Applying Pareto’s Principle to Training & Nutrition

In summarising the Nutrition and Training Pyramid presented by Helms et al, it may be helpful to think of them in terms of Pareto’s '80/20 principle'.

Vilfredo Pareto is the father of the '80/20 principle'. Pareto noticed that across time and space 80% of a given nation’s wealth would be owned by 20% of the population. Pareto’s principle can also be applied to business, where it can be found that 80% of a businesses income is derived from only 20% of it’s clients.

So let’s expand Pareto’s principle to nutrition and training. “If you can identify the 20% - the crucial 20% necessary to maximise your results - and apply yourself fully to that particular 20%, you free up 80% of your effort cache for other important things” (Zielonka).

Let's first have a look at the Nutrition Pyramid & find out where to focus the critical 20%: -.

From the diagram above you can see the most important factors form the base of the pyramid. They form a strong foundation from which everything else is supported. So, in terms of nutrition, where should you be focusing on for maximum progress?

  • Consistency/adherence
  • Energy Balance
  • Macronutrients

What does this mean in real terms?

It means that to make any meaningful changes to your body composition, be it losing fat or gaining muscle, you must: -

  • Be patient & know that changes will likely occur over a number of months, not just days or even weeks. Therefore setting yourself up with a sustainable plan is likely to be the best option to maintain consistency over the long-term.
  • Ensure that you are getting your calorie targets right. The sure-fire way to know this is if you are counting/tracking calories and making adjustments based on feedback from your bodyweight, measurements, body fat, or any other means of tracking progress (I suggest using 2-3 different forms of tracking progress).
  • Ensure that you are consuming enough protein. This is the most important of the 3 macronutrients to get right. Basic guidelines around protein intake indicate a daily intake of anywhere from 1.6-2.2g per kg of bodyweight per day to suffice for healthy, strength training individuals. Erring on the higher side may be prudent if in a calorie deficit and seeking to lose body fat. Lowering your intake slightly may be beneficial for more advanced trainees, or those eating at maintenance or a caloric surplus.

By doubling down on those 3 points alone, you will ensure that you are getting the most bang for your buck. Sweating the trivialities before getting the above right is pointless. Sure, there are other factors to consider beyond these, but these will reap 80% of the results you will ever likely see.

No let’s take a look at what should be concerning you from a training perspective. Let’s take a look at the training pyramid, below: -


Again, it is very evident to see that the bulk of our focus should be on the following: -

  • Adherence
  • Volume, Intensity & Frequency
  • Progression

So what does this actually mean?

In order to make meaningful changes to your body composition (get ‘lean’, ‘jacked’, ‘ripped’, ‘toned’, ‘shredded’, ‘huge’ etc), you must: -

  • Follow a training plan that can be adhered to in the long-term. Much like a diet, this isn't about days and weeks. Changes happen slowly, so ensure the program you are following now can be sustained for the next 6-12 months. If you cannot envisage yourself maintaining your current program for that long, you are most likely setting yourself up for failure.
  • Follow a training program where volume, intensity and frequency are manipulated to suit your goals. For the most part, work with compound lifts, such as the Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Chin-Up and Overhead Press. Basing your program around variations of these main lifts will ensure you hit all muscles of the body in a time efficient way. Adding extra volume in the form of isolation lifts becomes increasingly important the more advanced you become and if hypertrophy (building muscle) is the goal.
  • Follow a program that allows for progression over time. As you become more advanced with your training, the more total volume you will need to ensure you keep making progress. Following a program that ensures continued progress is crucial. Progress occurs at a much faster rate for beginners (first 1-2 years of training). The rate of progress slows the closer you get to your genetic potential. The reality is, many beginners start off doing too much in the gym, getting sucked into the ‘more is better’ mode of thinking. Train with fewer sets per session on a given muscle group, but train that muscle more frequently throughout the week (2-3 times appears optimal for the majority of people). Adding endless amounts of sets may give you a great pump, but it may impede your ability to recover from the session, leading to a decrease in performance and the potential to over-train. Giving your body time to adapt and recover is absolutely crucial. If you aren’t managing to lift more weight over time, you simply aren’t making progress.

So there you have it. Focus on what's important and ensure you get these things right before worrying about smaller factors that will have far less of an overall impact.

A key theme here is long term sustainability, both in terms of diet and training. Try to fall in love with the process and stop looking for quick fixes. Ensure you can maintain your current plan for long periods of time. If you can't, you are setting yourself up for eventual failure.