“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius —and a lot of courage— to move in the opposite direction.” — E. F. Schumacher
Easy Peasy Gardening
According to legend, in 1895, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto noticed something quite bizarre taking place in his garden.
Whilst harvesting his veggies, he realized that most of the peas he gathered came from only a few pea pods. More specifically, he found that around 80% of his peas came from only 20% of the pods he planted (and conversely, a mere 20% of the peas came from 80% of his other pea pods). Later on, in his economic inquiries, he also realized that this same pattern applied to the distribution of land itself in Italy: where roughly 80% of the land was owned by only 20% of the population.
Pareto didn’t know it back then, but he was the first to notice one of the most universal patterns of distribution we have ever come across. What we now know as the Pareto Principle (or the 80/20 rule) states that, in many events, around 80% of the effects (i.e. output) come from 20% of the causes (i.e. input).
To give you some examples:
80% of words we use represent 20% of the total words in our language.
80% of errors in Microsoft computers come from 20% of the userbase.
80% of healthcare resources are used by 20% of the population.
80% of the world’s income is owned by 20% of inhabitants.
I could go on. It’s everywhere (maybe we’ll discuss why another day).
When my meathead brain first heard about the Pareto Principle, I instantly wondered how I could apply it to physical training. (Un)surprisingly, the answer lies in doing pretty much the opposite of what the fitness industry tells you to do.
The Vital Few & The Trivial Many
Here’s an intuitive way in which Pareto could have represented his findings.
Imagine he grabbed a big mason jar and went to his garden to look for a few chunky rocks, a bunch of pebbles and some soil. Now imagine he was determined to fill out the jar as much as possible with them — how should he go about it?
Well, he basically has two options:
Option 1 (the dumb way): just throw it all inside the jar and hope for the best.
Option 2 (the smart way): place the big rocks first, then let the pebbles slide into the airgaps, and do it once more with the even-smaller soil particles.
In this scenario, the rocks represent 20% of the causes that have 80% of the impact: there are barely a few rocks, but they occupy most of the total volume. On the other hand, the pebbles and soil represent 80% of the causes that have 20% of the impact: there are many of them, but they don’t really help fill out the mason jar.
Here’s the deal: when it comes to training, most people are persuaded to spend all their time and energy worrying about pebbles and soil when they should really be focusing on placing those rocks first. The world of fitness is very complex and sophisticated, yes, but the basic iron rules behind it are actually stupid simple:
Consistency: train regularly over an extended period of time.
Specificity: train what you want to get better at.
Progress: make sure you are actually getting better at it over time.
Nutrition: eat real food based on your goals.
Recovery: get enough good-quality sleep.
That’s it. This is the 20% that gets you 80% of the results.
Unless you consider yourself an intermediate-to-advanced trainee, these big rocks should be your biggest focus. Worrying about the rest would be like worrying about the tire pressure of a car you’ll buy next year… after getting your driver’s license.
In fitness —just like in life— most people concern themselves with negligible specifics as a way to avoid the big picture. It’s much easier to blame your lack of progress on egg yolks, “anabolic windows” and protein shakes than it is to admit you simply haven’t been training or sleeping enough.
It’s time we stop collecting pebbles — and start collecting rocks.
Complicating things is all but complicated; training isn’t so much about doing more, but about doing less — and doing it right. If you want to train the smart way, train the minimalist way: by getting the bare essentials right and ruthlessly disregarding all the rest.
Thank you all for being here.
PS: I haven’t talked about training as much as I’d like in my blog, and it’s honestly one of the topics I’m most passionate and —I hope— well-informed about. If you have any comments/feedback, I would very much appreciate you sharing them with me, either down in the comments, through Instagram, Twitter or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PPS: Can we take a moment to appreciate how childish my rock drawings are? I was going to use these ones I found online but decided to bring out my inner Caravaggio for a ride instead. No regrets.