The 80/20 Principle in Training

80/20 movnat trainsmart

If we take a more holistic approach to our health and wellness, thinking about what we can actually do with it, we might also want to look beyond a purely physiological response. We might try to focus on activities that combine conditioning with useful skills.

The result is a training program that spends most of its time imparting conditioning and techniques that have the widest possible range of applications and which elicit both a physical adaptation (lower body fat, more strength, better stamina, etc.) and a neurological one (better reflexes, greater ability to navigate your environment, increased proprioception, better mathematical ability, etc.).

The Other 80/20 Rule

So once we've settled on the 20% of exercises that produce 80% of our results, how should we structure our training?

Well, let's take a break from movement and look at nutrition. Mark Sisson of Mark's Daily Apple is famous for his 80% rule, which states that 80% compliance with the Primal Blueprint diet is sufficient to get most of the results, while preserving your sanity. This means that 20% of your meals can be non-Primal/Paleo and you'll be fine. If you want to go the extra mile, you can always pursue those last 20%, but keep in mind that refining the program to that degree gets more difficult as you approach 100%.

Note that this is the complete opposite of the other 80/20 rule. Here we are saying that 80% is good enough, and 20% can basically be neglected.

On the Primal Blueprint, this means that 80% of your food is healthy, grassfed, low-card, anti-sugar, and that 20% is where you get to splurge on things you love, like a slice of crusty artisanal bread and butter.

Back to movement. We want to focus 80% of our training time on movements that are essential and maximally practical and useful. The other 20% can be dedicated to sport specific movements or exercises that have little real-world correlation (but which still support or larger goals).

Some examples:

Given that the body adapts to the specific demands imposed on it (SAID principle) we want to spend most of our training doing things that are real, and 20% of the time on supplementary work that may improve performance but doesn't directly translate. The closer we train to the conditions we want to adapt to, the better.

Remember, we have selected the 20% chunk that was making up 80% of our results, and inflating them so they actually take up 80% of our time. In theory, this should mean a 320% increase in our results, but I have a feeling the math doesn't work that way. My guess is that the 80/20 rule as described in the first section only describes systems that fall into place naturally, without this kind of directed distribution of effort, and over time, as our new system ages and frays, it will likely trend back towards the original situation.

Of course, we can also reserve that 20% for fun stuff, like handstands and backflips.

Choose Your Adaptation

Keep in mind that this depends on your sport and what you are trying to adapt to. If you're a bodybuilder, then you should probably spend 80% of your time training muscle isolation, and 20% training big lifts to build mass. If you want to be a good rock climber, you need to spend 80% of your training on a wall or a rock face, and use the 20% to round out any weaknesses.

If I were a dancer, I'd spend more time going through my routines and just a little strengthening and stretching. The idea is that the flexibility adaptations I get from actually doing my routine would be 100% more applicable to my routine (because they are adaptations elicited specifically by that routine) than anything I'd do on the side.

My goals (and the programs I teach) focus on imparting practical movement skills, and a well-rounded skill set. So 80% of my training focuses on skills that help people move through the world. 20% of the time, I incorporate a heavy deadlift with a barbell, or a tight, controlled CrossFit WOD with simple movements that lets me go heart-stoppingly fast, something I could never do outside a gym without balanced implements and straight-lines; or I do handstand work, just because I am fascinated with the ability to balance upside down for long periods of time.

This post is republished from my movement training blog, which is a part of my coaching business in Boulder.