Minimum Effective Dose: How to achieve more with less

Rory Girvan of Hench offers his top tips for integrating ‘minimum effective dose’ training into your lifestyle

Back view young adult girl doing barbell squats in gym. Woman with muscular body doing lifting exercise.
When it comes to fitness training, doing less can often achieve more effective and longer lasting results (PaulBiryukov/Getty Images)

Pursuing our fitness aspirations whilst leading a busy life is a fine balancing act and when a big birthday, trip or key event is looming the increased urgency can lead to an impulse to do more.

With this, our time horizons for fitness goals shrink from years to weeks, we increase our exercise volume and can even turn a blind eye to rest days. However, the premise that ‘more equals better’ is flawed.

The key to long-term success isn’t about spending hours at the gym or following a gruelling regime; it’s about understanding and implementing the concept of the minimum effective dose, or MED.

MED refers to the smallest amount of exercise needed to achieve desired results. This approach is grounded in the science of exercise physiology and is a game-changer for those looking to sustainably improve their fitness without overhauling their lives.

As summer is, hopefully, just around the corner here’s an example of MED as it relates to - bear with me here - tanning...

A heat wave is announced to hit Northern Ireland next week. Let’s say 15 minutes in the sun is your MED for tanning. On Monday, you get out into the midday sun for 15 minutes. More than 15 would be redundant as it would result in your skin burning and you’d be forced to hide from the sun for the rest of the week.

However, let’s assume you didn’t exceed your 15-minute MED in which case you could conceivably get back out into the sun again on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday without burning.

In this hypothetical example, time spent in the sun represents external stress on the body, recovery comes in the form of time recuperating indoors or covered up, and adaptation would come in the form of tanning.

Likewise, for exercise, a training session is simply a form of stress, recovery is your rest days and adaptation relates to changes that occur within the body such as adding muscle, losing body fat or improving performance. The key point to grasp is that exceeding your MED can plateau your progress for weeks or even months.

The Science Behind the Minimum Effective Dose

Research consistently shows that you don’t need to engage in lengthy, high-intensity workouts to see significant health benefits. Short, focused sessions can yield impressive results in terms of strength, endurance and overall fitness. This principle is particularly beneficial for those of us juggling multiple responsibilities and seeking efficiency in our routines.

It’s widely known that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be as effective as traditional, longer-duration exercise in improving cardiovascular health and metabolic function.

However, resistance training with minimal sets can also lead to substantial strength gains when programmed correctly. It has been observed that as few as 1-3 sets per lift per week can produce significant results, especially in strength and body composition improvements.

Case Studies from HENCH Members

We regularly see members achieve better results than when previously training six times per week, with just three hours of progressive, personalised coaching per week. When pressed for time or stressed, even 30-45 minutes a few times per week can make a significant difference.

Here are some real-world, individual results from HENCH members who attend anywhere from 1-3, 60-minute sessions per week:

  • Female (24), after five months: bench press, 92% increase; Romanian deadlift (RDL). 90% increase; back squat, 66% increase; hip thrust, 150% increase.
  • Female (26), after five months: muscle mass increased by 5%; bench press, 45% increase; RDL, 170% increase; back squat, 74% increase; hip thrust, 71% increase.
  • Male (30), after 12 months: bench press, 62% increase; deadlift, 112.5% increase; back squat, 225% increase.
  • Male (43), after 6 months: muscle mass increased by 7%; bench press, 23% increase; deadlift, 52% increase; back squat, 40% increase.
  • Male (60), after 4 months: back squat, 121% increase; RDL, 74% increase; Zercher squat, 111% increase.
Rory Girvan, founder of Hench gym
Rory Girvan, founder of Hench gym

Tips for Integrating the Minimum Effective Dose into Your Lifestyle

  1. Start small: Begin with short, manageable workouts that fit easily into your schedule. This reduces the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed and promotes consistency. Even short workouts, when performed consistently, can lead to significant improvements over time.
  2. Focus on quality: Prioritise proper form and adequate intensity over duration. Effective, high-quality workouts are more beneficial than longer, less intense sessions.
  3. Progressive overload: As you become more comfortable, gradually increase the intensity or frequency of your workouts. Listen to your body and adjust as needed.

With MED, Less Can Be More

For busy people, the largest barrier to building a training habit is often time. However, as little as 30-45 minutes of structured training sessions performed over 2-3 days per week can provide a significant return in overall health, strength and muscle development.

Embracing the minimum effective dose in your fitness routine can revolutionise your relationship with exercise. By focusing on quality over quantity and making small, sustainable changes, you can achieve your fitness goals without sacrificing other aspects of your life.

Here’s to making each workout count, finding joy in the process, and achieving more with less. Remember, it’s not about how much time you spend exercising, but how effectively you use that time. Let’s make this summer the season of smart, efficient and enjoyable fitness journeys.