The Holy Grail of Getting Stronger (Load Capacity)

“This is the thing that people miss. The best way to bring about change to the body… the only way to bring about actual modification to the body is to add load.” –Chris Duffin,

Three of most important variables that determine the overall quality of an exercise are as follows:
1.) The amount of range of motion involved (ROM)
2.) The amount of muscle activation required for the movement

Of these three variables, it seems as though load capacity gets talked about the least even though it is arguably the most important variable. In light of this, we will reveal what load capacity is, how to recognize it, and how to make it a priority for your training.

What is Load Capacity?

The load capacity for a particular exercise is a spectrum of resistance through which the exercise can be properly performed. It might even be better thought of as “load potential” meaning the range of weight through which an exercise can be loaded with and performed. The greater the potential, the greater the quality of the exercise. Load capacity also accounts for the “adaptation potential” a person has (i.e. the ability to get stronger as a result of doing that exercise over a period of time).

Let’s take, for example, the biceps curl. It has a relatively small ROM as it only involves the elbow joint. The biceps alone are a relatively small muscle group which limits total muscle activation. Load capacity is also limited because your potential for loading this exercise is capped at a relatively low amount of weight. Even the strongest people would be lucky to curl their own body weight.

The biceps curl is looking pretty dismal for overall priority, as it should. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have their place, I like doing curls just as much as the next person. Although it does give us an idea on as to where it should rank in precedence.

Gym equipment involving cables or other mechanical-advantage-enhancing mechanisms can also be self-limiting in load capacity, but in a different way. Let’s take the leg extension for example. Just about any given adult could make it their goal to max out the machine and within a year or less, they could easily achieve that goal. But once the machine is maxed, there is nowhere to go in terms of strength. This is why free-weights in general hold much more “load/adaptation potential” than machines.

Now let’s consider a kettlebell exercise like the Turkish get-up.

This great exercise involves a large amount of ROM as it involves many joints of the body including the hips and the shoulders. There is also a large degree of muscle activation as it involves a lot of movement but also stability, or preventing movement where it shouldn’t be happening. But what about load capacity? This exercise, like many kettlebell exercises, lack load capacity. You’d be challenged to find a kettlebell over 70 lbs and like the biceps curl, even the strongest people among us would be hard-pressed to perform the exercise with just their body weight.

Be that as it may, this doesn’t mean that kettlebell exercises are low-quality exercises because they are anything but that. But it begs the question: which exercises encompass ROM, muscles activation, and load capacity?

Now let’s consider the squat. This exercise calls for a great deal of ROM at the ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder. There is a tremendous amount of muscle activation as it calls on the largest muscle groups of the body. Like the Turkish get-up, it also demands a massive amount of stabilization. That’s all fine and dandy, but the best part about the squat is load capacity. Again, let’s take any given person and include a legitimate squat routine in their training program. If not initially, within a year that person will be squatting more weight than anybody on the planet can do with the biceps curl. But it doesn’t stop there, within a few more years this once “average” person can be squatting 2-3 times their body weight. The deadlift exercise, albeit a very different monster than the squat, shares the same qualitative attributes.

The exercise quality of the squat and deadlift are unquestionable. Load capacity drives progressive overload and  progressive overload drives adaptation. Without load capacity, we don’t have progressive overload. Without progressive overload, we don’t have adaptation. Without adaptation, we have nothing.

Editor’s note:
As great as squats and deadlifts are, they are not the end-all-be-all to exercise. Although ROM is significant, it by-in-large occurs in the sagittal (side view) plane. By itself, sagittal-only movement can lead to muscular imbalances and instability. This is why exercises that include ROM/stability in the frontal plane and transverse plane (like the Turkish get-up) are an important adjunct to any strength and conditioning program.