Heads up! This post is less than 900 words, so about 5 minutes of reading time.
How much? How many? How far? How long?
When it comes to exercise, these are questions I answer daily.
How many times per week should I lift? How many exercises? How many sets and reps? How far and how long should I run?
I’ll answer the question with another series of questions: what CAN you do? What WILL you do? What will you do MORE THAN ONE TIME? If you can answer those, then you have the answer to your ultimate question.
In this world of information overload, where we’re constantly bombarded by new, old, and confusing information, I can’t blame the individuals I talk to for asking these questions.
If you ever just cruise the interwebs, you’re bound to stumble across conflicting information, especially when it comes to health, fitness, and nutrition.
You’ll see headlines like, “Squats are King!” and then a few minutes later “Don’t Squat Ever Again!”
Things like “Paleo is the Greatest Diet Ever,” versus, “10 Terrible Things about Paleo you didn’t know”
“Fruits are Terrible for You!” versus “The All-fruit Diet”
Just to be clear, there are NO absolutes. If you ever come across an article that explains one way of thinking as absolute truth, stop reading. You can now skip the page over to something more interesting..like kittens!
With Exercise and Nutrition, the answer is, and always will be: IT DEPENDS
This is where the Law of Diminishing Returns and Minimal Effective Dose come into play.Law of Diminishing Returns
It’s not uncommon to read about some people’s workouts they boast on social media or other sources.
Here’s my workout bro!:
Squats 10 sets of 10
Lunges 5 sets of 12
Lateral Lunges 5 sets of 12
Deadlifts 4 sets of 8
Leg curls 3 sets of 15
Leg Extensions 3 sets of 20
Calf Raises 5 sets of 15
Man I couldn’t walk for days after that hella awesome workout dude!
You don’t say? I wouldn’t be able to walk right either after 35 sets of leg exercises. Why stop there? Why not 40 sets? 50?
Several fitness trends have pushed workouts to the brink of insanity. If you’re not puking your guts up or if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not hard enough seems to be the mantra of people’s workouts these days.
Why this is the trend I cannot say. I will however tell you that
A) The workout I wrote above isn’t too far from the truth with many people and
B) You’re wasting a ton of time
More, (and more and more and more) does not equal better.
So why the marathon workouts? Misinformation. And maybe the need to impress your “friends” on social media.
The truth is that unless you’re an elite level bodybuilder, you can get away with about one half of the workout above and achieve phenomenal results (and likely achieve them in half the time).
Do this instead:
Reverse Lunges 4×8 ea. leg
Single Leg RDL 3×10 ea. leg
Barbell Hip Thrust 3×10
Fifteen total sets and you’re done. Go home now. Leave some energy in the tank and save it for another day.
Minimal Effective Dose
So if the first workout I wrote was too much, what’s the minimum I need in order to get results? Also a fair question. Again the answer is it depends.
If you’re the type that hates the gym and wants nothing more than to get in and get out, then an even less amount of total work can still suffice.
Goblet Squats 3×8
Reverse Lunges 3×8
Single Leg Hip Thrust 3×8
Planks 3×20 seconds
With this workout you achieve a decent amount of volume (total work) and variety to achieve results. In fact, if you haven’t been lifting and are just starting out, this workout would put you ahead of about 95% of the regular Joes at your local gym.
The truth again is that after about 3-4 sets of an exercise, any additional work yields minimal additional benefit.
“But Andy! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You HAVE to do more sets to get better results!”
On the contrary; in fact,
“Regarding total sets per workout, one meta-analysis suggested that about 4-8 sets per muscle group yielded the most substantial effects in trained individuals..typically, 3-6 sets per exercise are common but more and less can be used successfully” (1)The Sweet Spot
So where do you stand? How much is too much, and how much do you need to achieve results? It Depends. Are you a professional bodybuilder, or just starting out?
Truthfully, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle; somewhere between marathon workout and minimal effective dose.
At the end of the day, everyone is different and everyone will respond differently. That’s why a one-size-fits-all approach is a bad one. You have to figure out what works for you.
I can tell you with absolute confidence that marathon workouts are wasting your time. If you stick to the big basics, like squats, push-ups, and chin-ups, you can get into pretty damn good shape with just a few great sets of each exercise.
Move often and with purpose. Knock out a few sets of the basics, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving results that are social media brag-worthy. Find that sweet spot.
1) ACSM’s Foundations of Strength Training and Conditioning, Nicholas Ratamess Jr., PhD, CSCS*D, FNSCA; pgs. 206-207