Stimulus - The why Behind the Workout

04 Mar 2020

One of the most important things in all workouts is the stimulus, that is; the desired physical response from doing it. Here we talk about how we use this to build our workouts.

Why are you training? What are you working towards? These are important questions to ask for anyone who trains for any physical activity. Having the answers to these questions is the ultimate starting point in designing a workout program or choosing to purchase one or signing up with a specific trainer. The basic question to ask when comparing your goals to a workout program is; "will this training help me reach my goals?".

This seems intuitive, if I have a goal of deadlifting 250kg, I should probably work on my deadlift it's self, improve my hamstring strength, do more box squats and work on my grip strength. This is a very specific example, often with sports and physical activity, we are interested in a great many different physical adaptations. If you subscript to a varied functional training methodology mixing in many different modalities, how should we best analyse if a workout will help us reach our goals?

"The answer is stimulus, that is; what is the desired physical response to a specific workout"

The answer is stimulus, that is; what is the desired physical response to a specific workout. Sometimes this is obvious from the programming, going back to our earlier example, if the workout is to build to a max deadlift, then the stimulus is fairly obviously to train top end strength and test your ability to lift heavy weights. However, lets look at a more complex example.

We are reading a workout program and see the workout is 5 rounds for time of 10 power cleans at 84kg and a 400m run between rounds. With no other information, it is up to the reader to decide how to tackle is workout. If you are a beginner or even an average athlete, you might read this and think, "wow, that is a lot of reps at a heavy weight and lots of running". It might seem sensible to you to tackle this workout slow and steady and spread it out over a long time domain. However, an advanced or elite athlete might look at this and think, high volume, light weight, short distances, "I need to push hard, go fast on the cleans and recover on the run". Who is right here?

The answer is, both. Without a desired stimulus, any workout can be done in any way you choose. Now, lets change the above workout a bit by adding a stimulus. For this workout we are going to say, "This is a test of fast high volume capacity, move fast on the barbell and evenly pace the run. Can you pick up the barbell straight after each run?". As a beginner, I am going to look at an 84kg power clean and know that I wont be able to move fast at that weight. Scaling now comes into play. If the desired stimulus is to move quickly and test your ability at cycling a barbell under cardio load, what weight, as a beginner can I achieve this with? Remember, the prescription is an ideal, if you were getting crushed by the bar each round and moving slowly, yes, you are getting a workout, but it's not the stimulus that is desired.

"Be honest with yourself, do the work you need to do, not the work you want to do"

If your goal as a beginner is to improve your cardio capacity and your ability to move quickly under load, then in this case, you should drop the weight back and obey the stimulus of the workout. For this reason, at Wodly, we program all of our workouts with prescribed weights and movement standards, as well as desired stimulus and scaling notes. The idea of providing all of this information is that anyone reading the workout should be able to structure and scale the workout to achieve the desired physical adaptation.

In conclusion, whether you are attempting a Wodly workout, doing a workout in your gym or reading an online workout program, ask yourself, what is the stimulus of this workout? If this information isn't provided, ask your coach or the person programming the workout. If you can't get in touch with anyone, take your best guess or look into another training program. Finally, if you are trying to decide what way you want to approach a workout, remember the first questions I asked in this workout, what are you training for? What do you want to get out of this workout? Be honest with yourself, do the work you need to do, not the work you want to do.

Ian Carey
Better. Every. Day.