The road to robustification starts with a modicum of harm

– Nassim Taleb

You are innately familiar with this concept. You got vaccinated as a kid against a bunch of diseases. What goes in a vaccine? Well, a bit of the infection which the body can overwhelm. And thus build an immune response.

You stress the body. The body responds by getting stronger. The body responds by owning that stress.

In this 2017 photo, captured inside a clinical setting, a health care provider was placing a bandage on the injection site of a child, who had just received a seasonal influenza vaccine. Children younger than 5-years-old, and especially those younger than 2-years-old, are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications. A flu vaccine offers the best defense against flu, and its potentially serious consequences, and can also reduce the spread of flu to others.
Photo by CDC / Unsplash

You fall sick when the infection overwhelms you. When the dose is too high.

But a small dose, the right dosage, of a harmful substance is beneficial for the organism.


Too small a dose and nothing happens.

Too big a dose and bad things happen.

The same principle applies, amongst other things, to how physical exercise works on the body (and mind.)

You provide your body with a modicum of harm. You provide an external stressor that the body is not used to.

For example, you squat 10 kilos. You do, throughout your workout, 50 squats. The next day, your body is quite sore. You might find it hard to walk upstairs. Your quadriceps (the front of your thigh) are screaming.

Fast forward a few months of regular physical training. You are squatting 50 kilos for 50 reps in your workouts. And your soreness is less than what it was after the first day. Isn't that crazy?!

By regularly dosing a modicum of harm, by adding a bit more stress than what your body was used to, your body gets stronger.

This is the overarching principle behind physical fitness.

Model: Selina Selke
Photo by Sven Mieke / Unsplash

To get stronger, lift more weights.

To increase your endurance, do more work.

To increase your flexibility, stretch.

But beyond the obvious and ultimately useless statements above, you add the principle you learned. The same principle of vaccination.

Find the right dose. Get stronger. Repeat.


A couple of complications arise.

The dosage is a combination of intensity, repetition, and frequency. Do too much or too little, and you have a problem.

Too much is harmful.

Too little is useless.

Walking, for example, is the most accessible form of physical activity for most people. Unfortunately, most people have too low a dosage for it to create a physiological impact. That is, it doesn't produce positive adaptations in your body and physical health.

Photo by Gary Butterfield / Unsplash

This applies to any physical activity. Even if it is hard. Running a 5k might sound hard. But if you run 5k multiple times a week, your body has adapted to it and doesn't get too much from it. Not as much as you'd like to keep improving it, let me clarify.

Methods to Increase Dosage

So, what do you do?

You have a few options.

Increase the volume of work done. If you are walking, increase the distance every week. Your body adapts. And then you increase the dose. So, the benefits will continue to flow.

Soon enough though, you will run into a problem of time. So, walk faster. Aim to cover more distance in the same amount of time. If you start by walking 3 km in an hour, over many weeks, you can get rather fast and aim for up to 7k (!!!).

But there will be a ceiling for this as well. We've increased the time to an hour. Let's say that's the maximum time we have. We've increased speed in that hour. So, that leaves increasing the difficulty level. If you are walking on a treadmill, you can add an incline to it. If you are walking outside (much better than walking on a treadmill), you can wear a weighted vest.

This will keep your body challenged for many many weeks. Producing improvements consistently.

This principle applies in strength training - which is why we increase the load, or change the levers, or change the movement and make it harder. Think wall pushups to floor pushups to handstand pushups.

Handstand pushup
Photo by Pedro Araújo / Unsplash

Likewise, it applies to endurance training as well. Especially because a linear increase in training time is not compatible with everyone's life.

What next?

So, where do you go from here?

Where are you stalling?

Weight loss or weight gain not happening? Strength not improving?

Or let's expand to life. Where in life are you stalling? Where have you stopped growing?

In what aspects of your life have you stopped increasing the dosage?

Where have you kept on doing the same dose? You've stopped learning. You've stopped growing there.

To improve, to get better, to continue on your awesome journey, increase the dose.

Remember, not too much. But not too little.

And then, change it up. Do something else.

And then come back to the original.

I'd love to know what aspect of your life you are going to work on.