Exercise: Minimum effective dose when you're time-poor
Exercise is often the first to go when life is busy.
Written by
Dan Cable
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Last updated
March 25, 2024
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I haven't had much time for my regular training schedule in the last month, while I juggle a breakneck pace at work with a busy sailing calendar. 

I should probably be writing about recovery practices — my daily ice bath at 6am plus a regular evening sauna has kept me from burnout — but I’d prefer to dive into the concept of the ‘Minimum Effective Dose’ to maintain strength and conditioning (S&C) this week.

We all go through cycles of being time-poor — such is life — and our regular exercise routine is often the first to go but we must be vigilant to avoid skipping it altogether. 

Your bare minimum routine

What is the bare minimum routine we can fall back on when we have only 1-2 hours a week?


1x 45 min routine involving major compound movements (squats, deadlift, pull-ups, etc.) and high-intensity, low-volume work (1 working set of 8-12 reps at 80% 1RM or near failure at final reps) will help maintain strength and muscle mass [1][2].


1x 20 min very high-intensity interval training (multiple rounds of brief bursts of max work rate with only brief rests in between) to maintain VO2 Max and enjoy the huge metabolic and androgen hormone afterburn from hormesis.

I find HIIT (proper HIIT) is a massive boost to mood and productivity and I’ve long applied the Tabata timing protocol as the highest-ROI approach but it’s not for the faint-hearted [3].


1x 30-60 min low-intensity steady-state cardio in Zone 2 (you should still be able to talk comfortably) to maintain your aerobic threshold and endurance [1]. This is the easiest to fit into your schedule as you can take calls, listen to podcasts, and ride or run to work.

Incidental exercise

Take the stairs, get off the bus or train a stop early and walk the rest.

Get creative by combining HIIT and LISS into a single session, or strength work plus HIIT. Even little everyday tasks can become useful!

What other lifestyle tweaks can you make to maintain strength and conditioning?

Deep sleep

Slow-wave sleep (delta brain wave) stimulates HGH and supports the restoration of muscle tone and immune function [4]. There can be a lot of resistance to sleep hygiene but sleep is our number one performance practice so we get smart about it in our Compound programming.

Consume adequate protein

We must dial in our dietary protein intake according to our training activity, body composition goals, and total calories. This is why we set individual targets for Compound members during each quarterly cycle.

Wholefood diet

A balanced diet with plenty of nutrient-dense vegetables will minimise inflammation that only accelerates deconditioning — avoid junk when stressed [5].


There’s a long list of benefits but saunas are particularly useful if you need to de-stress and maintain strength and conditioning in the absence of training [6].

How quickly do you lose strength and conditioning when stopping training altogether?

Within 2-4 weeks, your VO2 Max may drop 5-10%; by 9 weeks up to 20%; by 11 weeks up to 25% [7][8]. Tthis will translate into meaningful decreases in endurance time trials and overall everyday energy levels.

Our strength may bounce back relatively quickly thanks to ‘muscle memory’, but our conditioning may take longer to return, perhaps up to 2-3x as long as the initial break from training [9][10].

What can you do to minimise the loss in strength and conditioning?

It should go without saying that alcohol and smoking will only accelerate deconditioning (even when training actively) but there are a few other lifestyle factors you should avoid if you want to minimise deconditioning.

Deprive the sweet tooth

A high-sugar diet leads to increased inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and insulin resistance leading to a reduction in muscle strength, lean mass, and overall conditioning [11][12][13].

Avoid full-on slug life

A sedentary lifestyle accelerates deconditioning and muscle loss, compounded by a drop in testosterone [14]. We should break up extended sitting (standing desk?) with incidental movement and avoid watching too much TV! [15]

Manage excess stress

High levels of stress and poor quality sleep can result in excess cortisol (catabolic), reduced muscle strength/mass and increased body fat, among a whole list of other things [16][17]. 

Avoiding the traps that result in ‘two steps back, one step forward’ should be front of mind when we’re particularly time-poor.

At Compound, we believe our best years are ahead of us so we are all about building and maintaining momentum through the episodes of peak pressure that life throws at us.

As each episode eases and we recreate the capacity to invest in our health and stretch our performance, we should return to high-ROI routines to improve our S&C, not just maintain it.

My ambition is to translate elite athlete practices into approachable programming for everyday high-achieving men seeking personalised routines for a broad variety of sports, S&C goals, and individual injury constraints.

This post contains general information about health and wellness practices. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be treated as such. Please consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new health regimen. This information is provided without any representations or warranties, express or implied.

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