Developing and Testing Work Capacity

Written by Bobby Armock

In the CrossFit affiliate we have a series of tests of fitness organized into the weekly, monthly and annual program.  Benchmarks in the form of pure strength for maximal weight in single, triple and five repetition lifts in back squat, bench press and deadlift.  Muscular endurance challenges like max rep push ups, pull ups or ring dips.  Cardio vascular time trails on the mile run and 2k row.  And then there are the girls, the heroes, the games workouts and everything in between in which we measure work capacity.  A set amount of work, a mash up of the modalities of weight lifting , bodyweight and cardio.  These workouts constitute a majority of the “fun” workouts and are a way to measure ourselves, yet often times athletes find certain workouts ineffective as it doesn’t allow them to get their sweat on.  Unfortunately it’s because they have yet to develop the capacity for said workouts and the goal of the workout and the program itself is to have workouts to test your capacity and others where we develop capacity.  A program without developmental days is eventually ineffective and you will find yourself stagnant, bored and frustrated.

One such example of a developmental workout could be a strength day where the WOD is 5-5-5-5-5 on front squats.  A workout designed to improve strength, where a cardio stimulus is not the goal.  A lesson plan or class for this format will have the athlete warm up the hips and core and mobilize ankles and front rack positions.  Next performing a few practice sets for approval of the coach and then building up to the working weight.  For an experienced CrossFit athlete this means performing 25 reps at 70-85% in sets of five, resting as needed between sets.  For this workout to be effective it means you are just barely squeaking out the last rep of every set.  Which also means you are going to need two to five minutes of rest before you can repeat an effort like that again. 
To be effective you need to know yourself and the goal of the workout.  For an athlete who has developed capacity and can say front squat 315 as a single repetition max this workout will be grueling as each set may be between 225 to 270.  Anything done after this in the form of a WOD will lack intensity due to leg fatigue and thus be a waste of the strength effort as it will only beat a dead horse.  It’s best to recover and come back tomorrow to dial up the intensity in a short metcon, where an all out effort in a seven minute AMRAP is the sole focus and the body is not already taxed maximally.  Yes it’s less pieces to the workout but higher overall efforts meaning higher overall results.  More is more but better is better. 

So what does this mean for the beginner and intermediate athlete?  It means you need to be patient and develop your capacity.  Don’t look to destroy yourself everyday.  Turning into a blob of sweat on the floor after each workout doesn’t mean you are getting better.  There needs to be a few days where you work on skills like handstands and muscle ups and days where you work your front squat.  So what’s that day look like for a beginner who hasn’t maxed the front squat or isn’t ready to because it is so unpracticed it wouldn’t be safe or for an athlete that lacks the mobility.  Simply put you will warm up like every one else but practice more and get more coaching.  You may be doing sets of 5 at a moderate weight but performing 1-2:00 minutes of ankle mobility between sets to help you improve to a full range of motion.  Maybe you have a leg imbalance where one is stronger than the other and lifting heavy before correcting that may cause a lower back or knee injury so you’re hitting lighter weights but doing a set of twenty Bulgarian split squats per leg after each set.

Developmental days are not always the most sexy of workouts but they are necessary towards improving your work capacity and thus your fitness.  Consider the 10 front squat strength workouts you might see over the course of a year.  Done properly you would have improved your front squat, not in weight but in range of motion and strength symmetry of your legs.  Now you can perform a light front squat with ease preparing you to front squat heavy in the next year and rest of your life.  Consequently, you can also perform a set of 21 thrusters at 95 or 65 pounds with relatively little effort because you took the time to get better form and position.  Now you’re Fran time is :30 faster and you’re back to a sweaty puddle on the floor with less wear and tear on your body.  Yes you will be tired but it won’t hurt as much because you did it better.

coach bobby

Know where you’re at with each movement and decide if you should be developing or testing capacity.  If you don’t know talk to your coach, that’s what we are here for, to help you become better.