80/20 Strength Training
Learning to lift weights is one of the most valuable things I've ever done. I didn't consider lifting for most of my life because it seemed jock-y, but the jocks are absolutely right about this one.
However, getting good weightlifting advice online is tricky. A lot of the people giving that advice are intense, in ways that might be relevant if you're trying to maximise your gains, but definitely aren't if you're trying to get strong without devoting your whole life to it.
Also, many of the advice-givers are simultaneously trying to sell you either supplements or Information Products, which pushes them towards recommending large numbers of complex exercises, in order to justify the video/course/PDF download they want to sell.
The system I'm about to tell you is much too simple to sell any products from. But I think it can get you (roughly) 80% of the benefits from lifting with (roughly) 20% of the effort.
I believe that the core of the mainstream weightlifting philosophy is basically right: that if you lift heavy things in a number of well-established ways (and eat enough protein to grow the accompanying muscle), you will get stronger, and happier, and more comfortable in your body, and your life will be better.
Some of the benefits of lifting are probably obvious: looks, health, etc. But I noticed many unexpected benefits, too. The most salient to me was how much easier it is to have good posture when you have more back muscles: I didn't realise how much of my awful laptop slouch was also an issue of (embarrassingly) being too weak to sit up straight.
If you have kids in your life, another unexpected benefit of lifting is how much easier it is to carry a baby around on you if you've done a bit of strength-training first. Even without kids, I don't think you realise till you start lifting how helpful it is to be able to carry more shopping bags, or move around furniture, without stress or strain.
The good news is that you don't have to do a thousand different complex exercises or devote your life to gym-going to achieve these benefits. In fact, you can get most of the outcomes from doing ~2 main exercises, the squat and the deadlift, about three times a week, spending less than an hour per session.
The bad news is that you do actually have to do those two exercises, and keep adding weight to them, even when it's not fun.
The good news again is that it's usually quite fun.
(That's it, there's no more news)
Most exercise schemes are phrased in second person: "you will do X, you must do Y, you will discover Z". I always find this funny, and inaccurate: people vary a ton, I have no idea what you will or won't experience if you follow these ideas. I intended to write this piece mostly in the first-person, but some second-person slipped in along the way; regardless, you should assume I'm just describing my experiences and can't actually predict or promise what'll work for you.
I go to the gym three times per week, for one hour each time. Each session contains two exercises, and the first exercise is always squats.
Once per week, the second exercise is deadlifts. On the other days, I personally do the Overhead Press, which I like, but you could do something else – so long as you squat and deadlift, I don't think it matters that much what else you do at the gym. So my personal ideal schedule is:
Monday: Squats and Overhead Press
Wednesday: Squats and Deadlifts
Friday: Squats and Overhead Press
By popular lifting consensus, you want to go three times per week and spread them out with at least one rest-day in between. Mon-Wed-Fri is a very common schedule; other options are left as an exercise to the reader. If you can't do three days a week, two nicely-balanced days (e.g. Mon + Thu, Tue + Fri, etc) would work well. If you go less often than that it's going to be hard to build muscle; you really don't want to go more than 3 days between lifts if you can possibly avoid it.
For the squats and other exercises, I do 3 sets of 5 reps at my top weight each time, and try to increase by 5lb each session for as long as possible. (It originally really surprised me that this is possible, it seemed way too much, but... it turns out it's often reasonably doable till at least you're squatting your own bodyweight).
For the deadlifts, I do 1 set of 5 reps (yes, 1 set of 5 reps – it doesn't sound like much) at my top weight each time, and try to increase by 10lb each session for as long as possible.
My recommended way to learn technique is the Starting Strength video series, because they're short and specific and for physical activities I think video is easier to follow than text.
My regimen is also roughly inspired by https://stronglifts.com/. The StrongLifts programme involves five exercises (Squat, Bench Press, Barbell Row, Overhead Press, Deadlift), with three exercises during each workout. My workout is roughly the 80/20 version of his: I only do Squats, Deadlifts and Overhead Presses; I do two exercises each workout instead of three; and I do five sets of three instead of five sets of five. This gets me in and out the gym in under an hour for each session.
These changes have made me vastly happier with my workouts, and vastly better at keeping my lifting habit going. In terms of total volume I'm technically doing 40% of what StrongLifts does, but in terms of effort it's more like 20% because the last few sets when you're tired are way harder. (I cannot promise you this gets you specifically 80% of the benefits, because Pareto's Principle is not an iron law of the universe, no matter what anyone tells you. I can promise that it will get you a good amount of benefit, and that the exercise regime you stick to gets you infinity-% better results than the one you give up on).
Choosing a Gym
I have tried some high-end weightlifting gyms and some big box chain gyms and some gyms in between. It turns out, the most important factor in whether I go to the gym has been how far it is from my house.
The only thing your gym really needs is a functioning squat rack, or ideally two functioning squat racks, so that if someone else is using one you don't have to wait around. Squat racks come in various designs, but you're looking for something that looks vaguely like this:
The important thing is that there's a barbell, that you manually add weights to, and which isn't stuck inside a track in a machine. If you're checking out a new gym, ask if they have "barbells" or "free weights" or just a "real squat rack" or something.
If you happen to live in the suburbs, and could have your own squat rack at home, they're not that expensive and I think having it in your actual house would be amazing. (Also, if you're in the suburbs it's less likely there's a gym with a squat rack five minutes from your front door).
Overall, the Starting Strength youtube channel is my favourite source of explanations for how to do each lift. Their intro videos are short, intelligible, focus on the important things, and are not trying to sell you anything. (I've embedded the basic videos below).
The Starting Strength book is also very good, but I just think text is generally a worse way to learn a practical things than video is, and this book specifically is written in long and rambly sentences. However, if you get further into lifting then the book is a good way to pick up more and more pointers. (By the way, this book/author kind of started the Lifting Revolution – the book starts out by saying how hard it is to find a gym with proper lifting equipment, which is funny to read now that every random gym has a squat rack).
The StrongLifts website also has good info, with lots of pointers and do's-and-don'ts, but it's very long and very detailed and hard to keep track of.
I basically recommend watching the Starting Strength videos multiple times while you're learning to lift. If you can watch them in the gym without being an ass, or failing that if you can watch them immediately before getting to gym, that seems ideal – it's hard to keep all the information in your head, so there'll always be things you forget/miss. But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, you just wanna keep picking up new pointers and getting better over time.
To the exercises! Each of these videos is 5 minutes long; once you're comfortable with them, the channel has longer videos that go into more detail.
Intense lifting-people say you should eat 1g of protein per pound of body weight (for non-Americans, this is 2.2g of protein per kilo of bodyweight. For reference, this is almost 3x the usual government recommendations of protein).
I tried eating 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight exactly one time in my life, and hated it so much I decided I'd never try it again – by the end of the day I felt sick just looking at food, and I didn't want to generate that kind of relationship with eating.
Once again, I suspect that there is an 80ish/20ish relationship here: it's hard to grow muscle without eating more protein than you usually would, but for me the tradeoff at (say) twice the normal amount of protein is much better than the tradeoff at thrice the normal amount of protein.
(For what it's worth, I usually eat a big batch of protein immediately after lifting, probably 60g, via something like a pack of vegetarian sausages. Then I eat normally for the rest of the day. My guess is this gets me to something like 1.6g of protein per kilo of bodyweight, but I've never counted carefully).
Many lifters drink protein shakes, and there's really no faster way to consume a lot of protein, but I don't like them so I don't drink them. All my food is food-shaped. It is hard to find food that is all of cheap, natural, tasty, not-super-fat, not-super-salty, and vegetarian – you'll basically have to prioritise 3 out of those 6.
I take exactly one supplement: creatine monohydrate. I now take 2.5mg per day (the packaging will usually recommend 5mg, but I'm not convinced you need that much – I also think it scales with your bodyweight, and a lot of the studies are based on people much larger than I am). There's a powder form, which is cheaper (currently ~20c per day), and a pill form which is more convenient (currently ~40c per day if you take 2.5mg) – I find the pills are a much better tradeoff at those prices, but of course ymmv.
You can pick any brand from Amazon with decently good reviews but don't get upsold to any weird creatine compounds, you don't need them, just take pure creatine monohydrate with nothing else mixed in. (I am currently using "Psycho Sloth" brand pills, currently available at this link, but the last link I used suddenly changed to a "creatine HCL" version, so look out).
Creatine is an amino acid that's created by the body and found in meat and fish; taking it as a supplement just means getting a lot more of it. In case you're wondering, it's absolutely not a steroid. The Mayo Clinic deems it "generally safe."
As best I can tell, the main thing to worry about with creatine is that it might upset your stomach; the main way to avoid this is to take it with meals, drink a lot of water with it, and get a quality brand (check the reviews for people saying "other creatine brands caused me GI issues, but this one is good.")
Here's a video on how it works and dispelling some common worries you might have.
Note that – like steroids! – creatine doesn't just magically make your muscles bigger; it just makes you able to lift more, which is what makes your muscles bigger. The creatine makes it possible to lift (say) ~10% more than you would have otherwise, but you do actually need to do that lifting to see any results. I think this is a common misconception about supplements and steroids both; to my knowledge, nothing makes your muscles bigger except for lifting heavier weights.
Personally the only equipment I use is this cheap nylon lifting belt for squats, and only when they get heavy (say, more than 1x my bodyweight). As best I can tell, the expensive "wide" lifting belts are based on a misunderstanding of how the belt actually works, and I find the wider ones more uncomfortable.
Basically: the point of the belt is to have something to brace against; it's the internal tension you create against the belt that's helping you lift more.
Regarding shoes, there are two cases, and you need to check which one you fall into. Basically: without any weight or bar, just squatting "by yourself", can you sit-squat below-parallel?
If the answer is yes, I don't think you need special lifting shoes (and you certainly don't need them while you're early in your lifting practice). I lift in these minimalist flat shoes and they seem fine; many people lift in socks.
However, if you're not able to sit-squat in general (e.g. because of tight hamstrings), your situation is different. Try putting two weightlifting plates (or another kind of slightly raised platform) on the ground, and putting your heels on them and your toes on the floor, then see if you can now sit-squat. If yes, that means your ankle/hamstring/whatever flexibility is a serious barrier to your lifting ability, and you will need to either 1) buy some lifting shoes, 2) do all your squats with a slightly raised platform, 3) improve your flexibility.
I want to be extra-clear for this section that I'm describing my own experiences and this is not health/medical/legal advice, but: before I started lifting, I thought that lifting was surely a sport full of injuries, but my current feeling is that this is based on a misunderstanding of sports and injuries.
Basically: the more I think about it, the more I realise that the sports injuries I've seen in myself and my friends have been from sudden, unexpected impacts on the body. So e.g. the soccer injuries I know of come from someone getting tackled in a way that pushes their leg very hard and quickly in an unexpected direction. Even non-sports injuries like ankle-twists often come from landing on uneven ground in an unexpected way.
Meanwhile, squats and deadlifts don't have any of these factors: they're entirely built on doing predictable movements on a predictable surface in predictable ways. You do need to be careful of your back, especially in the deadlift; make sure you have proper form; and be mindful as you increase your weights from session to session. However, I realise now that my model of how sports injuries happen in general was pretty wrong, so... if you're like I was, this might be relevant.
(A relevant note if/when you take a break for more than a week and come back to lifting, keep in mind that your muscles will have deteriorated slightly in the meantime and go back down to a lower weight. I don't have a good rule of thumb here unfortunately but it is very noticable, you really can't lift as much after a break as you could before. But don't worry, re-building the muscle should be easier than building it the first time was).
Again, what worked for me may-or-may-not work for you, but: very approximately, my progress was pretty smooth until I got to squatting roughly 1x my body weight (which was 190lb), after which I hit several plateaus.
I'll explain what things I did to re-start improvements, but I should also say it's unclear how much of each plateau was psychological – a big part of lifting heavy weights is just somehow getting your brain on board with the idea of lifting heavy weights. Developing the wisdom to keep pushing through when your brain is being lazy, but not when your brain is telling you the weight is too heavy, is one of the challenges and benefits of lifting.
Without further ado, things I do which helped me get through plateaus:
- creatine: see section above. Note it takes about a month to load up on creatine, so if you want to do it then start now.
- lifting belt: beyond about 1.2x my bodyweight, I found I couldn't lift without a belt.
- the valsalva maneuver: a breathing technique
- fractional weights: see FAQ below
Finally, the most useful plateau-breaker I had was when a more-experienced weightlifting friend came to visit and watched me at the gym. He basically identified the weakest link in my strength at the time, and showed me how improving my deadlift would solve the weak point and therefore improve my squat. If you're able to do it, getting a friend or a quality trainer to watch you very occasionally and identify areas for improvement is super helpful... just be careful, if it's a professional trainer, that you don't let them upsell you on services you don't need.
Will I get ridiculously big?
Whether you're asking this because you do or don't want to look bulky: you will not get super muscly from this program, regardless. The super-ripped body-builders you are currently imagining are almost certainly on steroids; it is basically impossible to look like that without steroids, at all, and even more impossible with an 80/20 program like this.
You can get to the point of having some visible muscle, but note: how much visible muscle you have is partly about your muscle and partly about your fat. In order to have e.g. visible abs, you'd need to build a bunch of muscle then lose a bunch of fat so that the muscles are visible. I have personally never done this because I'm just not that motivated.
However, people will still notice your muscles in some parts of your body, e.g. your arms. They will also (without quite knowing why) notice you look better because of things like improved posture from your stronger back muscles. As a realistic goal, in my experience, within ~3 months of lifting I started getting "you're looking good! Have you been lifting?" comments from friends, and I kept noticing improvements from there every 1-2 months so long as my weights were progressing.
What if the increments are too big?
At most gyms, the smallest plates are 2.5lb, so the smallest incremement you can get on your lifts is 5lb total (from a 2.5lb plate on each side).
If this is too much for you, so you can't make progress, one solution is fractional weights – these let you increase the weight of your lifts by as little as 1lb at a time.
How About StrongLifts?
I mentioned previously that my regimen is based on the StrongLifts programme. If you're roughly in my demographic, and have friends who are lifting, there's a reasonably high chance they're following the StrongLifts.
Overall I like his programme, but (evidently) I wasn't totally happy with it, for a few reasons.
First, the obvious: I tohught it was "too much", and struggled to keep up with it, and wanted to 80/20 it.
Second: Stronglifts has a two-week alternating schedule of which lifts you do on which day (so you have a Week A Wednesday schedule that is different from your Week B Wednesday schedule, etc), which I found disproportionately annoying – I know that sounds ridiculous, but trying to keep track of the weeks instead of knowing "it's Wednesday so I must be doing deadlifts" actually stopped me going to the gym.
Third: I personally found Bench Press annoying in terms of setup, though it's a classic and if you enjoy it you could do it instead of Overhead Press. I think Barbell Press is just generally less important, and I found it annoying, so I never bother with it at all.
As for the StrongLift site: overall, it's good!, and I appreciate that it's free. His descriptions about the lifts are good, but also they're VERY long, and I think his videos are less clear than the Starting Strength ones. So I would personally advise dipping slowly into the StrongLifts site only as and when you become more interested in lifting, otherwise I suspect the information-overload will put you off before you begin.
I think it's possible that once you max out on the 80/20 strength programme, and if you decide you want to keep going/growing, a decent next step would be to switch to the StrongLift programme. But if you get to that point you will most likely have far more opinions about lifting already, and you can figure out for yourself what makes sense.
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