Exercise minimalism:
Two experiments in the minimum effective dose.

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

Share

Most people assume that getting in shape – or staying in shape – requires hours of weekly exercise and rigid meal planning.  Not true.

Minimalistic exercise plans and flexible nutritional guidelines can work equally well – sometimes better – as these Precision Nutrition experiments demonstrate.

++

8 hours and 32 minutes.

That’s how much time Marsha spent in the gym… over the last 4 months.

Do the math. That’s only 32 minutes… per week.

What’s the deal? Is this Marsha person lazy?

No.

She works 2 jobs, runs a Girl Guides group (Girl Scouts, for you Americans), and plays co-ed volleyball a few nights per week. Oh yeah, and she’s planning a wedding.

No, she’s not lazy at all. She’s a hard-working, busy, social, fun woman.

Is Marsha recovering from some kind of injury?

Nope.

She’s as healthy as can be. And she could technically work out 8 hours a week… if she wanted. But she doesn’t want. Her goal is to get leaner than she’s ever been — while still having a life — with as little exercise as possible.

Leaner than she’s ever been? On 32 minutes a week? She must be crazy!

No, not at all.

In fact, if anyone’s crazy it’s me. Because I’m the one who recommended this program to her. She actually asked for more exercise. But I capped her at 4 workouts per week and 32 minutes.

The workouts looked like this:

  • 2 sprint workouts – 6 minutes each
  • 2 circuit workouts – 10 minutes each

The results?

Well, in the last 16 weeks Marsha lost a whopping 20 pounds of body fat. She dropped from 150 pounds to 130 pounds. That’s nearly 2.5 pounds of fat lost for every hour spent in the gym.

Want to know how she did it? If so, read on.

Marsha’s minimalist training program

As I said above, Marsha could have worked out much more than 32 minutes per week.

She could have willed herself out of bed extra early to do some low intensity cardio. She could have given up her recreational activities and stopped hanging out with her friends after work in favor of hitting the weights. She could have delegated more of her wedding tasks or quit one of her jobs.

But why would she do any of that?

All that work doesn’t just sound shitty. It sounds unsustainable. Maybe she could do it for a while. But eventually, she’d either lose motivation or some life demand would squeeze the unrealistic workout program out of her life.

So, when thinking about her program, I asked myself the following three questions:

  1. How much has she got going on in her life? (Answer: A lot.)
  2. How much gym experience and proficiency does she have? (Answer: Not much.)
  3. What are her weaknesses? (Answer: Upper body, glutes, anaerobic system.)

Given these particular needs, I wanted to build a program that was light on the time commitment and the requirement for technical skill development — but one that still would produce excellent results.

(This approach allows clients to get started right away without having to reschedule their entire lives. It also allows them to get moving without having to hire a personal trainer to learn all the movements.)

One 30-minute session with me is all it took for Marsha to learn the entire first phase. And after that, no workout lasted longer than 10 minutes.

So what did the program look like?  Here’s what she started with during week 1.

Day 1 – 10 minutes

Close-grip push-ups x 10 reps
Inverted rows x 10
Kettlebell swings x 20
Rest 1 minute
Repeat 5 times

Day 2 – 6 minutes

2 minute walk
15 second sprint on treadmill at 8 mph and 10% incline
15 seconds rest (standing on side of treadmill)
Repeat 5 times
2 minute walk

Day 3 – 10 minutes

Close-grip push-ups x 10 reps
Swiss ball crunches x 10
Air squats with hands behind head x 20
Rest 1 minute
Repeat 5 times

Day 4 – 6 minutes

2 minute walk
15 second sprint on treadmill at 8 mph and 10% incline
15 seconds rest (standing on side of treadmill)
Repeat 5 times
2 minute walk

Notes on Marsha’s exercise program

In addition to scheduling these workouts, here are a few important notes I gave her for the program. These are critical for experiencing the type of results she saw.

Progression

Start with the exact numbers above and with each consecutive workout do one thing to make the workout harder.

For strength workouts, this means doing additional repetitions or reducing the rest time between rounds. And for sprinting workouts, this means increasing the incline, the speed, or the number of repeated sprints.

It doesn’t matter what you choose, just do one thing more than the last time. And make each increment small. It might feel easy at first. But eventually, you’ll reach your performance limits and the increases will come slower.

Workout Frequency and Rest

Do your workouts every other day if possible, with one day off in between workouts. If that’s not possible, take a day off after two consecutive workouts in a row.

All other recreational activities (walking, volleyball, etc.) are fine and can be scheduled in whenever you like. However, these recreational activities will be in addition to the workouts above, not in place of. And, of course, they’re not required. You’ll get in great shape with this alone.

Workout Log

Buy a small spiral-bound notebook and write down every workout you do. Record the time it took you to complete. Record the number of reps and sets you do for strength days. And record your sprint intensity (speed and incline) as well as the number of reps you do.

This book will help you decide which improvements (progression) to make from one week to the next. Without it, you probably won’t remember what you did the week before.

Duration

Follow this program for 4 weeks and then recalibrate, if necessary, at that time. It’s only 32 minutes of exercise per week, or just over 2 hours for the month. So there are no excuses for not completing all the workouts. Of course, if, for some reason, you miss a workout, that’s fine. Just don’t ever miss two in a row.

That’s pretty much it for the program. It’s simple, it’s brief, it’s challenging, it’s sustainable. And, most importantly, it actually works.

Marsha’s experience

I also want to add a few things about Marsha’s exercise experience throughout the 16 weeks. These will help you gain a greater appreciation for both what she focused on and what she struggled with.

Weak and Deconditioned – So What?

During the first week, Marsha was so deconditioned that she couldn’t actually complete any of the workouts. For example, she could only do 3-4 push-ups. And only 4 rounds of the circuits. Even though it was hard for her ego, she showed resiliency and kept going.

Remember, progression means doing a little more each week. So that’s exactly what she did. By the end of the 8th week, she was able to do a GI-Jane-worthy 20 push-ups. And she was able to do 8 rounds of sprints at 8.0 mph on a 12% incline. I’ll bet she’s glad she hung in there.

Monthly Program Changes

Every four weeks I made some slight changes to the exercise selection on the circuit days. This provided her with some different muscle stimulation every new training phase.

Besides a few exercise swaps and the steady progression she was making, nothing else changed for the full 16 weeks. The workouts didn’t get longer. We just crammed more work into each session as she got more fit.

Vigilant About Progression

I have to point out that Marsha was vigilant about her progressions. Every week she added a little more resistance, did another rep or so, or increased the treadmill incline or the speed by a small fraction. This is crucial.

By the end of the 16 weeks, she went from very weak and deconditioned to surprisingly strong and fit. Honestly, even I was surprised by how quickly her fitness adapted and how much change we saw with this minimalistic approach.

Start easy

If there’s one lesson to take away from Marsha’s experience, it’s this: When tackling a new exercise program, begin with a program that’s even easier than you think you can do. Yes, it’ll start off easy (that’s the point). Yes, it’ll bruise your ego (“I can do more, damn it!”) But starting off easier helps you develop a few important habits.

Being realistic

Early motivation always makes us overestimate our capabilities. So we tackle something that’s unsustainable. Starting slowly allows us to do an exercise program we can sustain – while still sustaining the other important things in our lives.

Consistency

You’ll stop skipping workouts. When you know it’s only 6 or 10 minutes of exercise, the excuses start dissolving. And you get in the habit of exercising instead of in the habit of skipping workouts (which some people get quite good at).

Progression

This is the number one thing people miss out on when starting a new program. Week 1 is hyper-enthusiastic. Week 2 is a regression because you’re sore. Week 3 you struggle to match Week 1. And so on. Why not start off slowly and focus on doing just a little better each week? This is the key to long-term results.

In the end, Marsha did an awesome job.  And hopefully you learned a few things from Marsha’s plan. Of course, the exercise program was only part of the experience. Now, let’s talk nutrition.

Marsha’s super-simple nutrition program

As I’ve said many times before, without a good nutrition program, exercise doesn’t really work all that well – especially when body transformation is the goal. For more, check out these articles:

Thus, nutrition was an integral part of Marsha’s transformation. However, like with the exercise program, we kept it really simple.

I just gave her the following nutrition notes, and had her repeat my expectations to me (aloud) so I could be sure she understood them.

A note about hunger and exercise

Intense exercise often makes people hungrier. This leads to overeating and no weight loss. For this reason, the most important thing you can do is pay close attention to your food intake and make sure you’re not eating more than usual. Awareness is the key. (Fortunately, the minimal exercise volume will help keep hunger down too.)

If you’d like to speed things up even more, follow these simple rules.

  • Eat each meal slowly.
  • Eat about 4 meals per day (every 4 hours or so).
  • Eat lean protein, legumes, and lots of veggies w/each meal.
  • Avoid white, starchy carbs (breads, pasta, rice, chips, etc).
  • Avoid fruit.
  • Don’t drink your calories (use lots of water or coffee and tea instead).
  • One day per week, eat whatever you want.

Contrary to what you’d expect; I didn’t even give her a diet to follow. In fact, I rarely ever give anyone a diet to follow. 99.5% of my clients get guidelines and habits to follow instead of diets. I do this for three main reasons:

  1. People aren’t very good at following diets when conditions are “normal”.
  2. People completely give up on the diet when conditions are “abnormal”.
  3. People don’t learn anything when they are prescribed a diet.

Now, if you’re still questioning the habits and guidelines approach (vs. the diet approach), ask yourself this question.

What’s better: starting out really fast with a detailed and intricate diet… and then quitting after a month? Or starting out more slowly and methodically… and losing 20 pounds of fat in 16 weeks like Marsha did?

Wait! What about G-Flux?

Now, for those of you who’ve been around a while, you’re likely scratching your head and wondering how I could recommend such a minimalist program.

I mean, I’m the guy who did that study showing that you probably need 5 hours of exercise per week to be truly happy with your body.

And, I’m the guy who’s written all about the benefits of increasing your energy flux, or G-Flux, when you want to improve your body composition, including both adding lean mass and removing fat mass.

So, doesn’t this very program contradict those ideas?

Well, not really. I mean, I do still believe that if you have the time and you love exercise (like most of our PN readers do), shooting for about 5 hours of exercise per week is perfect.

(And remember, you don’t have to do all 5 hours in the gym.)

However, what if you don’t have the time? Or you’re new to exercise and you’re not sure if you like doing it yet? If you’re in either situation, what are you going to do with the 5 hour recommendation? If anything it becomes an excuse for not working out.

“Oh, I can’t do that 5 hour thing. So why even bother exercising in the first place. I’ll get started next week…or next month.”

Bullshit! I say get started now.

Start with 5 minutes a week, if you have to. Build it up a little at a time. Eventually you’ll find the perfect amount of exercise: just enough to help you reach your fitness goals; not so much that you can’t accomplish your other goals in life.

In his book The 4 Hour Body, Tim Ferris calls this the “Minimum Effective Dose.” From the book:

“The minimum effective dose (MED) is defined simply: the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome…. Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. To boil water, the MED is 212°F (100°C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled’. Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.

If you need 15 minutes in the sun to trigger a melanin response, 15 minutes is your MED for tanning. More than 15 minutes is redundant and will just result in burning and a forced break from the beach…”

For Marsha, 32 minutes a week did the trick. For me, a little more was required.

My experiment in exercise minimalism

Over the last few years, my life has changed pretty substantially. I bought a house, I got married, my wife and I had a baby girl, and PN has grown tremendously.

As a result, I have less time for the gym than ever in my life. Not only that, I have less desire.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love training. However, I’m just not willing to give up time with my family – or time spent doing meaningful PN work that actually helps people – so that I can do extra squats.

That’s why I was so excited by Marsha’s results. So excited, that I tried my own experiment in exercise minimalism.

Now, because I have 20 years experience in the gym, and a long history of higher-volume training, I decided to build a program that combines a little more exercise volume with a little more complexity.

However, the program is still quite minimal. The total time requirement – without the optional recovery workouts – is 80 minutes a week. With the optional workouts – 140 minutes.

Here’s what that program – designed for fat loss – looked like:

WEEK 1

Day 1 – Monday (Upper body circuit – 20 minutes)

Upper body warm-up
Close-grip push-ups x 20 reps
Inverted rows x 20
Flat DB press x 10
Bent over DB rows x 10
Band crunches x 10
Reverse hypers x 10
Rest 1 minute and repeat 5 times

Day 2 – Tuesday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 3 – Wednesday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light cycling (or complete rest)

Day 4 – Thursday (Lower body strength – 45 minutes)

Lower body warm-up
A1. Front squat 5 × 3 reps
A2. Swiss ball leg curls 5 × 10 reps
B1. Deadlifts 5 × 3 reps
B2. Dumbbell squats 5 × 10 reps
C1. Kettlebell swings 5 × 8-10 reps
C2. Speed deadlifts 5 × 8-10 reps

Day 5 – Friday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 6 – Saturday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light cycling (or complete rest)

WEEK 2

Day 1 – Monday (Upper body strength – 45 minutes)

Upper body warm-up
A1. Flat DB press 5 × 3 reps
A2. Pull-ups 5 × 10 reps
B1. Bent over rows 5 × 3 reps
B2. Low cable crossover 5 × 10 reps
C1. Explosive bench press 5 × 8-10 reps
C2. Explosive inverted rows 5 × 8-10 reps

Day 2 – Tuesday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 3 – Wednesday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light cycling (or complete rest)

Day 4 – Thursday (Lower body circuit – 20 minutes)

Lower body warm-up
Air Squats x 20
KB Swings x 20
Front Squat x 10
Lunges x 10
Band crunches x 10
Reverse hypers x 10
Rest 1 minute and repeat 5 times

Day 5 – Friday (Treadmill sprints – 7 minutes)

2 minute walk
15 second sprint at 8mph/10% incline
15 seconds rest
Repeat 6 times
2 minute walk

Day 6 – Saturday (Rest or recovery – 30 minutes)

30 minutes of light cycling (or complete rest)

When I designed this program, I’d committed to following it for at least 8 weeks – 4 weeks of week 1 and 4 weeks of week 2. (I liked it so much, I ended up following it for 4 months and counting.)

Like Marsha, my program was based on progression. I set my weights and intensities lower than I thought I could handle. During each session I kept a workout log. And each week I used the progression principle to do a little more than the previous week. Interestingly, I’ve been able to do just a little more every week for 16 straight weeks.

One example: over the course of 4 months I slowly worked my way up from 6 sprints at 8 mph and 10% incline to 10 sprints at 9 mph and 12% incline. That would have been impossible for me in the beginning.

In terms of diet, I followed my advice to Marsha with two exceptions:

  • My exercise volume was dropping off, so I ate a little less to keep dropping fat.
  • I also fasted completely during one day each week (more on this in a future article).

So here’s the nutrition plan (note that it’s still not very complicated).

  1. Eat a little less than usual
  2. Eat each meal slowly
  3. Eat about 4 meals per day (every 4 hours or so)
  4. Eat lean protein, legumes, and lots of veggies with each meal
  5. Avoid white, starchy carbs (breads, pasta, rice, chips, etc)
  6. Avoid fruit
  7. Don’t drink any calories (used lots of water or coffee and tea instead)
  8. One day per week, eat whatever you want
  9. One day per week, I didn’t eat anything at all (more on this in a future article)

The whole thing has worked out great. I’ve lost about 15 pounds of body fat so far (4 months into the program) — and I didn’t have much fat to lose.

Plus, my strength is good, my fitness is awesome, and – even as I approach 40 years of age – I am as lean as I’ve ever been in my life. In fact, I’m probably about 3-4 weeks away from “contest shape”, should I ever want to do a physique contest.

Even more importantly, I feel awesome on this plan. In the past, to get to this level of body fat, I’ve had to do more extreme, bodybuilding-style diets. These calorie-restricted short-term plans made me feel miserable – like the walking dead. And the day my “diet” ended, I’d binge away. A few weeks later it was like I hadn’t gotten leaner at all.

This plan? Well, I feel normal. Like I’m not dieting at all, really. Marsha mentioned the same thing to me. No brain fog. No insufferable cravings. No crushing lack of motivation.

Sure, from time to time we have to say no to an ice cream craving. But we can always eat that ice cream on our “eat what we want” day. We just have to wait a couple of days.

So, what’s next?

Marsha’s still plugging away.  She thinks she’ll be happiest in the 120 pound range and a little leaner.

For me, I’m happy with my current body weight and composition.  So it’s my goal to maintain my current body comp (and this minimal approach) for an entire year.

In my life, gone are the days of bulking up and cutting down. I’ve moved beyond that characteristic bodybuilding schizophrenia – “I want to get big… no, I want to get lean… no, I want to get big.”

Now, I just want a plan that keeps me lean, healthy, strong, and fit. One that’s not based on uncomfortable overeating followed by uncomfortable undereating. One I can just “do” – every day, as long as I want to do it.

If you’re looking for the same thing from a training and nutrition plan – something you can do to get in awesome shape while also having a life – maybe you should try your own experiment in exercise minimalism.

Find your own minimum effective weekly dose of exercise, quit obsessing about your fitness program, and get out there and have some fun.

Of course, if you want some fat-loss or muscle-gain coaching, give us a shout.  We’d be happy to help you find that minimum effective dose for you.

Eat, move, and live… better.

Yep, we know… the health and fitness world can sometimes be a confusing place. But it doesn’t have to be.

Let us help you make sense of it all with this free special report.

In it you’ll learn the best eating, exercise, and lifestyle strategies – unique and personal – for you.

Click here to download the special report, for free.