PT on the Net Research

The 80/20 Principle


Achieve more with less. Doesn’t that sound like the dream of every client or athlete you’ve ever met? If you apply the 80/20 Principle to your exercise prescription, that’s exactly what will happen. The 80/20 principle will improve the results of your clients or athletes exponentially.

The 80/20 Principle is not a magic pill or a revolutionary form of exercise. Instead, it is a way of thinking. This way of thinking originated with the Italian economist Vilfredo Paredo a couple of hundred years ago. His original work found that 20 percent of the population held 80 percent of the wealth. The concepts were eventually expanded upon in 1941 by Joseph Juran, an industrial “quality guru.” Juran recognized that the 80/20 Principle could be applied to many business and production issues. He defined the principle by saying that 80 percent of the consequences can be attributed to 20 percent of the causes. Let’s look at a few interesting examples of the 80-20 Principle:

It’s astounding how this principle plays out. Of course, the numbers may not be exactly 80/20, but the discrepancy in the ratio is usually profound.

So what’s this got to do with exercise? Based on my 17 years of experience, it can accelerate results, keep your clients motivated and keep you on track for continued progress with them.

Currently, we are under the misconception that everything we do or recommend with our clients is at a 50/50 ratio. In other words, there is an equal amount of return for every effort your clients put forth. You probably believe that everything you do with your clients contributes equally to the positive results they achieve.

For example, let’s say you have a new client who is overweight and sedentary and has terrible nutritional habits. He is 42 years old and showing early warning signs of cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes. He hasn’t exercised in years. Essentially, you are beginning at ground zero with this individual. You may design a complete program that includes cardiovascular conditioning, some resistance training, flexibility and some nutritional recommendations. During the hour appointment with this client three times a week, you diligently cover all these components of a good fitness program.

Within the first few weeks, your client loses a few pounds, has an increased level of energy and is excited to continue. You might even pat yourself on the back for what a great job you are doing. It is at this very moment we make the unconscious assumption that all of the inputs (cardiovascular exercise, resistance training, flexibility and nutrition) contributed equally to the outputs (weight reduction and increased energy). And you are likely to continue using this same formula because you feel it is working.

However, if you were to analyze this hypothetical client's behaviors over an entire seven days instead of just the three hours per week you work with him, you might come to a different conclusion. You might find he has followed your suggestion and added two or three more days of cardio on his own by walking or riding his bike on off days from you. You might also find he is now taking the stairs and parking farther away from buildings. You are also likely to see some improvements in nutritional habits. Therefore, smarter food choices and reduced caloric intake during most meals put him in a negative calorie balance over the course of the seven days.

This begins to paint a picture of a disparity in the value of the different inputs in relation to the earned output. In other words, 20 percent of your instruction and education to this client was regarding cardiovascular activity. Yet it is that 20 percent that has yielded 80 percent of the results for this previously sedentary individual.

Once you approach your thinking this way and realize what your 20 percent is, you can exploit it. In our current example, you could increase the time spent on cardio and decrease the time spent on flexibility and resistance training. And instead of just chatting with the client while he works out, you can use this time to help him assess his heart rate, analyze current distances or intensities to structure goals, provide alternative modes of exercise, give examples of healthier eating and in general reinforce positive behavior.

I use the 80/20 Principle when teaching how to develop a corrective exercise prescription. The participants are first taught several musculoskeletal assessments. Then they perform a case study on a volunteer using all the assessments they are taught. After doing the assessments, they are inevitably quite pleased with themselves because they have just collected all of this critical “data.”

Then I ask them to design a corrective exercise program for the volunteer. Their satisfaction with themselves quickly turns to feelings of being overwhelmed, which results from linear thinking. Their mind follows a logic of “if this, than that.” Or if muscle “A” is weak, then stretch muscle “B” and strengthen muscle “A.” This has some validity if you are looking at one joint, but we are looking at multiple joints, bilaterally from head to toe in three dimensional spaces in a closed chain environment. Linear thinking would require some corrective exercise prescriptions to be made up of 100 or more exercises, and they still might not be successful!

I often kid the attendees seem just as concerned with five more degrees of flexion on the right index finger compared to the left as they are with a two inch elevation on one of the innominates. As Dr. Juran taught, we should be concerned with the “vital few” over the “trivial many.”

If we focused on the two, three and maybe four issues that have the greatest influence on this client’s dysfunction, our corrective exercise program will be more direct and effective. For example, with the two inch elevation, we are also going to see lateral flexion of the spine toward the same side and rotation of the lumbar vertebrae. With the elevation, lateral spinal flexion and rotation, we will observe asymmetrical weight bearing. These issues would clearly have the highest priority following our initial assessment. The corrective exercise program would be constructed around these three “vital few” dysfunctions to obtain the greatest results for our client.

Applying linear thought to series of systems (muscular, skeletal, neurological, physiological) is a mistake. All of these systems are interdependent and can have potentially an infinite number of combinations of responses based on the variables any given individual brings to the table. Variables might include age, occupation, recreational activities, past injuries, congenital influences or current pain status.

Linear thinking may help the novice trainer move his or her exercise prescription in the right direction. Linear thinking stifles the comprehensive exercise design that should be provided by the more experienced trainer.

It is the obligation of the experienced professional to avoid linear thinking and think 80/20. Obviously, the only way to arrive at an 80/20 decision is to assess clients and assess their current programs. You must avoid complacency in your exercise design. And you must be careful to not spend a great deal of your clients' time doing a lot and succeeding at a little.

Returning to our example of the client with the elevated pelvis, we know she will maximize her time and efforts because the effects of the focused corrective exercise program will create positive changes where her body has compensated the most. And of course, leveling the pelvis will positively influence the spine, lower extremities, trunk and shoulder girdle. That is time well spent!

Now the caveat: When dealing with the human organism and exercise, you must realize that your 80/20 should progressively change. As the sedentary client established new healthy cardio habits and his success continued, his 80/20 would have to reflect his new needs. This will likely include more resistance training and flexibility. When the pelvis of the client with the two inch elevation of the innominate becomes level, she must be reevaluated and her program adjusted to her new 80/20.

Some of the greatest improvements we can make as professionals are not always about understanding the research better or honing our techniques. Instead, it can be the thought process that we bring to problem solving. And every assessment and exercise prescription is just that, problem solving.