Workout of the Day

Athlete's Toolbox: Know Your Capacity


Of all the skills and abilities an athlete may have in their toolbox, those that revolve around the mental and emotional processes of self-development tend to be of greater significance than those that are strictly physical. These non-physical skills are the ones that are imperative in enabling an athlete to get to the “next level,” beyond where any innate talent will take them.

One such skill is the knowledge and understanding of one’s own capacity. Capacity, most simply defined, is the limit of one’s strength, endurance, recovery, speed, stamina, mobility, skill, etc. This can translate to weight on the bar, ability to sustain a particular level of exertion, range of motion, speed, muscular stamina, fatigue, recovery periods, as well as combinations of all of these elements (how long can you maintain position that challenges range of motion under a particular load with a certain degree of fatigue, for example).

Understanding this capacity can help you get the most from your training. When the intended stimulus of the workout is a maximal effort sprint, you will know just what that maximal effort is, and will be set up to reap the most benefit. When the training calls for sustained submaximal effort for 20 minutes, you will know what effort level you are able to sustain for that length of time. When the training calls for a particular skill at a challenging load for a duration of time, you will know whether the prescribed weight will meet or exceed your capacities, and thus can make an informed decision about modifying the load, movement, or volume to not exceed or fall short of those capacities.

In addition, capacity is particularly important in preventing injury, as injury is simply a result of stimulus exceeding capacity of a muscle, joint, etc. This doesn’t mean that trying to, for example, overhead press a weight that is above your capacity will necessarily result in injury -- we’ve all likely experienced a maximal effort in which we fail to lift the weight, but come out unscathed. But rather, when we undertake an effort in which our capacity is exceeded to the point of loss of position or structural capacity or recovery ability, and this effort is not ditched (i.e., you keep trying to pull that deadlift rep even after you feel your low back lose position, or continue to put heavy loads on a joint even after your body has given you all of the warning signs), then we greatly increase the risk for injury.

The real challenge is that understanding your capacity isn’t quite as simple as knowing a few PRs, or knowing your range of motion in this movement or that, or backing off every time you feel like the weights are getting heavy for you.
First, capacity is a moving target -- after all, if it never moved, you’d never improve, thus missing the point of this whole exercise thing. You may have lifted 300lbs last month, but perhaps that number is higher this month. This is where attention to other capacities comes into play (how was my position and speed on warm-up sets, how have my other numbers been trending, etc.).

The other challenge is that our view of our own capacity can be severely muddled by ego. This can go both directions: we can have an inflated view of our capacities, thinking we are capable of lifting more, or moving faster or longer at a certain load, or adequately performing a particular skill under fatigue, than we are actually able; on the other hand, we can have a deflated view of our capacities out of an ego-driven fear of pushing limits and encountering failure. These tend to be the greatest roadblocks to properly understanding capacity and employing this capacity to aid training.

The good news is twofold. First, you don’t have to go it alone. A coach can help you understand your capacity (and help you make choices from this understanding) likely better than you can. The objectivity of an outside pair of eyes and the experience and data collection that a coach brings to the table are perhaps the best tool you can have in your toolbox. This isn’t to say that a coach can’t be incorrect, but we humans are notoriously good at fooling ourselves about our own capacities.
The other piece of good news is that all of the data we need to really have a good understanding of our capacity is right in front of our eyes. Knowing your capacity doesn’t require extensive research or even extensive understanding of physiology, it just requires you to be attentive, aware, and honest with yourself.

- Preston Sprimont


  • Clean & jerk - work up to a heavy single

  • 4 min AMRAP

    • 400m run

    • AMRAP dumbbell thrusters (80/60)

  • Rest 2 min

  • 4 min AMRAP

    • 400m run

    • AMRAP KB swing (53/35)