The Purpose of a Workout Stimulus

Focusing on scaling or modifying a workout to match the stimulus will lead to better results.

Group classes are a great way to have the stimulus of each workout explained, and to be able to work out with a great group of people.

CrossFit is a sport of variation. It is built around the concept that we should be ready for any physical stressor in life, and to achieve that, we must train our bodies in a variety of different ways, using the stimulus of each workout to do so. 

“ Your body will only respond to an unaccustomed stressor; routine is the enemy of progress and broad adaptation.”

-CF Level-1 Handbook

Our bodies are very good at adapting to whatever we throw at them. So, when we get into a routine of repeatedly doing the same sort of workout with the same type of stimulus, our bodies adapt, and that workout style no longer gives us the same results. 

The CrossFit way is to never settle into one preferred training method—instead, CrossFit involves weightlifting, short-term and long-term conditioning, power output, and many other types of stimulus in a training program. 

This is why you see the stimulus of a workout listed on the whiteboard each day you come to a CrossFit class. This states there is a purpose behind each workout, and to get the most out of a class, it is advised that you modify the workout accordingly to match that stimulus.

The goal of your workout should never be to ‘rx’ no matter what, sacrificing form and falling way outside of the intended stimulus. We should be training for life.  

Time Stimulus

The body uses three different energy pathways when working out. Depending on the time domain of a workout, a different energy system will kick in to deliver energy and oxygen to the body (for more information on energy pathways, click here).

We all have a preferred system; without taking the initiative to work the others, we will fall back on what we feel most comfortable with. We need to utilize all pathways to get the most out of our training. 

That is a benefit of CrossFit and coming to group classes – you are given the stimulus and goal of a workout, and, if needed, you scale and modify the workout appropriately so that you are working the correct energy system and making the most of a workout. 

Movement Patterns

CrossFit also utilizes many different movements. We have weightlifting, gymnastics, and many others—each with its own purpose and stimulus that invokes different adaptations in the body. 

This comes back to one of CrossFit’s Standards: improving all general areas of fitness: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.

There are so many different movements to learn in CrossFit, but even once we master an advanced skill, we are not immediately ready to use it in a workout. 

If the workout of the day is a skill-based EMOM, this can, of course, be a great time to work on that newly acquired skill and refine the technique (let’s use muscle-ups, for example).

If you just got your first muscle up, this is not the time to ‘rx’ a workout like ‘Amanda’ (9-7-5 of muscle-ups and squat snatch). While it is possible you complete the workout, it is likely it takes far longer than the stimulus, and you are not getting the intended benefits. 

There is a time and place for everything. Listen to the coach of each class and scale/modify workouts correctly to challenge yourself appropriately, and you will find you make far more progress toward your goals.

Scaling – Volume

There are many ways to scale a workout, and we will discuss some here. For a more in-depth look, take a look at this CrossFit Journal article

To make the intended stimulus, we can first decrease the total volume of reps in a workout. If you know that 50 pull-ups in a workout is a lot for you, scale it down to 25 or 30. If the workout is written so you should be doing sets of 5 pullups, and you can only do 3, then the 30-rep scale should get you close to the same stimulus. 

More is not always better. We should aim for intensity. Intensity gets us results, and if scaling down the volume of certain movements helps us maintain that intensity, then that is what we should aim for. 

Scaling – Movements

As mentioned above, just because you finally got a ring muscle up does not mean you no longer need to scale a ring muscle up workout. There is a time and place to work on your skills, but if the workout of the day is Amanda (from our previous example), you will find more benefit in choosing chest-to-bar pullups, or even strict pull-ups, instead of muscle-ups. That way, you are still within the stimulus, and returning to these more ‘simple’ movements will only increase your capacity for more muscle-ups.

We can also scale to work around injuries, and again, this is when it is helpful to be in class and have a coach to give you ideas on how to achieve the stimulus even with an injury. No matter what, there is something we can do.

If you are a newer member of CrossFit, sometimes it is necessary to scale some range of motion (ROM) with specific movements. Take the overhead squat, for example. If your mobility is not quite there yet, you can certainly move through the overhead squat progression with the class, but maybe in the workout, you can do front squats instead. Again, this will allow you to stay inside a stimulus instead of struggling with a movement you should not yet utilize in a workout. 


Every workout has a purpose (that is what the stimulus is), and the more we can try to accomplish that purpose, prioritizing intensity over volume and good movement standards over the ‘rx,’ the more we will get out of our training. 

Again, CrossFit’s aim is to prepare us for life. 

“We encourage creative and continuously varied compositions that tax physiological functions against every realistically conceivable combination of stressors.”

-CF Level-1 Handbook 

CrossFit, Inc. (n.d.). CrossFit Level 1 training guide. CrossFit Journal. Retrieved from

CrossFit, Inc. (2019, August 7). Scaling CrossFit workouts. CrossFit Journal. Retrieved from

CrossFit, Inc. (n.d.). What is fitness? CrossFit Journal. Retrieved from

people working out in a group fitness class


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