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The Benefit Of Following The 80-20 Principle With Your Workouts

For years I’ve long been a proponent and advocate for short 30 minute workouts. The various burst training workouts that I’ve built the Shaping Concepts personal training programs around all have one thing in common…they’re time efficient.

You see I’m a believer that it’s not how long you workout, but rather what you do during the workouts that matters most. While this may seem obvious, walk into most any gym or health club and you’ll find a lot of folks failing to make the best use of their time.

The secret to maximizing your results in the minimum amount of time (which I’m assuming we all want) lies with incorporating the 80-20 principle with your workout program design. Yes, I’m referring to the Pareto principle which states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes.

More after the jump…

The 80-20 Principle (a.k.a. Pareto Principle)

You’ll find the 80-20 principle at work in everything from business to matters of personal growth and development. Invariably we all have 1440 minutes to work with each day no matter how you slice it. Ultimately the results of any endeavor of our undertaking is determined by how and what we spend our time on.

Working out is certainly no exception. One of the biggest time efficiency mistakes I see being made in gyms and health clubs is the practice of following bodybuilding style workouts with “straight sets” on several exercises each targeting a specific muscle group(s), by those who aren’t necessarily bodybuilders.

When I talk of “straight sets” think along the lines of doing 3-4 sets with a particular exercise, resting for a minute or two between sets, and completing all sets and reps before moving to the next exercise.

Often times there may be four or more exercises for each muscle group targeted in the workout. Again, this goes back to bodybuilding type protocols which typically have routines based on muscle groups instead of movements.

For example, Monday’s workout might be chest and triceps, Tuesday’s workout back and biceps, etc. While this can be appropriate for bodybuilding, these routines are far from being necessary or time efficient for the average trainee.

Here’s an example workout that would be more of a bodybuilding type routine:

Barbell Bench Press – 4 x8
Incline DB Chest Press- 3 x 10
Cable Fly’s – 3 x 10
Seated Pec Deck – 3 x 10

Barbell Close Grip Press- 3 x 8
DB Triceps Kickbacks – 3 x 10
Cable Rope Triceps Pressdown – 3 x 10

Ab Board Sit-Up’s – 3 x20
Cable Crunches – 3 x 20

Alright, let’s look at the 80-20 principle at play here. If the barbell bench press is able to deliver 80% of the results, those individuals who are short on time or energy would benefit from an efficiency standpoint by just doing that one exercise to target the chest.

This isn’t to say that one has to limit themselves to just one chest exercise in a workout, it’s more about the misleading idea that multiple exercises are needed to effectively work every part of a muscle group.

In short, it’s easy to get caught up in doing a lot of work that falls into the 20% category. Truth be told I made this mistake for years when I was younger. Doing set after set of various exercises for upper chest, lower chest, triceps, biceps, etc, instead of really focusing on maximum effort with the basic compound movements.

If you were to provide enough progressive overload with a military press or bench press for example, there’s not much need to spend a ton more time on triceps isolation exercises. They would’ve already received a significant amount of work with the presses.

The same thing could be said with squat or deadlift work with the lower body. Hit either one of these hard enough and with overload principals in place, and there’s little need to do multiple sets of additional seated leg extensions, leg curls, etc.

Focus on movements that matter…

Again, if I’m short on time and want to maximize efficiency, I’d focus on the primary compound movements and give them my full effort. If time and energy was still left after that, then and only then would I look at doing further isolation exercises.

If my schedule and time availability made it conducive to weight train three times per week for 30 minutes, I’d start by looking at doing total body routines first before progressing to split routines.

Here’s an example three day rotation focusing on total body workouts. Don’t get hung up on the details here, but do look at the pairings and order of exercises.


Barbell Chest Press
Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
Cable Diagonal Woodchop
Medicine Ball Push-Up
Kettlebell Deadlift
Wheel Rollouts – Abs


Barbell Overhead Military Press
Barbell Back Squat
Dumbbell Upright Rows
Band Rotations
Dumbbell Alt Lunges
V-Up’s – Abs


Trap Bar Deadlifts
Barbell Incline Chest Press
Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
Kettlebell Bottom’s Up Press
Plank Variation

Again don’t overly fixate on the exercises themselves, this would largely depend on your fitness level and goals. There are appropriate exercise progressions and regressions as well for each individual. What I wanted you to see was the minimizing of what I refer to as “fluff work.”

If you only had 30 minutes or so to work with, putting priority on compound movements would go a long way towards seeing progress. You’d be hitting multiple large muscle groups in each workout and covering a lot of bases.

Depending on how you structured the workout in regards to loads, sets, reps, rest periods, etc, this could be highly effective for fat loss, muscle building, and anything in between.

Stop doing “straight sets” and hanging out at the water cooler between each one…

Notice the order of exercises as well in the workouts above. The pairings of exercises is such that you’re working different muscle groups which allows for shorter rest periods between movements.

In the first workout you’d do a set of barbell bench press and then proceed to do a set of lat pulldown’s. This is in contrast to doing 3-4 sets of barbell bench press before moving on, or perhaps doing 3-4 chest exercises in a row.

Even when doing split routines where you might focus more on push, pull, or lower body exercises, I frequently like to break up the main compound weight training movements with functional exercise or core work in between.

In essence you’re getting active recovery instead of just sitting and resting between sets. Again there are a lot of ways to structure workouts and see results so long as there are overload principals in place. This isn’t meant to be a knock on bodybuilding style workouts.

It’s just that unless you have the time or desire to spend an hour or more training, there are more efficient ways to go about programming your workouts.

Always be thinking about where you’ll get the most bang for your buck per say with the exercise selection. When time is of the essence, think about the 80-20 principle.

Who made the unwritten rule of doing 3-4 sets with each exercise anyway?

It can be a good practice to add variety to your workouts and there’s certainly nothing wrong with using multiple exercises to provide an overload stimulus on the muscles you’re targeting. I just think that somewhere we’ve come up with this unwritten rule that one should only do 3-4 sets with a particular exercise.

Far too often this just leads to individuals going through the motions with lots of exercises. If an overhead press of some sort can provide 80% or more of the results with shoulder development, it doesn’t make much sense that you’d need to do four or more exercises just for the shoulders.

Tip: Do the movements you see most people avoiding in health clubs

It’s been my experience that the majority of the exercises that produce the most significant results are the ones you see a lot of folks either avoiding or doing minimal work with in the health clubs.

Take a look around the next time your in the gym, see who’s working really hard with exercises like the following:

  • Overhead Presses
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • RDL’s
  • Lunges
  • Hang Cleans or Power Cleans
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Pull-Up’s
  • Push-Up’s
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Turkish Get-Up’s

You get the idea…the reality is you’re likely to see more individuals doing machine presses, leg extensions, seated bicep curls, and the such. Marking off the sets and reps as they go and completing the workout in checklist fashion.

If you’re serious about seeing a change in your physique from all that time you’re spending in the gym, don’t miss on the “movements that matter.” Forget about the number of exercises or feeling like you have to stick within that unwritten rule of doing 3-4 sets with each one.

Could you really get an effective workout with just two exercises?

I’ve done plenty of “peel yourself off the floor when you’re done” workouts that consisted of only two exercises. Try cycling back and forth between a kettlebell swing an some sort of squat variation for even 10 minutes and see what happens. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll have produced a metabolic disturbance and applied overload.

Again, there’s one right or wrong way to go about your workouts so long as they’re effective. The only wrong way is the one that either failed to produce results or left you injured.

There are lots of workout variations that will work to produce results, but none of them work well indefinitely, which is why you want to change things up. Just look to avoid going through the motions with a lot of exercises.

When in doubt hire a trained fitness professional…

If you’re unsure of how to do some of the basic compound movements which can produce the most significant results, consult with a knowledgeable fitness coach or personal trainer who can assist you.

You’ll be glad you did when you start seeing how you can achieve better results in less time. Remember 80% of the results are from 20% of the causes. Spend your time wisely and get the most out of each workout.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping people achieve a body transformation with burst training workouts and personalized nutrition strategies. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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