Work methodology hacker Tim Ferriss’s new book is about hacking the body for better sex, weight, strength and sleep. This excerpt explains an important principle to these tips: the minimum effective dose.
From Microwaves to Fat-Loss
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Arthur Jones was a precocious young child and particularly fond of crocodiles. He read his father’s entire medical library before he was 12. The home environment might have had something to do with it, seeing as his parents, grandfather, great-grandfather, half-brother, and half-sister were all doctors. From humble beginnings in Oklahoma, he would mature into one of the most inﬂuential ﬁgures in the exercise science world. He would also become, in the words of more than a few, a particularly “angry genius.” One of Jones’s protégés, Ellington Darden PhD, shares a prototypical Jones anecdote:
In 1970, Arthur invited Arnold [Schwarzenegger]and Franco Colombu to visit him in Lake Helen, Florida, right after the 1970 Mr. Olympia. Arthur picked them up at the airport in his Cadillac, with Arnold in the passenger seat and Franco in the back. There are probably 12 stoplights in between the airport and the Interstate, so it was a lot of stop-and-go driving.
Now, you have to know that Arthur was a man who talked loud and dominated every conversation. But he couldn’t get Arnold to shut up. He was just blabbing in his German or whatever and Arthur was having a hard time understanding what he was saying. So Arthur was getting annoyed and told him to quiet down, but Arnold just kept talking and talking. By the time they got onto the Interstate, Arthur had had enough.
So he pulled over to the side of the road, got out, walked around, opened Arnold’s door, grabbed him by the shirt collar, yanked him out, and said something to the effect of, “Listen here, you son of a bitch. If you don’t shut the hell up, a man twice your age is going to whip your arse right out here in front of I-4 trafﬁc. Just dare me.”
Within ﬁve seconds Arnold had apologised, got back in the car, and was a perfect gentlemen for the next three or four days.
Jones was more frequently pissed off than anything else. He was infuriated by what he considered stupidity in every corner of the exercise science world, and he channeled this anger into defying the odds. This included putting 63.21 pounds [29kg]on champion bodybuilder Casey Viator in 28 days and putting himself on the Forbes 400 list by founding and selling exercise equipment manufacturer Nautilus, which was estimated to have grossed $US300 million per year at its zenith.
He had no patience for fuzzy thinking in ﬁelds that depended on scientiﬁc clarity. In response to researchers who drew conclusions about muscular function using electromyography (EMG), Arthur attached their machines to a cadaver and moved its limbs to record similar “activity”. Internal friction, that is. Jones lamented his ﬂeeting time: “My age being what it is, universal acceptance of what we are now doing may not come within my lifetime; but it will come, because what we are doing is clearly established by simple laws of basic physics that cannot be denied forever.”
He passed away on August 28, 2007, of natural causes, 80 years old and as ornery as ever. Jones left a number of important legacies, one of which will be the cornerstone of everything we’ll discuss: the minimum effective dose.
The Minimum Effective Dose
The minimum effective dose (MED) is deﬁned simply: the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. Jones referred to this critical point as the “minimum effective load,” as he was concerned exclusively with weight-bearing exercise, but we will look at precise “dosing” of both exercise and anything you ingest.* Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. To boil water, the MED is 100C 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. During this forced break from the beach, let’s assume one week, someone else who heeded his natural 15-minute MED will be able to ﬁt in four more tanning sessions. He is four shades darker, whereas you have returned to your pale pre-beach self. Sad little manatee. In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months.
In the context of body redesign, there are two fundamental MEDs to keep in mind:
To remove stored fat, do the least necessary to trigger a fat-loss cascade of speciﬁc hormones.
To add muscle in small or large quantities, do the least necessary to trigger local (speciﬁc muscles) and systemic (hormonal2) growth mechanisms.
Knocking over the dominoes that trigger both of these events takes surprisingly little. Don’t complicate them. For a given muscle group like the shoulders, activating the local growth mechanism might require just 80 seconds of tension using 50 pounds once every seven days, for example. That stimulus, just like the 100C for boiling water, is enough to trigger certain prostaglandins, transcription factors, and all manner of complicated biological reactions. What are “transcription factors”? You don’t need to know. In fact, you don’t need to understand any of the biology, just as you don’t need to understand radiation to use a microwave oven. Press a few buttons in the right order and you’re done.
In our context: 80 seconds as a target is all you need to understand. That is the button.
If, instead of 80 seconds, you mimic a glossy magazine routine-say, an arbitrary five sets of 10 repetitions -it is the muscular equivalent of sitting in the sun for an hour with a 15-minute MED. Not only is this wasteful, it is a predictable path for preventing and reversing gains. The organs and glands that help repair damaged tissue have more limitations than your enthusiasm. The kidneys, as one example, can clear the blood of a ﬁnite maximum waste concentration each day (approximately 450 mmol, or millimoles per litre). If you do a marathon three-hour workout and make your bloodstream look like an LA trafﬁc jam, you stand the real chance of hitting a biochemical bottleneck.
Again: the good news is that you don’t need to know anything about your kidneys to use this information. All you need to know is:
80 seconds is the dose prescription.
More is not better. Indeed, your greatest challenge will be resisting the temptation to do more. The MED not only delivers the most dramatic results, but it does so in the least time possible. Jones’s words should echo in your head: “REMEMBER: it is impossible to evaluate, or even understand, anything that you cannot measure.”
80 seconds of 20 lbs [9kg] .
10:00 minutes of 12C water
200mg of allicin extract before bed
These are the types of prescriptions you should seek, and these are the types of prescriptions I will offer.
We believe the body is a gadget. Here’s how to hack it.
The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman is available from Amazon.com.