Minimum Effective Dose

Minimum effective dose. A three-word phrase meaning just enough to have an effect. It’s great when it comes to medicine. You take only as much as you need to in order to get better. Taking more won’t make you heal faster. Taking too much will actually make you sick.

There’s a tendency to think that “more is more” when it comes to fitness. More weights. More sets. More reps. Longer sessions. It’s certainly true that increasing these things can be beneficial… but only up to a point.

As you do more, you’ll encounter the law of diminishing returns, where (in this context) each marginal increase in effort is no longer matched by an increase in results. This is a really frustrating place to be.

Imagine (or remember when) you’re first starting out training. Each workout you see improvement. Many call this period “newbie gains.” There are reasons for this but they can easily be summed up thus: at the beginning you have nowhere to go but up. As you get more and more experienced, you’ll see the rate of your improvement gradually slow down.

Training is about stimuli and adaptation. Your workouts provide a stimulus your body isn’t used to. With proper rest and recovery, your body adapts to the previous stimulus. In other words, the first time you try to run a mile, it’s difficult. The second time it’s easier. Congratulations, you’re in slightly better shape. The downside is it will now take a slightly greater stimulus to cause your body to adapt further.

By the way, this cycle doesn’t just happen in fitness. At one point, you found it challenging to read single letters. The fact that you’re reading this now means your brain adapted. You learned more complex words and sentences and now you can read. (Insert your own joke here about articles continuing to stimulate brain growth).

Minimum effective dose should allow you to keep gaining steadily for a long time. You leave yourself as much space to add more things as you can.

It’s about sustaining progress over the long term.

Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be. Start simple. You can always add complexity later if it’s necessary. Start off slowly. Fitness isn’t about getting as lean or as strong as possible as quickly as you can. It’s about being healthy and having a high quality of life sustained over the long run.

It’s very tempting to try to ramp up as fast as possible (to lose 50 lbs. or get that 315 lb. bench press NOW!) right? There’s a definite cost. Losing weight as rapidly as possible means you’ll lose muscle and strength as well as fat. You’ll have to deprive yourself of foods you enjoy. Are you really going to live the rest of your life without any carbs? Is this sustainable? What does this mean about the rest of your life?

Put another way, if you start at full speed, what do you do when that stops working? You cut out all the “bad” foods, you workout 2 hours a day, 7 days a week. At first it worked really well but a couple months in your progress has stalled. Now what do you do?

Using the minimum effective dose means that you have room to adjust when your rate of progress begins to stall. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to focus on training hard and eating smart. You need that in order to achieve your goals. But you don’t have to live an ascetic life to get what you want.

Your training should be challenging, no question. But it doesn’t need to leave you feeling destroyed after the workout. If you’re trying to lose fat, your calorie deficit should be just enough to keep the train moving, not the bare minimum to keep you alive. If you’re trying to put on mass, your surplus should be sufficient that you’re not adding a lot more fat than muscle.

Thanks for reading!

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