Italian Economists and Training

What can Italian economists have to do with training? A quick survey of the Italian economy in the post-war suggests that following this lead would result in a chaotic training regime. This may be correct, but at the turn of the twentieth century, there was an Italian economic, Vilfredo Pareto, who observed an interesting phenomenon in relation to income. Pareto identified that eighty percent of the wealth of the countries was controlled by twenty percent of the population. While Pareto struggled to eloquently explain his theory, it held true for multiple countries and multiple time periods.

The observation described by Pareto is now known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 principle. This principle is largely counterintuitive, as a more even distribution of incomes would normally be expected. The Pareto Principle has been applied to a multitude of situations outside of income distributions and found to hold true. The principle now holds that eighty percent of the effects come from twenty percent of the causes.

Now that the history lesson is over, what does the Pareto Principle have to do with training? The essence of the Pareto Principle is to achieve more with less. In the training context, it translates to “how can I maximize my gains (or my client’s gains) for the least effort?”

Examples of the Pareto Principle as applied to training could be:

  • Eighty percent of training gains come from twenty percent of the exercises
  • Eighty percent of the training gains come from twenty percent of the repetitions
  • Eighty percent of training injuries come from twenty percent of the causes

Experience tells me that these applications of the principle hold true.

80 percent of training gains come from 20 percent of exercises

To me, this is the most obvious application of the Pareto Principle. Of all the available exercises that can be performed, to me the big six are by far the most effective for building muscle, developing athletes, improving strength, and depending on how they are done, improving conditioning. My big six exercises are squats, deadlifts, bench press, military press, rows, and chin-ups.

A training program that is built around the correct execution of these movements should help the client achieve his goals. The skill for the trainer is to select loads, sets, repetitions, and frequencies that are appropriate for his client.

To me, this is part of the genius of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program. The program is largely built around these exercises with supplementary exercises being completed to assist in the development of these lifts. The supplementary exercises augment the major exercise for the day. They in no way are intended to replace it. Heavy squats, benches, and deadlifts are difficult, but the results they provide are why they have stood the test of time.

80 percent of training gains come from 20 percent of the repetitions

This is one area in which the principle may appear to be counterintuitive. Surely, the more repetitions you do the better, right? Aren’t all repetitions born equal? The answer is complex and beyond the scope of this article. In simple terms, the repetitions done need to align with the program goals and must generate a growth response. The last few repetitions of a set are generally the most beneficial as they take the body beyond its comfort zone to elicit a growth response. While a one repetition maximum is only repetition, it is taking the body to its limits to get a response. To use 5/3/1 as an example again, this could be why the final work set on the main exercise for a session includes the magic plus sign. It is the completion of the “+” repetitions, if possible, that generates the maximum benefit. Once you have done these repetitions and gained the benefit, move on. Don’t flog a dead horse.

80 percent of training injuries come from 20 percent of the causes

This one seems obvious, but based on the volume of training injuries is perhaps the most overlooked. In my view, the majority of training injuries result from poor exercise form, poor load selection, overuse, and muscle imbalances that haven’t been addressed.

If your form is substandard, you will suffer an injury now or at some point in the future. Learn how to do the major exercises properly, and if you're a trainer, ensure you can teach the major exercise properly. Understand the key components of the exercises and the appropriate training cues. Never settle for anything less than proper form for yourself, your clients, or anyone training in your facility. While at maximum effort loads, your form can get shaky. It shouldn’t fall apart.

While there is a certain black humor in watching the local loud mouth gym hero staple himself to the bench, the risk of injury is significant. Be vigilant in monitoring people training in your gym. If you see someone eyeing off a load he can’t lift, spot for him and then counsel him on a more appropriate load for his current capabilities.

Make sure that your programs cover all of the main joints of the body and balance your exercises—upper body, lower body, pushing exercises, pulling exercises, quadriceps, and hamstrings. You get the picture. It amazes me how many people endlessly pound the pavement and then complain of knee and hip problems. Balance.

If you have any muscle imbalances that you know of, fix them. If you're a trainer, know how to recognize and address muscle imbalances. If you don’t know how to do this, visit the websites of Mike Robertson or Eric Cressey and learn.

Address the obvious problems and avoid the major or subsequent problems. Achieve more with less—address the key causes to avoid the majority of the problems.


If used correctly, the Pareto Principle provides great power in more arenas than just training. While Pareto was never able to explain his principle in a way that allowed for wide acceptance before his death, we can leverage his work in our training to obtain better results for us and our clients.

When planning a program or a cycle within a program, always ask, “How can I achieve more with less?” Then program accordingly. Experiment on yourself, see what works and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly. Find the few keys that bring the best results and exploit them. Focus on the big lifts, key in on the critical repetitions, monitor your results, and avoid the common causes of injury.

I’m sure there are other applications of the principle that I have overlooked. I’d love to hear them.