The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is the observed phenomenon that 80% of the outcomes come from 20% of the causes. Simply put, it is the unequal relationship between input and output.
If you start paying attention, you’ll see this uneven distribution everywhere. In business, 80% of sales will come from 20% of customers; in daily life, 20% of your knowledge is used 80% of the time.
The numbers aren’t exact, but the general principle holds true: most of our outcomes will come from a few actions. Less is more.
Applied correctly, the 80/20 rule is a useful tool that increases your effectiveness and saves time. As a corollary: if you disregard the rule and focus your efforts on 80% of the things that give you 20% of the results, you’ll inevitably do more and more time-consuming activities that will lead to poorer and poorer results.
All very interesting, but how does this principle pertain to training in the gym?
The Pareto Principle for training
Want to start get strong/fit/healthier? Do a quick search online and you’ll find loads of different exercise modalities and training methods.
Fitness businesses are constantly trying to find “new” or “improved” ways to sell exercises. Some combine existing exercise modalities together (e.g. pilates + boxing = piloxing); others are just old stuff that’s been around but repackaged and marketed differently (e.g. trampoline fitness). They all promise the same lies that consumers want to hear: their way works fast (only X minutes a workout), easy, always varying to keep things fun etc..
But these new exercises are fads – they pop up like mushrooms after the rain, and disappear as soon as the next hot trend shows up. These programs don’t stick around, because you don’t actually make much progress when doing them. And even if you do, your progress won’t continue over the long term.
Barbells, however, first appeared in the mid-1800s, and are still being used to this day. The fact that they’re still around after all this time is telling of its usefulness and I believe they’ll continue to do so for a very long time. The proof is in the pudding – anyone who has trained properly with barbells would have seen results. Simply put, barbells are just plain effective and I’d argue that it’s the best training tool ever invented.
More and more people are realising this. They get into barbell strength training, not because it’s new and exciting, but because they know that strength is important and they read that barbell training is the most effective way to get strong.
So let’s apply the Pareto principle to training in the gym. Out of everything that’s floating around, why barbell strength training? And specifically, why barbell strength training according to the Starting Strength method?
First Pareto: choosing to train for strength
The most common definition of fitness comprises 10 physical attributes: cardiorespiratory endurance, strength, stamina, flexibility, speed, power, coordination, accuracy, agility and balance.
Out of these, strength is the only attribute that positively affects all the rest. Since strength is the ability to produce force, it forms the basis of our interaction with the environment. It ends up being the most general and useful fitness adaptation. An increase in strength would correspondingly boost the other attributes, whereas an increase in any of the others won’t significantly benefit anything outside itself.
An in-depth explanation of how strength positively affects all the other fitness attributes is outside the scope of this article but if you’re interested to find out more, head here and here to read more.
Strength has many benefits and will give you the most positive outcomes so gaining strength should be your fundamental priority.
Second Pareto: choosing to train with barbells
Even for strength, there’s tons of equipment and ways to train, e.g. kettlebells, dumbbells, machines, or your own bodyweight. Barbells can seem dangerous, so why do we still choose to work with them?
Barbells are the most ergonomic weight-bearing tool that lets you load the body’s normal movement patterns and strengthen the entire body over the long term. Loading on barbells are also minutely adjustable – microplates weighing as little as 0.25 lbs can be easily purchased online. You can start with a light barbell (or even a stick) and gradually increase the load without any change in the movement pattern. This allows for long-term progressive loading across the entire range of movement.
Compare that with dumbbells. Yes, you can squat with dumbbells in your hands but the bottleneck is the amount of weight you can hold in your hands. Additionally, as the dumbbell gets heavier, it also gets larger. If you’re doing a goblet squat, you’d have to adjust your stance to accommodate the larger dumbbell.
How about bodyweight exercises? The problem with bodyweight exercises is that the resistance is limited by your bodyweight. Let’s say you start out by doing bodyweight squats. Over time, you’re able to do 10 reps and so you start doing lunges or pistol squats to increase the resistance. Once you’re able to do a whole bunch of reps, what next? You can manipulate the resistance by doing it slowly, adding a pause at the bottom or doing more reps – however, none of these modifications to the lunge/pistol squat will increase your strength. Additionally, bodyweight training lacks systemic loading of the body. The barbell squat strengthens everything between where the barbell sits across your upper back and your feet, including the important muscles and bones of the back and hips.
Lastly, with the recent proliferation of barbell strength training, barbells are now widely available, cheap (a barbell, rack, bench and weight plates cost less than a treadmill or plate-loaded machines) and can last a lifetime if properly cared for.
Third Pareto: choosing the barbell lifts
The number of lifts that one can do with a barbell is virtually unlimited. Yet we choose to focus only on a few – squat, press, deadlift, bench press and power clean. Specifically the low bar back squat, Olympic press, deadlift (also known as a conventional deadlift), bench press (NOT the wide grip bench press usually used in powerlifting) and power clean. Why just these few, and why also in the specific ways that we do them?
We use 3 criteria to choose which lifts and how they are performed to include in our program:
1. Utilise the most amount of muscle
2. Over the longest effective range of motion
3. So as to lift the most amount of weight
These basic barbell lifts make up the Starting Strength method. The reasoning behind the selection of these lifts is also outside the scope of this article but if you’re keen to find out more, this book explains it in detail.
In certain cases where lifters have limitations, we’ll work around them with variations that still strive to be as similar as possible to the original lifts, e.g. if you have shoulder problems, we’ll do a high bar back squat instead of a low bar back squat.
As a lifter gets more advanced, we may add some assistance lifts like chins or dips, and do variations like rack pulls. But we never deviate from the basics of squat, press, deadlift, bench press and power clean.
Training will always centre around these few main lifts. Any additional assistance lifts are done to help drive the main lifts, because they’re the ones that give you the highest returns.
Leveraging Pareto within Pareto within Pareto
The Pareto principle is powerful. Applying the 80/20 rule means focusing on the high return 20% that matter. However, it doesn’t just end at the first layer. The Pareto Principle has multiple layers of leverage that you can benefit from.
Based on the above analysis, we first choose to focus on strength (top 20%), then we further choose to focus on barbell strength training (20% of 20%), and furthermore only a few fundamental barbell lifts (20% of the 20% of the 20%), we’re in fact applying the rule 3 times – 80:20 ³ = 250:1.
This means that you can save a whole bunch of time by doing these few lifts that provide 250x more benefit than anything else in the gym.
Of course, as mentioned before, the ratios aren’t exact. The five basic barbell lifts don’t account for exactly 20% of all the barbell lifts . But the principle is the same: of all the choices you could make, choosing wisely to do only the most important actions will yield the biggest benefits. And choosing wisely, again and again and again, will multiply any positive outcome.
I hope this illustrates how every choice you make can become a source of leverage. If you’re just looking to work up a sweat in the gym and burn some calories, then it doesn’t really matter what you do but if you’re serious about training, you need to plan well and prioritise properly.
Time is a limited commodity – be strategic, and choose the training program that gives you the most bang for your buck in the gym.