The Pareto Principle of Lifting, or, “Stop Stepping over $100 Bills to Pick up Dimes!”

The following blog post was written by Duncan McCallum

Trainers need trainers.  We don’t know everything…as much as we read and as many Clients as we train, there is always new science, new movements, and new perspectives.  I am VERY fortunate to have a friend and hug-buddy (there’s a story there) in Brandon.  When he and I initially sat down to talk training, he mentioned something I was only just starting to come to grips with:  The 80/20 Rule.

Sure I’d heard of it, answered a true/false question about it before (the answer was T, by the way) but I wasn’t sure how to incorporate that into my training.  After breaking it down, my training underwent what can only be described as a sea change; I am sure many of you have noticed the subsequent changes in your programming as well.  As I’ve often said, we only have 24 hours in the day, so we have to make the most of them.  If some of that time is to be spent training, we are best served by focusing on those lifts and exercises that give us “the most bang for our buck.”

So without further ado, here’s Brandon’s guest post about the 80/20 Rule and why serious Athletes should take it seriously.

The Pareto Principle: also known as the 80/20 rule or (in it’s most bad-ass name in my opinion) the ‘law of the vital few’ is a concept derived from an Italian economist who recognized that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of land owners.  Now Italian land-ownership is irrelevant to me.. but experts time and time again have notice that this rule applies to anything.

Essentially: 20% of what you do typically yields 80% of your results.

This has been represented in economics, marketing, happiness, software optimization, and of course…  You guessed it! Occupational health and safety! And also yes weightlifting too, which is what we will discuss today.

So no, I can’t help you to purchase larger portions of Italian land..  but I can tell you (or for some, maybe just remind you of) how we can boost the majority of your fitness results by focusing in on the 2 things that create the highest degree of strength, hypertrophy, functional strength, and injury prevention.  You can be a better human faster by applying–or maybe reapplying–these 2 radically simple tips to your fitness routine: so here are the strength and fitness ‘vital few.‘

Finish this sentence: Compound lifts are ______________.

Compound lifts are: any lift that recruits a large collection of muscle groups and requires you to control your posture and stay stable as you move your body–and hopefully additional weight–through space.  These are pivotal to muscle building because big physiological changes require big stimuli. CSCS textbook page something something talks about the foundational “SAID” or specificity principle, and it still applies today–and likely forever.

SAID = Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.  It is what it sounds like: we adapt to the way we train.  If we train the calf raise strictly at 3 different angles while sitting and standing for 16 weeks, we strictly get 16 weeks better at pushing our toes into the floor–which is usually never the problem.  You have to move your whole body against resistance to get stronger at moving your whole body against resistance my friends: that’s why compound lifting will never die.

So when I say “compound lifts,” which lifts do I mean?

Next time you go to do any conventional weightlifting exercise, just ask yourself this: Am I moving more than one joint right now?  Because if you only flexed your elbow and your knee joint during the majority of your workout today, then you’re stepping over some crisp hundreds and scooping yourself up the strength-gain equivalent of a handful of nickels.  Single joint lifts are considered “accessory” strength movements.  Accessory to what you say? Compound lifts.

Don’t be a fool:  Push, Pull, Squat, Lunge/Step Up, and Hinge.  You can add to these, but they are never to be replaced or removed from a strength program.

Barbell presses, pull-ups, back squats, barbell lunges, and deadlift are usually well-trained people’s first go–and we totally love that. (Provided you can push similar weights as you can pull!)

If you’re not that guy or gal, there are a lot of other lifts that can represent those essential movements too!  Push ups, lat pulldowns, body weight squats, walking lunges, and bench hip extensions cover those 5 bases–and are 100% better options than a 2 hour routine full of accessory movements like hip abduction, hip adduction, quad extension, curls, kickbacks, etc.

There is a time and a place for those single-joint exercises, but that place is directly after doing 1 or 2 compound lifts minimally for 20-50 reps total.  If you’re not spending a solid hour or more each week taking your time and getting the form correct on 4-5 compound lifts, then you don’t have the time to waste doing less effective lifts for the “pump.”

Prioritize your compound lifts, and stop skipping them! Get better. Don’t let me catch you storming into a gym and going straight to the dumbbell rack (past all of the benches and perfectly good pressing and pulling machines) to go do some single arm concentration curls, cable triceps extensions, and lateral raises for reps.  That is how college guys get puffy-looking on a Friday night before they go get drunk…it’s not how strong people get stronger.

Brandon holds a BS in Exercise Science from the University of Vermont, and is a certified NASM corrective exercise, performance enhancement, and youth fitness specialist.  He works full time as a trainer focusing primarily on one-on-ones, has a mobile training business, and publishes and curates fitness information online to make it helpful and useful for everyday athletes and health enthusiasts.  While he has never seen “Blade Runner,” I highly recommend you give him a shout!





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