Pareto Principle and Performance Training


Applying the Pareto Principle to Training

Spending the most time on whats important.

The Pareto principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 rule, basically states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. This concept is used extensively in all fields, but in our field it means that 80% of your transferable training effects come from 20% of the actual training work you put in.

I want to make a case for why this is true, who it is most effectively used for and how to use it. I also want to make a case for why its inherently false, populations it doesn’t work for and it doesn’t apply.

Here’s what you should know: in training, its not just about maxes. The rule can be applied to movement patterns, jump training, speed training, stretching, lifting, long term programming etc. Anything you do for an athlete has a desired physiological adaptation, and thus to some degree is limited by the 80/20 rule.

Using the Pareto Principle effectively

When training for maximal response, “beating a dead horse” so to speak to inch out additional response from a stimulus is poor use of time and effort. For a powerlifter, endlessly using the same exercise and loading scheme until it literally fails to continue to cause a response is a recipe for failure. They are judged by one thing: their total.

They are not judged by whether they effectively used 5×5 for maximal response for 3 years until it failed to produce tangible results. In this case, using the Pareto Principle is warranted: they need to get the maximal response from a specific exercise/protocol/program, then change the stimulus when the amount of energy expended vastly exceeds the return (diminishing returns on investment). They need that 80% response before rotating. Spending 80% more effort within an exercise to hit 20% additional gains is a poor use of time (opportunity cost.)

This concept is used HEAVILY with NFL Combine Training. When you have 4-7 weeks to prepare a guy for an event that can change the course of his life, a plateau is not even in the discussion. Jump and lift protocols revolve around the idea that we are going to overload early and often to force results. Anything past the 80% return will again take too long to cause additional return, and that is time we don’t have.

This concept can also be seen in a more global fashion rather than through a small lens: in training athletes, you can get 80% of your physiological return from a specific exercise in the first 1-3 sets. If you think about a general strength prep phase for an athlete: is more always going to be better? Will doing a 5th set of squats really cause an additional strength return that the athlete needs in order to run and cut faster? Or will it simply be expending capital (energy) with only a marginal return? If you can manipulate a protocol to get that 80% out of more exercises, your program quality and effectiveness increases, as opposed to trying to get 100% out of a few exercises.

Asked another way: is a volleyball player better if she squats 225 instead of 205? Could the energy spent to add that additional 20lbs been spent elsewhere?  If you could put the 20% effort to achieve the 80% result of maximal strength, I believe you could increase the transferability of the training program because you will spend more time training truly transferable qualities, such as speed, speed strength, strength speed, plyometrics, loaded plyometrics etc. Not itching at the same ones over and over to try and achieve a bigger result.

In general though, for program design, this thought process comes from needing to hit a maximal return in minimal time, maximal result from minimal investment. The clock before all else limits coaches.

Many would make the case that doing just squat, bench, and deadlift is the trick, that they offer the most bang for your buck, so focus on those. What do you think? Is dropping additional movement patterns going to allow you to focus on the major important lifts and drop the accessory stuff, or will adding more movement patterns and placing less emphasis on any one movement increase overall training effectiveness? We can only speculate!

What about jumping. Single response vertical jumps are a training exercise, and absolutely fall into the 80/20 rule: you can increase your vertical jump, for awhile, simply by training the vertical jump. However, many coaches view them as too simple to train, so they move to a more intense exercise (loaded or resisted jumps, multiple response etc), before realizing the full return of the more simple exercise. Could it be that by “bypassing” the less intense work, you are also “bypassing” results from future, more intense activity?

When the 80/20 Rule Doesn’t apply.

You are going to find a few emerging patterns from when this rule doesn’t apply: youth athletes, underdeveloped athletes, uncoordinated athletes, and in long term training protocols.

With a young kid, motor patterns come before all. It doesn’t matter if their goblet squat goes up by 5lbs a week or if they are back squatting by 15 years old, it matters if they can consistently perform a good rep, time and time again.

Think of a golf swing: does an 80% accurate swing make a good golfer? Of course not. Most movements are technical and require practice. From a motor learning perspective, 80% is not usually sufficient.

Uncoordinated and underdeveloped athletes have a similar process: you can’t build maximal strength on truly poor movement patterns. Once you build faith in an athletes ability to perform a movement, you can worry more about returning measurable results.

Most importantly, long term training methods starting with young athletes do not require frequent stimulus changes in the pursuit of short term maximal gain. In fact, the opposite is true: I would rather an athlete completely tap out the ability for an intensity to work before moving up, sacrifice the short term development for the long term. For example (entirely theoretical), if I have an athlete perform squats at 50% of their max for a year straight, and they added 150lbs to their max, that very low intensity program worked. If after 3 months I went to 60%, then 70%, then 80%, and by the end of the year had this new lifter performing 90% singles, do you think going back to 50% is ever going to cause a measurable gain again?

Sure, I may have increased their max FASTER by using the more intense protocol. I also limited long term ability by using up training resources before:

  1. they were needed to adapt
  2. they were fully used to maximal potential by a prepared athlete
  3. the athlete “used up” the ability of lesser intensity training to adapt

In this case, the 80/20 Principle is not applicable. Spending the additional 80% of your time to get the extra 20% return is worth it, because once you try to use it again, it probably wont give you much return again.

Bottom Line?

In the case of true time-sensitive performance, you absolutely, without fail, must apply the 80-20 principle. If you have 6 weeks to prep an athlete for a combine, or two months of offseason training and a long season, you cannot get caught up seeking perfection. You won’t get it.

When it comes to long term development, motor learning and technical skill, 80% is not good enough, and thus the rule does not apply. We want 100% maximal return from such sensitive movements.

About the author 

Steve Olson, MS, CSCS

Steve is a strength and conditioning coach, gym owner, and founder and CEO of Strength Coach Pro. Prior to founding SCP, Steve owned Excel Training Designs, a company created to help coaches better learn and use Excel for programming. Steve also owns a strength and conditioning gym in Cary, NC, and has his bachelors and masters in Exercise Science.

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