Are You Focusing On the Right Parts of Your Workout Program?

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There is a kind of well known principle called the Pareto principle that puts forward that in many cases, roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. This was first hypothesized when an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He later developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.

What does this have to do with fitness and nutrition?

There are way to many people believing that whatever current diet or lifting program they are on is the “magic pill” to get the body they want. Actually, if they are getting consistent results, then is there really anything wrong with having a few false beliefs? Yes and no.

In one sense, if you happen to stumble upon some particular strategy that seems to be working for you, and you are getting consistent results in the right direction, then it seems that there really isn’t any need to change. Sure, you might be able to find something a little more efficient, but at least you are progressing.

The problem arises when you stop progressing. The is especially apparent with the “newbie gains”.  If someone has never lifted before, then when they start lifting, virtually in any way, shape or form, they are going to see some sort of results. Their strategy will be “working”. However, after a certain amount of time, they develop enough muscle mass that the gains start to slow, or in some cases stop completely. When this happens, it’s important to know which parts of your strategy are/were producing most of the results, while knowing which parts aren’t/weren’t very important in the grand scheme of things.

If you’re “magic pill” stops working, are you going to know what to change in order to get it to start working again? The only way to know this is to know which parts of your program/strategy was giving you most of the results in the first place, or, even arguably more important, you need to know which parts of your program/strategy was NOT greatly contributing to your progression so you can check those off the list.

Here’s an example:

Many people are under the impression that they need to eat 5-6 times per day in order to keep “stoking the metabolic fire” a.k.a. keep the metabolism up if they don’t want to gain fat. They are told to eat less each meal but spread them out throughout the day.  While this sounds all fine and dandy, it doesn’t really play out under controlled conditions.

Eating 5-6 meals a day can allow someone to get leaner, though not by the mechanism that everyone associates it with: It makes the person become more conscious of their eating and, at the end of the day, eat less food than they otherwise would have. So, it’s actually the less amount of calories that is allowing that person to lose fat, not some magical metabolic mechanism.

The point is, if you were to focus on the eating less part, you would know that you cannot gorge yourself each of those 5-6 meals and rationalize it with an increased metabolism excuse.

By know which things are giving you the results, you open yourself up to allow change if something stops working. You can better diagnose the situation, rather than just give up on your current strategy and adopt a new magic pill solution.

This applies equally, if not more, to lifting.

With the recent explosion of programs like p90x, cross training, and insanity, people start focusing on the program itself too much, rather than the principles that are causing that program to work. If a program, like insanity, for example, makes you burn off a ton of calories while also giving you some pointers on how to eat less, you are most likely going to lose weight. You lost some calories due to the workout, and now you don’t want to ruin all your effort by stuffing your fase, so you’ll take it easy on the food.

No magic. Just basic thermodynamics.

With more lifting-oriented programs like cross training, power rep range shock (PRRS), MaxOT, etc, etc…. There are always certain principles that lay the foundation for each type of training. Sure, a lot of the details of the programs differ, but in order to be effective they must contain some basic principles of hypertrophy.  For example, any decent lifting program has to have in it, somewhere, the principle of progressive overload – slowly increasing the weight you put on the bar over time.

The problem arises when people start putting more focus on the details of the program rather than the principles. People start thinking “Well, this program says that I have to do 8 reps of 150 lbs.” So when they are at their 8th rep and not close to failure yet, they put the bar down anyway, thinking that they are adhering to the program. If their focus was to do MORE weight or MORE reps with the same weight than previously, they would have a much easier time growing and progressing.

This is the same thing that happens when people start doing pressing exercises on a yoga ball. They are increasing the importance of a minor detail (stability) and decreasing the importance of a principle (lifting heavy, relative to themselves). The reward just doesn’t add up to the cost.

There are many principles to lifting and hypertrophy. Some are generally accepted, like progressive overload and using a heavy enough weight to induce growth (mechanical load), while others are debated, like frequency of workouts. I do not want to go through and list all the principles here party because Hypertrophy Specific Training does a good job of that, partly because I don’t feel like it, and partly because too many “principles” are still debated regularly.

However, what I do want to come out of this is for you to examine your current program yourself. Look at the program you are doing and try to outline and differentiate between the principles and the details. The principles will give you 80+% of the results, while the details will probably give you 20-% of the results.

The purpose of this suggestion is twofold:

  1. It will allow to know what to focus on while you’re at the gym and know what to change (or NOT to change) if the results stop coming.
  2. If you don’t know what the principles are, you will probably need to do some digging online in order to find out. This will increase your knowledge of hypertrophy (muscle growth) and fat loss, which will also help with point (1).