Before I get too far into this I’ll lay down some brief personal definitions of these terms “work capacity” and “workout density.”
Workout Density: The amount of exercises, reps, and sets that are performed per workout. Think super-sets.
Work Capacity: The amount of work performed per given allotment of time.
Can these two terms be interchangeable? Yes. One difference I like to make between the two is that density has to do with how much different stuff you can cram in per workout whereas capacity is how much work you can do per exercise. One example I’ll make is my work capacity for squats is far above my work capacity for deadlifts. Why? Because my density for deadlifts has always been in the basement.
Before we go any further I’ll lay this out: Density builds capacity, and capacity builds strength and conditioning, and finally, strength and conditioning continue to build greater density and capacity.
Mind melting paper heap.
What is an easy way to add in density? Super-sets. A favorite of mine is to super-set antagonist exercises with my main movement. This would be pull-ups or rows with bench press for example. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it has worked wonders. As of recently I’ll perform some sort of pre/re-hab exercise in between sets; band pull-aparts with bench press for example.
Have you ever done band pull aparts until you’ve broken a sweat? No? You should.
Think of it like this: Lets say doing 3x5 bench sets takes you 15 minutes you’ve done one rep per minute. If you’re super-setting in 5x10 face pulls you have now added in an additional 50 reps into that same time allotment. It keeps you active while you rest, and though it may seem like a miniscule amount of work- like saving your pocket change, it adds up.
Ballin with density like Scrooge McDuck.
Your density has increased three-fold, and a small amount of conditioning has come with it.
Can some people get strong while also lacking conditioning? Yes, yes they can. But I’d wager that had they been better conditioned they could have gotten stronger, faster. By being well conditioned, meaning both muscular and cardiovascular endurance, an athlete can last longer; train longer, more sets, more reps, more exercises- more of everything.
And more is always better; at least in this context.
What happens when a muscle begins to fatigue? Those muscles around it take up the workload to complete the movement. In return the movement pattern changes. In the squat the lower back might fatigue and in return the hips will rise faster than the chest. The lever becomes longer, the stress becomes greater, and the already fatigued muscle tires faster. And soon we are seeing squat-mornings. Not good. What we have to do to solve this is build the capacity of those muscles involved. How? Gradually implementing higher volumes.
Some people think that conditioning means barbell complexes, sprints, circuit routines, sled pulling/pushing, etc. Well, those people are right- those things do great things for athlete conditioning. But you don’t have to do all of that, all the time, to be well conditioned. This is when you could simply start adding in more density and capacity to your workouts to gradually build conditioning.
A quick anecdote; my all-time PR for squat was done after doing 30 minutes of sprints… at the time, I was very well conditioned.
Bad things happen to novice trainees when they start believing themselves capable of adding in sprints 2x per week along with barbell complexes sometime in the middle. Ease yourself into it. Strength is a marathon- not a sprint.
This is your noob body on high volume sprints.
Some questions and comments I’ve received about the higher volume training I prescribe could be summarized as, “How can I transition from doing a low volume (We’ll say 5x5 routine) into something like what you do?” Should you fall into this category, a person who lacks work capacity, here’s how you solve that problem- add in bodyweight variations to supplement your workouts, and add in rep-outs to your last work sets on either your Tier 1 or Tier 2 exercises.
Here’s how such a workout would look:
T1: Squat: 5 reps, 3 sets @87.5%
T2: Front Squat: 8 reps, 3 sets (Last set rep-out)
T3: Bodyweight squats: 10 reps, 5 sets (Add 10 reps per week, 4 weeks)
That rep-out on the T2: Front Squat and the T3: bodyweight squat sets, would be the work capacity driver and maintain density by adhering to workout time limits. Thus the two are the driver of your conditioning as well. After four weeks of this type of programming I would alter bodyweight squats to 20x5, and make my T1 movement the rep-out. After four or so weeks of that go ahead and add in an additional T2 or T3 movement. This same model could be used for pushups with the bench press, and I would say pull-ups for pretty much damn near anything- because well, I love the pull up. By increasing your density and your capacity you will gradually be building conditioning along with greater strength.
A note on rest periods; begin to limit them. This will ensure you’re driving density and capacity. A rule I have for myself: T1: 2-3 Minutes, T2: 1-2 Minutes, T3: <1 Minute. Is it always like that? No, but that’s my target and I try to get as close to it as possible.
Utilized correctly, this can be your greatest friend
and worst enemy in the weight room.
Lastly, I’m going to throw a challenge out there. I’m not sure where I’ve seen it previously, but I know (or at least I think I know) that I didn’t come up with it. If I did, cool. So here it is:
Weight: 405 lb.
Perform one rep, per minute, on the minute, for 20 minutes. The clock starts on your first rep. The last rep on the 20th minute is a rep-out.
I did this on the 26th of April and got 23 reps total. It sounds easy, but it’s brutal. At least for me it was.
A point of reference- 405 is about 85% of my conventional deadlift max. Should you be stronger or weaker than me, go ahead and perform this challenge with 85% of your deadlift max. The challenge ends on time, when you start hitching the weights, or when your form is in the toilet. Conveniently 85% is where T1 begins. I averaged more than 1 rep per minute for those 20 minutes with T1 level weights. I’m thinking that’s decent capacity in that range of intensity; especially considering the fact that I’ve always neglected my deadlift workout density. Not gonna lie, I was nearly out of breath and sweating pretty good after this. I’d like to reach 25, then maybe 30+ by the end of this year.
In summary, density = super-sets and capacity = bodyweight variants added and rep-outs. Also, do the challenge and let me know how it goes.