By John Roark, ManRevived.com
These days I’m a big believer in the 80/20 principle.
Otherwise known as the Pareto Principle, the idea is that 20% of the things you do will give you 80% of the results.
Therefore, it’s smarter to spend your time doing those 20% of things, than worrying about the 80% that only give you 20% of the results.
This idea has given me a really solid foundation on which I’ve built a simple fitness regimen that gets me results and that I have been able to stick to nearly every single day for the past couple of years.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Like most people getting into fitness, I spent years screwing around at the gym without having a real goal, or even knowing what I was supposed to be doing.
I didn’t have a lot of guidance, didn’t think I needed to hire a trainer, and thought it would make me look less cool to ask for help.
Unfortunately for me, I made no gains, didn’t feel any better, and essentially wasted all the time I spent in the gym.
To be fair, it takes a long time to sort through the crap that’s out there in regards to getting physical results. You’ve got to try and fail a lot before you can find a winning combination.
And it was a massive failure of my own that finally pushed me to examine what was really important in the gym, and in my overall life as it related to fitness.
One of the best things you can do in the gym is to find a routine that you can stick to.
However, there’s a big difference between a routine and a 12-week program. While I was certainly on to something when it came to following a specific workout so I didn’t have to make it up as I went along, I chose to follow a routine with a specific end date, without any suggestion on what to do when it was done.
I committed so hard to this program. I followed the corresponding diet, took zero cheat days, hit the gym each and every day, hit every rep I was supposed to.
And by the end of it, I was amazed. I’d dropped 23 pounds, and I felt like I could actually lift a bit of real weight.
I was so pumped to have completed this gruelling program that I figured it was finally time for that cheat meal.
I went to the pub with friends and had a burger and a beer. To this day, I still remember it as one of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had, since I’d starved my taste buds for 3 months straight.
However, that one cheat meal turned into more cheat meals. And because my workout program was “finished”, I didn’t have anything to guide me in the gym.
So I stopped going.
After a few months of this, I was right back where I was before I started the whole thing.
To put that much time, effort, and pain into something, and to wind up with literally no results from it just months later is absolutely crushing. I was so disappointed.
This taught me that following a program is good, because it gets you in the gym, you don’t have to think about what you should be doing, you don’t expend any mental energy or willpower convincing yourself you should go (since the planning phase is already done), and you should continually get stronger practicing the same lifts over time.
It also taught me that time-sensitive programs are not good. It needs to be something you can do for months in a row, and not rely on any wacky sets or exercises like my 12-week program.
Eventually, this led me to discover the idea of progressive overload and “basic” programs like Starting Strength, StrongLifts, and PHUL, which serve me well today.
So once I discovered the basics that get results (a program you will actually follow long-term combined with progressive overload, basically), how did I apply this 80/20 principle? And how might you use it to simplify your fitness life and get better results?
As I’ve already talked about, the thing that really got me into this whole mindset was using a weight training program that I could use for months on end, without a set end date.
Personally, I went through about a year of StrongLifts 5×5, which helped strengthen this whole principle, since it focuses almost exclusively on big, compound movements like the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
The program itself was great because it stopped me from thinking about what I needed to do in the gym. And I know that if I have to think about any aspect of going to the gym in the morning, there’s a chance I can talk myself out of it.
Knowing that you’ve got your exact program written down takes away that chance to get into the thought behind hitting the gym, which was a huge win for me.
The compound movements really showed me what was possible when you stick to the basic, foundational movements.
First of all, I realized how weak I was. Then, I gradually built up a base of strength. I highly recommend using compound movements as one of the main components of your 80/20 fitness strategy, because it’s pretty obvious they give you huge results compared to most other exercises.
I’ve since moved over to a program that has one day of power work and one day of hypertrophy work for both upper and lower body. It includes the compound movements, but also a few more isolated movements that are still very basic.
For me, this is the perfect balance, because the exercises are “simple” to perform, they cover each body part adequately, I see results, but I spend no more than an hour in the gym, 4 days per week. I haven’t stopped seeing results and growth, so I just keep going.
I think trading 4 hours/week for results is pretty amazing, especially when I talk to people who spend 10+ hours training every week and have made almost no progress. You just have to be doing the 20% of things that get you 80% of the results.
My first goal, as discussed above, was to have some “foundational” strength, built by lifting heavy things. It’s really good for your body and longevity, plus it makes you look and feel better.
But I also wanted to have a great range of motion, both for weightlifting and for playing sports and with my kids.
Rather than add another entire program on top of going to the gym, I tested some schedules and programs, and found that one morning of yoga (a 30-40 minute program I follow along with), plus one deeper stretching session on the weekend, was all I needed to stay limber and not seize up through the week.
Any more than that really messed with my schedule, and I found that right now, I didn’t need any more. I’m always at the level of movement I feel comfortable with, and I don’t do a whole lot to maintain it. No travelling to yoga classes, no staying in the gym for an extra hour every day.
This is a big one because you can get totally anal about this and it can consume your life.
I’ll admit that tracking your calories is a really important step if you’re serious about your fitness goals, but it doesn’t have to run your life forever.
If you can find a good baseline when it comes to how many calories you’re eating, how big a portion size actually is, and what your best macronutrient profile and ratio look like, then you can forget about measuring every little thing.
The thing you should be worried about is whether you’re getting results.
If you stop losing weight, you may need to recalibrate and track your calories again for a couple of days to see where you’re going wrong, but that’s it. No need to go crazy.
And just like compound movements give you the most bang for your buck, there are a few foods that will do the same thing.
Lean cuts of meat, protein powder, rice or pasta if you’re eating good carbs, healthy fats…these are the building block of pretty much every person who’s achieving their fitness goals.
I like to eat one of two or three lunch options every single day to keep it simple (just play with seasoning to keep it exciting), and then I make a rough meal plan for dinners to stop me from having to think (much like the workout program).
That way grocery shopping is easy, cooking is easy, and as long as you’re choosing useful foods like chicken, fish, beef, rice, green veg, and the like, you’re always going to have a pretty good meal.
The alternative is to track every single little thing and be completely consumed by your food.
I do believe your diet is the fuel that gets you results in the gym, but by putting in this little bit of effort (you might say a meal plan and sticking to basic, healthy, natural foods is about 20% of the effort), you can easily get 80% of the results you’re looking for.
Compare that to something closer to 80% effort on your part to track every little thing and spend your entire day obsessed by food. Is that last 20% worth it to you?
Do you really want to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronnie Coleman?
If you do, by all means, put 100% of your effort into this lifestyle.
But if you’re just a guy or gal like me who’s got a family, a business, and likes to play sports and hang out with friends, I think it’s a terrible tradeoff to spend so much time for so little result.
80% is good enough for me, especially when all it takes is focusing on the right 20% when it comes to your effort and actions.
So take some time to look at your routines. See what things you’re doing that are giving you the most results, and double down on those, while eliminating the rest.
This is a balancing act, to be sure, but it’s much easier to strip things down to the bare minimum where you’re still getting results and add an activity here or there, than it is to keep putting so much of your time and energy into things that simply don’t move the needle for you.
It’s all about balance and enjoying your life, so with a little thought and some testing, you can 80/20 your fitness life and start making real gains in a fraction of the time.
About the author:
John Roark is a husband, father, and entrepreneur. He’s passionate about helping men increase their strength, stamina, confidence, and success. When he’s not playing hockey or training for a Spartan Race, he writes about men’s health and fitness at ManRevived.com.