Increasing work capacity without increasing muscle damage

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. 

 

If there is one fitness concept that every person should understand, it is increasing work capacity. In short, increasing your work capacity means adapting to ever-increasing volumes of exercise. As an example, there is a famous myth surrounding the ancient greek wrestler, Milo of Croton. When a calf was born near Milo’s home, the wrestler lifted and carried the animal on his shoulders. Each day, Milo repeated the process. 4 years later, Milo was no longer lifting a small animal, but a full grown 4 year old bull. In fitness terms, this process is called ‘progressive overload’, but the reality of increasing work capacity doesn’t need to sound so complicated. Simply increase the intensity, frequency, or volume you move. 

There are numerous ways to increase work capacity and we’ve had success implementing many of them in our own routines. A few examples include: 

  1. Adding more sets - if you can squat 3 sets of 3 at 300 pounds, add one more set and perform 1, 2, or 3 sets until you can do 4x3 at 300 pounds, and eventually 5-8 sets of 3. 
  2. Adding more reps - Using the same set structure as above, if you’ve reached a point where you can do 5 sets of 3 reps at 300 pounds, begin adding reps to your sets until you can do 5 sets of 4 reps, and eventually 5 sets of 5 reps.
  3. Adding more workouts - This option is self explanatory. You can increase your work capacity by working out more frequently. Importantly, this option also subjects your body to a greater amount of stress if you perform a full range of motion exercise. 

With the third example from above, we are bringing in another area of consideration when increasing work capacity. That is, how can you ensure your body adequately recovers from each session, thereby decreasing risk of injury or overtraining? 

Our answer requires a brief breakdown of what comprises a full range of motion exercise. In every lift, there are a few ways muscles contract: 

  1. Concentric contractions: This portion of the lift is when the muscle contracts and shortens. In any movement, this is the ‘lifting’ part. 
  2. Eccentric contractions: This portion is where the muscle lengthens under tension. In any movement, this is the lowering and stretching part. This is the phase when the majority of muscle damage happens. 
  3. Isometric contractions: This occurs when the muscle contracts, but there is no movement between lengthening or shortening of the muscle. An example of an isometric contraction is when you are holding a position, such as in a plank or wall-sit. 

As we mention in bullet #2 above, the eccentric phase of exercise is where the majority of muscle damage occurs, and as a result, this is also where your soreness and fatigue comes from. While this phase of the exercise has its time and place, especially if you want to increase muscle mass, it can be a barrier to increasing work capacity. When you perform a full range of deadlift, where you both lift and lower the weight, your muscles may require days to recover. If you remove the eccentric phase of a lift, you are then able to mitigate damage to your muscles and train for longer periods of time without the soreness, fatigue, and inflammation. In a concentric-only deadlift, you simply lift the weight and drop it at the top, eliminating the second half of the exercise. Often times, you are recovered hours later.

These styles of lifting do not need to be mutually exclusive either. Concentric-only exercises are great additions to your typical training day to add intensity, volume, and frequency without the increase in muscle damage. 

Other concentric-only exercises to consider adding: 

  • Lower body sled pulls/prowler pushes
  • Upper body sled pulls/pushes  
  • Carries