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Work Capacity

Don’t have access to any weights or only have a few kettlebells or dumbbells? 

 

No problem. Now is the time to work on building your work capacity: the total amount of work you can do in a fixed amount of time. 

Work capacity is a blend of power and capacity. 

  • Power = the amount of force you can express in a short, fixed amount of time; i.e. a max power clean or broad jump
  • Capacity = how much force you express repeatedly over a long period of time, such as your 10 mile run time 

There is a tradeoff when it comes to either power or capacity within a specific trait. The greater your capacity (amount of work) the lower your max power will be. This is why an ultra-marathon runner might not be able to run a very fast 100m sprint but can run for hours on end at the same pace. Olympic lifters have a ton of power but their capacity in nearly every other area is relatively low (compared to someone with a large capacity).

However, any high-level athlete has large work capacities in their chosen specialty. 

This is why you should care about work capacity. It means better performance in the gym, a greater training stimulus, faster recovery and ultimately better results. 

If you spend your time building a large base of work capacity now, you can translate that fitness to strength, power, hypertrophy or some blend of all of these when you return to the gym.   

Underpinnings of work capacity

There are three primary components that dictate work capacity: 

  1. Aerobic power and capacity
  2. Movement capacity and fidelity 
  3. Relative strength 

If your goal is to be big or strong or some combination of those, you’ll need a blend of these three capacities. 

1 – Aerobic power and capacity 

Aerobic fitness does not have to mean slogging away on an elliptical. That type of work only targets a small fraction of the qualities that make up an aerobically capable individual. 

Most aerobic work doesn’t feel like traditional aerobic exercise (e.g. running). Especially if you’re a fairly strong person with a fair amount of type II or intermediate fibers, you’ll need aerobic workouts that target fast twitch muscle fibers. 

A good portion of your workouts in this program will focus on developing aerobic capacity and power. 

2 – Movement Capacity and Fidelity  

Movement capacity is how well you move:

  • Can you do a deep squat?
  • Can you lift your arms straight over your head without arching your lower back? 
  • Can you touch your toes? 

More movement isn’t necessarily better, but you need enough that you can do a deep squat or pull-up without compensations. When you add volume or intensity to your training, small limiting factors in movement lead to excessive strain on tissues in ways they weren’t built to handle. This is when ‘out of nowhere’ injuries occur. 

If you’re as flexible as a 2×4 this isn’t the program for you. You will get hurt. 

Movement fidelity is how well you can sustain technique under volume and load. Your pullups can’t degrade into a kipping, air-humping mess. Your 100th rep of the day should look like your first. 

If you struggle in this area, that’s OK; you’ll develop movement fidelity during this program. 

3 – Relative Strength 

This is simple. How strong are you relative to your weight? Here are the requirements to do this program: 

  • Pullups – 5 chest-to-bar bodyweight pullups 
  • Back Squat – 1.5x bodyweight 
  • Deadlift – 1.5x bodyweight 
  • Bench press – 1x bodyweight

This isn’t a high bar to clear, but shows you’ve put in some time in the gym and have a reasonable strength base upon which to build your work capacity. 

Developing work capacity

You’ll need the following items to do this workout:

  • Heavy kettlebell or dumbbell. Don’t have one? You can find still find them online with some searching or you can google ‘homemade kettlebell’ and make one for about $20. 
  • TRX or gymnastics rings. Don’t have one? Google ‘homemade TRX’ – you can make one for about $10 with items available at any hardware store. 

Methods:

  • Total reps = Do the prescribed volume by breaking it up into manageable chunks. The goal is to finish in the fewest sets without compromising technique or falling off a cliff with reps per set. These can be done over the course of an hour or an entire day. 
  • Breathing Ladders = A listed number of reps are performed followed by the same amount of breaths before the exercise has to be done again. Breathe through the nose. Longer breaths mean more recovery time, so the better your self-regulation under stress the more rest you get. Reps vary by going up and down a ‘ladder’ throughout a set. For example, a 1-5-1 ladder would consist of one rep, rest for one breath, 2 reps, rest for 2 breaths… continue up to 5 reps and then back down to 1. You can breathe freely while working, but your rest intervals are defined by how long it takes you to complete the prescribed breaths. 
  • HICT: Do a set of 2-5 reps every 10-20 seconds, leading to 12-20 reps per minute for the entire time period. You should be able to maintain perfect technique, but you should feel pretty tired at the end of each movement set.
  • EMOM: Do the prescribed reps at the top of each minute for the listed duration of time. 10 minutes = 10 sets, one at the top of each minute. Sometimes you’ll alternate between two or three movements, so one set of each exercise every three minutes.
  • Explosive Repeats: Designed to build aerobic qualities of fast twitch fibers. Very high intensity movements are done with relatively long rest periods. 10-20 seconds of work followed by 30-60 seconds of rest for 6-10 reps.
  • Aerobic Capacity: This is long duration, low intensity cardio. Ideally get outdoors for hiking, biking, or something else you enjoy. Heart rate should be 120-150 depending on fitness level, age, etc. If you feel like you’re working but can still breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, you’re doing it right.
  • Aerobic Power: This is the same as aerobic capacity but at higher intensities. You’ll add in short blocks of higher intensity (higher heart rate) work where you’ll go as hard as you can continuously for the work period followed by blocks of lower intensity work spread out over a long duration activity like hiking or biking.

Phase 1

The goal of this phase is to build a foundation, slowly increasing total volume each week by never approaching failure or accumulating fatigue from set to set. You’ll do this by using methods that spread out the work over long periods of time. 

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
Total reps Explosive Repeats EMOM Aerobic Capacity Total Reps EMOM Off

Total reps

Movements: 

  • Pullups
  • Pushups / Dips (all pushups or split 50/50 with dips) 
  • Inverted or KB Rows
  • KB Swings  
  • Goblet Squats
  • Single leg variation (walking lunge, SLRDL, reverse lunge, single-leg hip lift)

Structure: 

  • Week 1 = 50 reps each of all movements listed above
  • Week 2 = 75 reps each of all movements listed above 
  • Week 3 = 100 reps each of all movements listed above 
  • Week 4 = 50 reps each of all movements listed above 

Can be done in one workout or spread over the course of the day. Cycle through movements rather than doing them one at a time. If you have equipment options, use a level of resistance that makes the total number of reps challenging, but do-able without compromising form. Manage fatigue and stop your sets before you start grinding reps or losing speed, technique or range of motion. 

Explosive Repeats

Movements:

  • Pushups
  • Lateral Bounds
  • Inverted rows 
  • Squat Jumps

Structure:

  • Week 1 = 10s on / 50s off x 6 reps. One set per exercise listed above.  
  • Week 2 = 12s on / 45s off x 8 reps
  • Week 3 = 15s on / 45s off x 10 reps
  • Week 4 = 10s on / 50s off x 4 reps  

EMOM

Movements: 

  • Minute 1 = 2-5 pullups + 8 KB Swings
  • Minute 2 = 6-10 pushups + 6-10 inverted rows
  • Minute 3 = 5 single leg variation per leg 
  • Repeat structure for allotted time 

Try to move quickly and powerfully during the work period so that you’re done moving within about 15 seconds or less. 

Structure:  

  • Week 1 = 36 minutes 
  • Week 2 = 48 minutes
  • Week 3 = 60 minutes 
  • Week 4 = 24 minutes  

Aerobic Capacity

Movements:

  • Hike, bike or other continuous outdoor activity with heart rate between 130-150 while breathing through your nose. 

Structure: 

  • Week 1 = 1.5 hours 
  • Week 2 = 2 hours
  • Week 3 = 2.5 hours 
  • Week 4 = 1 hour 

Phase 2

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
Ladder HICT Aerobic Recovery Ladder HICT Aerobic Power Off

Ladder

Movements: 

  • Pullups
  • Pushups
  • Inverted Rows
  • KB Swings  
  • Goblet Squats

Structure:  

  • Week 1 = 1-5-1 ladder pullups, 5-10-5 ladder KB Swings, goblet squats, pushups, and inverted rows  
  • Week 2 = 2-6-2 ladder pullups, 6-11-6 ladder KB Swings, goblet squats, pushups, and inverted rows  
  • Week 3 = 8-1 ladder pullups, 15-20 ladder KB Swings, goblet squats, pushups, and inverted rows  
  • Week 4 = 1-5-1 ladder each movement 

Do a set of each exercise before moving on to the next “rung” of the ladder. For example, in week one you’d start with 1 pullup (the first step in the 1-51 ladder) and then for the first rung of the 5-10-5 ladder for everything else, you do 5 reps of swings, then 5 reps of goblet squats, then 5 reps of pushups, then 5 reps of inverted rows before starting over and doing 6 reps of each exercise. 

HICT

Movements: 

  • Goblet squat
  • Pushup
  • Step Up 
  • Inverted Row

Structure:

  • 2 x 6 min each movement
  • 2 x 8 min each movement 
  • 2 x 10 min each movement
  • 1 x 6 min each movement

For weeks with two sets, do one set of each movement before repeating. 

Aerobic Power

Movements:

  • Hike, bike or other continuous outdoor activity

Structure: 

  • Week 1 = 10 min @ capacity pace, 5 min @ threshold x 4 reps. 15 min warm up and cooldown @ easy pace
  • Week 2 = 10 min @ capacity pace, 5 min @ threshold x 5 reps. 15 min warm up and cooldown @ easy pace
  • Week 3 = 10 min @ capacity pace, 5 min @ threshold x 6 reps. 15 min warm up and cooldown @ easy pace
  • Week 4 = 1 hour @ easy pace 

Capacity pace is comfortable, around a 130-140 heart rate. Threshold is about as fast as you can sustain, just below your anaerobic threshold. 

Aerobic Recovery 

Movements:

  • Hike, bike or other continuous, enjoyable outdoor activity

Structure: 

  • Week 1 = 30 minutes @ easy pace  
  • Week 2 = 30 minutes @ easy pace
  • Week 3 = 30 minutes @ easy pace
  • Week 4 = 30 minutes @ easy pace

Guidelines

  • Always mentally make things feel relaxed and easy
  • Never grind reps unless specifically noted
  • Controlling your breathing can reduce fatigue and improve recovery speed throughout a workout 

Conclusion

Most people think the only way to develop fitness with lighter weight or bodyweight movements is through high-rep beatdown sessions. While those sessions can be valuable at times, they aren’t particularly effective for strength, muscle gain or many facets of long-term development. Why settle for those when you could build a foundation so you’re ready when you get back to the gym? 

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7 thoughts on “Work Capacity”

  1. I have a question,
    In this period without gym and heavy weights, I would like to improve both work capacity and running. Can I merge this program with the running one?
    Would you suggest to keep the aerobic work here as rucking and put running in a complementary workouts or to use the aerobic workouts as foundation and speed running workouts?

    1. Yes, you could mix running into this program. We describe how to do that here: https://www.buildingtheelite.com/running/

      Rucking is also a good form of aerobic conditioning, and if you’re going into a SOF selection it’s important to practice it. You can read about how to incorporate rucking here: https://www.buildingtheelite.com/rucking/

      I would think of your work capacity sessions and rucking as the primary source of your aerobic development volume, and then use running as a form of speed/quality work, unless you’re already a well-trained runner. Think of it more as training to run, rather than running to train. As time goes on and you build capacity you can shift into longer runs and use running more as a form of specific aerobic development.

  2. I’m thinking of following this 2 months/phases schedule and use rucking for aerobic recovery and capacity work and run for aerobic power in phase 2.
    What do you think?

    1. Yes, that could work as long as you can keep your HR low enough with a ruck for that work to fall within an aerobic recovery range. You can probably do that by adjusting load, pace, and terrain.

  3. Is it recommended to use active rest between series on the explosive repeats or would you get the same adaptions without it? Assuming HR etc stays down?

    1. Some form of active rest would be good. Breathing drills also work well to help speed intra-set recovery and reset tension patterns.

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