Work capacity is the most important factor in training that people know nothing about.
First, let me just start off with a working definition of work capacity and an explanation of why it’s so important. Work capacity is, essentially, the total amount of work you can perform, recover from, and adapt positively to.
The total volume of work you expose your body to essentially determines the magnitude of the training effect you receive from the work. We all intuitively know this. You don’t walk into the gym, warm up, do one easy set of 10 biceps curls, and expect to find yourself ripping the sleeves of T-shirts any time soon. You have to expose your muscles to more of a training stimulus.
How do you progress then to attain your 18-inch pythons of glory? (I’m already regretting the example I picked, but I’m too stubborn to go back. Curl bros, savor this moment.) Well, obviously, you do more work. You pick a more challenging weight, increase you sets, do more exercises, decrease your rest intervals, etc. It’s not rocket science, and we all know that eventually, if you want your arms to grow, you’ll have to do more work.
However, this concept seems foreign to most people when applied to anything besides arm hypertrophy. The fitness world has become so entranced by minimalism that we’ve forgotten that eventually, you just have to do more work. People are surprised when they do the same program with the same sets and reps and the same accessory work for several months, and they eventually plateau. Then they ask about it on a message board and get a response like, “Oh, you’re doing too much so you can’t recover. Dial back what you’re doing and you’ll keep getting stronger.”
So, lo and behold, they dial back their training volume and the gains start coming again. Only they last for a mere 4-8 weeks. Then they plateau even harder. Why? They weren’t getting stronger. They were peaking. Their body was accustomed to a certain level of work. When they reduced the amount of work, supercompensation happened, and they could put more weight on the bar. However, that’s not something that happens indefinitely. But, the fact is, it “worked” for a while, so this person ends up banging their head against a wall on a super low volume routine wondering why they’re not getting any stronger, not questioning the efficacy of their new routine because it worked initially.
Eventually, after months of wasted time, they decide to change things up. They start increasing their training volume, only to find that it beats them up, their lifts start regressing, and they start losing motivation to go to the gym. So clearly low volume was the way to go, they’ve just hit their genetic ceiling and are in for a lifetime of hard-fought, incremental gains. Then they weep and drown their sorrows in cheesecake.
Let’s dissect this little (perhaps all-too-familiar) vignette:
1) The guy originally plateaued because he wasn’t increasing the stimulus to his muscles and nervous system. Remember the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands)? The demands didn’t change significantly, and eventually the guy’s body had adapted all it intended to. Sure, as he initially got stronger, the slightly heavier weights were a slightly greater stimulus, but his body finally reached the point that training was no longer disrupting homeostasis enough to elicit a response.
2) He dials back the volume and gets stronger! It’s a miracle! Or, it’s what happens when your body is used to adapting to a certain level of stress, then you dial back the stress and you body is still used to the same magnitude of response. It would help to look at training in the (overly simplified, but still instructive) light of simply tearing a muscle down and building it back up. Let’s say your muscle mass is currently 100%, and your training breaks it down 20%, and since you’re plateauing, you build it back up 20% between sessions: 100 – 20 + 20 = 100. Then you dial back how much you’re tearing your muscles down, but your body is used to recovering 20% between sessions: 100 – 17 + 20 = 103 – 17 + 20 = 106. However, the fun doesn’t last forever. Your body catches on to the game, and your recovery again aligns itself with the training stress: 106 – 17 + 17 = 106. Voila, another plateau.
3) When he tries to add back in more volume, his body is used to recovering from less per session. However, he’s still trying to train at maximum intensity: 106 – 20 + 17 = 103. He perceives himself as getting weaker, gives up on the whole enterprise, and cries manly tears.
Work capacity, in essence, increases the amount your body is used to recovering from. As it increases, you can increase your total training load, therefore the stimulus to your muscles and nervous system, therefore your results. There’s a catch, however. As you’re increasing your work capacity, you shouldn’t expect to be at peak performance (and certainly not PRing). PRs come when your recovery outpaces stress. The whole point of increasing work capacity is for stress to slightly outpace recovery until recovery catches up to the stress. Once you’ve increased your work capacity and allow recovery to catch up, you’re in a position where you’re able to tolerate much more volume, which means a greater stimulus, which means an increased potential for gains. Also, it gives you more ability to taper and hit PRs at meets. You know those guys who always hit their biggest lifts in training, but fail hard at meets? Typically, they’re the ones who never trained with high enough volume to get any significant supercompensation when they tapered.
Basically, increasing your work capacity over time is THE ONLY way to continually make gains. You can only say you’ve reached your genetic ceiling when you no longer have the ability to increase your work capacity.
So, that finally brings us back to the question: How does one actually go about increasing their work capacity? For a full, in-depth answer, I’d recommend you read Supertraining, some Zatsiorsky, some Verkhoshansky, or some Issurin. This answer is more based on implementation and strategies that have proven themselves effective over time.
There are several different ways. The one in the original question really isn’t a bad way to do it. Adding sets DOES increase work capacity. Let’s say you can do 3 sets of 3 with 315 on squat. What’s easier? Trying to go 325 3×3 (assuming you’ve exhausted your linear gains), or doing another single with 315 at the end? The single, obviously. Then a double the next session, then a triple the one after that. Once you could do 6-8 triples, you could drop back to 3 sets, and probably go 335 3×3 and do it all over again. That’s a 20-pound increase in about 2 months. Not too shabby. The key is that adding one rep per session isn’t all that taxing on your body over your established baseline. Then when you drop back to just 3 sets, it’s less volume than you’ve grown accustomed to, setting you up nicely for the subsequent re-ramping of the volume.
Another version of that same idea is the Doug Hepburn method. He’d pick a weight he could do 8 singles with and slowly add an extra rep to each set until he was doing 8 doubles, at which point he’d increase the weight and start over with singles again.
A more sophisticated way is the way Sheiko waves volume week to week, but always increases volume over time. A program for a ranked lifter (i.e. a novice) usually starts with a week that’s the exact “right” volume, based on where the trainee’s at. The second week has significantly more volume (overreaching), the third week dials back the volume a bit but raises the intensity, and the fourth week drops the volume and intensity, allowing for supercompensation. This same pattern basically holds true for months as well (the second month has crazy volume, the third is similar volume to the first but with higher intensity, and the fourth is a taper). Then, when you’d start over, you’d dive back in with slightly higher volume to continue to drive adaptation. Unfortunately, not all of Boris Sheiko’s writings have been translated into English, but you can see the progression from ranked lifter routines to CMS/MS routines, to MSIC routines. The volume increases incrementally as the lifter gets stronger until you’re on an MSIC routine that makes you want to cry just reading it.
Another way is to increase training density. Although this doesn’t increase your work capacity in the strictest of terms (total volume you can handle), it does increase your work capacity PER UNIT TIME, allowing you to supercompensate when you spread your sets back out. Let’s say you’re doing 5×5 with 315, and you’ve plateaued. You currently rest 5 minutes between sets. Next workout, just knock 15 seconds off your rest periods. Continue to do so each workout until you’re only resting 2 minutes between sets. You could probably then jump to 335 5×5 with 5 minutes between sets again. This method has the drawback of not increasing your total training volume which can make peaking for meets a little trickier, but it’s ideal for someone who doesn’t have room in their schedule to increase their weekly gym time.
Another way to increase work capacity is to add extra workouts. This method was popularized by Westside, and can be easily implemented (although what I’m about to say isn’t how they do it). Let’s say you squat 315 5×5 twice per week, and you’ve plateaued. Try adding in a third squat day. Start with 225 5×5. Just the simple act of practicing the motor patter more often MAY get your maxes moving again. However, 225 5×5 shouldn’t be enough to mess with your recovery. If anything, it would enhance recovery by promoting blood flow without inducing any more muscle damage. Add weight on your third squat day until it becomes difficult to get 315 5×5 on both of your main workouts (maybe 275-295 5×5). Then drop the third workout. You should be able to increase the working weight on your main training days. Then, slowly build back up the weight on your third squat day again, initially starting very light.
Finally, just something to keep in mind: Over time, your total training volume MUST increase. Most of these suggestions I’ve written about tell you ways to effectively wave volume and benefit from a short-term reduction in volume once you’ve acclimated to SLIGHTLY more volume. As you progress, BOTH the peak volume you’re handling and the reduced level of volume need to increase. So if you’re working from 3×3 to 6×3 now, eventually you’ll need to only drop back to 4×3 and increase to 7×3, then from 5×3 to 8×3, etc. If you’re adding a third workout to two 5×5 days, those days will need to eventually become 6×5 days, or 10×3 days, or some other loading pattern that adds up to more overall volume. The reason I gave examples of waving volume was that waving helps make the overall increase in volume over time easier to manage. If you’re plateaued doing 5×5, you can’t just start doing 8×5 and make progress forever (or at all). The way to add volume is to make the peak volume of a wave higher, and the reduced volume slightly more. That way, you’re never overreaching too far, you’re still giving yourself a break for supercompensation, and you’re gradually increasing the total magnitude of stimuli your body can handle, and therefore your potential for growth.
Increasing work capacity really is the “secret” if ever there was one. The best lifters, over time, have simply developed the ability to do more work than anyone else, so they get better results than anyone else. Look at the Eastern Bloc PLers, successful nations in weightlifting, pro strongmen, and practically any other group of incredibly strong people for plentiful examples with surprisingly few exceptions.