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The Most Important Variable You Aren’t Paying Attention To But Should Be


The Most Important Variable You Aren’t Paying Attention To But Should Be

By Jeffrey Johnson Jr.

Fitness is an amazing tool anyone can use to change their life. Fitness teaches lessons that modern human beings struggle to learn: lessons on traversing through hardship, dealing with failure, and reflecting on your readiness for a given task. Yet, as is the case with any tool, if used incorrectly, fitness can be close to useless if you don’t understand how to use it. Ever try to use a hammer to lay brick?

As a CrossFit athlete, fitness enthusiast, or “Class Pass” connoisseur, understanding what is expected of you when you walk into a training session is key to making sure you achieve the programmer’s intended result. You may be saying to yourself, “I have my own set of goals and they clash with those of the programmer, what should I do?” Or you may be asking yourself “how am I supposed to know what they intended for me to get out of this?” My response: trust the process and chase the stimulus.

Trusting the Process

Creating workouts for a large population of athletes requires making some sacrifices from a programming standpoint. Performing said workouts requires some level of trust that the programmer has your best intentions in mind and that they know what is best. How could they if you are one of hundreds of athletes intended to receive a given prescription? By staying committed to a few basic principles programmer’s can make sure their athletes of diverse experience and skill levels can all benefit from each and every training session. Here at Brazen Athletics we believe:

  • Strength is paramount to success in and outside of the gym. Whether we are speaking mental, physical, or both, think of one thing you wouldn’t be better equipped to handle if you were stronger?
  • No one wants to die in a nursing home. Aging is a beautiful process. Fitness can help you stay independent and allow you to age with grace.
  • Skill development is a key component to your long-term success in the fitness arena, but you cannot perform skills without the foundational strength required to do so. Failed attempts at the Olympic Lifts, a half marathon, or a local competition can all serve as a potential storm, each with the capability of doing damage if the proper foundation isn’t laid. Would you rather be in the tallest, yet unstable building? Or a modest sized, structurally sound one to weather a storm?

Chasing the Stimulus

Identifying the given stimulus for a “WOD” can be hard on your own as an athlete but doing so may be the single most important variable in your ability to see progress that you aren’t paying attention to. Progress can be measured in multiple ways, so how do you know which to pay attention to? During a strength training session, should you be more concerned with the weight moved or quality of your movement? While performing a metcon, how fast should you be moving as you transition from component to component? When a workout calls for your “max effort” what does that even mean? The answer is almost always, “it depends.”

It depends on a simple equation:Your Goals + Intended Stimulus / Your Ability = Intensity

Your goal may be to win your next local competition or to run in a 5k with some co-workers. The intended stimulus of a given workout can vary from low to moderate intensity with an emphasis on training a specific skill to high intensity intended on testing your ability to output power across multiple modalities. You add those two together and you can learn a lot about how to approach any given workout, although you wouldn’t have the entire picture. You need to take the goals you set for yourself, paired with the intended stimulus and honestly assess your ability to achieve them by taking your skill level and experience into account. Here are examples of how two athletes with varying skills and goals can “chase” the same stimulus despite their differences:

Workout- “Cindy” (20 Minute AMRAP of 5 Pull Ups/ 10 Push Ups/ 15 Air Squats)

“Cindy” tests one’s ability to properly and effectively sustain moderate levels of power to move their body through a series of basic gymnastics and bodyweight movements. Cindy is a test of one’s metabolic conditioning, their ability to turn stored energy into “work” over a period of 20 minutes.

Athlete #1- Very inexperienced athlete who just wants to get in shape.

Considering the movements involved and the skill level of the athlete, this individual should start by scaling pull ups to ring rows, making sure that they perform push ups “scaled” by dropping to their knees, and they may want to have a light weight object or a box near by in case their squat mechanics begin to break down. Both can be used as corrective tools:

  • A lightweight object can be used in the “goblet” position to help the athlete sit back and engage their posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc.).
  • A box can help the athlete squat to an appropriate depth.

The intended goal of “Cindy” will be hard for a novice with very little metabolic conditioning in their past to achieve if their pacing is even slightly off. This athlete should consider performing one round of Cindy every 2 minutes in order to work throughout the allotted time. Often times newer athletes come out “too hot,” not chasing the intended stimulus, but chasing a “sweat” or a “burn” as an indicator that they accomplished something. Although those two things often correlate with effective training, they are not always indicative of how beneficial a given session was or wasn’t.

Athlete #2- A CrossFit athlete with 3 years of experience looking to improve their Open score.

Taking into account this athlete’s experience they most likely have completed “Cindy” in the past. That being said they are probably willing to try this workout as prescribed or “RX.” They will not “scale down” any of the movements, they will most likely attempt to “scale up” and perform some form of kipping pull up to improve their last score.

Let’s assume they can safely perform traditional kipping pull ups and won’t be running the risk of hurting themselves by doing so. This athlete should be aiming for 1 minute rounds in order to maintain a sustainable pace for the entire 20 minutes. What often happens to athletes in this category is they get caught up in chasing top scores from across the CrossFit community and end up burning out just like Athlete #1.

Chasing the best “Cindy” score is not the same as chasing the stimulus. The stimulus of a given workout can be thought of another way: what is the minimum effective dose needed to push adaptation? For Athlete #1 that dose is a lot smaller than it is for Athlete #2. Yet they both can find that dose with reflection and proper guidance. Let’s take a look at the same two athletes with a different training session in mind.

Workout- 5×5 Back Squat at 75% of 1RM (1 Rep Max), with the intention of building each set.

This workout is designed to force adaptations in one’s overall strength. With a low rep scheme (anything under 6 repetitions per set) and fairly high percentage of the athlete’s 1RM the intention is to build to a heavy set of 5.

Athlete #1

Most likely this athlete does not have a 1RM to go off of and will therefore have to go based on feel. While warming up (let’s assume this athlete can safely squat to depth with a bar on their back) this athlete should start with an empty bar and build slightly each warm up set. They should be looking for the squats to start to feel “sticky” coming out of the bottom. Meaning they should be building until reps 4 and 5 are noticeably tougher than reps 1 to 3 and that is where they should begin. Their focus throughout should be on maintaining quality repetitions rather than building each set.

Athlete #2

This athlete should have a defined 1RM to refer to and should aim to start their working sets at the prescribed percentage or slightly higher depending on how current their 1RM is. This athlete should also aim to finish 5-10% points higher than their starting percentage. By setting a range this athlete can be intentional with each build they make and are likely to be able to adjust mid workout if they are not getting the intended stimulus.

The goal of a 5×5 Back Squat session is usually not to chase an all time 5 rep PR (personal record), it is more likely aimed at increasing one’s strength over a given period of time. During which the athlete will use the data gained here during a subsequent squatting session later in the training cycle. What should these athletes be doing if they are required to move a load over a short period of time with the intention of beating a time cap?

Workout- 5 Rounds For Time: 10 Minute Cap (10 Deadlifts [225/155]/ 10 Handstand Push Ups/ 10 Calories on the SkiErg)

The intention behind a workout like this one is similar to that of “Cindy”, to test or train an athlete’s overall metabolic conditioning. This time however, it is across multiple training modalities, Weightlifting (or Power Lifting, to be exact), Gymnastics, and Mono Structural (read: Cardio). Also, the time domain here is much shorter and relies on higher outputs of power in order to complete the task in enough time. The addition of the time cap puts an emphasis on speed and efficiency which will require athletes to make very specific choices before they begin.

Athlete #1

Let’s imagine this athlete has little experience getting inverted but is very comfortable deadlifting a barbell. They load up a barbell with about 50-60% of what they think they can move one time under the best circumstances. This way they can move the load safely and with good mechanics throughout the workout, getting the intended stimulus by cycling a light barbell.

They would scale the HSPU to traditional push ups or dumbbell strict presses overhead depending on their specific weaknesses. For the SkiErg, they would focus on maintaining a pace under 1 minute if they cannot complete the full 10 Calories in under that time, they simply count it as complete and move on. To spend more than 1 minute on that portion of the workout would take away from the designed stimulus.

Athlete #2

Let’s imagine this athlete excels at gymnastics but only has a listed 1RM deadlift of 250. Are they capable of performing 50 deadlifts at 225? Doubtful, yet possible. Should they consider going RX?


There are two reasons for that: the first is the fact that at such a high percentage of their 1RM their mechanics are bound to break down if they chase the intended stimulus here and try to “cycle” the deadlifts. The next is it might take this athlete upwards of 20 minutes to complete the allocated work at such high percentages. It would be like an athlete with a 400 pound deadlift performing this workout at 360 pounds.

In order for fitness to be an effective tool in your life you must be able to decipher a given workout based on your goals, the intended stimulus, as well as your ability level. If you remove any of those three variables you are likely to delay or derail your chances of improving your overall fitness. As you move forward on your fitness journey make sure you are constantly assessing what it is you want to achieve. With a clear goal in mind you can easily adjust your intensity on any given day in accordance with your ability to achieve a particular stimulus. Whether you want to be able to squat down and play with your toddler or make an attempt at the podium during your next competition, you need to improve your ability to decipher the WOD in order to get the most out of your next training session!

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