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Most of us are aware of the importance of writing out a training plan, but if we're honest, they can be pretty hard to stick to. We'll often find ourselves tweaking or changing it. There's a form of training that's all about that - does it work?

What is Instinctive Training? An Introduction to the Idea

Instinctive training means matching your training to how you feel on the day you train. So if you roll up to the gym feeling like you can do it all today, that’s what you do; if you feel run down and exhausted, you might train more lightly and gently than you had planned.

As such, instinctive training flies in the face of much of the advice that’s given by fitness professionals. Why keep a training journal and have a routine planned out if you’re just going to ignore it and do whatever you feel like instead?

That’s a point raised by bodybuilding writer Bryan Haycock, who points out that instinct often isn’t a good guide for programming selections, especially if you’re unaccustomed to using it. Additionally, Mr. Haycock observes, many people will use incorrect markers of injury or fatigue, like muscle soreness – which Mr. Haycock shows isn’t a good indicator of fatigue, or risk of injury, or requirement for more recovery.

Citing a study by Nosaka et al in 2002, Mr. Haycock states that soreness is not a sign of muscle damage – the two just occur together, there’s no causal relationship. Soreness may not be a good indicator of anything

Is it Really 'Instinctive'?

With that in mind, if I’m assessing how sore my muscles feel, guessing how much more rest they might need and tweaking my programming accordingly, I’m not really using instinct at all: I’m just using poor reasoning.  As such, you’d expect me to come up with poor outcomes.

Many of us have irrational lifting preferences derived from prejudice or vanity, exercises we favor because we’re good at them or we think we look good doing them or they’re easy, and as the Saturday-night parade of deformed shoulders in tight T-shirts attests, a training routine of bench presses, curls and eyeing up the opposite sex is a lot of people’s ‘instinct’ – it just isn't a very good idea.

As Dan John mockingly observes, trusting your intuition when you train doesn't mean ‘every day is going to be arm day because the Force is telling you to work your biceps.

Mixing Instinctive Training With Your Routine

Another commentary on instinctive training comes from Jim Wendler, a strength coach out of Ohio and highly successful powerlifter. Mr. Wendler’s commentary on instinctive training is simply that it isn't applicable for most athletes, whether they’re recreational athletes, college athletes or professionals.

‘A good training program will allow you to progress with the ebbs and flows of your day and how you feel; a poor training programme rarely gives you an ‘out’ – you better be on your best game or expect to be highly disappointed.’ That’s a salient point: introducing some subjective guidance into your program isn't the same thing as just rocking up and  doing what you feel on the day.

Some of the people who adhere most closely to the idea of instinctive training are to be found in the paleo community. There, a belief in following what comes naturally to human beings can spill over into a belief in following what comes naturally to you; as such, paleo writers often recommend instinctive training as a way to avoid long, arduous and what they perceive as counter-productive training sessions.

Leaving aside the observation that our paleolithic ancestors would have often faced situations in which exertion wasn't voluntary, what sorts of results does instinctive training produce in the real world right now? Well, many paleo writers recommend short sessions of about fifteen minutes concentrating on anaerobic, anabolic activities and that does seem to deliver results. The advantage of training in an instinctive fashion in this way is that it allows you to train as and when you feel like it – but many of us, if we’re honest, never feel like it!

In fact, many of us would never go to the gym at all if we hadn't set ourselves to go and a routine is what keeps us on track once we’re there. So does instinctive training necessarily oppose routine?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • John, Dan, ‘9 Great Ideas to Improve Your Workouts,’ T-nation.com, September 17, 2013, stored at http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/9_great_ideas_to_improve_your_workouts retrieved September 18, 2013-09-18
  • Nosaka, K., Newton, M., Sacco, P., ‘Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness Does Not Reflect the Magnitude of Eccentric Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage,’ Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2002 Dec
  • 12(6):337-46
  • Haycock, Bryan, ‘The Risks of Instinctive Training,’ bodybuilding.com, December 22, 2004, stored at http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/core8.htm, retrieved September 17, 2013
  • Wendler, Jim, ‘Instinctive Training,’ jimwendler.com, October 5, 2012, stored at http://www.jimwendler.com/2012/10/instinctive-training/, retrieved September 18, 2013