The Pareto Principle – Fuel Awesome Results, Save Your Sanity
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, was identified by Joseph Juran. It states that “80 percent of consequences stem from 20 percent of causes”. 
In the fitness world this means a key subset, roughly 20%, of all available fitness principles and protocols will account for 80% of your results. In even simpler terms, following a small number of basic best fitness practices will give you above average results. And if you’re looking to max out and achieve “perfect” results (100%), you’re going to have to employ significantly more fitness practices to achieve that remaining 20% of results.
For those with a mathematics or economics background, you’ll notice the 80-20 rule utilizes a horizontal asymptote at 100% or 1.0, and the law of diminishing returns. This means that up to a certain point you’ll notice rapid progress in size, strength, and power gains but past this point it could takes years or decades to achieve your maximum potential in any or all of those fitness attributes. Heck, one could argue that no one ever truly reaches 100%, but rather reaches 99.99% of potential fitness results.
Now, I’m not going to get on my high horse and tell you that you should stop after you employ the basic best fitness practices; maybe you want to be the best one in the field, on the stage, or on the platform. That’s absolutely fine and in fact, I encourage it. Just keep in mind that going from above average to excellent, or “the best”, is going to take significantly more time and effort than going from below average to above average.
Now that we’ve discussed the 80-20 rule as well as I’ve provided you with a few disclaimers on how it relates to the fitness world, let’s examine how to apply it towards three key components of a fitness lifestyle – Exercise, Nutrition, and Recovery.
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Exercise
Whether you’re looking to increase muscle mass, strength, and/or power through weight training, roughly 20% of all available exercises will be responsible for 80% of your results. It’s worth noting that this subset of essential exercises somewhat depends on your goal(s).
If you’re a powerlifter looking to lift as much weight as possible, you need to perform the Big 3 regularly – bench, squat, and deadlift. However, if you’re an Olympic lifter or athlete looking to increase power and explosiveness, snatches and clean and Jerks are a must.
For those trying to improve aesthetics or pack on muscle mass, you should focus on compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups. This includes the Big 3, Olympic lifts, overhead press, rows, dips, chin-ups, lunges, and their respective variations. Now if you’re looking to round out the remaining 20%, feel free to include movements that isolate muscle groups or weak points as well as exercise that don’t specifically correlate to your primary activity. For example, if you have the extra time, work capacity, and desire, feel free to incorporate Olympic lifts in to your powerlifting routine.
The same 80-20 and framework also applies to cardiovascular exercise. If your primary focus is running a fast 10k, then you better be putting in the miles and speed work. However, if you’re focused on weight training, don’t neglect your heart. Just 20-45 minutes of low-moderate cardiovascular activity 2-3 times per week is sufficient to ensure your heart stays humming.
For those looking to achieve that remaining 20% of results, feel free to incorporate High Intensity Interval Training, but be forewarned that this impacts recovery to a greater degree and may affect your weight training performance.
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Nutrition
If you’ve been exposed to the fitness world for a reasonable period of time, you’ve probably heard the following phrases – “you can’t out-train a lousy diet” or “abs are made in the kitchen.” While I would agree with both of those statements, let’s discuss the 80-20 rule applied to nutrition. I can’t write this portion of the article without mentioning the invaluable chart seen below; created by Dr. Mike Israetel and found in his nutrition book entitle “The Renaissance Diet.” 
The chart entitled Comparing Magnitudes, found in “The Renaissance Diet” by Dr. Mike Israetel, demonstrates the hierarchy of importance and impact each component of nutrition has on results.
I 100% agree with the chart. It flows nicely when applying the 80-20 rule. As you can see, consuming the proper calorie balance for your goal accounts for about half of your results and if you also dial-in macronutrients, you’re looking at about 80%. Just four values (calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats) have such a large impact on your physique and performance. The remaining 20%, comprised of nutrient timing, food composition, and supplements play a role in overall results, but to a much smaller degree.
This chart also reiterates that before moving higher up the bar graph, all portions below it should be in order. If you’re looking to cut but are consistently eating at or above your maintenance caloric needs, you shouldn’t worry about which fat burner to take. Likewise, you shouldn’t be concerned with the optimal number of meals per day if not eating enough protein per day to support recovery and muscle protein synthesis.
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Recovery
Before wrapping up the article let’s discuss the 80-20 rule and the third key component of a fitness lifestyle – recovery.
If you’ve been exposed to the fitness world you’ve probably heard the phrase “you grow outside of the gym.” This implies that your activities during the other 22 or 23 hours of the day have more of an impact on your fitness goals than the time you’re in the gym.
If you search the Internet using the keywords “weightlifting and recovery” you’re going to get nearly 2 million results. If you tried to employ every recovery technique you’d run out of time in the day, let alone time to actually exercise.
Between sleep and naps, you should achieve about 80% of your maximum recovery ability.
Without a doubt, the most important contributor to recovery from intense exercise is sleep. If you’re not getting at least 6 hours of sleep and ideally between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, you need to remedy this ASAP.
Alex Roberts recently wrote an article on “5 Tips to Improve Sleep and Optimize Body Composition”, in which he mentions the importance of sleep for normal hormonal and brain function. If you’re not able to get 6 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, try to sneak in a nap. I understand extenuating circumstances exists, but if you’re the average Joe Gymbro and you claim you don’t have enough time to get that much sleep, I call bulls**t.
Now between sleep and naps, you should achieve about 80% of your maximum recovery ability. However, if you’re looking to optimize and obtain that last 20%, here are a few recovery techniques that will contribute – massages, temperature therapy (e.g. hot/cold contrast showers), foam rolling, active/passive/dynamic stretching, and performance enhancing drugs (e.g. pro-hormones or anabolic steroids).
Final Thoughts on the Pareto Principle
I firmly believe that unless you’re looking to reach the elite level at your activity of choice, you can achieve respectable results by employing the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. This rule dictates that only a small portion of inputs (~20%) is responsible for the vast majority of results (~80%). We can apply this apply this principle in the context of fitness, through the lenses of exercise, nutrition, and recovery.
From the exercise standpoint, performing heavy compound lifts and moderate intensity cardiovascular activity will build a majority of your muscle mass and work capacity. From the nutrition standpoint, the proper caloric and macronutrient intake will primarily drive physique changes. From the recovery standpoint, sleep (specifically nightly uninterrupted sleep) is hands-down the most important tool in your recovery arsenal.
The second most important being naps, a close relative to sleep. Although the list of essential fitness practices mentioned above seems too simple and short, don’t underestimate the impact of these practices on achieving your fitness goals.
Before concluding the article I want to leave you with two quotes. The first is from a powerhouse in the fitness industry, Jim Wendler, who said, “don’t major in the minors.”  The second is from the iconic martial artist Bruce Lee who said, “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
Whenever you get caught up in the minutiae or latest and greatest fitness fads and trends, just remember those two quotes, If apply them as well as the recommendations outlined in this article then you’ll be back on-track achieving your fitness goals and maintaining your sanity.
1) “Joseph Juran, 103, Pioneer in Quality Control, Dies – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.
2) “The Renaissance Diet – Juggernaut Training Systems.” Juggernaut Training Systems. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.
3) “5/3/1 FAQ – Please Read! – JimWendler.com.” JimWendler.com – Jim Wendler’s Homepage. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.