that few things are black and white. For example, he knows that free weights are critical for imposing functional adaptations but certain machines can be useful in creating functional adaptations and can allow us to do certain things that are impossible with the limitations of a human body paired up with free weights and gravity.

This is the modern personal trainer and strength coach!


  • Ted says:

    While I very much agree with your post, Bret, I like those coaches that keep it as simple as reasonably possible.

    See, many mma guys for example are average or good at everything, but brilliant at nothing. That is a problem.

    • Bret says:

      I disagree Ted. The goal is to win the fight. MMA fighters could submit the top boxer and pummel the top grappler.

      In the strength and conditioning world, even the top spinal biomechanists, the top flexibility gurus, the top speed coaches, the top powerlifters, and the top bodybuilding coaches have tons to learn. New research has proven many of their theories wrong in the past decade. I know a ton of scientists/researchers that don’t know anything about good exercise form. I know good strength coaches that can’t “specialize” a program for a particular athlete/sport to save their lives.

      It’s time we became “renaissance men” and knew a little bit about everything, while specializing in whatever area that really peaked our interest.

      I still appreciate your thoughts. Thanks Ted!

    • James says:

      100% agreed Ted.

      The whole fitness/strength & conditioning industry is getting so overcomplicated now, it would make the novices head spin. I’m now starting to take note some elite sprinters are running slower times than past years. Overcomplication.

  • Ted says:

    Thanks for the reply, Bret.

    I think I may have worded things a little weird here.
    Sorry, I know English as a second language only.

    What I intended to say is that I like fighters who first MASTER one art before worrying too much about other styles.

    And I like coaches who get results with simple means/meathods before worrying about details (details of course make a difference), I just don’t like those people who mix things up just for sake of versatility.

    Master one thing, then acquire new, more diverse, knowedge. Never start out mixing things up, taking a thing from here there without first having a strong base in one specific useful area.

    I hope that makes sense now, I should have put more effort into my first post of this discussion.

    • Nick Horton says:

      Hey Ted,

      I get your point. I’m guessing Bret’s post was directly (even if unconsciously) at those strength coaches who are already specialists. And he’s encouraging these folks to branch out as much as they can.

      But, if we’re talking to someone who has no experience what so ever, then I agree that a person should first become a specialist in something. That is a LONG process that can take years to become good at. Then, start to branch out. (of course, in the real world, you can learn other things along the way. It’s like getting your undergrad degree. You have a major, but you still take other classes.)

      • Bret says:

        Nick, you’re right. I was directing this post to experienced trainers who may only really know one discipline. I feel that in order to be a really good trainer, you need to branch out. And your comparison to college is a perfect analogy. Thanks bud!

    • Bret says:

      Ted, I agree about keeping things simple when necessary, and about avoiding variety for the sake of appearing talented or confusing clients into thinking they need you.

      However, I think that before anyone starts actually taking on personal training clients they should have spent considerable time online learning about different disciplines. It’s free and easy. I’d spent years reading and studying (and training and teaching my friends and family to lift weights) before I got certified and started charging for my services. I just don’t see how a trainer can be maximally effective if they don’t understand how to manipulate variables in order to elicit certain effects.

      We probably agree on this, right?

  • Great insight, and I agree. However, many prospective clients are looking for a specialist. If they want someone who combines different disciplines, great. But if all they want is MMA conditioning, or weight loss, or injury recovery, a professional touting a wide range of expertise may not be hired, even if he or she ultimately could be more help with the client’s goal.

    • Bret says:

      Steven, I respectfully disagree (but I think that you’ll agree with me on this). The more I learn, the more I incorporate into my arsenal (and I end up using stuff in the strangest of circumstances). I put the bodybuilder through the FMS and test his joint ROM’s and then put him on a corrective exercise plan to get him moving better. I use bodybuilding techniques for the skinny client who needs to gain weight. I use powerlifting techniques for the guy who desperately wishes to deadlift 315 for the first time. I use Oly WL strategies for the girl who has never tried HFT and have her squat and hip thrust 4 days per week.

      All this knowledge blends together and you use it all on everyone. Knowing about powerlifting ends up helping you with the girl who came to you because she wants to get better at volleyball. Knowing about physical therapy ends up helping you with the jacked up bodybuilder. Knowing about bodybuilding ends up helping you train the older client who may benefit from utilizing a slower tempo.

      I feel that Mel Siff was this way; he looked at strength training as a giant science and tried to see the value in everything.

      • I’m not saying someone shouldn’t broaden their knowledge and make use of a variety of methods with their clients. I’m looking more at the business aspect- how much demand is there for someone combining what are traditionally separate professions?

        This comes from my experience expanding from doing massage to adding personal training. From both clients and employers, being able to provide and mix both bodywork and exercise has not been of interest. I’ve found that people want the best of one or the other, not the synergy of both.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Steven, Would you not think that a great trainer should be open to using skills and knowledge from a wise variety of sources. Why limit yourself to one specialist type of training. Besides, another great quality to have as a trainer is surely have the ability to think outside of the box and apply a mix of strategies to GET RESULTS.

      I would say perhaps having a wide range of expertise would allow that trainer to appeal to more prospective clients.

      Remember too, that there is not always just ONE right answer for any given goal – this is when I prefer a mix of skills.

      Just my 2c 🙂

      • Bret says:

        To add to this, I don’t know of many trainers who only train one type of clientele. Strength coaches train athletes from different sports and levels of ability, and most take on personal trainer clients. Personal trainers take on a myriad of clients with varying abilities and goals. Nearly all personal training clients seek body composition improvements and some hypertrophy, and athletes can gain from these improvements as well.

  • Kyle Bracey says:

    I have to agree with Bret. Specializing does indeed allows you to master a given task however one becomes very limited in their capacity and it ultimately limits their ability to see the big picture. The reality is that there are so many different factors that could potentially tap an athlete or trainee’s potential that it’s up to us as coaches to really broaden our personal approach and education while at the same time simplifying the applied practics for our athletes/trainees.

  • You are right on point with this one Bret! Movement doesn’t have boundaries; we are the ones that have put labels on it. Fitness is more than science but an art that is effective when all aspects are combined.

  • Mark says:

    I recently put a video on my facebook that showed Bas Rutten in an interview and talking about ”sport specific training”(SST) . He didnt call it (SST)but spoke about a particular heavyweight who he felt wasnt being hit during his training/sparring and therefore was over-reacting or flinching at punches during real matches ,because he hadnt been hit in training. In the interview he said he heard people talking about sparring One Time a week.. He said ya gotta be joking? They asked him how often he sparred and he said 2 times a day. He claimed even after a long lay-off that he didnt have ring rust due to his frequent sparring. I think he makes a valid point that you really need to refine you skills and have alot of sparring in for MMA,even your strength training and boxing geared towards defending ground and standup. But ,I think twice a day might be a bit much to be honest ”for me” ,but it might not be for him? Just for me ,I couldnt sustain mental power to train that often even if I was expecting the fight of my life,I dont think.Id prefer more intense sparring 3-4 times a week. I think Bas is a really good example of Brets blog. He started of being a stand up mostly fighter and lost a few fights via shamrock and being a ”very” smart guy , he undertook a huge change and studied ground fighting in great detail until he learned it better than most. It’s amazing , Ive lost several ”real” fights and Judo matches and had my ears boxed off by different people. If your into it , you gotta take your lumps,everyone does. But ,I learned so much from every loss, its unreal. Its like ego kicks in on each victory and a loss makes ME stand back and rethink everything with an open mind. I guess once you loss you feel like you have nothing to loss by change.Nice blog Bret!!

  • Dale says:

    If today is any indication, increasingly well-rounded generalists are a crying need. Just today, I received a request for help in training a young man for a 1.5 mile ROTC run, an inquiry from a middle-aged woman whose run the gauntlet of medical specialists … and still suffers from knee pain, a young man who just wants to bulk up, one who wants to lean-out, and a young woman who wants to to conquer a chinup and her boyfriend’s kyphosis at the same time.

  • Mike says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you Bret. As an aspiring strength and conditioning coach I’ve spent the last couple years trying to soak up every bit of knowledge I can from every discipline. When your just starting out, this is an excellent way to find out what areas truly interest you and others that may not be of interest / too complex for your current level of knowledge. But that also teaches you what you may need to focus more on to continue to learn. I can tell you first hand though that when you are just starting out there is so much material out there to learn that it can be very overwhelming and difficult to retain all that you are trying to learn from various disciplines. That is where I think the hands on experience is crutial because like everything in learing it’s all about repetition, and unless you are practicing what you’ve learned with your clients on a regular basis you will easily forget much of what you’ve learned. I’m starting an internship at a sports training facility in June and can’t wait to get the hands on experience working with different athletes and average joes/janes. I just want to say thanks Bret!, it’s guys like you and Cressey that provide excellent material to learn from and point newbies like me in the right directions.

  • Randy Gruezo says:

    Awesome man.

    You’re blog posts resonates how I was brought up in the industry by my primary mentor Dr. Paul Juris. The number one thing he reinforces is that he taught me how to think critically. It just so happened that he put it in the context of kinesiology, anatomy, biomechanics, motor-learning etc etc. Within those disciplines, taught how to look at the myriad of methods and tools as such and how each of those can affect the outcome I was looking to accomplish based upon the client’s goal. Gonna use that term “Mixed Fitness Artist!”

  • Scott says:

    Great article man!

  • Fotis says:

    Bret that was a great article and I am happy to see so much information in only one blog post
    I am a wannabe personal trainer and man,with all your articles,blog posts and books when I start training,I might become the Siff of Greece.
    I recently started reading about anatomy and how to apply it.Started with Cooks FMS,then watched Boyles Strength Coach 3 and I am reading now Assessment and treatment of muscle imbalance the Janda approach,which really humbles me every page,so much info is overwhelming
    I was wondering if you could give us some recommendations,like your favorite 3 books in every topic that you covered like MMA,training,nutrition,anatomy etc.I am not expecting to see “My top 3 books on EMG” but I believe that the other books would help a lot!
    Do you think that you could do it for us?
    Thanks a lot man and keep being awesome!

  • vivoir says:

    I like the concept of MMA as it’s functional strength. It’s about adding strength in a way that the body can manage- or use to it’s advantage. It’s not as if one is gaining muscle in a way that still leaves one unable to run for a bus….

    Can you take a peep at my blog as I’m very, very eager to see what you think of today’s supersets? I try to incorporate your approach of simple, whole body strength and hopefully you think it looks OK?

  • allie says:

    love this post- totally makes sense and WORKS! great write up!

  • Alex Scott says:

    This article is a great example of someone who realizes the need for today’s strength coach/personal trainers to go above and beyond the certification exam and have a constant thirst for knowledge and professional development. Reinforces my efforts and all the time I spend reading educational material, thanks!

  • James C. says:

    Jack-of-all-Trades vs. Déformation Professionnelle

    Not bad Bret, not bad at all, but then again I shouldn’t be surprised that a former school instructor and current fitness educator would advocate lifetime learning being the root of professional excellence.

    I am surprised however that no one has mentioned “Maslow’s Hammer” a.k.a. Kaplan’s “The Law of the Instrument” (Fit Pros love to pull that one out):

    “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

    That said, speak to anyone who actually works with tools for a living and you find that there are toolbox staples that are standard and there are other seldom-used tools that have very narrow and specific applications. Therefore, as with most things, it’s important to strike a balance and understanding.

    Understand that there will be tools you’ll use with such frequency that you’ll develop familiarity and expertise simply due to sheer repetition while others will take an active seeking-out to learn and occasionally get dusted off at the appropriate times. The true art and skill of it all then becomes knowing when to use what, and when to realize you may not know everything and refer out and/or ask for another professional’s specific expertise —especially when others use frequently those many tools you use rarely.

    Put it this way: All MDs have a broad spectrum foundation of medial education and they continue to read journals and go to conferences to learn about the latest and greatest, but I still wouldn’t go to an Oncologist when a Cardiologist would be most apropos. 😉

    Ultimately, in my humble opinion, what Bret means can be boiled down to:

    “Jack of all trades,
    master of none,
    Though oftentimes better
    than master of one”

  • Clement says:

    Very insightful and astute observations.

    What if you were just starting out in the field and would like to one day become a top strength and conditioning coach of a soccer team or in the MMA industry? Which field would you suggest specialising in first?

    I’m referring to the individual who has that ambition and who trains hard and reads about training, but who has not studied in any of these fields before. Which degree, in your opinion, would serve him best? Physical therapy? Exercise science?

    Also, you mention dabbling in various training styles. Despite having trained regularly in the past 3 years, I’ve used little else apart from Pavel’s Beyond Bodybuilding and stronglifts 5×5. Would you say that it’s absolutely crucial to practise HIT and other bodybuilding styles, even if my goals aren’t that much hypertrophy-related, if I want to be a top strength coach in a sport that is not bodybuilding?

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