Minimum Effective Dose
Written by Fritz Nugent

The concept of seeking and applying the “minimum effective dose” is core to my coaching beliefs. I argue that every coach, athlete, and person should constantly seek to find the minimum effective dose in all aspects of life. This article focuses on training, nutrition, and lifestyle factors, but I want you to clearly understand that this principle can be applied to every area of your life.

What is Minimum Effective Dose?

The minimum effective dose is the least amount of stimulus needed to cause a desired effect.

Minimum Effective Dose for Training

For training, it’s choosing the correct resistance, speed, number of repetitions, etc. If you are new to training, then a very low dose of exercise will provide a benefit, and more exercise is not more effective. Think about it this way. If you want to get one unit better, you need enough physical stimulus (let’s say that’s 3000lbs of work) to cause a 1-unit adaptation in your body. If you perform 6000 or 9000lbs of work (2-3 times the minimum effective dose), you won’t get 2 or 3 units better. You still get only one unit better (or 1.1…), AND some research suggests that too much training can actually make you worse than when you started. More is not better. Better is better. And optimal is best.

You may now be asking, “How do I know how much to do then?” Great question, and I’m glad you asked. The answer here has two parts:

How do you know what your minimum effective dose is?

One, learning to listen to your body’s feedback.

Tracking Your Body’s Feedback

Feedback comes in many forms. Soreness is one excellent area to explore when seeking to find your optimal dose of exercise. You can rate your soreness each day on a scale 0-10. Contrary to popular belief, you can continuously progress with soreness at a zero. Therefore, I argue that 0-1 is optimal. The problem here is that some people may do too little if they don’t feel some soreness. If you are healthy, then I would suggest that soreness ranging from 0-3 is safe. 4-6, you did too much training the day before or your recovery was inadequate. 7+ suggests you did way too much. If you are recovering from an injury, 0-1 soreness is the sweet spot. Any more may cause regression or a slower recovery. If you spend too much time sore at 7+, you are begging the injury gods to grant your wish.

Tracking Your Progress

How can you tell if you are working at your minimum effective dose? For starters, you must outline a goal (and make sure your goal is reasonable). If you seek the lowest amount of stimulus to cause a specific effect, then you better outline what effect you are after. Enter tracking progress. If you don’t have a training journal, start one immediately. Any moderately serious athlete keeps record of how training sessions went, what was completed, and next day effects like soreness, desire to train, fatigue, sleep quality, appetite, and sex drive. I ask my high level athletes to track and average these out on a weekly basis. ALL of these factors are affected by training, so a change in one or more allows inference to how your training program is affecting your bodily systems and mind. 

When sub-optimal feedback begins to trend, then you can put on your thinking cap or chat with your coach about how to tweak things to balance your system. Usually doing less now is the answer. Following this approach will allow you to do more in the long run because you will link together quality months and years of training without many setbacks. There will always be injuries, and training with the minimum effective dose principle may significantly reduce the severity of the setbacks you experience.

Minimum Effective Dose for Nutrition

Nutritionally, the minimum effective dose is making the smallest change necessary to cause the desired effect, no matter the goal. 

Minimum Effective Dose for Weight Gain

To illustrate this, let me give you an example. I worked with a client who wanted to gain weight. He initially complained that he is unable to gain any weight and has tried everything. From his body size, it seemed that he should need about 2500 calories a day to maintain his weight, so I suggested that he begin eating 2750 calories, a conservative 10% increase. He balked at this and said he’s eaten 4000 calories a day in the past and it didn’t work. I asked him if he’s ever tried to eat 2750 calories a day and he said no. After much deliberation, he agreed to commit to eating this amount for two weeks. In that time, he gained one pound. He wasn’t happy because he desired a huge gain. I, on the other hand, was very happy. A measly 10% bump in calories initiated a gain. He kept this going for another 3 weeks and gained another pound. Once his new weight gain slowed, we bumped him up another 10%, and he began to gain a little more. Over three months, he gained 7lbs, and most of that was muscle. He was blown away that he was able to eat so little and still move towards his goal. The best part here is that his gain became much more sustainable. If he started out eating 4000 calories and was consistent with this intake, he would also have gained weight, but most of it would have been body fat, and he’d eventually get overwhelmed having to eat this much and he would quit. This is exactly what he had done in the past.

Important side note: the body does not like big changes. Instead, it desires no change and seeks to maintain homeostasis. So small changes are best, and what’s better than a small change that actually works?!

Minimum Effective Dose for Weight Loss

On the other side of this coin is weight loss, and the story is often similar. A client wants to lose weight and has done crash dieting in the past where they forced themselves to eat 1000 calories less than baseline, they lose a ton of weight, and once they reach a breaking point, they balloon back to their starting weight and even sometimes, beyond. 

My simplest calorie solution to fat loss is to eat about 10% less than you consistently eat right now. To find that value, you must accurately track your food for a while to get an average. Once you find this, you can then take 10% off and work towards consistency there. Give it a month. If you lose weight, great! If not, you can check to see if you’re replacing fat with muscle mass, which is a great thing. A one pound loss of body fat is great. On the scale, you are a pound lighter and your body composition is improved. What’s better than that is a one pound loss of body fat and a gain of one pound of muscle! Even though you are the same on the scale, your body composition is even better. And all from a simple 10% change. This is sustainable!

What if you don’t lose weight with a 10% change?

If you follow my plan above and you don’t lose body fat when you desire to, or you don’t gain muscle or body weight when you desire to, here are some important things to consider:

  • Are you tracking your food accurately?
  • Are you getting enough sleep and water?
  • Are you training too much or not enough, or perhaps completing the wrong training for your goals?
  • How’s your life stress? Too much is not good
  • How’s your self-care game? Waking, meditation, journaling, family time, forest bathing, prayer, etc. work wonders with fat loss and mindset shifting.

I guarantee that if you find harmony within these lifestyle areas and make small nutritional changes, you can make worthwhile progress towards your goals.

Minimum Effective Dose for Sleep

There are countless lifestyle applications for seeking the minimum effective dose. For instance, I have heard from gurus that you should “sleep as much as you can without getting divorced or fired”, and I wholly disagree with this assumption. Of course many people chronically under-sleep. Should we instead seek to sleep 9-10 hours a night, or more? Unless we are going through puberty, this amount of sleep, for most people, is excessive. Instead, seek to find the minimum effective dose of sleep that you need to live the life you want without having negative effects later in life. This does not translate to, “I can get by on 6 hours of sleep”.  How do you feel at the end of a long stretch of days sleeping 6 hours or less? For most people, we feel shitty, stressed, and mentally sluggish. Our workouts suffer. We may lose creativity. And six hours or less each night is linked to serious health problems down the road. There is a small percentage of the population who can thrive on 6 hours of sleep. However, for the large majority of us, there is a sweet spot. 

Many studies on this subject have been performed, and the consensus is to aim for 8 hours in bed, which generally produces 6.5+ hours of quality sleep each night (for many people, if we spend 8 hours in bed, 1-1.5 hours of that sleep will be time spent awake). If you are a very sound sleeper, I would argue that 7 hours in bed is enough because a high amount of that time will be spent experiencing quality sleep. One more fact about sleep: women need more sleep than men, averaging about 20 minutes a night. If you are uncertain about how much sleep you average, there are many different valid testing instruments which you can leverage.

Hopefully this has helped you better understand the concept of seeking and applying the “minimum effective dose” for your training, nutrition, and sleep, but if not, post your questions to the comments or reach out so I can help through the Invictus Nutrition Program!

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