UNDERSTANDING AND PRESERVING THE WORKOUT STIMULUS
How to strategise your workout for maximum physiological benefit
Two things I try to cover during every whiteboard introduction:
I know, I know. I am talking about it again. The Stimuluuussssssssss! You're probably sick of hearing it. So, why do I go on, and on, and on about it? I'm glad you asked. (You didn't ask).
Essentially 'workout stimulus' is just a fancy way of talking about the intended physiological effects and benefits the workout has on an athlete. Every workout is programmed with this in mind, and we are given a prescribed movement, time domain, and load. For me, knowing the workout stimulus affects the decisions I make before the workout and the strategy I take with me into the workout. For scaled athletes, it is really important to know the intended stimulus, and that your coach helps you modify the workout in a way that you can preserve it.
Some pre-workout questions you might be asking yourselves:
- Am I about to die?
- Wait, do I need to pee?
- I wonder what colour underwear Jirka is wearing?
All are very valid and important questions. You may even have more of them. But one question you need to be asking yourself every single time is "Will I get more from this workout if I scale it?".
I believe that understanding and preserving the stimulus isn't just important for scaled athletes. It also applies to you, big boy! It is a total misconception that scaling is for beginners. It's simply not true. Every athlete, even the strongest or most experienced among them, has his or her weaknesses - certain physical skills which present real challenges, and can really slow them down. For example, I know from observation that some of the athletes considered the strongest in our gym have problems maintaining good mechanics when performing high numbers of heavy deadlifts at high intensity. Depending on the workout, this may affect their ability to preserve one factor of the stimulus. In all cases it is unsafe.
Let's take a look at the benchmark workout 'Christine':
3 Rounds For Time:
12 Deadlifts (bodyweight)
21 Box Jumps (24/20”)
Now let's list some of the stimuli (yes, that is the correct plural) for this workout:
Finish the workout between 10 and 15 minutes (Advanced athletes to push closer to 10 minutes)
Athletes should be able to complete 7+ unbroken reps with the chosen deadlift weight
For a faster time, athletes should push harder than they want to on the rower
Alright. So, having seen the workout and heard the stimulus, a few of the questions you are probably asking yourself now are:
- “Can I finish the workout in less than 15 minutes if I have my bodyweight loaded up on the barbell?”
- “Will I be able to hold on for 7+ reps?”
- “How hard am I willing to work on the rower and the box jumps to make sure I preserve the time domain stimulus?”
The way I would personally look at this is to consider if lifting my bodyweight is going to slow me down. There is little point in attempting this workout as prescribed if you are struggling to finish 12 deadlifts in 1-2 sets. And there is absolutely no point at all in attempting the workout if completing 12 deadlifts at your bodyweight is going to compromise safe movement or result in you taking extended, breathless rest periods between reps and sets. Because, unless you are Satan himself on the rower and the box jumps, then you likely won't hit the sub-15 minute time stimulus. The idea is to keep moving as much as possible here. At the same time though, it makes no sense to scale the deadlift load back so much that it doesn't present a challenge to the athlete.
As a coach there are also things to keep in mind and to be on the lookout for. First of all, my coaching target is to make sure the entire class finishes in under 15 minutes. To do that, I need to make sure that the athlete is able to finish the first round in about 4:30 or less. In case not, I will be ready to help the athlete scale the rest of the workout from round 2. This can be done in a number of ways, but I would scale it by reducing the load on the barbell, or by reducing the distance on the row. It is also your coach's job to help you scale the workout if any breakdown in safe technique is observed. It is your job not to take it personally.
Consider the following statement from CrossFit:
"CrossFit's charter for creating the most optimal balance of safety, efficacy, and efficiency is: mechanics, consistency, then - and only then - intensity".
Mechanics → Consistency → Intensity. That is: learn the mechanics properly by practicing the movement regularly and safely, prove you can do this consistently without compromising technique and form, and only once you can do this, crank up the intensity of the movement by adding either volume or speed. Ignoring this charter only fuels criticism of CrossFit from the wider health and fitness community.
It kills me to watch an athlete's form break down mid-workout because they insisted on tackling the workout RX. In most cases, they are not hitting the intended stimulus, and they are seriously risking causing themselves an injury.
An important thing to remember: If your coach suggests you scale a workout, it's not because we don't think you're a badass. You obviously are! We just think that having observed your current physical ability you would be safer and get more physiological benefit from the workout by changing the movement or volume to better suit your needs. This is the way to progress. This is how you work your way towards RX.
The workout stimulus is essentially the intended goal of the workout.
We scale workouts so that less advanced athletes can still hit that goal.
Advanced athletes should also be aware of the stimulus to make sure they preserve it. Understanding the intended goal can make them reconsider tackling the workout RX.
Preserving the stimulus is the best way towards physiological adaptations, e.g progress in strength and skill. Neglecting it means robbing yourself of real results.
Written by Stuart Woods
CrossFit Meat Factory