In the world of lifting weights, you might have come across the term work capacity. Some of you are probably wondering what that actually is? Well, very simply, work capacity means the ability to handle more work over time, recover from this work, and for the body to positively adapt to it. Pretty simple! Work capacity is a big deal when it comes to optimal muscular hypertrophy development because it governs the progress you are able to make over the long-term.
Now, why is work capacity important to you? Easy! By developing your work capacity over time, your body becomes more efficient at handling increased workloads in the gym. Since total work done over time is the ultimate driver of muscular hypertrophy, a greater work capacity leads to potentially more muscle growth. Sounds great, right? All in all, work capacity is not really something you want to overlook in your quest for awesome gains. Without a strong and developing work capacity, it will become almost impossible to increase your work loads in the gym over time and hence muscular hypertrophy.
Total Work Done Over Time: Wave-Like Training
When I talk about total work done in the gym, I really mean a combination of the weight, reps and sets you are utilising over a period of time. Whether you look at this on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, the important thing to keep in mind is that your total work must increase over the long-term if you want to achieve greater muscular growth. More work done in the gym over time is an absolute given for stimulating more muscle growth. The key to this however, is work capacity. So by now you are probably wondering where work capacity comes into all of this?
Building work capacity is all about balancing training stress with recovery capabilities. How these two develop over time, will indicate whether you will make progress or not. In terms of stress, this is caused in response to the work you do in the gym. The more work you do, the greater the stress response generated. Stress is needed for adaptation, but too much stress is counterproductive. Some people fall into the trap of performing too much high volume work and consequently start seeing their progress diminish over time. This is due to the fact that too much volume too soon and/or for too long results in an accumulation of stress without the ability of the body to efficiently overcome it. The stress generated starts to rapidly outpace your body’s ability to recover from it. What happens then is that your body becomes worn down unable to repair itself, motivation dwindles, and performance drops. The result being a regression in your performance over the long-term.
What is happening here is that stress and recovery are beginning to diverge from each other and unless volume is pulled back somewhat, this divergence will intensify leading to a downward spiral in performance. So, what is the solution to this problem? Well, you need to improve your work capacity! If you experience a scenario like this, then it is clear that your current level of work capacity is just not capable of handling the volume of work you are doing. You need to give your bodies recovery capabilities a chance to catch up with the amount of stress you are generating. Only when recovery catches up and your work capacity is stronger, will your body be able to deal efficiently with greater amounts of training stress generated.
Improving work capacity comes from doing more work over time. But, only if doing more work does not trash your recovery capabilities in the process. Only when recovery can catch up to the level of stress you are inducing, will work capacity be improved. Why? If your body has a chance to recover from the current workload, then you are then able to increase the total work load further without wearing yourself out. The point at which your recovery has caught up to the current level of stress is the point in which your work capacity has strengthened. Ok, so how can you ensure that recovery does not become compromised? Through modulating your volume in a wave-like fashion over time. One of the best things you can do for long-term gains is to think in terms of waves rather than straight lines.
If you want to improve your work capacity over time then you have to start implementing what I like to call the wave theory of training. This is simply higher volume periods followed by pull backs (lower volume periods). What does this accomplish? Higher volume periods are essential to generating the levels of stress needed to initiate the muscle growth process. However, recovery needs a chance to catch up to this stress so that your work capacity can improve and you can continue increasing the workload further over time. This is then achieved through these lower volume periods. Thus, giving your body a chance to recover from the accumulating levels of stress generated from the higher-volume periods. By doing this, you prevent stress outpacing recovery too much. Which is something you do not really want happening! So, once recovery has caught up and your work capacity has improved, further hypertrophy gains can be made by further increases in volume by implementing another higher volume training block. Repeat in a wave-like fashion!
Improving Work Capacity?
How does one go about improving work capacity? Well, a combination of more weight, reps and sets over time (total workload). How you increase these variables, is up to you! There is no set method and there are many ways. For instance, let us take a deadlift. You are currently deadlifting 380 lbs for 5 sets with 5 reps for each set (380 lbs x 5 x 5). You are now at the point at which this is pretty easy to do. To stimulate further growth, more stress needs to be generated. This comes from increasing the volume of work somehow.
But, it is important to realise two things: 1) you do not want to increase the workload too much, too soon. You do not want the stress generated to outpace recovery too much. 2) This increase in volume should be periodised. In other words, increasing volume for too long a period of time increases the risk of too much stress building up and not giving recovery a chance to catch up. If these two things happen, then your body will become unde-recovered, over-taxed and simply destroyed. Not a good combination for gains! So, you could for instance increase the weight from 380 to 385 lbs for 5 x 5 or, keep with the same weight and increase the number of sets e.g. 380 lbs x 6 x 5 until you get to 8 sets, then start back at 5 x 5 with a higher weight. There are lots of possibilities. The key is that volume is not increased too fast for too long and that there is a following pull-back period of low training volume to allow the body to adjust to this increased stress. Ultimately, by allowing recovery time to catch up, work capacity improves, which in turn allows you to continue using greater workloads over time.
There is however one important thing to consider when increasing the volume over time. Volume increases should occur during BOTH the higher volume training periods as well as the pull-back periods. Say during your first high volume training block, your deadlift volume was 380 lbs x 5 x 5 and your first pull-back volume was 350 lbs x 3 x 5. Your second high volume training block might be 390 lbs x 5 x 5 and your second pull-back volume might be 360 lbs x 3 x 5 (NOT 350 lbs x 3 x 5). In other words, total volume must increase over time in both your higher volume and lower volume (recovery) periods. Why? So that your body does not lose the adaptations it has made from the previous training blocks. Total volume has to keep pace with the adaptations that you make over time in order to maintain them.
Slow, Steady And Wave-Like
Work capacity is your key to long-term muscular hypertrophy gains. By increasing your work capacity, your body can handle more work efficiently, over time. However, getting your body to perform more work, means higher levels of stress generated. Great for gains but it also means greater demands on recovery capabilities. Therefore in order to keep increasing total work over time, recovery has to be given a chance to keep pace with the stress accumulated. Only when recovery catches up, can work capacity increase and you can then continue increasing successfully the total workload over time.