by Michael Ranfone, CSCS T-Nation
We all want more of the good stuff.
We want to be leaner, bigger, stronger, faster. We want to be better than the last time we stepped into the gym, under the bar, or onto the field.
If you didn't feel this way you wouldn't be on T NATION. You'd be mindlessly surfing, checking your fantasy football scores, or seeing what wackiness the Kardashian sisters are up to on Twitter. You'd have accepted that your best years are behind you.
Instead, you're here. You may not be the all-time best, but you want more – and for that we salute you and support you.
Here's the rub: to get more you need to do more. Regardless of your training goals, the most likely cause for you not reaching the next level is your ability to do work, or more work.
But unless you're a complete newbie, you can't just keep adding weight, sets, and reps to your normal workouts and expect a perpetual return. The body doesn't work that way. However, by systematically improving your body's work capacity, you can take a huge leap in accomplishing many of your loftiest training goals.
Work Capacity Defined
Supertraining author Mel Siff defined work capacity as "the general ability of the body as a machine to produce work of different intensity and duration using the appropriate energy systems of the body."
If this is true, then by raising our ability to do work, all other attributes and characteristics will be more attainable, regardless of specificity. If general preparedness serves as the foundation to build off of, then the better the foundation and the better the structure will be.
Coach Thibaudeau has stated that the amount of training one performs should never exceed his capacity to recover. Yet what many fail to realize is that if your work threshold is too low, your training tolerance will never allow you to optimize new training volumes and intensities as your restoration demands will never be met.
I experienced this after coming back from an extended layoff due to a back injury. Upon returning to my regular training routine, I found that I'd retained a decent level of strength, considering the length of the layoff. But after just a few short weeks I noticed that I was already stagnating and had started to accumulate nagging soft tissue problems.
The problem was that my specific skill (strength) was disproportionately higher than my general skill set (work capacity). Using mainly strength methods to get back to where I was before the injury proved futile because of the underlying deficiencies that had developed before resuming training.
When I reviewed the list of activities I'd performed in the months before my return, I realized the glaring omission of direct energy system work (in this case the aerobic system). A deficit in this area can negatively affect immediate (alactic) and intermediate (lactic) energy system brackets, especially for athletes seeking to increase their proficiency in short duration, high intensity type activities.
This occurs because all three energy systems "turn on" at the same time, and as each one maxes out, it taps into the next higher bracket for assistance until full recovery can be accomplished.
Since the aerobic system serves as the base for substrate recovery and repeated bouts of high output, if inadequacies exist, fatigue will occur faster due to an over reliance on the less-equipped energy brackets to handle restoration, and power output will be compromised.
Keeping all this in mind, as well as my own specific needs and goals, I came up with four points that needed to be addressed:
Restore weakened or lost motor skills that provide a supporting role to my core lifts and goals.
Increase work threshold to enhance peripheral attributes
Prepare the body to regenerate effectively after increased training demands
Be able to train more often. More times to train = more times to improve.
It's not as simple as adding more work within a session, nor will adding more sessions per week guarantee you'll get closer to your goals.
The following are some strategies and methods that will help provide a framework to design your own personalized approach to ratcheting up work capacity.
If you're currently training three times per week, start training five times. If you're doing seven sessions a week, start adding multiple sessions per day. Remember, the more times you train, the more times you can improve, provided you structure them right.
If you're currently experiencing a plateau of strength, hypertrophy, or even fat loss (and following a well-developed plan), your best bet is to put in some extra energy system work.
This doesn't mean that you have to start enduring endless hours of mindless treadmill nonsense as intense bouts of hill sprints, stairs, and Prowler work will do the trick. Admittedly, this is an ambiguous prescription, but everyone will be starting from a different conditioning level along with having different needs/goals.
Putting it into Action!
Energy System Work
Find a steep hill or stadium to run. Start off with two sessions/week, one following your first leg day and the second to be performed at the end of the week after your second leg day.
Pick out a distance and number of reps that should be easily attainable the first day. There's no reason to do too much too soon as you're just trying to establish a base. Your focus should be on intensity during each rep and taking enough time to recover between reps.
Once you experience a drop off in performance, stop. Be patient the first few weeks while you adapt to the new stress.
Movement Based Circuits
Another great option is to perform movement based circuits using body weight and low resistance exercises. These not only promote recovery but also add an element of corrective or pre-hab work.
Try this circuit out following a hard day at the office:
Go through your normal foam roll and warm-up progressions. Then complete this circuit three times with no rest between stations and about 90-120 seconds between rounds.
Bodyweight 1/4 squat jumps x 12 (low-level plyometric)
Reverse lunge and twist x 10 yards
Rotational push-ups x 10 (core/shoulder pre-hab)
Clubbell/Kettlebell swings x 15 (weighted GPP)
Inchworm x 10 yards (core)
Jumping jacks x 30 seconds (non-weighted GPP)
Face-pulls x 15 (shoulder pre-hab)
Plank hold x 30 seconds (core)
These can be added after any of the main lifts, which is a good time to work on technical/bio-mechanical deficits. For example, suppose your deadlift isn't progressing, particularly at the lockout. Along with a day dedicated to focused hip extension work, an extra session a few days after your deadlift day consisting of jump shrugs from blocks, rack pull variations, and glute and hamstring work will help fix things up.
Another suitable option is to engage in eccentric-less activities. Prowler work, medicine ball throws, and concentric-based circuits have proven to be most useful for additional sessions due to the high level of mechanical stress while mitigating structural damage.
Medicine ball work can be done just about anytime between your warm-up and training session to help activate the CNS. Prowler work is a great finisher to any workout, or as a standalone session. But if you really want to try something different, perform this concentric-based circuit for 5 sets of 5 reps with 45-60 seconds between each exercise.
Hang clean / High pull from blocks
Bench press from pins
Trap bar dead lift
We all have responsibilities outside the gym, so additional workouts might not be the best option for you. In this case, you should focus on how much work you're getting done in the weight room.
First rule, always try to minimize the amount of passive recovery and fill it with active recovery periods. Phone calls, texting, and playing Angry Birds between sets of exercise is not acceptable! Instead, fill the time between sets with GPP drills that suit your needs and goals – provided it doesn't detract from the performance of the main lifts.
For instance, for greater work capacity, try adding weighted or non-weighted GPP. A good example is to do 30 seconds of kettlebell swings or jumping jacks between sets of military presses.
This is also a good time to get in some additional ancillary/structural work like facepulls or anterior pull-aparts. Of course, you can create mini-complexes using any combination of these options.
Up Your Capacity!
Schemes and combinations aside, the rule is to figure out what your weakest link is and address it accordingly. Just remember that we're trying to support your primary goal – whether it's to get bigger, stronger, or kick more ass in general – not supplant it.
No one wins a medal or contest for having the greatest work capacity. But very few achieve glory without it.