6 Common Mistakes in Work Capacity Event Design

By Rob Shaul

In my programming rubric, “Work Capacity Events” are extended bouts of cardiorespiratory and muscular stress at high, but submaximal levels. Work Capacity is where it all comes together – aerobic base, sprint cardio, raw strength, strength endurance, and mental fitness.

Gym Based Work Capacity Efforts are multi-modal, intense events lasting up to 30 minutes. These combine Aerobic Base + Aerobic Power + Muscular Strength + Muscular Endurance – or the ability to perform at a high percentage of VO2 max, with a high percentage of muscular strength.  Understand that Anaerobic Training cannot be continued on forever, unlike steady-state aerobic exercise – which is why I try to limit these events to 30 minutes.

Anaerobic work is so intense cardiac output exceeds oxygen consumption, glycogen (carbohydrate) replaces fat as the primary fuel source. But glycogen is metabolized and broken down into lactic acid. We believe Anaerobic events are the type most probable in an intense/dangerous tactical or mountain situation – movement under fire, ground pursuit, hard, fast final push to the summit.

Gym-based Work Capacity efforts are Anaerobic training and are so intense that the athlete will fail in a relatively short time (<1 hour.)  Intense work capacity efforts train the athlete to tolerate lactic acid and train at a higher percentage of his or her VO2 max. The athlete develops a higher tolerance for intensive endurance-type exercise.

In MTI programming, when you see “Work Capacity” as one of the training session objectives, what follows will be 1-3 work capacity “events” depending on duration. I generally program events with target durations of 5, 10, 15, 20, and 30 minutes.

Most individual training sessions will have 2-3, 5-minute work capacity events, 1-2, 10-minute events, or a single 15, 20, or 30 minute event. I consciously design the events and format the event to match the intended duration.

In the perfectly designed work capacity event, the athlete will reach cardio and muscular failure right at the end of the prescribed event duration.

I’ve found over the years that work capacity event design is as much an art as science, but beyond the duration, there are several mistakes I’ve made and seen in work capacity event design which negatively impact the intent to “work capacity.”

(1) Prescribing Load which is Too Heavy.

Crossfit founder Greg Glassman is credited with popularizing gym-based multi-modal work capacity events which include barbell or dumbbell exercise. One of the common mistakes I’ve made myself in designing these, and have seen in other coaches and programming course students, is making the prescribed load too heavy.

If the load is too heavy for the free weight exercise in the event, the athlete will have to “break” the reps, which results in a short rest, and subsequent decrease in heart rate. By definition, coaches what to keep the heart pumping throughout the work capacity event, and stop because the load is too heavy works against this.

See the 5-minute work capacity event below, and the two different loads for the Power Clean. (Note, “75/115#” = women use 75# and men use 135#)

(1) 5 Rounds for Time

    • 5x Power Clean @ 75/115#
    • 5x Burpees
    • 5x Box Jumps @ 20/24″

(1) 5 Rounds for Time

    • 5x Power Clean @ 115/185#
    • 5x Burpees
    • 5x Box Jumps @ 20/24″

In the top example, most mountain and tactical athletes we work with will be able to complete the 5x power cleans in all 5 Rounds unbroken – though doing so would be progressively harder. However, in the bottom example, after the first round, most athletes would have to “break” the power cleans into sets of 1-2 reps because of the loading and strength – thus allowing a cardio rest.

The bottom event is an example where the load is too heavy for a work capacity event.

Identifying the proper loading for these events is where the “art” of work capacity design comes in, as well as the coach’s experience with his/her athletes. As well, understand that for MTI, fitness programming’s focus is outside performance. What this means is I’m less concerned with the athlete’s finish time with this event, and more concerned with ensuring he/she works hard for at or near the 5 minute duration.

What if I had a strong athlete smoking through the 75/115# Power Cleans in the top example and looking to finish this event in 3 minutes? I’d modify the event on the fly for this individual. I’d say, “boy Johnny, congrats on being so strong!  Change it to 8 rounds!”

(2) Overworking The Shoulders, Low Back, or Grip.

See the example work capacity event below. See the problem?

(1) 6 Rounds, Every 90 Seconds, wearing a 25# Weight Vest

    • 10x Hinge Lift @ 95/135#
    • 10x Swings @ 16/20kg
    • 4x Prone to Sprint

In this example, the athlete’s low back will get smoked, and he/she may need to rest prematurely because every exercise in this work capacity event is low back intensive, including the prone to sprints in a vest. Each time the athlete pushes himself up from the floor, the low back is worked.

Here’s another example which overloads the shoulders:

(1) 6 Rounds, Every 90 Seconds, wearing a 25# Weight Vest

    • 8x Push Press @ 65/95#
    • 8x Sandbag Burpees @ 40/60#
    • 4x 1-Arm Dumbbell Snatch @ 25/35#

In this example, it’s likely the athlete will need to stop and rest, no so much because of the loading, but because every exercise in this event hammers the shoulders. This is bad design.

Finally, here’s an example which overloads the grip:

(1) 15 Minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds as Possible)

    • 10x Dumbbell Hinge Lift @ 25/35#
    • 20x Step Ups holding Dumbbells @ 25/35#
    • Run 200m with Dumbbells

Would this work the grip? Absolutely. Would the athlete likely have to stop and rest multiple times because his/her grip is smoked? Yep …. and with every stop, the heart rate slows down, negating the cardio intent of work capacity training.

(3) Not Working the Legs.

The legs are the biggest muscles in the body, and it’s difficult to push the heart rate without working them. See the example below:

(1) 6 Rounds for time

    • 10x Bench Press @ 75/135#
    • 3/6x Mixed Grip Pull Ups
    • 10x Sit Ups

Would this event raise the athlete’s heart rate? Yes … but not to the near panic-level breathing we’d like to see. Replace the 10x Sit Ups with 15x Box Jumps and the effect on the heart rate would be dramatic. Remember … work capacity trains both strength and cardio, simultaneously. To do so, you have to work the legs.

(4) Garbage Reps

The focus of avoiding “Garbage Reps” in work capacity event design is to help preserve knee health.

“Garbage Reps” are loaded, deep squat or lunge movements not heavy enough to build strength, and generally designed as part of a work capacity effort.

Here would be a work capacity event example from my own programming:

(1) 10 Rounds for Time

    • 10x Back Squat @ 95/135#
    • 5x Scotty Bobs @ 15/25#
    • 10x Box Jumps
    • 10x Ankles to Bar

Those 100x Back Squats are the “Garbage Reps” – and I’m concerned about the effect of this type of high volume, light to medium load in a work capacity event on long term knee health. Years ago I began to consciously eliminate this type of effort from MTI’s work capacity event design for mountain and tactical athletes.

Again, “Garbage Reps” are high volume, lightly or moderately loaded, deep squatting or lunging exercises in a work capacity event. Exercises to avoid:

  • Lightly loaded lunging movements including high volume, loaded, walking lunges, in-place lunges, Rob Shauls, Curtis P’s, overhead walking lunges, etc.
  • High volume squatting movements including hand squat cleans, overhead squats, front squats, back squats, goblet squats, wall balls, etc.

Importantly, bodyweight lunging or squatting movements (unloaded) don’t count as “garbage reps” and can be prescribed, however, I rarely do this. Why? Shuttle sprint repeats work the legs, hammer the lungs, and don’t involve deep knee flexion, and are incredibly transferrable to outside performance.

As well, some light or moderately loaded deep squatting or lunging movements in MTI programming design are purposely used to train strength. The best example of this are Quadzillas, which use light dumbbells and are specifically designed to train eccentric leg strength for skiing and downhill hiking/running.

As well, loaded exercises which use the legs, but don’t involve deep knee flexion are not Garbage Reps and can be prescribed in work events. Examples include power clean variations and hinge lift variations.

Some of MTI’s older and legacy plans still have Garbage Reps prescribed in work capacity events. When I see these changed to sprints, box jumps or something similar which work the legs but aren’t Garbage Reps.


(5) Too Many Exercises

I went to one of the first Crossfit Certifications – way back in 2005, and I distinctly remember Glassman caution not to use too many exercises when designing these work capacity events. “Two to three are best,” he said.

I had just started coaching then – part-time, but as soon as I returned to Wyoming totally forgot Glassman’s wisdom and began designing work capacity events with 5, 6, 7, and on up different exercises. My events would look something like this:

10-1 Countdown for Time

    • Hinge Lift @ 135/185#
    • Scotty Bobs @ 15/25#
    • 2x Swings @ 16/20kg
    • Box Jumps @ 24″
    • Pull Ups
    • Ball Slams @ 25#
    • Keg Lift

I would forget all about weight room flow, limited equipment, limited space in this design, and get caught up not in how effective the event trained the fitness goal, but rather how hard it was, and how clever I could be in grouping multiple exercises together.

In all my program design, as I’ve learned, and improved, stuff has been cut away. With myself, and with coaches who’ve worked for me, at first, you just make stuff too darn complicated, or “sophisticated.” We often say “sophisticated design is immature” …. and that after running through this event myself I’d realize it had 4-5 too many exercises and was just overly complicated and stupid. Today, this event would look like this:

20 Minute AMRAP

    • 10x Hinge Lift @ 95/135#
    • 5x Scotty Bobs @ 15/25#
    • Run 200m

(6) Complicated Rep Counts

This is a simple mistake, but important one. The rep count for the different exercises in a work capacity event needs to be easy to remember. So, instead of this complicated to remember rep scheme:

8 Rounds for Time

    • 7x Power Cleans @ 75/115#
    • 13x Burpees
    • 4x Prone to Sprint

Use this:

8 Rounds for Time

    • 8x Power Cleans @ 75/115#
    • 8x Burpees
    • 8x Prone to Sprint


Questions, Comments, Feedback? Email rob@mtntactical.com




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