The Stimulus

The Stimulus

Have you ever finished a workout felt like you are teetering between life and death, you didn’t think you could finish that last rep, but somehow you found the strength to do it – you found the strength to lift that barbell off your chest one more time.  Lying on the floor afterward, you’re gasping for breath, thankful it’s over and swearing you’ll never do it again (until next week).  At the same time, you’re filled with pride.  The soreness later that day is not only a reminder of how hard you worked but a sign that your training is effective, you’re losing weight, getting leaner, improving strength, and getting faster.  All this can happen when you get “the stimulus.”  The stimulus is the magic that allows your body to make the changes you want.


How do you make sure that you’re getting the stimulus each time you work out?  Well, there are two ways to figure it out, and both are based on your ability to generate intensity.  Yes, that scary word -- “intensity”.  We all have an idea of what intensity is, but real intensity has to be measured objectively using a measurement methodology or tool that isn’t based on your feelings.  There’s an actual formula:   Force x Distance / Time = Intensity.  How far? How fast?  How much did it weigh?  I weigh 160 lbs. and can run a mile in 5 minutes and 30 seconds.  I can measure that with the above formula.  That tells the objective story of intensity and relates to the stimulus in that if you can measure intensity, then you can objectively measure the stimulus.  For example, I know I can run a mile in 5:30:00, but instead, I ran it in 6:15:00.  Chances are, I missed the stimulus, and I can determine that objectively, as opposed to basing it solely on how I feel.


All that said, it’s not the end of the story -- there is an art to the science that I speak of.  That art is the subjectivity of intensity as it relates to the stimulus.  Basically, how did you feel after the run, workout, or lift.  Did it hurt deep down in your soul?  Was it not that bad?  Could you have done more or run faster? Or did you leave nothing on the table?  In the world of fitness and health, I believe we should have a combination of objective and subjective markers for intensity in order to make sure that we’re getting the full stimulus.  


Here is my list of top markers to watch for:


Subjective Feedback


  1. Talk test.  At the peak of your workout, you should be unable to talk.  Your answers to any questions should be one word or just grunts!  If you can sing the chorus to your favorite song or chat about your vacation, you are missing the stimulus.
  2. The 80% rule.  When lifting heavy loads, in general you should be lifting something 80% or more of your one-rep maximum load.  Of course, this depends on the workout, but in general this is a good rule to follow.
  3. Gasping for breath.  After a big effort such as a sprint interval, a kettlebell swing set, wall balls, box jumps, anything dynamic, you should have your hands on your legs, out of breath and you should need up to 30” or more before you can even start thinking about your next effort.
  4. 50 breaths.  At rest you should breath between 12-15 breaths in a minute.  When you are working closer to your maximum effort, you should be taking 50 breaths or more per minute.
  5. Sweat.  Those of you who say you just don’t sweat during your workout, take note.  If you’re working hard enough, the body temperature will rise, and you’ll be forced to thermoregulate, or cool your body down, by actually sweating.  At maximum intensity, dripping sweat (not just a glisten) is what you’re looking for.


Objective Feedback


  1. Blood lactate should be elevated above 10 mmol/L.  You can determine your blood lactate level through a simple finger prick test.  Lactate is a byproduct of work and cannot be controlled.  If you’re really working hard, then your blood lactate levels should be 10mmol/L or higher.  If you’re fooling yourself and just think you’re working hard, then you won’t have lactate levels above 10mmol/L.
  2. Heart rate should be more than 90% of maximum effort.
  3. Specific loads used for different movements should be based on body weight.



I hope this helps you start to figure out how hard you are, and should be, working out in order to get the stimulus.  If you think you still need some help, or would like to measure some of the objective ways ofgauging intensity, then let me know.  We are happy to do some testing for you.