Minimum Effective Dose

Article length: 1,000 words

Reading time: 3-6 minutes

Take home: Most of us are not looking to break world-records and if someone told us we could obtain the same amount of results with 25% less effort, we'd listen. Use the concept of minimum effective dose to maximize your fitness work to results ratio. 


As a possible sign of my maturity, I'm starting to notice trends in the fitness industry. The latest being more = better. 

A year ago when people saw me squatting 3-4x/week I heard comments like, "How is your CNS not fatigued", "isn't that overtraining?" and my favorite "I could never do that." 

Now it seems like doing 12+ working sets of the powerlifts per week is the norm. Typically by an individual who's been training for less than 2 years and squats sub 300. They want to train like someone with 5x their training experience and 3x their strength level. 

You aren't Layne Norton, you aren't Dmitry Klokov and you aren't Jonnie Candito (unless you actually are one of those people, in that case, what's up Klokov?) So don't train like them. 

The idea of minimum effective dose is rare in fitness. Instead, we have revolving stupid mantras like "no pain, no gain" or "no days off." So we're going to look elsewhere first to help you understand the concept. 

Intro to Minimum Effective Dose

The idea is simple and can be thought of in any the following ways: 

  1. Define a goal --> find minimal effort threshold to reach it
  2. Obtaining the largest output with the minimal input 
  3. Finding the point of diminishing returns

Simple examples

  1. If you could study for 30 minutes and get an A, why would you study for 90?
  2. If you made the same amount of money, would you rather work 40 hours per week or 20?

Although I'm not a physician, med student or even one of the hopeful pre-meds out there, I think medicine is a great practice to understand how the minimum effective dose works. 

When dealing with medicine and drugs it becomes pertinent to find the minimum effective dose for two main reasons: 

  1. Minimize side effects
  2. Maximize profit on the specific drug

No drugs come with a free lunch, this is obvious by listening carefully to the warnings after drug commercials. For this reason, the goal is to give the patient the least amount of that drug for the desired effect. 

If 200mg's gets the job done, there's no reason to take 400mg. 

From the pharmaceutical perspective, the lower the possible dose the less of the drug they have to create. 

A Change in Mindset

Knowing the definition of minimum effective dose is useless without a change in your thinking. You must rewire the "more is better" circuit, which is especially difficult for OCD-like fitness enthusiasts. 

Change the thought process from "how many squats can I do today until I puke" to "how few squats can I do today to increase my strength by 5 lbs?"

I'll admit this ground is shaky, since the mindset of a successful athlete is normally try harder now, correct problems later. I'm suggesting a better way. A proactive, long-term development plan. 

How To Use Minimum Effective Dose In Fitness

Calorie Deficit

When making diet changes to lose fat you should aim for the smallest deficit possible to lose your desired amount of weight. I recommend shooting for 0.5-1% of weight loss per week. Enough to keep you motivated and see weekly changes, but not too aggressive to cause unnecessary muscle loss or metabolic adaptation. If you can lose fat eating 2,500kcals, do it. Don't drop calories until you need to. Eat as much food as possible while losing 0.5-1% BW/week. 

Training Volume

While it's useful to have an idea of your training tonnage, we can't forget that the goal is to put more weight on the bar, not see how much work we can do until we break. If you're getting consistently stronger with 10-15k of squat volume per week, don't increase it. If anything, see if you can continue to gain strength with 8-10k or even 6-8k. The more progress you can make with a lower training volume the better. 

Training volume will increase over time as you get better, but cross that bridge when you get there. 

Number of Exercises

When you set out to choose your exercises think how you would structure things if you could only do 5 or less exercises per day. By doing so, you'll find that many programs are full of too much overlap and fluff.  Do you really need three different kind of presses to develop a good chest?

To think minimally is to think differently. 

Always think, does this exercise need to be in the program? And, what single exercise can I use to take the place of two?   

Minimum Effective Dose is Dynamic

As a final take home piece, understand the minimum effective dose is not the same for everyone. There is a minimum effective dose to become a national champion, but of course it's much higher than operation beachbody. 

There may to periods in your life where training and nutrition need to take a back seat. Increased school demands, new job, moving, a relationship, etc. 

Just because you can't squat 4x/week doesn't mean you can't make progress. You don't have to follow strict macronutrients to lose fat.

During these time periods it's especially important to think about the minimum you can do to progress or even maintain. That way you can maximize energy outside of the gym with other responsibilities. 

On a personal note, I've used this concept as I've built a business, started graduate school, worked as a GRA and personal trainer - oh yeah and training 10 hours a week. I quickly learned that I can't waste time. I don't have the luxury of over studying for an exam, because that means time away from my business. I can't afford to be inefficient entering data, because that's time I could be studying. 

I learned to study less, but get the same grade. Enter in the same amount of data, but in half the time. 

Minimum effective dose can be a lifetime training (and lifestyle) philosophy if used correctly. 

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