Strength vs. Capacity

In any training program, it’s critical to focus your goals on specific results. I frequently hear clients tell me that they want to get “stronger”—but what does that really mean? For a powerlifter, “stronger” implies a top-end output of 3 powerlifts inside a 9-lift day, barring extenuating circumstances. Such a feat is considered to demonstrate strength. However, for a strongman competitor or a Highland games competitor, “stronger” is more a matter of capacity because of the repetitive nature of the competition mode. Capacity equates to volume of work, while strength equates to maximum momentary output. As you develop the program that’s specific to your goals, you’ll need to determine when you’re training for strength and when you’re training for capacity.

Training for any strength sport needs to include varying degrees of both maximal output and maximal volume, although different approaches will emphasize different energy systems. Broadly, this type of training balances 1-rep maximum training with anaerobic (short burst energy) and aerobic capacity. In the context of strength sports, aerobic capacity is a tricky hand to play since endurance training becomes counterproductive when it’s allowed to draw too much of an athlete’s holistic energy. Aerobic capacity training affects maximal output immediately.

Simply put, output training for strength is training at or above your 1-rep maximum. Volume training for capacity is training multiple performances at a specific submaximal weight. A representative workout could look like this:

  • 1 30-sec hold @ 100% of 1 rep max
  • 1 30-sec hold @ 120%
  • 5 partial reps @ 140%
  • 2 partial reps @ 150%
  • then volume training with 8-10 sets of full range movement at 40%-60% for reps

In determining your rep range for volume training, I recommend going until you just begin to feel lactic acid build-up. This build-up presents itself as “the burn.” When you feel it, rack the weight and rest until it’s gone. Try to allow “the pump” to subside as well. Then, keep the sets coming until there is a nervous system disengage—you’ll notice it when you can’t feel the movement. Each training session, this “numbness” will set in later and later until you achieve 8-10 sets. This protocol is an example of one way to increase capacity for repeated maximal outputs.

The ratio of output to volume will change depending on the sport that you’re training for. If you’re a Highland games competitor or an arm wrestler, the overload percentages can be scaled back significantly and the target set range of the volume training target sets can be increased to as high as 20. Anyone who has ever competed in the Highland games knows that none of the events are all that “heavy” individually, compared to the 8- or 9- event capacity required depending on if sheaf is contested. This situation is the same for arm wrestling. Ideally, you possess the strength to be competitive at whatever level you are contesting, but a couple of hard matches too close together can make your arm feel like you’ve been sleeping on it for an hour as it’s simultaneously being pumped full of blood. Lack of capacity training has often led to a stronger puller falling to a foe who he’s easily defeated in the past. The longer you can stay at 80-90% in competition, the better your overall performance will be.

Capacity training for powerlifting and throwing (track and field events) is a different situation. Both require a small number of performance events repeated at absolute maximal force and speed. Athletes achieve this explosiveness by properly balancing strength training and capacity training, often using 1-rep maximum programs. My favorite programming tricks for throwers and powerlifters come from the world of Olympic lifting, which blends plyometrics with overload training. Jerk blocks are a blessing for strength trainers, since they’re perfect for partial jerks, partial squats, partial front squats, power jerks, and super heavy push presses. Jerk blocks give you the freedom to drop the weight and have it still be at a loadable height that’s unique to you—and they’re simply glorious.

Sidebar: Anyone who loves the sound of clanging metal associated with a gym will be equally prone to fiending for that KABOOOM that comes from proper jerk blocks catching weight. Olympic platforms come close, but they just don’t produce the same beautiful note. During my time at Northern Arizona University, I used to reach unparalleled levels of excitement when approaching our training room. The acoustics were a perfect blend of clanging iron and the repetitive boom, boom, boom of Olympic weights hitting blocks and platforms. I accomplished some of my best lifts and plyos there simply because of the energy I floated on. If you want success badly enough, of course you’ll be able to train anywhere and make do with anything, BUT do not minimize your effort to find a training facility with an atmosphere that draws you in. I will expand on this in a future article. For now, meanwhile, back at the ranch…)

For strength sports with limited high-end but long durations, the capacity protocol does not have to be too extreme, as long as you’re training with enough event work. If event work isn’t possible for whatever reason (weather or lack of facilities or training partners), then you need to replicate the event using any tools you can in order to stimulate the proper adaptive responses. Manipulate times, reps, sets, tempos, and rest periods on both the micro and macro levels, and record your results. If you don’t record your results, you’re leaving a tool in the toolbox as you attempt to associate specific aspects of your training with your individual performance. Assess your personal needs for the balance of strength and capacity that match your goals, and then begin manipulating dependent variables.

Strongmen like Brian Shaw and Robert Oberst, who are both on the plus side of 6 1/2 feet tall and well over 400 lbs, have learned to train within the balance of strength and capacity, output and volume—they understand that neglecting capacity in their training will leave them vulnerable to defeat, but they’re also aware that an excess of capacity will undermine their strength training. So, rather than trying to reduce their mile times, they focus on lactic acid turnover and mid-range endurance. By tailoring their training programs to theirs goals—highest weight for rep, for instance, or carry for distance—they can balance strength with capacity for optimal performance. I think of Zydrunas Savickas as another example of an athlete who utilizes an ideal balance of strength and capacity for maximum competitive advantage. Not only does he demonstrate his strength as the dominant force in the log press overhead for 1 rep, but his highlight reel features performances where he looks completely gassed out after multiple sub-maiximal reps but then digs out one more at the buzzer from God knows where. This balance of strength and capacity complement each other perfectly.

Keep in mind that my recommendations lie in the fringes of other advice you may have heard. You can easily scale any of these concepts so that they apply to your unique level of training. Leave any comment, question, or suggestion here on the blog or email me at if you want to continue this discussion or pursue my online coaching. I would love to hear from you.

“A crystal clear vision, a perfect picture of what you want to achieve, is the most important part of achieving your goals. It gives meaning and focus to every effort made to achieve those goals.”—Arnold Schwarzenegger

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