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Training using the 80/20 Rule

November 1, 2013 by Carl Nelson

One of my golden rules is following the 80/20 principle in all aspects of my life. For those that aren't familiar with this principle, it basically states that 80% of results come from 20% of the efforts.  In other words, work smarter not harder by focusing on those activities that yield the most results.
It's no secret that bodybuilders, weightlifters, and serious fitness enthusiasts can be a bit obsessive when it comes to building muscle and/or losing fat often spending hours developing that perfect workout plan or tweaking the diet slightly for the perfect macronutrient breakdown. You see these types of people asking questions like:
Should I do barbell curls or dumbbell curls first in my routine?
Should my post-workout carbohydrates come from white rice or brown rice? or
Should I split my food up into 6 meals spaced 3 hours apart or 7 meals spaced 2.5 hours apart?
Unless you're already doing all of the basics (those that produce the greatest results) properly and are a highly experienced athlete, the answers to the previous questions probably don't matter. People should stop wasting time and energy on the nitty-gritty details and start focusing on the core principles of training.
So, what are the most important principles? Based on my experience over the last 12 years of training, the following principles are the most crucial for long term results:
Goal Setting - Set short term (3-6 month) and long term (1-3 year) goals. Whether it’s to add 5 lbs. of muscle, reduce your waist size by 3 inches, or increasing your bench by 25 lbs. The goal should be important to you and make sure it follows the SMART method. That is, the goals should be Specific, Measureable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time bound. An example of a poor goal would be to “build a stronger and larger chest”. A better goal would be to “increase my bench by 20 lbs. and increase my chest size by 2 inches by December. This follows the SMART method. Once you think of 2-5 short term and a few long term goals, write them down somewhere you can refer to them often. Studies show that just writing a goal down somewhere significantly increases the probability that you’ll reach it. A workout journal is the perfect spot.
Incorporate Compound Lifts - The main exercises in your workout should be compound lifts. Bench press, squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, barbell rows, and overhead press should be incorporated into your workouts regularly. Done properly, they are a key to increasing strength, power, and subsequently muscle mass. They are truly the essence of the 80/20 rule as single exercises that hit multiple muscle groups. If you can’t remember the last time you squatted, it’s probably time to throw it back into the mix. Including these exercises at the beginning of the workout when you are strong and have high energy levels is best. There’s also a reason they’re hard…it’s because they work.
Progressively Overload The Muscles - Essentially, this means focus on increasing your strength by slowly adding weight and/or reps to your lifts. To do this, you need to start tracking your weights every day. Get a notebook and pen, bring it to the gym, and write your weights down after every set. How do you know you’re getting stronger if you can’t remember what you curled on your third set last week? Your goal should be to move up in weight or in reps every workout while keeping good form. Of course there will be days when you aren’t as strong, but as long as you are increasing strength over the long run, you can be assured you’ll add quality muscle mass.
Eat Good Quality Foods – This is a big one. I’m not going to tell you to weigh all of your food and track every calorie that you eat. While it’s great to know exactly how many calories, fat, carbs, and protein you are getting, it’s also very time consuming and can be a hindrance to other important aspects of your life. Instead, I’ll keep this simple by stating you should strive to eat good, high quality foods every day. Lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats are a great place to start. I’ve found the best way to do this is to develop a habit of eating similar meals during the workweek. It’s easier to do because you can get into a routine of bringing your own food to work or school, and eating the meals at the same time every day. For example, every day I eat cottage cheese, fruit, and oatmeal as a mid-morning snack, and lean protein and brown rice or a sweet potato mid-afternoon. I switch up the fruits, protein, and vegetables so I don’t get sick of the same foods every day. Then I don’t feel guilty if I choose to relax with my meal choices when I get home or eat out on the weekends. You don’t need to only eat good foods…as long as you are eating more good quality foods than bad.
Get Adequate Rest – I’m not going to tell you to get 8-10 hours of sleep every night because I don’t. What I am going to say is that you need to make sure you are getting enough rest so that 1) you are recovering from your workouts adequately and 2) you have enough energy to train intensely in gym. By getting enough rest, I also mean scaling back on your workouts once in a while when you feel burned out, when progress has slowed or declined, or when injuries are present. Every 8-10 weeks, I incorporate a deload week into my routine where I scale back on the weights and volume by about 60%-70%. This allows my body to recover, while still getting into the gym to remain active. I rarely take an entire week completely off unless I’m traveling or on vacation. When training, your number one priority should be to stay injury free. It isn’t until you’ve become injured until you realize how bad it sucks. Listen to your body, get adequate rest, and incorporate deloads regularly into your routine to help ensure you continue to progress and remain healthy.
That’s it! Those are my 5 biggest principles. Have one to add? Add it to the comments below. I’d love to hear your ideas.
Carl Nelson, CSCS
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