Go to Exhaustion, then Hold Fast — Part 1
For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.
— 1 Timothy 4:8
Given my propensity toward laziness, I try to abide by the motto “work smarter, not harder.” Working smarter isn’t about taking shortcuts. It’s about understanding nature’s hidden principles so that you can work with reality rather than against it. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, life is too precious to spend unnecessary energy at the gym.
My housemate and co-creator Ben Brown and I recently cobbled together a video demonstrating a short exercise routine to stimulate maximum strength gains with a minimum of time and effort. The workout aligns with nature’s rule of thumb — the so-called “Pareto Principle,” or 80/20 law. Italian political theorist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80 percent of the results come from a 20 percent of the inputs in multiple distinct domains. First, he noticed that 80 percent of the peas in his garden came from 20 percent of the pods. Turning to more serious matters, he discovered that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. Some other examples include the following:
- 20 percent of the criminals commit 80 percent of crimes.
- 20 percent of employees are responsible for 80 percent of the company’s bottom line.
- 20 percent of the words account for 80 percent of the word occurrences.
“For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” – Vilfredo Pareto
The rule holds to varying degrees — sometimes far more extreme than 80/20.
- 10 percent of the population holds 75 percent of the wealth.
- 99% percent of the returns to venture capital come from 1% of the investments (see “unicorns”).
The exact ratio doesn’t matter. The key is that we can leverage our “inputs” — in particular time and energy — to reap greater rewards than a normal distribution would predict.
(Chronic) Exercise is Overrated.
Getting your heart rate up improves cardiovascular health. Pushing your muscles to near exhaustion increases strength. Regular movement and bodily maintenance undoes the damage of a sedentary lifestyle. But exercise qua exercise probably does more damage than good.
The biggest mistake people make is “hitting the gym” too often and either a) wrecking themselves or b) doing weak, limited-range exercises that have little real-world applicability. Treadmills, heart-rate monitors, and Cybex machines are a waste of precious energy, money, and and time. Most real-world challenges test the whole body. You can get more out of from simple, full-body workouts once a week or so than from daily jogging or bicep curls at the gym.
Rather than setting aside time with the pure goal of getting in better shape, we can integrate movement into our daily routines. Katy Bowman calls this “stacking” movement into your existing life. You can walk places instead of driving, do a few squats while waiting for a flash of inspiration at work, or being mindful of your posture while moving heavy objects around the house. These alone can add up to a sustainable fitness protocol, but it doesn’t hurt to have some extra strength and conditioning.
Enter the 80/20 max out work out:
To max out any given muscle group, you have to go to the point of natural exhaustion, and then hold yourself in whatever halfway position you felt yourself start to give out for another five seconds. This last five seconds is the most important, since it represents the limits of your current ability. In general, staying in that zone for a short time leads to bigger gains than getting halfway to your maximum ten times.
Ben’s version, featured in the video, has seven categories to be maxed out:
☐ Horizontal Push
☐ Horizontal Pull
☐ Vertical Push
☐ Vertical Pull
☐ Compound Leg
In a given day, you pick three and max those out. Then you wait a full week or so before doing another three. Keep rotating through the seven categories, and resist the temptation to do it more often than once or twice a week. There are diminishing returns, just as the Pareto principle would predict.
This is just a slight reframing of the new conventional wisdom in the exercise-obsessed world. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) plays on the same idea, emphasizing constantly varied exercise, such that you’re not over-doing any single muscle group. In long workouts, the quality of your movements declines. Your body starts to burn muscle as fuel. You won’t recover before your next workout. Worst of all, you will get bored and your workout routine will become unsustainable.
Intensity is not the same as speed. Note that six of the seven categories — all except for the sprint — can be maxed out in a couple of minutes or less with slow, intentional movements. Sprinting can be dangerous if you’re not properly warmed up or going beyond your limits, but even this involves much less wear and tear on your body than distance running.
It’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to brutalize yourself to make up for all of the bad decisions you are making elsewhere in life. While I believe that penance and self-denial have their place, the gym is not the place to exorcize your demons. As Ben notes in the video, working out is not the best way to change body composition (i.e., reduce fat). Changing dietary habits and stress-management are far more effective tools to regulate weight. Strength is not without value, hence the 80/20 workout. There’s no need to obsess — just go to your limit, hold it… and then relax.
In part 2, I explore how this idea applies to more directly mission-related strengths and weaknesses.