Improving Work Capacity: Kick Up Your Volume


Becoming More Resilient

One of the most overlooked aspects of weight training is work capacity. Work capacity is a very simple concept: in a nutshell it’s the amount of work you can do in the gym, how well you can recover from this work and the subsequent performance gains that follow.

Simply put, if your work capacity is strong then the level of weightlifting progress you make is also going to be strong. Although a simple concept, no one really pays attention to it. While many weightlifters will pay good attention to certain aspects of their training (e.g. scheme design, training variables, exercises etc.), very few will actually consider how they are going to improve their work capacity. The fact is, if your progress starts to jump too far ahead of the current limits of your work capacity, you will quickly find yourself stalling. The golden tactic to long-term size and strength gains is to ensure that both progress and work capacity are developed at the same rate. Sooner or later lagging work capacity will always pull you back. As a weightlifter, it’s your job to stop this from happening.

Why Improve Work Capacity?

If you want to make long-term gains in size and strength, then the amount of work you do over time has to increase (e.g. more volume, intensity, training frequency etc.). As your training experience increases, your body becomes more resilient to change and adaptation. In other words, it becomes harder to make gains at the same level of work output. Therefore, you have to give your body a stronger reason for wanting to change – give it more work! If you get this part correct, then you are half way there. But, there is still lot’s more to be done! The problem is many weightlifters will continue to pound their bodies with greater and greater training stimuli over time without considering the potential impact it is going to have on their capacity to recover. That includes the ability to recover within the training session (between sets, exercises) and between the training sessions themselves. Poor recovery can effect the quality of your workouts and how much progress you can make over time.

“If you want to make long-term gains in size and strength, then the amount of work you do over time has to increase”.

Sometimes you might find that you are able to increase the amount of work you can do in the gym without actually improving your work capacity. You might be able to add more exercises in your training session, reduce the interval times, do more sets per exercise or, perform more weekly training sessions. But the question is: how do you actually feel after bumping up your work? Let me guess, I am betting you feel pretty terrible. You feel wiped out and often out of breath before your last set. You feel tired, shaky, low on energy and you start getting more nagging muscle problems (inflammation, tendons crying at you). But also, you never feel fully recovered in time for your next planned training session.

This is all understandable. After all, it’s to be expected. You want to do more work without actually conditioning your body to handle more! This is happening because your work capacity lags far behind the total amount of work you want to be doing. It needs to catch up. If you want to increase the amount of work you do in the gym, that’s fine. But be prepared, without a concurrent improvement in your work capacity, the quality of work you do perform will ultimately suffer.

Energy Systems For Work Capacity Improvement

Improving work capacity is all about targeting specific energy systems, namely the aerobic energy system. If you can improve the performance of your aerobic system, then you can improve your work capacity. There are three types of energy systems that keep you going during exercise: the ATP-PC system, the glycolytic system and the oxidative system. All three serve to produce energy but in slightly different ways, to slightly different extents and at different times. For most weightlifters, only one really becomes a problem: that is the aerobic oxidative system.

Three Energy Systems 1.png

  • “A” and “B” are the fast acting energy systems (anaerobic) and don’t require oxygen to produce energy (ATP)
  • “A” and “B” are primarily responsible for energy production in high-intensity and moderate volume routines. Weightlifters stress these systems most
  • “C”is the slow acting energy system (aerobic) and requires energy to produce ATP. This quicks in several minutes after exercise – less stressed in typical weightlifting programs
  • All three energy systems are always working. Just at different rates.

The ATP-PC system is the fastest acting energy system and doesn’t require oxygen (anaerobic) to produce energy (ATP). It is activated during short, intense bouts of exercise and can supply enough energy for about 10 seconds worth of activity. If you are doing high-intensity strength training the chances are you are waking up this system. After all, with super heavy weights you are only going to be lifting for a very short time. Unless you are superman of course! The next energy system is the anaerobic glycolytic system. Again, this produces ATP for energy in the absence of oxygen and is limited to roughly 30-50 seconds in duration.

The chances are if you are performing higher repetitions, more volume type work, then you will be stressing this system a lot more. The third system is the oxidative system in which energy (ATP) is produced using oxygen. Unlike the other two systems, this one is activated after long-periods of exercise (several minutes). The problem is its slow, so it takes a little while for ATP production via this system to catch up with the energy demands of the exercise. This is why the ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolytic systems are always jumping into action first. However, if you want to sustain activity to a high level your aerobic oxidative energy system needs to be in peak condition. Unfortunately, a lot of weightlifters miss out on these enhanced aerobic benefits. The good news is you don’t need to run marathons to acquire them.

“If you want to sustain activity to a high level your aerobic oxidative energy system needs to be in peak condition”.

When you look at this you might be thinking: well, if I am weightlifter then I am really only stressing the first two energy systems ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolytic. So why should I be concerned with improving the efficiency of my aerobic system. After all, that is only for long periods of exercise. This is partially true, as a weightlifter you are performing exercise for a relatively short space of time (e.g. low/moderate reps, high weight). You are not on marathon run. As a weightlifter, these two initial energy systems are likely to be well developed. This is simply because as a weightlifter, you are training in a specific manner that activates and stresses these two energy systems preferentially. But this can also be a problem for you; if you are a weightlifter you are not likely to think about improving the capacity of your aerobic fitness. Most weightlifters have no problem doing a few sets of an exercise or even a few exercises. They can usually perform at a high level without getting too tired or too out of breath. They can also recover pretty well so that their performance output doesn’t suffer in time for the next set or exercise.

“If I am weightlifter then I am really only stressing the first two energy systems ATP-PC and anaerobic glycolytic”.

The problem occurs when your weightlifting becomes more involved; the exercise duration increases, the number of exercises increases, weight and volume go up, certain muscle groups start fatiguing faster than others, you run out of breath quicker and, you can’t seem to keep your performance output at a steady enough level throughout your training session. From my experience, most people I have ever trained with seem to encounter these same problems. We are training together and around 30 minutes into the session they have to stop. They are absolutely destroyed, completely out of breath, feel weak and tired and their energy output just seems to fall off the face of the earth.

Now, I am not saying that you need to be able to train for hours and hours on end with ease, or that you should not be struggling. It needs to be challenging to your body. But, you should not be on the verge of collapsing into a coma! That would just be counter-productive to your goals. If you think about it, if your body has problems dealing with and recovering from the volume of work you are now doing, how can you be expected to further increase it in the future? You just can’t without running into serious problems. First, you need to improve your work capacity before you can go further. That means your aerobic capacity.

How Can You Increase Work Capacity: More Volume

As your exercise duration increases and you start doing more bouts of short-duration exercise (weight lifting), your aerobic system is going to get more involved. Although all three energy systems are working all the time, there is only so much the fast acting ATP-PC and glycolytic systems can do before they become maxed out. One this occurs, your aerobic oxidative systems will be responsible for ensuring continued performance output.

The truth is most people have a lot of unused spare capacity when it comes their aerobic oxidative systems. This means there is lots of room for potential improvement in their work capacity. By improving your aerobic performance, you will be able to go harder, faster and longer while being able to continue weightlifting at a high performance level. You will feel less weak, less tired and be able to maintain a high quality of work output during your entire workout. You won’t feel the need to take excessively long rest periods between exercise sets. Overall, you will have better recovery capabilities within and between your training sessions. If you can improve your aerobic energy systems, then they will be able to better take over the role of the already over-taxed ATP-PC and glycolytic systems as your exercise intensifies.


  • Represents my ‘capacity theory’ of energy systems.
  • “UC” represents used capacity and “SC” represents spare capacity
  • “A” and “B” are the fast acting anaerobic ATP-PC and glycolytic systems. Since these are stressed most in a weightlifters routine, they are typically developed very well. You could say, they run at run capacity. As a result, they are not usually the limiting factors in a weightlifters work capacity.
  • “C” represents the aerobic slow acting oxidative system that kicks in several minutes after exercise. This system is not stressed enough in a weightlifters routine therefore there tends to be ‘lots of spare capacity’ (room to improve this system).
  • “C” has lots of spare capacity, so the best way to fill this spare capacity is to stress it and develop it through ultra high volume training. “C” is the limiting factor in a weightlifters work capacity.

When it comes to improving work capacity and improving your aerobic fitness, I personally think the best way of achieving this is: ultra high volume training days. Even though you are working on improving aerobic capacity, it’s important to remember, you are still a weightlifter and therefore I believe you should still keep your training specific. What I mean is, there is no point in going off doing marathons and crazy cardio sessions on your off days just to improve aerobic capacity. That will probably only serve to hinder any weightlifting progress you have made in the gym, for obvious reasons! As a weightlifter, you want to be improving your aerobic capacity but in a way that’s going to transfer over and complement your overall progress in the gym.

Ultra high volume days are a nice way to go. Note here the word ‘ultra’. I am a firm believer in ultra high volume days. I don’t just mean the typical 6-12 reps, but actually 15+, heck even 30 reps if you want. You can build up as your work capacity grows. I can imagine that many weightlifting experts might not agree with me right now on this. Ultra high volume is probably way too much on the joints, connective tissue and recovery. Especially if you’re dealing with new weightlifters in which their body is just not equipped to handle this sort of training. I actually disagree with all of this. The reason why people can encounter so many problems with high volume are for the reasons I have just mentioned – no work capacity! Very few weightlifters I know train or even dare touch repetitions above 12.

Every weightlifter hates the word endurance. Usually, 12+ reps are associated with endurance training. If it’s not strength or hypertrophy, it’s useless. I couldn’t disagree more. Try doing one-session of 15+ reps for the same exercises you do on your intensity/moderate volume days. It’s hard! Now, try doing this with minimal rest times between sets and exercises (this will increase the density of your workouts). It’s even harder! You feel like you’re about to die. It’s difficult to keep going once you feel the stress from very high reps building up. But this is your aerobic system kicking in as your initial ATP-PC and glycolytic systems becomes overtaxed.

“When it comes to improving work capacity and improving your aerobic fitness, I personally think the best way of achieving this is: ultra high volume training days”.

I am not going to lie, it’s supposed to be hard, but at the same time, you are really stressing and pushing your aerobic capacity to all new highs. It’s not something you train for often so naturally it’s going to be torturous. But you will survive! The beneficial thing about this way of training is that not only do you build up your aerobic fitness, you also specifically build it up on the exercises you do on your intensity days. After doing ultra high volume days, everything will seem just that bit easier during your intensity sessions. When you do switch back to less reps/more weight, you will find yourself getting less tired, being able to maintain a higher and consistent level of performance output in your workouts, your CNS will be better conditioned and, you will be able to reduce your rest times between exercise sets. A further benefit is that ultra high volume training will help improve the condition of your ligaments; joints and tendons making them better able to recover and withstand heavier weights during your intensity days. This means recovering in time for your next sessions will also become less of a problem.

Would I recommend ultra high volume training to beginners? Absolutely! Just because you’re a beginner doesn’t mean you can’t work on optimally building up your work capacity in preparation for the later stages of advanced training. You don’t have to do 30+ reps off the bat, but you should be definitely be adding in some dedicated ultra high-volume days of at least 15+ reps. This means that you can work on developing your aerobic capacity from the get-go. In my experience, many new weightlifters run into problems after the novice period because they have never touched true volume work (12+ reps). It’s usually why many stall hard after this point.

Yes, they have developed a size and strength base, but their actual ability to deal with this (work capacity) is pretty underdeveloped and that becomes obvious as they start hitting the more advanced stages of weightlifting. Contrary to what most people will tell you, I always did ultra high volume days from my very first days of weightlifting. Not just because I was crazy about hypertrophy, but also because I wanted to make sure I could start early building up my work capacity. Alongside my normal intensity and volume sessions, I always made a point of adding in some lower weight, ultra high rep sessions for the purpose of improving my aerobic abilities during my weightlifting. It really pays off now in that I am able to go faster, harder and longer in my workouts. Many people will tell you ultra high volume is useless, but I have seen too many people in the gym become demolished too quickly every time they try to increase their workload. This really affects their ability to recover and go further in their weightlifting goals.

Weightlifting Progress Is Not Only About Picking Heavier Things Up

As you progress in your weightlifting career, you will need to do more work to go further. As you do more work, you need to enhance your body’s ability to deal with this efficiently and to be able recover from it in time for your next session. Although most people have no problem coping with and recovering from small amounts of weight training, the problem occurs when you need to start significantly upping the work you do to progress further. Performing more work requires a higher work capacity to deal with this and most people unfortunately just don’t have it. When it comes to weightlifting, people tend to focus more on stressing the first two energy systems (ATP-PC and glycolytic) through a combination of high intensity and low/moderate volume work.

But most of the time, it stops there. This means that you very rarely get a chance to really stress and develop the aerobic system. Although you can still increase the work you do (exercise duration, number of exercises, decrease rest times etc.), if you try to do this without improving your aerobic capacity first, you will topple over and fast. This is because you have never developed and built up your aerobic systems. You have simply relied too much on the fast acting ATP-PC and glycolytic systems to bail you out. But, they will not save you when you need to go longer and harder. Only aerobic capabilities will do that.

Work Capacity graph.png

  • “A” is typically what happens in most weightlifters – lack of ultra high volume work means they don’t develop their work capacity at the same rate as the work they are doing. This means the body is poorly equipped to deal with and recover from the work they are doing. Eventually this pulls back your gains to a halt
  • “B” is an ideal situation. By developing your work capacity through ultra high volume, your body will be more capable of dealing with any further increase in training volume/intensity. Unlimited gains!

Whatever stage of weightlifting you are at, I will always recommend an ultra high volume day somewhere in your training programming. This can be a separate session, or you can regularly alternate it with your moderate volume days. The important thing is, it’s in there somewhere. For me, I train 3 times a week and one of those sessions will always include an ultra high volume session to keep working on building up my work capacity. This ensures that as well as making size and strength gains, I make sure my work capacity doesn’t lag behind. Keeping progress in sync with work capacity is the best way to keep making those long-term gains.

If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. How is your work capacity in the gym? Do you find it difficult to keep going? Dare to try ultra high volume? Let me know! 



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