The Law Of The Vital Few

By November 9, 2008 7 Comments

Coach Greg Glassman has said, “We work with a cast of about thirty exercises where about fifteen account for 80% of the workouts. The cast of characters that comprise our routines are so potent in increasing strength from head to toe that regular exposure to any of them nearly guarantees improvements in the others. Improve your deadlift, bench, and pull-ups and your squat, dips, and rope climb will come up. The neuro-endocrine response of the major lifts is so potent that they alone will increase your strength measured by any other exercise so that seemingly infrequent exposures to some exercises is not a certain disadvantage.” (powerathletesmag)

When I read this it made me think of something else I had read. “The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Business management thinker Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy went to 20% of the population. It is a common rule of thumb in business; e.g., “80% of your sales comes from 20% of your clients.” (wikipedia)

Pareto Principle

This effect has been noticed in a variety of situations. The ratio is not always an exact 80/20, sometimes it can be 90/10 or 75/25, however the point is that a large percentage of the results come from a small percentage of causes. People tend to wear 20% of their clothes 80% of the time. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu training, you use 20% of your moves (e.g., rear naked choke and armbar) to finish 80% of your matches. In business, they often state that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. Conversely, 80% of your headaches can be attributed to 20% of your clients. You order 80% of your takeout meals from the same 20% of restaurants in your neighborhood. It goes on and on.


As a fitness program that models itself on a black box system of inputs and outputs, we should look to see if indeed 80% of our outputs are caused by 20% of our inputs. And if indeed we get the most bang for our buck from 20% of our inputs then we should really be concerned about how we approach that precious 20% of our training. From my own gut instinct, I would say that the majority of adaptations from Crossfit come from Squats, Pull-ups, Presses, Lifts-from-the-floor and sprints (and all the variations of those exercises).

Another way to look at this phenomenon is through the list of 10 adaptations: Strength, Stamina, Cardio-Respiratory Endurance, Flexibility, Power, Speed, Coordination, Accuracy, Agility and Balance. Of these 10 adaptations are there 2 that cause the greatest results in the other 8? The choice is obvious: Power and Speed. If we want results we need to chase Power and Speed. Chasing better performance in those areas will give us maximum results in the other 8 adaptations. Crossfit is all about chasing speed and power and that is how we drive 80% of our adaptations. Moving large loads of long distances in a short amount of time is a recipe for success.



If this is true, then perhaps the opposite is also true: that 80% of our failures can be attributed to a mere 20% of shortcomings. This means that if you have a one or two small weaknesses they can impact 80% of your workouts. Look at it this way, if we can agree that squats, deadlifts, presses and pull-ups (and all the variations of those exercises) are the foundational 20% that drives 80% of the Crossfit train, then we can call these four exercises and their derivatives “The Vital Few.”

What all this boils down to is realizing the importance of the “Vital Few.” If you master those fundamentals, then you will reap the rewards of the program. However, if you cannot squat properly then that greatly limits your ability to move large loads, long distances over a short period of time. Therefore, your ability to express power and speed is blunted and thus your adaptations will be slower or non-existent. So glossing over a flaw in your squat will guarantee that you are unsuccessful with the program. Likewise, failure to remedy a problem that impacts your shoulder or hamstring flexibility can keep you from performing presses or deadlifts properly. A small problem can have a large negative impact. We should endeavor to redress our weaknesses and work towards mastery of the Vital Few instead of getting distracted by the trivial many.


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