Applying the 80/20 Rule to Fitness

There are some people always looking for the easy way out, the magic bullet, the perfect solution. One of my good friends is “that guy”.

Always telling me about that new supplement, that new revolutionary workout or exercise. And my response to his curiosity is always the same: it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Because of his constant focus on things that don’t matter, I decided to explain to him a concept called Pareto’s Principle. His reaction was priceless.

Wow, this really makes sense. I’ve got some changes to make.

Pareto’s Principle

Photo credit goes to Atti Vitoso.

I first encountered Pareto’s Principle on the blog of Tim Ferriss (check it out here), a man I consider to be a mentor and someone who has become a success despite the odds.

If you’ve never heard of Pareto’s Principle, or the 80/20 rule, I’ll give you a brief rundown and a mini history lesson.

Back in 1906, a man named Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. This came to fruition after he realized that 20% of the pea pods in his garden accounted for 80% of the peas. Weird revelation, huh?

Well, I’m glad he had it, because this principle has changed my life. Pareto’s Principle can be correct and applicable in almost every situation, give or take a few percent.

Businessmen and entrepreneurs have run with this concept, finding often that 20% of their clients account for 80% of their sales, 20% of their efforts produce 80% of their income, and 80% of their headaches come from the 20% of things that they need to, and easily can, cut out of their business.

This principle is a great way to identify fluff, and get rid of it. And, it’s also very effective in identifying and refining the actions that are truly contributing to your results.

The concept was initially applied to sales, but the more you observe the ins-and-outs of this principle, the more you realize that it’s universal, and it can and should be applied to fitness as well.

Pareto Applied to Fitness

Photo credit goes to Ed Yourdon.

So, we know that the 80/20 law can be used to enhance a business, but can it create results in the gym?

Absolutely, and I would argue that it should be used to analyze every program, regardless of your goals.

You see, most people focus on the 80%. They focus on the fluff and the flashy concepts that look good on paper, but in reality they take a lot of time and only account for 20% of your results.

Take P90x for example. I don’t believe any program is inherently bad (except for anything designed by Tracy Anderson), but P90x is a great example of 80% of the work producing 20% of the results.

The truth is, results produced by p90x, specifically in the muscle building category, could be achieved by a sub-par weight lifting program. So, people are busting their ass doing the 80%, which only leads to 20% of the desired results.

My job as a coach and a writer is to identify the minimum effective dose that will achieve the maximum results; the 20%.

Identifying the exercises, rep schemes, and intensity that produce 80% of the results is essential to the success of any trainee and trainer.

The Key Concepts

There is a ton of fluff in the fitness industry. B.S. concepts such as unstable surface training and kipping pull ups are the focus for most.

The main issue is that we are focusing on the things that don’t matter. The truth is, the fluff takes a ton of effort and it produces little success.

Below, I’m going to list some of the most essential concepts in strength and conditioning. These concepts should make up your 20%.

Applying these concepts to your training will allow you to get the most out the time you put in, because nothing’s worse than working your ass off and getting nothing in return.

Here we go.

Progressive Overload

– The idea that progressively lifting heavy weights leads to more muscle growth and strength. You must provide adequate amounts of stress for the body to be forced to make any changes. Consistent progression is essential if you want to achieve maximal results.

Progressive overload is a concept that’s been around forever, and it will always be around, because it works.

Compound Lifts

– Lifts that involve multiple body parts. The bench press, the squat, the deadlift, the overhead press.
These are staple exercises, and a variety of these movements should be the basis of any strength and muscle building program.


– Or high intensity interval training. A long-standing conditioning method where you work for 30 seconds, and rest for a minute, then repeat.
You can use sprints, a stationary bike, an airdyne, whatever. HIIT is a great way to condition without being bored to death on a treadmill.

Getting Specific to Your Goals

Understanding all of the concepts is awesome, but you must be able to apply them to your individual situation or you will crash and burn.

Goal specificity is one of the most important aspects of being able to make consistent progress. Everyone is different, and cookie-cutter programs don’t work. You must be able to make adjustments to your training priorities based on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Einstein fish and climbing a tree quote.

Strength and Muscle Gain

If your goal is strength and muscle gain, the focus of your training should be on the compound movements discussed earlier. Applying progressive overload is another necessity. If you lift the same weights week after week, your body will adapt to the stress and stop growing. Progression is key.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” – Frederick Douglass

Also, while conditioning is important regardless of the goal, it is not the primary focus when trying to pack on mass. So, the majority of your effort should be on lifting progressively heavier weights, with conditioning and cardio as the back-up priorities.

An example week could look something like this:

Monday: Squat + assistance exercises (lunges, RDL, hip thrusts, leg press)

Tuesday: Bench + assistance (close grip bench, rows, dips, triceps work)

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Deadlift + assistance (back extensions, glute ham raise, hip thrusts)

Friday: Weighted Pull ups (rows, chins, farmer’s walks, biceps work)

Weekend: Off (maybe a HIIT session if you have time)

As you can see, each day emphasizes a heavy compound movement, followed by assistance exercises (which will “assist” you in progressing with the main lifts). Everything has a purpose. There’s no fluff, no unnecessary effort. Just hard, efficient, effective work.

Fat Loss

The focus of fat loss programs shifts slightly due to the stress that lack of sufficient fuel puts on the body. Despite popular belief, you should still lift heavy when you’re looking to lose fat. None of that light weight, high reps crap.

Lifting heavy when attempting to lose fat is absolutely crucial if you want to hold on to hard-earned muscle mass. You must give your body a reason to hold on to muscle, and lifting heavy provides your body with that reason.

The progression will be slower and might actually stall out due to reduced calories when dieting, but the effort to progress and lift heavy should still be there.

And, unlike when you’re attempting to put on muscle, cardio plays a bigger role in fat loss protocols. I’m not a fan of “traditional” cardio, which consists of endless plodding on the treadmill or stationary bike. I prefer high intensity interval training. It’s much more fun and it doesn’t throw your hormones all out of wack.

The training schedule for someone trying to lose fat would be quite similar to the one above. But, I would probably have three days of weight lifting, and then one day of high intensity interval training. This will ensure that you maintain muscle mass without burning out your nervous system, along with performing interval training to enhance fat loss results.

A sample week would look something like this:

Monday: Squat + assistance

Tuesday: Off

Wednesday: Bench press + assistance

Thursday: Off (or HIIT)

Friday: Deadlift + assistance

Weekend: Off (or HIIT on one day)

You will have to play around with the placement of the HIIT sessions, as it can be difficult to schedule around the soreness experienced from squatting and deadlifting (nobody wants to condition when they’re sore).

So, you get the strength and muscle maintenance along with the fat-loss enhancing HIIT. Simple and effective.

Pareto would approve.

Wrap Up

Looking at your training program without bias can be a very difficult thing to do, but it is necessary if you want to cut out the fluff and focus on the aspects that account for most of your results. Stop focusing on the minutia. Put all of your effort into the pieces of your training that give you the most results, and you will never have problems with achieving your goals.

That’s all for today. If you have any questions or comments, drop it in the comment box below because it will add to the discussion.

Also, sign up for my newsletter below to receive weekly updates on the blog as well as free tips on how to live a stronger life.

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  1. R.C. Liley says

    Great post, very informative! I come from a long distance training background for several years and have been spinning my wheels trying to focus more on strength. My problem is trying to still run, lift heavy, and, most importantly, not eating enough. I have this fear that I’ll just blimp up if I’m inactive for just one day.
    I’m sure a big part is that I feel like I worked so hard for my endurance and don’t want to lose it. But, I really want to increase strength and size. I’m 5’10 and stay around 155 – 159lbs; BF ~9%. Basically, I fall under the Former Fat Boy category as explained at JCD Fitness. Even after reading that and telling myself to eat more, gain strength, and then work on cutting down later, I don’t commit.
    Any advice or links to help me finally be consistent in training for strength? I need to reduce workout time (my wife would be happy for this!) and increase food. I eat all healthy and prepare my own meals every day. So food is clean, just need a lot more of it! Anything you have would be great.
    Thanks for the great posts; love the site!


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