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Minimum effective dose when it comes to training is something that so many people do not, or will not, seem to comprehend. In physical training you only need to do what you need to do and no more. More is not always better and at a certain point you are not just wasting time, but you may actually be causing a reversal of results. If you’re going to shoot a rabbit you only need a kill shot, ONE kill shot. 20 more kill shots are not going to make the rabbit more dead. Dead is dead, simple as that.
I have witnessed many people in gyms train for several hours at a time and seem to produce little or no results long term, and many of them seem to even reverse any progress they might have accidentally made in the past.
To get an idea of what minimal effective dose really means lets look at two things, the first being tanning and the second being boiling water. These are anecdotes, but don‘t skip them, they support the whole point of this article…
If you set out to get a wicked sun tan your skin has a threshold of ultra-violet light that it can handle before it burns. There is a certain magic amount that will produce a tanning effect, which is different for each person. Lets take an arbitrary number like 15 minutes. Lets say 15 minutes of direct sun exposure is sufficient to induce a tanning effect. Done regularly you will notice a cumulative effect that results in a gradual tan. But exceeding this 15 minutes will not make you more tan, it will simply cause you sunburn and nothing more. Go far enough over this number and you will cause enough damage that will halt results due to the reason being that your skin cannot keep pace with the demand for adaptation you are placing on it. So you will be burned pretty badly, which will cause time off from tanning and a recovery process. At the end of the recovery process you will be starting from day one, as lily white as ever. This is logical, but why do so many people approach their training this way?
Secondly we’ll look at boiling water. Water boils at 100 degrees C (212 degrees F) at one atmospheric pressure (sea level). When water reaches this temperature it boils, simple as that. 100 degrees is the minimum effective dose for boiling water. Increasing the temperature that water is exposed to does not cause it to become more boiled, neither does boiling it for longer. All the water will do is evaporate. Last time I checked, evaporated water, aka steam, is not much good for making a cup of tea. We all know this (hopefully), yet people seem to think more is better when it comes to more complex tasks such as losing fat, increasing muscle mass, increasing aerobic endurance etc.
To reiterate, all physical training has a minimum effective dose. This is the dose at which an optimal result is produced. Going beyond the minimum effective dose will not produce a greater result. A small amount over will simply be filling in time with no effect at all, positive or negative. Then there is a threshold at which the effect then turns from neutral, or time wasting, into a negative effect.
So ask yourself; am I getting a training effect? If the answer is yes then it is likely that you are on the right track, or at least partially. Is the training effect significant and consistent? If yes then you are definitely headed in the right direction. If not then there are some variables that need to change.
So what is the minimum effective dose for my specific objective?
That is a very broad question, and it’s one that I aim to simplify for you. When I say simplify I mean really simplify. There are some exact numbers that seem to work for a certain cross-section of the population, however there are many that fall grossly outside of this, either on the upper side or on the lower side. Here we will take a few objectives and average them out and simplify. I always recommend tweaking the numbers, recording the results and conducting self experimentation to find the balance. One prerequisite to utilising the concept of minimum effective dose to its optimal potential is to record data. It really doesn’t matter what you record, just keep some consistent records. The act of this is what matters most, not the specific records themselves.
Minimum Effective Dose For Fat Loss
This is a tough one to define. Technically the more hours you put in at the highest sustainable intensity the greater the number of calories burned. But are calories burned during exercise the best thing to measure in order to maintain a low body fat percentage? No, they are not. Exercise is a very small part of the overall fat loss equation, I mean very small. Think of a diet of just 2500 calories, which is below the average western diet. A person of average fitness running for an hour can hope to burn between 400-700 calories in this time. That’s it.
So why would exercising for longer than the minimal effective dose for fat loss be a time waster or a long term inhibitor of results? Well first up lengthy aerobic sessions create adaptations and release enzymes that cause the body to break down muscle tissue. Ever seen a marathon runner? Very thin and wasted. Yes, they’re lean, but if they ever want to not train for several hours per day they will have a very hard time remaining that way. An elite marathon runner trains way too much, they are not in good health. But this is not an article to have a dig at marathon runners. The point being that hours of aerobic exercise will cause a caloric depletion, but in the long term your basal metabolic rate is greatly reduced.
Enter interval training combined with strength. Please note that you cannot, under any circumstances out train a bad diet. Diet and lifestyle come first when it comes to fat loss. A single set of Tabata, being 20 seconds of max effort followed by 10 seconds rest repeated eight times, is sufficient to cause a metabolic response that burns as many calories as a 45-60 minute run over a 24 hour period. Strength training and the resulting lean muscle mass that is built will increase basal metabolic rate significantly, even with small gains.
The take-home advice here is keep it short, keep it intense and build some muscle. Simple as that. There is so much hormone magic going on here that far outweighs the acute caloric expenditure of high volume aerobic training.
Minimum Effective Dose For Muscle Gain
Muscles are funny things, they like things a certain way. Train them for too long and your anabolic hormones will deplete and increase the stress hormone cortisol. Further to that, your muscles like to respond to a stimulus. If that stimulus is too sustained then they will break down because they cannot keep up with the required adaptations. Tell a muscle to lift 100kg eight times and it will adapt to lifting 100kg eight times with the required strength and hypertrophy (mass) adaptations. Keep going beyond this and the quality of the stimulus declines. In every subsequent set over the minimum effective dose you will possess less fuel at the intra-muscular level, which results in less weight lifted and/or less volume per set. This tells the muscle something entirely different than gaining muscle mass and provides no true benefit.
Here are the figures:
1. One set to failure lasting 80-120 seconds.
2. 7-12 reps to get there.
3. Every rep performed at a 5:5 cadence. As in five seconds up and five seconds down with no pause at the top or bottom. [please note that this is only for muscle gain, fast and powerful movements must be included for functional athletic performance].
4. Once every seven days for a give muscle or movement pattern.
That’s it, very simple. But I must define what failure means. Muscular failure is not when you think you can no longer perform any more reps. Muscular failure is when you completely physically fail to push the weight to the completion of a repetition. As in another rep is impossible.
Many may argue with me about this one, it is a controversial topic. Combine this technique with over-feeding in the four hour window that extends from 90 minutes before the session to 90 minutes after. Get enough protein, it is quite a simple thing to do, muscle will not grow without protein.
EXCEPTION TO THE RULE - The aforementioned minimum effective dose is best practice for someone with no other goal than muscular hypertrophy. Muscles will grow with a stimulus. Relatively high volume at lower reps for strength training will produce a mass building effect, as will density training. However this MED is simply the most efficient way where muscle gain is the only objective.
Minimum Effective Dose For Strength
Strength and muscle gain are entirely different things. An increase in muscle size will indeed cause an increase in strength. However many people require strength that is far beyond their body weight. Think gymnasts, endurance athletes, rock climbers, sprinters, jumping athletes, weightlifters from lighter weight classes etc.
Strength without a corresponding increase in muscular size is an adaptation of the nervous system primarily, not an adaptation of the muscle itself. We won’t go into the science of why this is the case as it has been explained many times elsewhere on this site.
So what is the goal for strength gain? It is to increase the force produced by a given muscle or by a movement pattern. In other words to squat more, bench press more, throw an opponent to the ground harder, climb with less effort or as a prerequisite for the development of explosive power for sprinting and jumping movements.
UNIVERSAL TRUTH: An increase in strength is at the core of ALL increased performance. Increase your strength and you increase your overall performance.
All you are required to do is to tell the muscle/s involved that you want them to adapt to lifting a larger amount of weight/produce a greater amount of force. That’s it. But there is an aspect of skill involved too. In order to improve your squatting you need to squat more. It’s all about neuromuscular patterning. But for general purpose, and if you’re not training for a lift-specific sport then there are certain numbers involved.
1. 3-5 sets at the maximum weight to be lifted for that workout.
2. 1-5 reps per set.
3. Twice weekly.
4. Pyramiding upwards from a lighter weight to your max does not count within the 3-5 sets.
It is recommended, for increased athletic ability (which is the most common reason for strength gains) that all reps be performed at an explosive speed.
Minimum Effective Dose For Anaerobic Capacity
First of all, anaerobic capacity is the capacity of the combined anaerobic energy systems to sustain a given effort. Running 400m or swimming 100m is a good representation of anaerobic capacity. This is a very important physical ability to possess and results in greater health returns than sustained aerobic effort.
We’ll keep this one simple. Again, all you are required to do is tell your body that you want it to improve performance in a given way. By repeating this message you are getting no additional benefit.
There are two ways we will cover.
1. Exhaustive Intervals: These are intervals at the given anaerobic intensity suited to your goal. Here we will look at someone requiring a sub-max 90-95% effort that is sustained as long as is possible. The simple way to develop this is intervals at this intensity until exhaustion. In other words, perform at 90-95% of your max effort for as long as your body will allow. Rest and repeat.
How much? No more than three intervals and no more than three times every seven days.
2. Repeat Intervals: These are intervals of shorter duration with short rests in between. The rests are designed to be of a length that only allows for a partial recovery. The effect is cumulative from one interval to the next. Tabata training is a great example of this.
How much? My personal recommendation is no longer than 20 minutes of such intervals as a total combined workout. Each interval is performed at maximum effort, as in with sprints. Tabata is a good start, and probably the most effective. This involves 20 seconds of max effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. Generally a full Tabata set is eight of these intervals. After eight rest 1-2 minutes and repeat. As I said, no more than a 20 minute workout or you will destroy the intended intensity, which is the main component responsible for the primary adaptation.
Don’t overtrain and know how much is needed to induce a training effect. Don’t flog a dead horse, it’s dead and flogging it any further won’t make it more dead. Know the minimum effective dose for your chosen objective and make best use of it. The common theme is intensity. I know many people do not support this idea, but it’s just science. The goal is to make the body perform at a greater rate than it did yesterday, so it stands to reason that it needs to be pushed as far as it will go within a given amount of volume.
Stop training for five hours a day and give this a go. Use minimum effective dose to break through lengthy plateaus and learn a new way of doing things, efficiently.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.