Practicing the Minimal Effective Dose

A Personal Trainer’s Guide to Client Results

(5 min read)

As coaches, we are constantly encouraging our clients to make positive changes in their lives. Whether it’s to improve sleep, eat healthier, or exercise more, we all have clients who engage in unhealthy behaviors that need to be addressed. But simply telling a client to “stop” an unhealthy behavior is not a path to lasting change.

The Importance of Exploration and Replacing Unhealthy Behaviors

As coaches, it’s tempting to tell a client to just “quit” a behavior. After all, you and your client often agree that the behavior you’re addressing isn’t helping them reach their goals.

But this “quit” approach is met with failure and frustration time and time again. In previous articles, we’ve explored the importance of taking the time to understand why our clients engage in certain behaviors before suggesting any changes and then implementing healthier alternatives that still provide your client with whatever benefit they were seeking from the unhealthy behavior in the first place.

In this article, we’re going to explore behavior change one step further. And although it may seem counterintuitive, we’re going to do it by pulling the reins back on the intensity.

Finding the Minimal Effective Dose

Let’s look at an example. Assume a client is having a pint of ice cream every night of the week. Even this client understands that this isn’t helping them reach their goal.

Now, you’re a dedicated coach and you’ve watched our Becoming the Ultimate Coach series on the root causes of behavior, so you understand:

After some exploration, you and your client come to the conclusion that the root cause of the nightly ice cream is sensory. Additionally, you’ve found a popsicle that delivers the same sweet and fruity flavor that she says she enjoys from the ice cream, fulfilling the root cause of sensory.

This is where some nuance comes into play. The temptation is to completely eliminate the old behavior and replace it with the new one. Often your client will be motivated and enthusiastic to do just that.

That might work, but it may not be necessary.

Too much of the fitness world is focused on massive, and often unsustainable, changes. Time and time again, this leads to failure, frustration, and guilt for your client. Top-tier coaches demonstrate more sophistication by pursuing the minimal effective dose.

Think of it this way. If a client can see consistent progress while still including planned indulgences and that very inclusion keeps them consistent with the plan, why not do that?

Returning to our example, if instead of completely subbing the popsicles in for the ice cream, you and your client agree to replace just three nights of the week with the popsicles.

At first glance, your client might ask if that’s enough. Heck, you might be wondering the same thing, so let’s walk through it. If a pint is 800 calories and you replace three of those with 100-calorie popsicles, you’ve created a 2100-calorie deficit while your client still gets to have ice cream a majority of the week and popsicles on the other days.

If your client can see progress on a plan like this, they’ll be very likely to stay consistent with it.

And if this approach doesn’t produce results, you can titrate up the popsicle replacement until you and your client see progress. Discovering the minimal effective dose for any particular client may require multiple iterations, but it’s well worth it to create a productive and sustainable path for your client.

And for our example, complete elimination of the ice cream may never be necessary. Imagine telling a client that they can still include the things they enjoy and also see progress! When you deliver on that promise, you will be the in-demand coach in your area.


Coaches must remain mindful when working with their clients on replacing unhealthy behaviors. It’s important for us as coaches not only to understand the root causes of these behaviors but also find the minimal effective dose needed to produce results. By exploring root causes and finding the minimal effective dose through appropriate replacements, you can better ensure your client is able to make sustainable progress towards reaching their goals.