Work capacity: the ability to perform work, which determines your level of fitness that will, in turn, determine your level of preparedness.
It's an issue for people in the military and in collision sports. In fact, lifters, off-season athletes, and pretty much anybody and everybody would benefit from improving their work capacity. Here are four ways to do it, three you've probably heard of and one that may surprise you.
Literally at your feet is one of the best pieces of training equipment I know of for building work capacity – the ground. As a child, I did Judo and it built a lifelong appreciation for falling, breaking the fall, and the art of subtle movement. It also taught me to roll in every direction, cartwheel, leap over people (more fun than you think), and not break anything in the process.
When Ken Shamrock's book, Inside the Lion's Den, came out, I saw a gap in my coaching. He recommended a great deal of basic tumbling and so I was inspired to add the same things I'd learned as a child:
- Forward Roll
- Shoulder Roll
- Various Crawls
- Basic Tumbling Combinations
The impact on my athletes was immediate. A shoulder injury plague disappeared, my soccer players learned to pop back up into play like football players, and the general conditioning of everyone involved improved overnight. Basic rolling – and I include the Turkish get-up here – can also be considered dynamic foam rolling. Rolling around correctly opens things up and seems to knit you back into place at the same time.
Aside from teaching you a valuable skill, tumbling and rolling can improve your work capacity and simultaneously change your body composition. You'll be surprised how tired and sweaty you get from simply doing five reps of most tumbling moves.
The next great way to build capacity is running, pushing, or dragging with a load. Generally, I put these activities in the same category as loaded carries. Hill sprints have been my basic coaching tool for training explosiveness to throwers since Jimmy Carter was president. For whatever reason, it's nearly impossible to hurt yourself (pull a hammie) while sprinting uphill. It's certainly self-limiting and the tired athlete doesn't have the energy to hurt himself. Running downhill, of course, is another issue and I simply don't trust 250-pound plus throwers sprinting downhill. There's this thing called "physics" and even though I don't understand the math, I can only see bad things happening from small refrigerators hurling themselves down a hill.
Today, you can mimic hill sprints in the gym with Prowlers and sleds. The trouble is, I often see people overloading these implements and it takes the "snap" out of the movement. It's a matter of feel, of course, but both too light and too heavy make these exercises less valuable. There are so many factors involved (asphalt versus grass, the make and model, the number of runners on the bottom) that I can't honestly give load recommendations, but you want to err on the side of lighter. If the action makes you look more like a sprinter and less like a plough horse, you have it right. Don't "wallow" as Coach Maughan used to tell us at Utah State when we did sled pulls.
For years, I've introduced complexes to my athletes at times when I thought we needed a bit more muscle mass. My definition of a complex is simple. A complex is a series of lifts back to back where you finish the reps of one lift before moving on to the next. The barbell only leaves your hands or touches the floor after all of the lifts are completed. You can do them with barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells.
The key to organizing a complex is to make sure the bar passes over your head in some kind of logical manner. In other words, if you do rows followed by back squats, how did the bar get there? You need at least one intermediate move to get the bar onto your shoulders for the back squats. Now I try to have the bar pass backwards over the head after a few lifts, but I only pass it forward again once. I recommend that when you try these you first use a broomstick. It'll save some wasted effort and awkwardness if you get the hang of the transitions before you add much weight.
When I want to increase work capacity and build mass, I only assign one complex for a six-week assault on bulking. There are several reasons for this. First, it helps to master the combination of movements. Now I can whip up a new complex in a manner of minutes, and that may be great if you're in love with variations, but sadly, the guys with the most variations in their training are usually also the weakest and skinniest.
Second, this complex has a nice mix of pushing, pulling, squatting and bending with just enough rest between to allow some recovery. Finally, complexes are, well, complex. I don't want you putting the bar down and trying to remember how to do this or that. I want you to stress and strain for those last seconds. Now, try to recall my definition – a complex is a series of lifts performed back to back where you finish the reps of one lift before moving on to the next. The barbell only leaves your hands or touches the floor after all of the lifts are completed. With that in mind, here's my favorite complex:
- Front Squat
- Military Press
- Back Squat
- Good Morning
If the workout calls for eight repetitions, you need to do eight rows, followed by eight cleans, eight front squats, eight military presses, eight back squats, and then eight good mornings. Do NOT load up the bar the first few times you attempt these, though. Trust me, it's a bad idea.
So tumbling, loaded sprints, and complexes are amazingly simple ways to increase work capacity. The other method is simple, too, but it may not make sense at first.
I've heard hundreds of testimonials from people who bravely assert that they're going to start some tough diet next Monday. These seemingly brave individuals have all the energy and drive to win several Super Bowls, Olympic Championships, and World Wars. Of course, come next Tuesday, I often get a long list of excuses as to why "this ONE time" they couldn't adhere to the diet program.
I know why. Deprivation is tough. Humans seem to be hard wired to not being able to do something. Yet amazingly, deprivation often works wonders. If your favorite gym closes down, you might suddenly notice that the park next to your house is actually a perfect training facility. Arnold used a method of this in his youth. He'd gather up his friends, go off into the woods with his equipment, and train. He'd choose a lift and just keep doing it over and over. There's more to this, but the idea of leaving the comfy confines of your normal gym and venturing out is going to change your methods of training.
Many of us didn't allow our sons and daughters to watch TV on school nights and maybe they missed some popular culture, but they became voracious readers and skilled at games and sports. That's the way deprivation works. You give up something and you gain something that might even be better. Probably the only thing you shouldn't deprive yourself of, though, is sleep. That tends to be a dead end for most people.
So, add the floor (tumbling), some hills (sleds and the like, too), and a classic way of barbell training (complexes) to your training to increase your work capacity. In addition, consider increasing your work capacity by depriving yourself of some things – the perfect gym, the best equipment, TV or whatever it is that keeps you from focusing on living a full life. It's hard to manage, but it's completely worth the effort.