“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawking

Why am I not a big fan of lock-step, western-style progressive overload training as a base training concept?  Because in my experience, this method — more times than not — will lead to over training (or, at the very least, over reaching) and stagnation.  It also turns a blind eye to one of the most basic concepts of training: increasing work capacity.

Work capacity is the underlying component of any truly successful training program. Quite simply, it is the ability to perform an ever-increasing amount work which, in turn, determines one’s level of fitness.  And that, in turn, defines one’s level of preparedness.

But there is a delicate balance here that must be maintained, because attempts to raise work capacity too fast will simply result in over training.  Smart programming is key, along with the willingness to ramp-up the intensity and “blow out the carbon” when the time comes.  Allow work capacity to slide, though, and one’s fitness level will quickly digress. Simply put, if your work capacity is still at the same level it was two years ago, then I’d be willing to bet the coconut farm that you’re also still mired at the same strength and hypertrophy level that you were two years ago.

For more on this subject (and a little more depth), check out this post.

As an example of “work capacity in action”, here’s what I pulled off last Friday:

  • 3 miles worth of interval fixie sprints from the Efficient Exercise Rosedale location, to the University of Texas’ Clark field
  • 8 x 80-ish meter (running) sprints.  Stopped at drop-off, i.e., at two consecutive failures to meet or exceed my best time for the day
  • fixed-bar muscle-ups; 25 complete reps (+ 3 missed attempts along the way) in 8:47
  • another 3 miles worth of fixie interval sprints, back to the EE Rosedale studio
  • 25 bear complexes (squat clean to front thrust overhead, to back squat, to back thrust overhead, back to the floor.  Wash, rinse, repeat) at 75% + “pocket change” of bodyweight (or 164 lbs at 215 lbs) in 12:29

To say that I was fairly well scorched after this is an understatement.  And the only way I was able to pull this off — and to be able to recover sufficiently — was to have first established a solid work capacity base.  And on the strength/hypertrophy side of things, having this base then allows me to really amp-up the amount of load I can tolerate in a particular exercise for a given duration.  See how this works?  So simple, and yet, so often overlooked.

Shameless plug time, but Skyler, Mark and myself cover some of this — and a hell of a lot more — in this Movement Lectures discussion.


In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –






  1. How does work capacity relate to ‘metabolic conditioning’? Some in the HIT community would argue that metabolic condition is very activity specific, and so I wonder if work capacity might be the same?

    • Yeah, many rabbit holes are available to go down here. For sure there is global metabolic conditioning, and then there is more finely directed, sport-specific conditioning. I think the HIT community’s argument (which I agree with, by the way)is that “cardio” health is a muscle-driven phenomena. In other words, jogging for “cardio” is essentially a waste of time when compared to an all out HIT session. Now, metabolic conditioning can certainly be ratcheted up quite a bit, and here is where I am on board with the CrossFit ideal of preparing for the unknown and unknowable. I may not always agree with the CrossFit method/programming but the goal is certainly attainable – and admirable, in my opinion.

  2. Many rabbit holes, indeed!!! Metabolic condition, as you suspected Craig, is also highly activity-specific, since total output, whether measured in watts or aerobic capacity (or whatever physiological parameter one chooses) will always be greatest in an activity for which one has trained, due their being more “skilled” at the given activity. Coincidentally, the last physiological wave of change/adaptation to occur (and the hardest one to attain) has to do with efficiency/economy of movement or, put another way skill. Specialists will always be greatly rewarded in their specific activities, while generalists will be favoured when tested at various “events”. But, even the best of the best generalists will always fail to beat the best specialists (think decathlete vs sprinter/thrower/jumper/middle-distance runner OR Crossfit game athlete vs Olympic lifter/runner/powerlifter/gymnast, etc.). while most specialist will always specialize to the detriment of a more general expression of “fitness”… This is true of any athletic endeavor…

    • As an example, look at how Lance Armstrong has fared in his triathaloning (prior to his suspension) and mountain biking pursuits. Better than your average guy for sure, yet not able to hang with the specialists….yet.

      • Indeed Keith… From a purely “observational” point of view, I think the top specialists will always fare better in transitioning to more “generalist events” than the other way around, especially if the sport is relatively similar in terms of energy demands and skillset. I suspect that the fact that Mr. Armstrong also started out as triathlete (and a fairly good one at that) also helps his cause… Considering that his biggest strength on the bike is probably his “very economical technique”, this also favors him in terms of transitioning to mountain bike, should he choose to do so more seriously. All else being equal, mountain bikers have been shown to have the most “skilled/economical” pedalling of all cycling sports… Then, if he can compete in the Ironman distances again, where swimming (his weaker discipline) becomes an even smaller percentage of the total race time compared to other distances, and cycling (his strongest) an even bigger proportion, I think he will fare pretty well… That is, if he can keep on eluding the doping accusations :-S

        • Right on. Also consider how well former football defensive backs & running backs (including myself) do at CrossFit-like endeavors. Hell, repeat, high-power energy bursts are how we trained from the time we were 8 years old. We’ll never be Olymic level gymnasts or Oly lifters, but we can turn repeats with adequat technique in these type endeavors all day long.

  3. I hear ya… I feel the same way about some of the skillsets I inherited as a basketball player, triple jumper, and 200-400m specialist… DEFINITELY not for the same reasons as you defensive and running back dudes/monsters though 🙂

    I’ve tried my hand at quite a few CF workouts, just for the heck of it (a few good friends of mine own their own box/gym), and anyone of them that includes some box jumps (Fight Gone Bad comes to mind) or sprints (Kelly) becomes real fun. A workout like Linda, on the other hand, which includes bench pressing with one’s bodyweight, completely annihilates me!!!!

    BTW, I was a bike messenger for 7 winters (Montréal, Ottawa and Vancouver), so have always completely dug your fixie “fix” 🙂

    Take it easy!

      • Those winter couriering days were some “interesting” and very formative years, for sure… But, still, nothing in comparison to 13 long summers and 2 million seedlings planted doing this for a living!!! (http://vimeo.com/35927482).

        If anyone ever wonders about how to “increase work capacity” or what “work capacity truly entails”, let them ponder this for a moment:

        The average treeplanter will bend over 1600 times a day, drive their spade in the ground 1600 times, and travel around 16km over uneven terrain, carrying heavy bags for a total cumulative load of well over 1000kg.

        Physiological studies were conducted to determine that the average treeplanter burns around 4000 calories a day, and their total exertion is equivalent to 75% of that of an Olympic marathoner but, the best part is: They have to repeat that effort day after day, after day….

        My average over my career was exactly double those numbers so, sadly, nothing I will ever do in the gym will come close to that level of work capacity 🙂

  4. Keith,

    Interesting article. If you were training someone who is in the HIT mode of 1 or 2 intense workouts per week and not much else, maybe a little bit of running, who wanted to increase work capacity how fast would you bring them along? One of the problems many of us have is trying to do too much, too fast. The HIT mentality of getting hung up on increasing reps or weight every workout can be a problem. I could see the same thing occurring when trying to get to where you are and overdoing things instead of gradually building up to it.



    • The easiest path to increasing work capacity — and remember, this has to work within an existing life schedule — is to begin adding additional workouts within your normal HIT rotation. Now these add-on workouts are certainly not going to be the barn-burners that the HIT sessions are going to be AND they should be of different modality. This saves the CNS from burnout (as musculature will recoup much faster than the CNS). In other words, HIT sessions are strength-heavy endeavors, so the additional workouts ought to be speed (sprints are an example), speed-strength (balistic movements) or strength-speed (Oly-derivatives, for example) in orientation. Guarding against overtraining is where autoregulation comes into play. One or two additional workouts interwoven within one’s existing HIT rotation can make all the difference in the world.


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