In exercise, like many other things, there are a few basics that really matter and a whole lot of things that matter very little or not at all. This is best described by the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, which states that for most things about eighty percent of our results are due to only about twenty percent of what we do. To put it differently, a lot of what we do doesn’t have nearly as much of an effect on our results in the long run and spending a lot of time thinking about and discussing it while ignoring the basics is like “polishing brass on the Titanic.” To get the best results from your workouts it helps to know the difference so you can invest your time and effort more efficiently.
Ultimately, getting results from your training comes down to just a few things; you have to train hard, progressively, and consistently, with enough volume and frequency to stimulate continuous improvement in all major muscle groups but not so much or so often you overtrain, you have to eat and sleep well, and you have to use reasonably good form so you don’t wreck yourself in the long run. If you are doing all of this you’re on the right track and eventually you will develop as strong and conditioned and aesthetically impressive a physique as your genetics allow. If you’re not doing these anything else you are doing isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Intensity of effort matters. Regardless of anything else you do in your workouts, if you are not training hard enough you are not going to stimulate much of an adaptive response. If you don’t ask your body to do something that is extremely demanding at your current level of functional ability, you’re not giving it any reason to increase that level. Minimally, you should train hard enough that when you finish an exercise the targeted muscles should be so deeply fatigued that you would not have been capable of completing a few more reps. Ideally, you should train hard enough that you achieve momentary muscular failure on each exercise.
Training progressively matters. As you become stronger and better conditioned you must increase the demands of your workout to continue to provide a stimulus for further improvement. If you don’t keep them challenging they won’t be effective. Over time you should work to improve your form, increase the resistance you use and/or reps you are able to perform for each exercise, and increase the pace of your workouts (the work to rest ratio, how fast you move between exercises not during).
Training consistently matters. While you don’t need to work out very long or very frequently for good results, you do need to workout on a regular basis if you want to improve. Use it, or lose it. The body adapts to both use and disuse, and if you’re not challenging your body with hard workouts frequently enough it is not going to maintain the ability to meet the challenge.
Workout volume and frequency matters. If you don’t perform at least one exercise which effectively targets each major muscle group including smaller muscle groups like your neck, forearms, and calves, you will not develop an overall balanced and proportional physique or strength. Instead you will have aesthetically and functionally weak links detracting from both your physical appearance and capability. If you don’t perform enough exercises in each workout to make challenging metabolic and cardiovascular demands your conditioning will not improve. If you don’t work out frequently enough you will not progress quickly. However, if you perform too much exercise, too frequently, you can overtrain which depending on the degree will also slow or even stop your progress.
Eating right for your goals and getting enough sleep matters. If you are not eating and/or sleeping well you will not be able to put as much effort into your workouts and your body will have a harder time recovering from and producing the adaptations stimulated by your workouts.
Training with proper form matters. If you perform exercises correctly and with good form you will be able to provide an effective stimulus more efficiently and with less wear and tear on your body and less risk of injury. You can train effectively with poor form – and there are many people who do – but the goal of exercise should not just be to stimulate improvements in your functional ability and health, it should also be to avoid undermining them in the long run by causing damage or injuries that compromise your mobility.
What doesn’t matter nearly as much? Almost all of the other things many people and trainers – mostly who don’t know what they’re talking about any way – get worked up over and waste time arguing about. While there may be specific instances where some things are more or less advantageous or practical than others, and there may be some situations where these are important, for the most part they make much less difference in your long term results than the above. Keep in mind I’m not saying these things don’t matter at all; they don’t matter anywhere near as much as many people seem to believe and unless you are pushing the extremes of your physical performance or physique development they don’t deserve as much attention as some people give them.
So, if you’re not getting the results you want from your workouts, before you start to worry about whether you should be doing a fewer or more reps or a different repetition method or exercise for a specific muscle group, or changing the time of day you work out, or using a different type or brand of equipment, or whether you should be using a particular supplement before or after your workouts, ask yourself if you’re doing everything above. If the answer is no you need to focus on getting and keeping these in order before worrying about anything else.