Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I have a doubt in understanding the intuition behind the concept of work. First of all, I think this isn't duplicate, I've searched on the site, and the closest thing I've found was this post which is different than what I'm struggling here to understand.

Well, let me show an example of what I mean: momentum. For me, defining the "quantity of motion" to be $p = mv$ is pretty obvious, the amount of motion should be proportional to how fast the thing is moving and how much thing that's making the movement. Position, velocity, acceleration, those all have obvious interpretations too. But what about work ?

I've already heard that "work is the amount of force that was used to make the movement", however, if that's the case, shouldn't we define work simply as the component of the force in the direction of movement ? Why do we multiply by distance ? In other words, how do we get a "feeling" of what's work intuitively so that the equation defining it simply states mathematically our intuition ?

Thanks very much in advance.

share|cite|improve this question
This post is a pretty good explanation of what work means. – Dan Mar 26 '13 at 23:14
Well, intuitively, the longer you apply a force the more work you have done: Lifting an object higher means you've done more work. – Lagerbaer Mar 26 '13 at 23:35
The statement: "work is the amount of force that was used to create the movement" is not really precise and possibly the source of the confusion. Work is the amount of energy used to create the movement. But you can think of calculating the work as like taking the amount of force applied at each point, and then summing them up for every point along the path. As Lagerbaer points out, you would expect a greater change in energy if you apply the force over a larger distance – Mark Mitchison Mar 26 '13 at 23:40
Yes. You multiply the force times the distance. The usual definition of work is "force times distance". Lift a 1-lb weight 1 foot off the floor, and you have done 1 ft-lb of work. Lift 100 lb 10 feet - 1000 ft-lb. Twice as much weight, twice as much work. Twice as much height, twice as much work. – Mike Dunlavey Mar 27 '13 at 0:14

If you want a lengthy-but-most-thorough answer, the link that Dan posted with his comment will help out a lot. However, since you're appealing to intuition (and I believe that training one's intuition is very important in learning physics) I'll try to give a simpler answer. I won't do quite as well, but here we go:

First, like it's been said, it's not correct to say that "work is the amount of force that was used to make the movement." Work is the amount of energy used to make the movement. To understand this intuitively, it sometimes helps to think about how the motion could move the object up—up a hill, for example. If something moves up against earth's gravity, it gains potential energy. As it moves down a hill, it can get that energy back. If you let a ball or a car roll down a hill, and then down another hill twice as high, it won't be going twice as fast at the bottom, only about 40% faster ($K_{\text{E}}=\frac12mv^2$; double the energy doesn't mean double the velocity). This isn't really a great example, but tying energy to gravitational potential energy could help your intuition swallow this.

Now why do we multiply by distance? Maybe you've had to push a car sometime in your life. I don't think that anything makes me more tired than running behind a car trying to push it along. Again, how tired you get pushing something is not a scientific quantity, but it might help you think about it another way. If you push a car that's stuck, it doesn't move. You've gone no distance, and even though there was a lot of force involved, you did no work, and the car doesn't move. Its momentum doesn't increase either, for that matter. Once you get it moving, you follow it along to get it up to speed, and it just kills your legs. But you're applying a force to an object as it moves over a certain distance. That's how we measure work.

Well, I'm sure that's not the best answer, but everyone has to train their intuition to understand this in their own way. I don't know if this is the way I understand it, but it might be a stepping-stone to it. Anyway, kudos to you for asking! I hope this helps.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.