Apr 18
The Pareto or 80:20 Principle in The Art of Lifting

Work Smart – The Magical 20%

“One weird trick” “Body hacks” “Eat these fat-burning superfoods”.

As you’re no doubt all aware by now, the majority of marketers in the fitness world claim that they can give you everything you’ve dreamed of, and you can have it all yesterday. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you that this is false, you already know that, but just how little can we get away with whilst still seeing big results?

I’ve written previously about some of the various ideas out there, for example, elite level athletes may aim for the 1% principle popularised by Team Sky Cycling. Beyond The Whiteboard have previously shown that the more times a week you workout, the faster you will progress (who’d have thunk it?!). Another principle that has been popularised over the years is the 80/20 principle. I may well have written about this before, in which case feel free to head back to your News Feed now, if not read on my friend.


The “Pareto Principle”, as it is also known was originally used in Italy to describe how the 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Since then it has been applied to a whole host of situations to help explain why and how things happen, with surprising accuracy. Obviously, we’re interested in the health and fitness side of things.

Let’s take your diet, for example, the Pareto Principle states that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts. Eating fewer calories than you burn in a day will lead to a drop in scale weight, that’s a given. Large results, from a relatively small amount of effort.

Making sure you get at least 0.8g of protein per lb of bodyweight will lead to further changes in body composition. Eating the correct balance of macronutrients will lead to yet more changes. But as we start to focus more on the minutiae, we start to see less dramatic changes. Eating fewer calories will certainly lead to a change in weight, yet eating grass-fed beef instead of regular beef? Probably not gonna change a lot, if anything at all. We hit a point of diminishing returns.

The RP Strength comparison of magnitudes. The basics will get you most of the way.

So Why Am I Not At Regionals?

When it comes to training you’re going to see 80% of your results from just 20% of your efforts, and this is seen regularly with a whole range of athletes!

Turning up to the gym, giving it everything for an hour and then going home, that’s the bulk of your work done there and then. Moving through the correct patterns, scaling appropriately and ramping up the intensity will make sure that you’re covering all bases.

So why are you not a strong and jacked Greek Adonis yet? Adaptations take time, and managing your expectations is key. An 80% improvement over the course of a year is huge, but an 80% improvement from one month to the next may not be quite as noticeable. Especially when it’s spread over such a range of domains as it is in CrossFit.

The guys at regionals have been getting the basic stuff right over the past 5-10 years or more, they’re freak athletes. Add in that they are in the top 0.5% of CrossFitters… they’re doing more than just the 20%.

Ignore The Fluff

The issues start to show when people forget about the stuff that really matters. We like the shiny, glamorous pieces. We like to focus on supplements, we like to focus on the high-level skills that look good on Instagram. It’s in our nature.

But we have to earn the right to focus on these sorts of things. Supplements will have a minimal effect on the way you look and the way you perform. Handstand walks are a neat party trick, but it’s the process of attaining handstand walks that will make us stronger and fitter.

As explained in The Art Of Lifting by Greg Nuckols (where the fantastic infographic for the title photo came from); There are the things that matter, and the things that do not matter. It really is quite simple in that respect. The things that matter are the basics. Moving correctly, moving often, moving in different ways and under different loads. The things that do not matter… your pre-workout, your knee sleeves, your fancy shoes. Yes, they’re nice, but they’re not what help you make the bulk of your progress.

If you’re getting in the gym three hours a week, and you’re working hard for those three hours a week, you’ll be doing just fine. Try that for a year and see where you end up. I’ll bet good money it’s a hell of a lot further than you’d think.

About The Author

Hi, I'm Jordan, a 22 year old pharmacy student/CrossFit L1 trainer working at CrossFit Norwich in the UK. I've been coaching for over a year now, I'm always striving to learn more and applying it in the gym, I hope you enjoy reading my musings and thoughts.

Leave a Reply