Once again the time has come for one of my drier works on the topic of using the correct meaning for words. I constantly see conditioning and work capacity used interchangeably online, and I believe this does a disservice for those that truly seek to maximize the benefits of one compared to the other. Though it’s true that a superior athlete is going to have both of these qualities available in great supply, how they go about achieving them are going to be different, and those differing methods of acquisition also imply differing benefits of these qualities. Below is how I understand this terminology, and how I employ it with my own training.
Believe me; it's about to get worse
I’ve already discussed conditioning in length on my post “cardio versus conditioning”, but to provide a quick overview on conditioning; it is both a verb and a noun. The “verb” of conditioning is essentially engaging in those activities that suck a lot and get us out of breath; prowler, strongman medleys, tire flips, some crossfit WODs, etc. This verb of conditioning allows us to build up the NOUN of conditioning, which is what we will be discussing here. By engaging IN conditioning, we improve our conditioning, which is the ability to recover between EXERCISES. When you have superior conditioning, you recover between exercises better than someone with inferior conditioning. You require less time between sets before you can engage in another hard, heavy effort when you improve your conditioning. This of course extrapolates to other sports (a fighter takes longer to gas and recovers better between rounds, football players recover better between plays, etc).
While conditioning is the ability to recover between exercises, work capacity is the ability to recover between WORKOUTS. Though both are about recovery, WHAT we are recovering from is significantly different and worth understanding. One can be in possession of great conditioning (which in truth does not take a significant amount of time to develop) and capable of recovering well between exercises, but if they are lacking in work capacity, they will accumulate a massive amount of volume during a handful of workouts before eventually exhausting their ability to recover from accumulated volume, overreach, burn out and stall. When one is in possession of superior work capacity, they can recover from very high volume workouts over long periods of time, which means an ability to accumulate greater volume for significantly longer periods compared to those with low work capacity.
Seen here: poor conditioning and great work capacity
Why do these 2 terms become conflated and interchanged? For one people just plain don’t know how to actually improve these qualities specifically, so they attempt a “shotgun” approach of advice to cover all bases. “Yeah, some prowler pushes will go a long way toward building your conditioning and work capacity”. Sure, MAYBE they’ll do that, but not for the reasons you’re thinking of. Conditioning growth can be FORCED by a hard focused attack on weak conditioning. You decide to spend a solid 8 weeks just absolutely hammering your conditioning trying to bring it up, and suddenly your ability to recover between exercises has improved. Try doing that with work capacity and you get…8 weeks worth of work capacity improvement. Sadly, the most significant variable to the improvement of work capacity is simply time. You must spend many years training hard and often and improving your body’s ability to recover from all of this work. It’s the day in, day out, consistent application of effort. Consequently, this is why those with a background in athletics have better work capacity than those who do not when it comes time to start lifting; they have improved capacity of their body to do work. This is also why we can observe instances of people acquiring rhabdomyolysis in the span of a single workout; their conditioning was great enough that they could push themselves BEYOND their work capacity.
So why is the prowler and other conditioning type work brought up in the discussion of improving work capacity? Because work capacity DOES get improved via the gradual introduction of increased volume. By constantly introducing the body to slightly more volume, you improve your body’s ability to recover from said volume, and conditioning is a great way to sneak in a little extra volume while keeping all other variables of training the same. You can keep the exact same set and rep schemes for all of your lifting, but if you add in the prowler, you’ve added more volume and in turn are forcing new stimulus for your body to recover from. However, this of course is not the only way. You can also increase volume in the weight training itself, with more sets, reps or exercises. We also know this to be an accumulation phase of training, and speaks to one of the many positive qualities inherent in spending some time increasing volume even at the expense of intensity.
Here is a fantastic way to develop none of those qualities
Hey, while we’re at it, wanna talk General Physical Preparedness (GPP)? People love to lump that one in there too. We used to just call GPP “being in shape”, but essentially it refers to one’s ability to be prepared to engage in any sort of general physical activity. Why is this even a thing? Because people tend to do the things they like and not do the things they are bad at, so when one starts getting serious about training, it’s typical for them to specialize in their one activity and spend no time improving their ability at other activities. They engage in the same highly specific motor patterns (say, the squat, bench and deadlift), get very talented at those, develop only the muscles and motor units necessary for those movements, and then, one day, when they go to sprint in a straight line, they tear their hamstring, or they go to cut a diagonal movement pattern and rupture their ACL. They were prepared for specific activities, but lost the ability to be an athlete “in general”.
And of course, people will quickly lump GPP in with conditioning and work capacity because yeah, that MIGHT work. If all you’ve been doing is squatting, benching and deadlifting and you start throwing in the prowler, you have rapidly expanded your physical ability here and significantly improved your GPP. But if that’s all you do NOW, you quickly stop building your GPP and now have just become a larger specialized athlete. GPP necessitates practicing a variety of physical skills, to include lateral movement, throwing, jumping, rapid starts and stops, etc etc, all the stuff you find in *gasp* athletics! And when you maintain your ability to do all of these athletic things, you reduce your propensity to injury, improve mobility, and will most likely also see improvements in conditioning as a result of simply being a better athlete. You also have a wider base of athletic abilities to draw upon when it comes to developing assistance work to bring up lagging areas, and in general maintain your ability to be athletic, which is never a bad thing.
Ok: SOMETIMES it can be bad to be a good athlete
So, quick review. Conditioning is recovery between exercises. It’s built by doing things that suck and get you out of breath, so that you aren’t as out of breath when you workout. Work capacity is the ability to improve between workouts. It’s built over a long period of time by gradually increasing the volume of your workouts, which in turn allows you to recover from that volume. GPP is your ability to engage in general physical activity. It is built by engaging in general physical activity.