On just enough

Exercise - minimal effective dose

If you can renovate yourself one day, you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day. - King Tang

Most people assume that either getting in shape or staying in shape requires countless hours of exercise and maniacal meal planning.  False. Rather, one needs to do just enough to stimulate and not annihilate. A minimal effective dose if you will. Minimalistic exercise and malleable nutritional guidelines often yield superior results to over exertion and stress filled nutritional abstinence.

For over a decade I worked as a health coach, trainer, and strength and conditioning expert. I worked with myriad people and teams over the years and below is an outline of work utilizing the minimal effective dose methodology with one of my former clients and a snapshot of how I currently use the methodology to maintain my health, wealth, and wisdom.

How Much is Enough?

I first came across the idea of Minimal Effective Dose in Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Body. Tim describes it this way:

The minimum effective dose (MED) is defined simply: the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome…. Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. To boil water, the MED is 212°F (100°C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled’. Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.

The term originates in medicine, where there are many reasons for wanting to find the minimum dose necessary to achieve a desired result. Nearly every medicine over the counter or prescription has a note to the effect of: may cause nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, swelling rashes, constipation, or diarrhea. The more you take, the more you increase the likelihood and severity of those side effects.

Tim extends the idea of MED to fitness training. All training has risks and potential side effects. The more you train, the more those risks, and any negative side effects, increase. Risks include things like injury, both acute and overuse; and diminishing — and eventually negative — returns on your effort. Not to mention that training takes up your precious time — so why spend more than you have to?

Consider the graph above showing the relationship between effort and results. It could apply to many endeavors in life — running a business, learning a foreign language, or learning the piano, but I will discuss how it applies to training. In particular, what it means for finding the minimum effective dose for training goals. Let’s take a look at a few characteristics of the graph and what it tells us.

  1. The graph initially rises very quickly. This means that the initial effort you put in produces disproportionately larger results. In fact, by the time you’ve put in only 20% of the possible effort, you may already achieve 80% of the possible results. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule.

  2. Increasing effort produces diminishing returns. This means that the effort required to add another 20 pounds to your bench press will be greater than the effort required to add the first 20 pounds to your bench press.

  3. The graph is an inverted U. This means that not only will your incremental increases in effort produce ever-decreasing results, at a certain point, more effort will actually produce negative returns.

While the concept of MED can theoretically apply to any desired result on the graph, what we are looking for is a point on the graph, a point in ones training, where the results produced are still larger than the effort put in.

In The 4-Hour Body, Tim actually reduces it to two 30-minute training sessions a week — and hence the 4 hours total required in a month to build and maintain the body one wants. Keep in mind, though, that this won’t apply to everyone. As Tim states, “If you are already at 5% bodyfat or bench-pressing 400 pounds, you are in the top 1% of humans and now in the world of incremental gains. [Minimum Effective Dose] is for the other 99% who can experience near-unbelievable gains in short periods of time.”

The sort of extreme minimalism promoted in The Four-Hour Body may not apply to everyone, but based on the definition of MED — the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome — a MED exists for every desired outcome, from maintaining basic levels of health to winning Olympic gold.

The Client - Julio

8 hours and 32 minutes. That’s how much time Julio spent in the gym… over the last 4 months. Do the math. That’s only 32 minutes per week. Is this Julio person lazy? No.

He works 2 jobs, runs a Boy Scout troop, and plays tennis a few nights per week. He is also getting married in four months. No, he’s not lazy at all. He’s a hard-working, busy, social, fun person. There are only so many hours in the day and sometimes even the most important things get overlooked, such as ones health and well being.

Is Julio recovering from some kind of injury? No again. He’s as healthy as can be. And he could work out 8 hours a week if he wanted. His goal is to get leaner than he’s ever been, while still having a life with as little exercise as possible. This is what can be attained by a minimal effective dose of exercise.

Leaner than he’s ever been? On 32 minutes a week? He must be mad! No, not at all.

In fact, if anyone’s mad it’s me. Because I’m the one who recommended this program to him. He actually asked for MORE exercise. But I capped him at 4 workouts per week and 32 minutes.

The workouts looked like this:

  • 2 sprint workouts – 6 minutes each

  • 2 circuit workouts – 10 minutes each

The results?

Well, in the last 16 weeks Julio lost a whopping 20 pounds of body fat. He dropped from 210 pounds to 190 pounds. That’s nearly 2.5 pounds of fat lost for every hour spent in the gym.

Minimal effective dose

As I said above, Julio could have worked out much more than 32 minutes per week.

He could have willed himself out of bed extra early to do some low intensity cardio. He could have given up his recreational activities and stopped hanging out with his friends after work in favor of hitting the weights. He could have delegated more of his volunteer tasks or quit one of his jobs. But why would he do any of that?

All that work doesn’t just sound terrible. It sounds unsustainable. Maybe he could do it for a while. But eventually, he’d either lose motivation or some life demand would squeeze the unrealistic workout program out of his life.

So, when thinking about his program, I asked myself the following three questions:

  1. How much has he got going on in his life? (A lot, don’t we all?)

  2. How much gym experience and proficiency does he have? (Not much.)

  3. What are his weaknesses? (Upper body, glutes, anaerobic system.)

Given these particular needs, I wanted to build a program that was light on the time commitment and the requirement for technical skill development — but one that still would produce excellent results.

This approach allows a person to get started right away without having to reschedule their entire lives. It also allows them to get moving without having to hire a personal trainer to learn all the movements. Most of the time simply getting started is a major obstacle and stops many people before ever getting started.

Here’s what he started with during week 1:

Day 1 – 10 minutes

Close-grip push-ups x 10 reps
Inverted rows x 10
Kettlebell swings x 20
Rest 1 minute
Repeat 5 times

Day 2 – 6 minutes

2 minute walk
15 second sprint on treadmill at 8 mph and 10% incline
15 seconds rest (standing on side of treadmill)
Repeat 5 times
2 minute walk

Day 3 – 10 minutes

Close-grip push-ups x 10 reps
Swiss ball crunches x 10
Air squats with hands behind head x 20
Rest 1 minute
Repeat 5 times

Day 4 – 6 minutes

2 minute walk
15 second sprint on treadmill at 8 mph and 10% incline
15 seconds rest (standing on side of treadmill)
Repeat 5 times
2 minute walk

Notes

In addition to scheduling these workouts, here are a few important notes I gave him for the program. These are critical for experiencing the type of results he saw.

Progression

Start with the exact numbers above and with each consecutive workout do one thing to make the workout harder.

For strength workouts, this means doing additional repetitions or reducing the rest time between rounds. And for sprinting workouts, this means increasing the incline, the speed, or the number of repeated sprints.

It doesn’t matter what you choose, just do one thing more than the last time. And make each increment small. It might feel easy at first. But eventually, you’ll reach your performance limits and the increases will come slower.

Frequency and Rest

Do your workouts every other day if possible, with one day off in between workouts. If that’s not possible, take a day off after two consecutive workouts in a row.

All other recreational activities (walking, tennis, etc.) are fine and can be scheduled in whenever you like. However, these recreational activities will be in addition to the workouts above, not in place of. You’ll get in great shape with this alone.

Ledger

Buy a small spiral-bound notebook and write down every workout you do, or utilize a note taking app in your phone. Record the time it took you to complete. Record the number of reps and sets you do for strength days. And record your sprint intensity (speed and incline) as well as the number of reps you do.

These notes will help you decide which improvements (progression) to make from one week to the next. Without them, you probably won’t remember what you did the week before.

Duration

Follow this program for 4 weeks and then recalibrate, if necessary, at that time. It’s only 32 minutes of exercise per week, or just over 2 hours for the month. So there are no excuses for not completing all the workouts. Of course, if, for some reason, you miss a workout, that’s fine. Just don’t ever miss two in a row.

That’s pretty much it for the program. It’s simple, it’s brief, it’s challenging, it’s sustainable. And, most importantly, it actually works.

Julio’s experience

I also want to add a few things about Julio’s exercise experience throughout the 16 weeks. These will help you gain a greater appreciation for both what he focused on and what he struggled with.

Weak

During the first week, Julio was so de-conditioned that he couldn’t actually complete any of the workouts. For example, he could only do 3-4 push-ups. And only 4 rounds of the circuits. Even though it was hard for his ego, he showed resiliency and kept going.

Remember, progression means doing a little more each week. So that’s exactly what he did. By the end of the 8th week, he was able to do a 20 push-ups. And he was able to do 8 rounds of sprints at 8.0 mph on a 12% incline. I’ll bet he’s glad he hung in there.

Changes

Every four weeks I made some slight changes to the exercise selection on the circuit days. This provided him with some different muscle stimulation every new training phase.

Besides a few exercise swaps and the steady progression he was making, nothing else changed for the full 16 weeks. The workouts didn’t get longer. We just crammed more work into each session as he got more conditioned.

Diligence

I have to point out that Julio was diligent about his progressions. Every week he added a little more resistance, did another rep or so, or increased the treadmill incline or the speed by a small fraction. This is crucial and cannot be overlooked.

By the end of the 16 weeks, he went from very weak and de-conditioned to surprisingly strong and fit. Honestly, even I was surprised by how quickly his fitness adapted and how much change we saw with this minimalistic approach.

Easy

If there’s one lesson to take away from Julio’s experience, it’s this: When tackling a new exercise program, begin with a program that’s even easier than you think you can do. Yes, it’ll start off easy (that’s the point). Yes, it’ll bruise your ego (“I can do more, damn it!”) But starting off easier helps you develop a few important habits.

Realistic

Early motivation always makes us overestimate our capabilities. So we tackle something that’s unsustainable. Starting slowly allows us to do an exercise program we can sustain – while still sustaining the other important things in our lives.

Consistency

You’ll stop skipping workouts. When you know it’s only 6 or 10 minutes of exercise, the excuses start dissolving. And you get in the habit of exercising instead of in the habit of skipping workouts (which some people get quite good at).

Progression

This is the number one thing people miss out on when starting a new program. Week 1 is hyper-enthusiastic. Week 2 is a regression because you’re sore. Week 3 you struggle to match Week 1. And so on. Why not start off slowly and focus on doing just a little better each week? This is the key to long-term results.

In the end, Julio did an awesome job.  And hopefully you learned a few things from Julio’s plan. Of course, the exercise program was only part of the experience. Now, let’s talk nutrition.

Julio’s nutrition

As I’ve said many times before, without a good nutrition program, exercise doesn’t really work all that well – especially when body transformation is the goal.

Thus, nutrition was an integral part of Julio’s transformation. However, like with the exercise program, we kept it simple.

I just gave him the following nutrition notes, and had him repeat my expectations to me so I could be sure he understood them.

Hunger and exercise

Intense exercise often makes people hungrier. This leads to overeating and no weight loss. For this reason, the most important thing you can do is pay close attention to your food intake and make sure you’re not eating more than usual. Awareness is the key. Fortunately, the minimal exercise volume will help keep hunger down too.

If you’d like to speed things up even more, follow these simple rules.

  • Eat each meal slowly.

  • Eat about 4 meals per day (every 4 hours or so).

  • Eat lean protein, legumes, and lots of veggies w/each meal.

  • Avoid white, starchy carbs (breads, pasta, rice, chips, etc).

  • Avoid fruit.

  • Don’t drink your calories. Use lots of water or coffee and tea instead.

Contrary to what you’d expect; I didn’t even give him a diet to follow. In fact, I rarely ever gave anyone a diet to follow. I recommend guidelines and habits to follow instead of diets. I do this for three main reasons:

  1. People aren’t very good at following diets when conditions are “normal”.

  2. People completely give up on the diet when conditions are “abnormal”.

  3. People don’t learn anything when they are prescribed a diet.

Now, if you’re still questioning the habits and guidelines approach (vs. the diet approach), ask yourself this question.

What’s better: starting out really fast with a detailed and intricate diet… and then quitting after a month? Or starting out more slowly and methodically… and losing 20 pounds of fat in 16 weeks like Julio did?

My experiment

Over the last few years, my life has changed dramatically. I bought a house, I changed jobs, I went to grad school, my wife gave birth to two children, and my businesses have grown tremendously.

As a result, I have less time for exercise than ever in my life. Not only that, I have less desire to to commute and spend an hour tossing around weights in a gym. I needed to establish a program that was both quick and effective.

I still love training. However, I’m just not willing to give up time with my family – or time spent doing meaningful work to toils away in the gym. So, I tried my own experiment in exercise minimalism.

Now, because I have 17 years experience in the gym, and a long history of higher-volume training, I decided to build a program that combines a little more exercise volume with a little more complexity.

However, the program is still quite minimal. The total time requirement – without the optional recovery workouts – is 80 minutes a week. With the optional workouts – 140 minutes.

Here’s what that program looked like:

WEEK 1

Day 1 – Monday (Upper body circuit – 20 minutes)

Upper body warm-up
Close-grip push-ups x 20 reps
Inverted rows x 20
Flat DB press x 10
Bent over DB rows x 10
Band crunches x 10
Reverse hypers x 10
Rest 1 minute and repeat 5 times

Day 2 – Tuesday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 3 – Wednesday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light rowing or yoga or sauna

Day 4 – Thursday (Lower body strength – 45 minutes)

Lower body warm-up
Front squat 5 × 3 reps
Swiss ball leg curls 5 × 10 reps
Deadlifts 5 × 3 reps
Dumbbell squats 5 × 10 reps
Kettlebell swings 5 × 8-10 reps
Speed deadlifts 5 × 8-10 reps

Day 5 – Friday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 6 – Saturday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light rowing or yoga or sauna

WEEK 2

Day 1 – Monday (Upper body strength – 45 minutes)

Upper body warm-up
A1. Flat DB press 5 × 3 reps
A2. Pull-ups 5 × 10 reps
B1. Bent over rows 5 × 3 reps
B2. Low cable crossover 5 × 10 reps
C1. Explosive bench press 5 × 8-10 reps
C2. Explosive inverted rows 5 × 8-10 reps

Day 2 – Tuesday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 3 – Wednesday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light rowing or yoga or sauna

Day 4 – Thursday (Lower body circuit – 20 minutes)

Lower body warm-up
Air Squats x 20
KB Swings x 20
Front Squat x 10
Lunges x 10
Band crunches x 10
Reverse hypers x 10
Rest 1 minute and repeat 5 times

Day 5 – Friday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 6 – Saturday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light cycling (or complete rest)

When I designed this program, I’d committed to following it for at least 8 weeks – 4 weeks of week 1 and 4 weeks of week 2. I liked it so much, I ended up following it for 4 months and counting.

For Julio, 32 minutes a week did the trick. For others, a little more may be required. Like Julio, my program was based on progression. I set my weights and intensities lower than I thought I could handle. During each session I kept a workout log. And each week I used the progression principle to do a little more than the previous week. Interestingly, I’ve been able to do just a little more every week for 16 straight weeks.

One example: over the course of 4 months I slowly worked my way up from 6 sprints at 8 mph and 10% incline to 10 sprints at 9 mph and 12% incline. That would have been impossible for me in the beginning.

In terms of diet, I followed my advice to Julio with two exceptions:

  • My exercise volume was dropping off, so I ate a little less to keep dropping fat.

  • I also fasted completely during one day each week. You can read my essay on fasting for more insight.

So here’s the nutrition guide

  1. Eat a little less than usual

  2. Eat each meal slowly

  3. Eat about 4 meals per day (every 4 hours or so)

  4. Eat lean protein, legumes, and lots of veggies with each meal

  5. Avoid white, starchy carbs (breads, pasta, rice, chips, etc)

  6. Avoid fruit

  7. Don’t drink any calories (used lots of water or coffee and tea instead)

  8. One day per week, eat whatever you want

  9. One day per week, I fasted

The whole thing has worked out great. I’ve lost about 15 pounds of body fat so far (4 months into the program) — and I didn’t have much fat to lose.

Plus, my strength is good, my fitness is awesome, and – even as I approach 40 years of age – I am as lean as I’ve ever been in my life. In fact, I’m probably about 3-4 weeks away from “contest shape”, should I ever want to do a physique contest.

Even more importantly, I feel awesome on this plan. In the past, to get to this level of body fat, I’ve had to do more extreme, bodybuilding-style diets. These calorie-restricted short-term plans made me feel miserable – like the walking dead. And the day my “diet” ended, I’d binge away. A few weeks later it was like I hadn’t gotten leaner at all.

This plan? Well, I feel normal. Like I’m not dieting at all, really. Julio mentioned the same thing to me. No brain fog. No insufferable cravings. No crushing lack of motivation. Sure, from time to time we have to say no to a sugar craving. But, to resist the temptation is the way, as confusing sugar begets consuming more sugar.

What’s next?

Julio’s still plugging away. He thinks he’ll be happiest in the 180 pound range and a little leaner.

For me, I’m happy with my current body weight and composition.  So it’s my goal to maintain my current body comp and this minimal approach. In my life, gone are the days of bulking up and cutting down. I’ve moved beyond that characteristic bodybuilding schizophrenia – “I want to get big… no, I want to get lean… no, I want to get big.”

Now, I just want a plan that keeps me lean, healthy, strong, and fit. One that’s not based on uncomfortable overeating followed by uncomfortable undereating. One I can just do every day, as long as I want to do it. It’s an adoption and adherence to a lifestyle rather than a passing fad.

If you’re looking for the same thing from a training and nutrition plan – something you can do to get in awesome shape while also having a life you should try your own experiment in exercise minimalism. Find your own minimum effective weekly dose of exercise, quit obsessing about your fitness program and get going. Strive for a life of health, wealth and wisdom.