What To Prioritise When Life Gets Busy: The 80/20 Rule For Body Transformation Success
How Does The 80/20 Rule Apply To Body Transformation?
The “Pareto Principle” or “80/20 rule” states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. In business, this can be seen as 80% of a company’s income comes from 20% of their client base and even in income distribution where ~80% of the world's income is owned by 20% of the population.
Funnily enough, when you know what you’re looking for this rule appears to show in many other areas such as healthcare (20% of patients appear to use 80% of healthcare resources) and even the transmission of COVID (20% of infected individuals are responsible for 80% of transmissions).
When it comes to transforming your physical self, this 80/20 rule is definitely apparent but it can be very hard to determine what gives you the most “bang for your buck”. Here at RNT, we prioritise nutrition, resistance training, cardiovascular work, daily steps, sleep and stress management as the big pillars that will determine an individual's results.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to only focus on nutrition, resistance training, cardiovascular work and steps as these are the inputs that can be scaled up and down the most. We don’t recommend sacrificing sleep at all, meaning you should always be aiming to get as much as you need.
From what we have seen from multiple case studies and years in the field, this is how the Pareto Principle would apply:
Now remember, we are strictly speaking fat loss here and these ratios can change when building muscle (training and nutrition end up being 40-50% each) or focusing on a specific event such as a marathon (cardio and nutrition can end up at 40-50% each).
A big caveat here is that ideally, nailing everything will always give you the best results but if there are periods in our life where we simply cannot dedicate as much time to certain aspects, this framework can be a lifesaver to keep us on track without feeling like we are failing.
Let’s dive in!
Priority No:1 - The Power Of Nutrition
The mantra “abs are made in the kitchen” commonly indicates the importance of nutrition, especially when it comes to getting that coveted six pack. But as we have written about here, abs can in fact be “made in the gym” if you pay enough attention to them over a consistent period of time, while of course sporting relatively low body fat levels.
A more nuanced way to look at nutrition from a body composition perspective would be:
“Body fat is primarily controlled in the kitchen”
Unfortunately, that does not have the same ring to it but you get the drift. Your ability to lose body fat and keep it off will ALWAYS come down to how dialled-in your nutrition is. Regardless of how much activity you’re doing, or your genetics, your environment, your job, your religion, and whatever other factor you want to throw in there - diet is the key.
Yes, those factors can impact your nutritional decisions to some degree but fundamentally you will always make the choice to consume something or not. For most, this may sound very intimidating as it takes away the blame from all of those other factors but for the high performer this is music to their ears. For them, the most powerful tool at their disposal is also the one they have the most control over even when life gets crazy.
As mentioned, not every variable in your transformation checklist is created equal. For example, if you were doing 20,000 steps per day, 1 hour of cardio each day, training 5 times a week with weights BUT were still eating more than you’re expending, you would still gain body fat. On the contrary, if you were doing zero cardio, 2-5k steps a day, weight training 3 times a week but controlling your caloric intake you would be able to get as lean as you want. Granted, you would have to go very low in calories to achieve this which is not the most enjoyable way to get to your goal but these two examples demonstrate the point we are trying to get across.
When it comes to fat loss, nutrition is a “must have”, activity is a “nice to have”.
More activity allows you to eat more (to a point) while having many other health benefits which is why we always recommend people should move as much as they can. But exercise in and of itself, has been shown to be nowhere near as effective for weight loss in comparison to nutrition and knowing this empowers us to always put this at the top of the list when life gets crazy.
“But I don’t have time to eat well, I’m extremely busy!”
Knowing that time is a high performer’s most valued commodity, optimising your nutrition also takes up the least time in comparison to all the other components. Spending 1-3 hours to meal prep on the weekend (depending on how efficient you are) or even hiring a meal prep company to prepare everything for you based on your calories and macros can lead to you not having to cook anything during the week if you don’t want to.
You add up eating/cleaning up time and you may spend 30-60 minutes each day on food which is a very small price to pay considering the magnitude of results.
As a comparison, hitting 10,000 steps per day takes most people ~1.5 hours across the day. Multiply that by 7 and that 10.5 hours per week dedicated to walking alone which still won’t guarantee fat loss results if everything else isn’t in order.
We have quite a few members who work in the medical field where hours can get extremely high, we are talking 16-24 hour days for short bursts of time and in some instances, not being able to leave an operating theatre the entire day. How is this person meant to make it to the gym for an hour, get 10k steps in each day along with any additional cardio? It’s simply not possible, meaning nutrition is the only lever we can pull which still allows them to continue making progress or at least, maintain what they have.
RNTer Dr. Minil Patel struggled to build routine, and had no structure, strategy or system to manage his own life while building his career. His long hours at the hospital meant he was unable to prioritise training or nutrition.
That’s when Minil realised he had to make it easier for himself and keep his meals simple and nutrition rich. As a vegan he learned to whizz up quick and simple meals that kept him going through the day. You can read more about Minil’s journey with RNT here.
Emergency Meals Can Be Your Lifeline
If you fall into the same or similar category at times, having ready-to-go emergency meals on hand is an absolute necessity. These should be easy to prepare, quick to consume and leave you feeling satiated. Here are some of our best ones:
Stashing weighed out bags of protein powder, nuts and fresh fruit in the common area kitchen. Simply mix the powder with water, drink and eat the nuts/fruit.
Ready made stir fry’s made up of mince/tofu/beans and vegetables with your favourite low calorie sauce/dressing.
Cooked and peeled boiled eggs. Grab 2-4 at a time for a healthy meal on the go.
Do I Need To Cut Calories Further?
This might sound counterintuitive but you may not actually need to reduce your calories any further to compensate for the drop in activity.
If your calories are already at 8-10 calories per pound of bodyweight, there is no need for you to make any further reductions as the deficit is still there. Yes, progress might be slightly slower but it should still be happening in some way.
If you see no change by the end of the week and this busy period is going to continue for a while, a further reduction of 5-10% calories coming from carbohydrates or fats may be useful.
Priority No: 2 - Resistance Training
If we look at nutrition as our number one tool for losing body fat, resistance training is the activity that will contribute most to our overall look which is why it is placed as number two for all the phases, barring the muscle builder which we will address further below.
If you know you have an extremely busy period coming up and your goals are primarily fat loss or maintenance without a specific event in mind (like a marathon, bike race, etc), we would much rather you prioritise this aspect of your training.
Ideally, aiming to get at least 3 sessions per week lasting anywhere between 30-45 minutes would be sufficient to keep you progressing. We know from the literature that we can drastically reduce our training volume, especially in the upper body for short periods to maintain what we have but only if you meet the following fundamental criteria:
You maximise your intensity and take each working set to failure with perfect form. This usually means 1-2 working sets per exercise.
You utilise the 8-15 rep range.
You prioritise compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at a time. Think squats, deadlifts, rows, pull ups/pulldowns, bench presses and overhead presses.
You rest at least 1-2 days between sessions.
If you’re following a well structured program, the first 2-3 exercises in your plan are going to be the most “bang for your buck” meaning you could also just perform these while leaving out the isolation work that usually is placed at the end of the session.
This strategy can work very well for people in their Process Phase where fat loss is the number one priority but if you’re in an Investment Phase, utilising some intensity techniques on your isolation work can be a great way to still train these body parts even if time is an issue.
Priority No: 3 - Formal Cardio & Steps
The reason we have placed these together on the hierarchy is that depending on your specific circumstances, one will have more of an impact than the other but fundamentally they are both “nice to haves” NOT “must haves” for a successful transformation.
A more objective way to look at these tools would be as “fat loss accelerators” meaning they can speed up the process when dosed correctly, but if you’re not adhering to your nutrition plan their impact on your fat loss efforts are greatly diminished.
This is an extremely important point to reiterate, especially when people hear about other members working up to 20k steps per day, 5-6 hours of additional cardio per week along with resistance training 3-4 times a week on top of that.
If an individual is doing that much activity the biggest benefit comes down to being able to eat more food which can make the dieting process easier for some but if you don’t have the time for that, no need to worry. You can get just as good results with much less from an activity point of view when you understand how these variables work.
Real World Examples
To keep things simple, we are going to assume that you have 30 minutes to dedicate to either cardiovascular work or walking each day, which even for the most time constrained, is achievable.
If your circumstances have you stuck at your desk for the entire day with literally no ability to move for hours on end (we understand it happens from time to time) then prioritising formal cardiovascular work would be your best time investment here.
A classic example of this can be seen in Cyleena Nieto’s RNT journey. A high performer at work and a mum of 2 young children her life is packed. Making time for training was hard and she couldn’t make it to the gym. Her journey is an inspiring read for anyone stuck in a similar situation. Read her amazing story here.
In her story Cyleena says, “RNT was able to help me create a home workout plan with no equipment. I learned how to manage my nutrition based on the food available here in the Philippines during the lockdown (grocery stores were always out of stock), whilst knowing that I was also breastfeeding my youngest child.”
If it is available to you activities such as cycling, rowing, running, skipping, etc along with any additional machines such as the elliptical or stepper can be really beneficial. The simple reason for this is that the same amount of time spent on these modalities will lead to more energy expenditure than just walking alone.
This also scales with an individual’s fitness level: meaning the fitter you are, the more you can expend for the same amount of time. For example, I have the ability to expend ~400 calories in 30 minutes if I was to cycle at a moderate to fast pace whereas I would expend ~160 calories if I was walking for the same amount of time at 3.5 miles/per hour.
If you want to get an estimate of how much you expend for certain activities, we highly recommend checking out this website. Remember though, these are just estimates but they are much better estimates than what your fitbit, apple watch or machine at the gym would tell you.
What About HIIT Cardio?
It’s quite common to recommend HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) cardio as a great way to expend a lot of energy in a short amount of time. On the surface, this sounds very plausible especially when you consider how hard the workouts are along with how exhausted you are afterwards.
Unfortunately, this is something that has been completely overblown as the research continues to show that it doesn’t actually lead to more fat loss and the “afterburn” effect is virtually non-existent too which was a huge selling point for a long time.
In fact, moderate intensity cardiovascular work done for longer durations appears to lead to a greater afterburn effect than HIIT.
If you’re looking to maximise your fat burning efforts through cardiovascular work, a moderate intensity (120-140bpm if you’re tracking heart rate) held for a moderate amount of time (20-30 minutes) would be your best option here.
Priority N0:4 - Steps Do Count
If your circumstances allow you to still move throughout the day but with no gym or equipment, utilising a step count will be your best option here. Accumulating 6-8,000 steps across the day can be much easier when you:
Use your 30 minute break to go for a walk.
Stay on your feet as much as you can while at work.
Go for toilet/coffee breaks.
Do calls and/or meetings while walking.
Commute to and from work via public transport.
We have written about other ways to increase your step count that you can read more about here but with these methods, you’re taking that step count and chunking it across your day making it feel much more effortless.
Banking Your Steps
Another very underrated strategy is to simply utilise weekends to make up for a lower step count throughout the working week. Most people (yes, even you) will have more time on the weekend so don’t be afraid to get out more and use those walks to refresh!
The 80/20 Formula At A Glance
Now that we have a better understanding of what matters most when it comes to managing our body composition goals, here is how we would approach handling extremely busy periods where we need to pull back on certain aspects.
Get organised and prepare as many meals as you can.
Keep emergency meals at your workplace so you always have a good option available to you.
Keep your calories between 8-10 calories per pound of bodyweight as this should still be enough to keep you losing weight.
Aim to get into the gym at least three times a week.
Prioritise the main lifts in your exercise plan.
Reduce your working sets down to 1-2.
Ramp up the intensity, taking each set to technical failure while staying in the 8-15 rep range.
If applicable, utilise intensity techniques
Prioritise moderate intensity cardio over HIIT.
Use a machine/modality that you enjoy.
Low impact machines such as the elliptical, rower, stepper and cycle bike are better tolerated vs activities such as running.
Try to blend these within your normal working day.
Go for small breaks if possible.
Get more steps over the weekend to bring the weekly average up.
Striking A Balance
The above framework can be utilised during periods where you cannot allocate as much time to your transformation journey, while still being able to continue making progress. Ideally, we want everyone to be moving as much as they can as there are many other health benefits to higher activity levels.
Fundamentally, the biggest takeaway from this article should be that your self care never has to stop and when a challenging period arises, you know exactly what to prioritise!