The Principle of a Minimum Effective Workout

There's something in medicine called the "Minimum Effective Dose." That's the smallest amount of a medicine that will produce an effect in the human body.

If I go to my doctor, and I say I have constant aches in my head, she's not going to immediately say "Okay, let's do brain surgery and fix that for you." That's jumping into the deep end right away. If she's a good doctor, she'll prescribe an amount that's enough to get the job done.

When I saw a doctor for my nerve pain, she prescribed me 2 tablets a day of a pill that helped me with it. But she also said, "see how you respond, and if it improves, we may be able to reduce the dosage to 1 tablet." Now I understand that she was trying to find the minimum effective dose for me.

In practice, the minimum effective dose is different from person to person. So a good doctor knows more or less what works, but also how to tweak it for each patient.

This idea is worth exploring when it comes to fitness.


As I'm trying to experiment on some fitness principles, I think this is something that applies not just to medicine but to exercise also.

Once upon a time, I would spend hours in the gym and at the track oval. (I used to be a college athlete) When I was striving to excel and to be the best in my sport, it made sense to train all day to succeed.

But today, there are a lot of other things I'd like to do apart from exercising. I want to also spend time woodworking or gardening. I want to find more time to rest and relax. And on top of that, I still want to be fit and be healthy.

So the question for me now is:

  • What is the smallest amount of exercise I can do and still get the benefits of a fit and healthy lifestyle?

  • What's the smallest "dose" that can make my body respond?

or in other words:

  • What's my Minimum Effective Workout?

Enter Dan John

Blog posts and YouTube videos didn't really help me here. Those tend to focus on what's new and hot. I feel like it relies on fads too much. And there's always some "new" exercise that I'm supposed to be doing.

As I dug deeper among the coaches I respect, there's a name that kept coming up. Dan John- Dan John. So I took a look.

Dan John is a fitness coach, who used to do track and field too. (That definitely spoke to me) His focus is more on strength training, and helping people discover and fix weak points.

In his book "Intervention," Dan establish a concept called the "Five Essential Human Movements." These are movements that all humans should aim to do well, and that provides the key to meaningful and practical strength.

Most people will focus on one or two of these movements only. But here's a quick and simple list that can help me make sure I'm covering all the things I need to cover.

For Dan, the five fundamental human movements are: The Push, The Pull, The Hinge, The Squat, and The Loaded Carry.

Some sound familiar, some may be newer. I won't really get into the specifics of each of these right now. I can save that for sometime in the future.

How Can I use this idea?

This is useful for me, because it's a broader concept concept that I can apply to whatever stage in my fitness journey I'm in.

Back when I was intensely training, I was checking all these workouts.

I did bench presses (The Push), I did rows and pull ups (The Pull). My workouts included deadlifts (The Hinge), barbel squats (The Squat), and the I did resistance training with weighted vests, running sleds, and those kind of fancy equipment (The Loaded Carry).

That's why back then, I was pretty strong.

But what about today? How do I hit those five fundamental human movements? Asking that question can help me establish my Minimum Effective Workout! Based on Dan John's principles, if I just do something to cover those five, that's enough for me to stay strong and healthy.

Reassessing my Activity

So how do I fare?

I do bodyweight exercises now, so there are push ups in there, there are squats, and there are pull ups. That covers three of the five.

I don't really do hinges at the moment, and I don't do loaded carries. (Though I do carry stuff around the garden. Those bags of soil get pretty heavy. Maybe that counts?)

In any case, this tells me that I ought to think about ways to cover those last two movements. (The Hinge & The Loaded Carry)

Giving Me a Framework

The real benefit for me is that it gives me a framework. I don't have to feel insecure whenever I watch a YouTube that says I *should* be doing some new exercise. I can look at it and say, "That looks like it would be The Hinge in Dan John's framework. and I'm already doing a Hinge, so I'm good."

I think an added benefit is that if I do get tired of an exercise. (For example, I'm sick of doing push ups). Then I can just swap it out with some other kind of Push. So instead of saying "I gotta do push ups because they're essential." I can instead think "What's an exercise that I can do, that's fun and I want to try, and ALSO covers The Push in the Five Fundamental Human Movements."

I hope that doing it this way, helps me be flexible enough to sustain a longer term approach.