You’ve probably heard the phrase “success leaves clues” before. It’s interesting this specific phrase is a popular “truism”, because most phrases that gain traction have clear meanings: “bodybuilding is a marathon not a sprint”, “you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others”, “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t know it well enough” etc. When you hear “success leaves clues” though, you wonder what exactly are these clues, and what are they clues to?
In fitness and sport, there is a (false) perception that you either belong to a camp that values scientific evidence or in-the-trenches experience from the best (be they successful athletes or trainers). Fortunately, in recent years the population of PubMed ninjas who only value peer reviewed ideas, and anti-science bros who disregard advice from people weaker/smaller/less fit alike, has dwindled. Now there seems to be more truly evidence-based voices, who value scientific data, individual preferences/differences, and experience. Also, I’m happy to see people with this view might have their roots in the scientific community or gym culture. People make the false dichotomy of experience vs science less frequently these days and seem more willing to ask how they can be complementary.
With that said, there are echoes from the ye olde forum wars, and of course everyone has their biases. When presented with science that seemingly conflicts with traditional best practice (especially when that practice seems to produce reliable results), people make different judgements. Some are quick to disregard tradition as unnecessary “broscience”, while others dismiss the science based on its methods, population or lab-based setting, thinking it must be wrong if it conflicts with “what the pros do”.
There isn’t a right or a wrong side to fall on here. There are instances where something done traditionally by most successful athletes is unnecessary or suboptimal. You only need to look to sports history: think pre Fosbury Flop in high jump, pre rotation in shot put, or how a different recovery method pops up every Olympic cycle. Likewise, there are instances where studies produce findings that don’t pan out due to low sample sizes, or lab-based conditions being required for something to “work”. For example, being in a fasted state and only consuming whey protein likely inflates the potential benefit of targeted protein timing.
So how do you assess these discrepancies and further, how do you operate when all you have are anecdotes? This is where “success leaves clues” comes in.
While someone with an “in the trenches bias” might interpret this saying as justification of doing whatever the biggest/strongest/fittest person (or their coach) does, that’s not what it means. The saying isn’t “success leaves answers”.
So what can we learn from the actions of the successful? Well, if there is something the vast majority of highly successful athletes do, we can be reasonably confident that this thing at the very least doesn’t prevent success. I know this sounds simple and obvious, but I can’t tell you how often people on both sides of the bias-fence get this wrong. I’ve listened to well-read, hard working lifters following the full complement of science-based strategies express frustration that some “bro” seems to be making gains just fine on a single bodypart per day split, while taking BCAA and glutamine, and only eating a short list of bodybuilding approved “clean” foods. Likewise, I have watched highly motivated athletes copy to a T the practices of their iron game hero, assuming each and every thing they do is optimal and required for peak performance.
The training stress itself is the driver of progress, how you organise it in a week is less important. Supplements like BCAA and glutamine won’t aid you beyond the placebo effect (which I’ve now negated, sorry), but they won’t slow your gains down. Likewise, the food sources you select are inconsequential so long as you get an appropriate energy, macronutrient, fiber, and micronutrient intake; but, you won’t inhibit your gains by consuming foods from a semi reasonable “bodybuilding approved” list.
The pros aren’t doing it wrong. But the pros aren’t necessarily doing it right either. In reality, all we can say for sure is the pros are doing it right enough, or they aren’t doing it wrong enough, depending on your perspective. Consistency, hard work, paying attention to what does and doesn’t work for you, and natural talent/genetics are the for-sure determinants of success. These are clues we can learn from elite performers as well, and arguably these are the most frequently found clues. In sports with a deep competitive field that have been around for a while, these are the commonalities of successful athletes going back hundreds of years. Supplements, splits, food paradigms, and recovery methods change with the wind. But, whether you assess the very best lifters from the silver, gold, or modern age of the Iron game, they all put in consistent hard work and had talent.
So, the next time you see a lot of successful athletes doing something, don’t poo poo it because of an abstract you read, or latch on to it like it’s your ticket to New Gainsville. All you know for sure, is that it didn’t prevent success.