Only Four Exercises? A Confession to Make

I've got a confession to make. But first, I need to briefly touch on something..... You know the 80-20 rule, aka, the Pareto Principle? You know, the phrase which states that, for many events, 80% of the effects stem from 20% of the causes? I've referenced the 80-20 rule in my writings before to hit on the point that, within the sphere of physical training, 80% of your results are going to stem from 20% of the exercises/modalities you choose.

For example, let's say we have Person A and Person B. Both A and B possess identical genes, have the same training history, etc. etc. etc., and we have each of them perform the following workouts:

Person A: Squat --> leave gym Person B: Squat --> romanian deadlift --> lunge --> reverse hyper --> lying leg curl --> leave gym

I'm willing to bet that if you were to compare the results of Person A and Person B, the results of A would be pretty darn close to B. In fact, in some cases, the results of A may be even better than B.

Which leads me to my confession: Many times I will give my athletes and clients new exercises solely for the purpose of keeping things "fun" for them, as opposed to doing it because it's intrinsically necessary for their success in the gym.

"Woah, woah, WOAH there Mr. Reed, shouldn't you always do what is best for your hard-working athletes and clients?" you are probably asking me right now.

Well, in a way, I am giving them what is best for them.

You see, there are a couple little facets of human nature pertinent to this discussion. I like to call one of them "boredom." The other characteristic is something I like to refer to as "always looking for the silver bullet" (not as concise as the first one, but I hope you catch my drift). It's the very reason why the popular fitness magazines continue to sell. Because the editors are smart, understand how to prey on human nature, and know that if they place just the right promises on the cover, then their magazines will fly off the shelves like water during Y2K.

And the strength coach walks a fine line between managing these elements of human nature (i.e. continuing to give the athletes enough variety to keep them interested in their training), and giving the athletes what they need for success (which may be just doing 1-3 exercises per day, albeit manipulating the volume/intensity throughout the training cycle).

If the athletes aren't having fun, they aren't going to want to come back to train. If they don't want to come back to train, then when they do show up to train (because their coach/parent tells them to, or because they do it for the same reason they know homework is good to do), they are going to do so begrudgingly and give a half-hearted effort while in the gym. And then everyone loses out anyway.

It's a similar concept to general fitness enthusiasts. If they don't believe their program is going to give them more sculpted arms, or reduce their body fat, then these things probably won't happen! If they DON'T BELIEVE that they won't reach their goals without constantly doing new exercises, and making things as hard as possible (if it's not hard, it can't work, right???), then they'll be lucky to see their desired results anyway.

This actually reminds me of when we prepared Jason for his selection and assessment with the US Special Forces. After his first wave of training, he approached me and, to his credit, was very honest and blunt and expressed to me his concern about a few things in his programming.

In essence, he doubted that what we were giving him was actually going to get him from Point A to Point B.

I looked at him, and responded with, "If you don't believe in the program we are giving you, then it's not going to work regardless. Trust that what we are providing is going to help you succeed, and you will succeed."

Needless to say, he nodded his head and from that moment on grabbed the bull by the horns throughout the remainder of his training. You can discover the end results of his training by reading his testimonial in the link above.

Anyway, my point in all this is that oftentimes we get so lost by majoring in the minors, that we forget the "bread and butter" of what makes our training a success. For me personally, I've found that by focusing on four exercises at a time give me the best results. And every time I try to add more, it causes me to stray off the straight and narrow path toward my goals. For the past 10 weeks, these four exercises have comprised 95% of my training time:

1) Deadlifts 2) Inverted Rows 3) Sled Pushes 4) 1/2 Kneeling Landmine Presses (perhaps the only "press" variation I've found that has yet to irritate my cranky shoulder)

And you know what? I've continued to get stronger, and I've never felt better.

So I guess I'd revise the Pareto Principle to say that, in the realm of physical training, it's more of a 90-10 rule or, heck, even a 95-5 rule. There are of course exceptions to this, and no I wouldn't have a beginner perform only four exercises per training cycle.

I was kind of all over the place in this one, so let me try to best sum up my points:

1) Less is more. A very small percent of the exercises you choose (assuming you choose them wisely) are going to be responsible for the large majority of your results. 2) Even though #1 is true, sometimes the strength coach has to throw the athletes and clients a bone (or three) to keep them interested/having fun. Training should be fun, and even if my programming is partially motivated by helping those under my watch enjoy training for the sake of training, then I see nothing wrong with this. After all, not everyone gets off to doing inverted rows ten weeks in a row. 3) I'm not saying that one never needs to do direct ab or arm work. Don't be silly. 4) If you don't believe in the program you're doing, then it's not going to work, no matter how "perfect" it is.