Minimum Effective Dose vs. Maximum Recoverable Volume
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
On the surface of things, Minimum Effective Dose and Maximum Recoverable Volume seem to be diametrically opposed; one argues for doing no more than is needed to elicit a response, while the other would have you do as much work as you can handle. Is that the full story? Are these two theories destined to be arch-enemies—Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luther, Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard—or is there a way to reconcile the two ideas and make use of both approaches?
Minimum Effective Dose
Here's a simple explanation of the concept of Minimum Effective Dose, or "MED": water boils at 100°C (or 212°F)—heating it to 110°C or (230°F) doesn't make it any more boiled. The extra energy that went into heating the water was essentially wasted.
In fitness terms, this theory would argue that any work done past the point of stimulus is also wasted. Once I've stimulated a muscle to grow or to produce more mitochondria—depending on the applied stress—any additional work is just as wasted as the gas or electricity I used to "overboil" a kettle of water.
It sounds great, and proponents of this idea—most notably Tim Ferris of the "4–Hour Workweek"—have a pretty tempting idea to offer: I can do less and benefit more. Some questions present themselves, however, including: "how do I know when I've done enough?" and, "if doing less gets me more, why aren't more people skinny, jacked, and rich?". Hmmm... fair points.
Maximum Recoverable Volume
On the other end of the spectrum, Maximum Recoverable Volume—"MRV" for short—is built around the idea of the highest total stress you can still adapt to. Adaptation is a cool concept—it's where the name for this site and my business comes from—as it's a case of stress actually making a system stronger and more robust. The trick here is that stress alone doesn't guarantee results. Without adequate recovery stress can eventually break any system down. Another simple example illustrates the point:
If you spent a few hours vigorously rubbing your hands on a carpeted floor, you'd probably wind up with pretty raw palms. On the other hand, if you split the same amount of time up into smaller doses and let your hands recover, you'd instead wind up with calloused hands better equipped for more of the same stress in the future.
MRV argues that we'll grow thicker callouses—or adapt in any other way—if we expose the system to as much stress as it can recover from. Intuitively, this also makes good sense, and despite—or perhaps because of—the extra work involved, it's seen a surge in popularity with the rise of things like CrossFit. More work equals better results, right? Sure, but again some questions present themselves, among them: "how much is too much?" and, "is it worth the risk?".
On the surface of things, it's hard to see a way to put both approaches to use: do as little as possible while doing as much as possible. But I'll argue that that's exactly what's called for in nearly all cases, regardless of client or goal.
For the past few months I've been mildly obsessed with a simple idea: specificity has a cost. Taken from a friend of mine—Kyle Dobbs—it's a simple way of explaining that fitness is a zero sum game: improving one quality will limit how much you can improve another. You can't get jacked and ripped and mobile and stable all at the same time. It's a frustrating reality, as most of us would kinda like to be better all over the place, and do so all at once.
We "solve" this problem through periodization—systematically rotating through our priorities and goals—but this isn't really a solution, as it doesn't change the reality of the system and its abilities to adapt.
What it does do is present an opportunity for MED and MRV to work together. We can look to apply maximal stress towards one goal while maintaining other qualities through minimal effort and resources.
What This Looks Like
As I try to outpace my 30s/40s, I'm as concerned with building—and keeping—muscle as ever. That means that most of my training consists of big, basic, bilateral barbell work; squats, deadlifts, presses and rows. My training week is high frequency (I'll do a variation of every big lift four days per week) and high volume. I put a lot into this kind of work, and don't typically have a lot left when it's done.
On the other hand, I've argued that cardiovascular training can actually help you build muscle. On top of that, I'd rather not be fat, and so it seems like I need to include some conditioning work in my training week.
Here's where I see the marriage between these two ideologies.
For my primary goal I'm essentially taking a Maximum Recoverable Volume approach—if I feel good and keep seeing things move in the right direction, I'll keep pushing the limits of how much work I do until I see a need to pull back.
For my secondary goal (as well as any other goals I may have), I'll try to make use of the Minimum Effective Dose—just enough to make progress/maintain, while not sucking up resources that could otherwise be devoted to my primary goal.
Over the course of a training year this could mean maintaining strength and power while developing endurance, shifting the focus to hypertrophy/strength while maintaining endurance and power, and peaking with power work supplemented by just enough endurance and strength work so as not to lose too much ground.
A final pair of examples would be the powerlifter doing just enough mobility work to avoid injury while not sacrificing much needed stability, or an endurance athlete spending just enough time on speed work to have a good final kick at the end of a race, but not sacrificing the first 99% of the race by trying to be a speed athlete.
Far from being competing ideologies, MED and MRV are in fact very good partners. Their opposition is their strength, and the reason they can work together. Each philosophy offers distinct advantages and disadvantages, and a non-dogmatic, flexible application of each will likely yield better results than strict adherence to either.
My own bias is towards a Maximum Recoverable Volume approach—I tend to see stress as a tool to make use of, and like to apply a good dose of it—but there are absolutely circumstances where a minimal dose is more effective (calorie restriction, movement prep, "corrective" exercises, and maintenance work all being examples). As with all of this, the now trite conditional "it depends" is appropriate. Consider the context—athlete/client, goal, resources etc.—before committing too fully to any one approach.
As always, I hope you found this helpful. If so, please consider sharing this with someone else who might benefit. For even more good stuff, consider an online training program or individual mentorship!