What Is Work Capacity, And How Do We Train It?

With the growing popularity in high intensity high volume training and training of the Tactical Athlete the term work capacity has been thrown around quite often. To clarify what work capacity is the term work needs to be defined.

What Is ‘Work’?

Most people might think of work as the place they drive to every morning to make money which is a necessity to sustain their livelihood. However, work is a real scientific term.

work capacity

Here is a quick crash course in physics: work is simply the product of force and displacement, whereas force is the product of mass and acceleration (Baechle & Earle, 2008). Displacement refers to the change in position due to the force applied. So work – or more specifically mechanical work – has been around for quite some time. In fact the National Wildfire Coordinating Group requires team members to pass the arduous level work capacity test which consists of a 4.8 kilometer hike while carrying a 20 kilogram pack completed within 45 minutes (Conolly, Elder, & Dawes, 2015). This is a great test for physical fitness specific to the task at hand. However, it is very difficult to calculate work from this test when the grade of terrain changes.

Enhancing Work Capacity

In order to enhance work capacity in the training world we need to either increase mass (load on the bar) acceleration (speed of bar travel) or displacement of bar (movement or volume). You can also complete a workout faster with little rest without compromising form. Form is quite important in increasing work capacity, for example if an individual hastily completes a series of exercises but range of motion is reduced, or form is compromised displacement of the implement changes decreasing the amount of overall potential work completed.

Exercise prescription is important for enhancing work capacity because we want to use exercises that have a lot of quality movement. For example when doing a dumbbell curl the displacement of the hand at the bottom position by the hip to the top position at the shoulder is roughly two feet on average.

work capacity

A dumbbell snatch from the bottom position of the floor to the top position overhead is roughly seven feet on average depending on height and reach of the individual performing the exercise of course. Obviously the snatch wins on displacement and weight that can be done, so more work is put into this exercise. Full body lifts are essential to increasing work capacity with resistance training.

A while back ago I wrote an article on utilizing barbell complexes for training. A barbell complex consists of several multi-joint exercises done back to back with little to no rest in between exercise and the load remains the same throughout the entire series. Here is an example of a workout below with a rough estimate of distance.

Barbell Complex A
Exercise Load Distance (Ft) Sets Reps Overall Distance
Deadlift 115 2.5 5 5 62.5
High pull 115 3.5 5 5 87.5
Clean 115 5 5 5 125
Push press 115 2.5 5 5 62.5
Front Squat 115 2.5 5 5 62.5
Bent over row 115 1.5 5 5 37.5

We can get a rough estimate of total work by converting load on the bar to Newtons and how much distance in meters, the total work for this workout is 68214.566 Joules. This is just a rough estimate and of only concentric work.

Increasing Work Capacity

In order to increase this work capacity we will have to either increase load on the bar or volume. A large jump in weight is unwarranted due to possible decrease in mechanical efficiency by range of motion being compromised through modification (cheating) of the exercise to complete repetitions.

I hope this article sheds some light on work and increasing the capacity to do work.

Joshua Levesque

Joshua Levesque

Writer and expert