New Study Suggests Subjective Factors Impact Performance

Aside from physiological markers, coaches might want to take their clients’ preferences and tolerance of exercise into mind when designing exercise programs.

When you design an exercise program, determining the ideal intensity is one of the primary considerations. Many coaches tend to make these recommendations based on what works best for developing strength or hypertrophy in the average person. However, according to a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, individual differences that do not depend on the muscles themselves might account for a bigger percentage of performance than previously thought.

The phenomenon that the researchers of this study were interested in was somatosensory stimulation. This term refers to the activation of the senses of the body, including the sense of touch and proprioception. The researchers hypothesized that preferences and tolerance for this kind of stimulation would affect performance. As such, some people may have considerations beyond the strength of their muscles or the energy they possess to move weight.

To measure the preferences and tolerance of somatosensory stimulation, the researchers first had to define the terms. They decided that preference would be defined as a person’s likelihood to select a particular level of intensity if they could choose on their own. Tolerance was defined as the ability to continue exercising through discomfort. Once these traits were defined, they were used to generate a questionnaire, which was then tested for reliability. Once the questionnaire was proved reliable, the researchers used it to conduct two separate studies, which were both addressed in this paper.

Both studies were designed to determine if exercise intensity preference and tolerance impacted performance, and both factors did have a significant effect. Together, tolerance and preference impacted performance from five to thirty percent in strength and endurance tests. This means that these attributes don’t just affect performance – they are actually major players.

A secondary purpose of one of the studies was to determine if the scores would change after the participants completed a training program. The researchers took some firefighters through a fitness program that saw both measured improvements in fitness and in perceived levels of fitness. However, the tolerance and preference for intensity levels remained unchanged, indicating that these traits are fairly stable. The program was a normal fitness program that was not designed to improve these traits. In the future, it would be interesting to see if a specialized plan could actually alter tolerance or preference.

This information is key for coaches. Providing enjoyable and productive exercise plans is beneficial for coaches and clients alike. This is especially true for youth athletes, who often avoid voicing their opinions about certain exercises or get discouraged and when they fail at exercises they feel are too intense.

In the end, it all comes down to progress. Intensity levels may need to be be based more on preference and tolerance than most coaches would normally prescribe. If an appropriate intensity is chosen, the athlete is more likely to actually follow the program. That said, if there is a way to improve tolerance, overall athleticism would follow, so hopefully we’ll see more research in this area.


1. Eric Hall, et. al., “The role of self-reported individual differences in preference for and tolerance of exercise intensity in fitness-testing performance,Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000420.

Photo courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.