December 22, 2013

The Most Practical And Effective Way Of Escalating Density For Maximum Results

It’s no secret that if you want to make any sort of progress in the gym, you have to push your body beyond its limits to promote the desired adaptations (while providing it with the necessary nutrients, hydration, and rest as well) to occur.

Traditionally this is done with a program in which the loading parameters are adjusted accordingly, based on ones goal. However, the typical, but extremely effective, alternation of accumulative phases with intensive phases can become rather redundant over time. This is especially true for those who have been hammering away at the iron for multiple years on end, leading to a drop in motivation to get in there and hit it as hard as possible. Thankfully, like pretty much everything else in life, there is more than one way to arrive at a given destination and get a desired result.

Challenge Yourself

Most people have very limited views in terms of how to challenge themselves to prompt their body to progress. Those views are generally limited to either increasing the weight, or increasing the reps, sometimes as often as each and every workout. While those are both effective, and logical variables in which one should attempt to make improvements, there comes a time when trying to make even the slightest increases in either of those variables becomes less and less possible. After all, if you could continue to increase the amount of weight you lifted, or the amount of reps you could perform with a given weight, each and every workout, you’re probably already as big and strong as you could ever want to be, and wouldn’t be browsing online to find other ways to continue making progress, as that would be a total waste of time that could be spent lifting heavier weights than ever, for more reps than ever.

For those looking for ways to break away from the norm (ex. 2-4 exercises, 3-4 sets, 6-12 reps), and possibly add a different dimension to their training repertoire, density work may be for you.

Load, Volume, and Density

Most are aware of the inverse relationship between the amount of weight that can be lifted, and the amount of times it can be lifted. The heavier the weight, relative to ones strength levels, the less repetitions that can be performed without rest, and if you were only to perform near maximal attempts, you’d likely fail to provide the muscles with the mechanical stimulus, and muscle fiber fatigue needed, to initiate the cell signalling response for growth. However, to maximally recruit as many motor units as possible, and increase strength levels, which also enables you to use heavier weights when performing higher rep sets, heavy weights are necessary.

Many coaches and resources suggest that it’s the overall volume, or workload, which is the greatest influential factor to the adaptive response from training. This means that the amount of work performed, irrespective of how it’s performed, outweighs pretty much all other variables. This is why one of the most popular ways to improve your numbers at movements like bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, or crunches, are to perform a set here and there throughout the day, as the overall volume at the end of the week is likely to trump the amount of volume you would expose the intended muscles to in a single training session.

For example, if you were to lift 90% (or above) of your 1 rep max (which many believe to be the magic number when it comes to strength development, and happens to equate to roughly a 3 rep max for most) for a total of 10 reps, that it doesn’t matter how you get those ten reps, as long as you get them. This would suggest that 3 sets of 3 with a final set of 1, or 5 sets of 2, or even 10 sets of 1, would all produce nearly identical results.

The only variable that would accurately quantify progression between any of the possible set and rep protocols would then be, time. If 10 reps at 90% of maximum took an individual 10 minutes to perform, but the next time 9 minutes to perform, it would be safe to suggest that performing the same amount of work in less time, means one is in better shape (use that term how you like – stronger, fitter, etc), or has a greater work capacity.

This leads to what is called workout density. The less time it takes to perform a given amount of work, the denser the workout, or workload, is. This is where lifters who have come close to maxing out their strength capacity can add variety to their training in a very progressive way. Basically, those who are as strong as they will likely be given their current bodyweight, but still want to challenge themselves in a positive way, may want to start paying attention to the clock when in the gym.

Escalating Density Training – EDT

Just over a decade ago, a trainer by the name of Charles Staley popularized the idea that, as long as one is able to lift the same weight for more reps in a given amount of time with each successive workout, they are making progress by increasing their workout capacity. He appropriately termed this type of training ‘Escalating Density Training’. Since its inception into the strength training community, many have tried to reinvent the wheel per se, and come up with their own way of escalating the density of their training.

While escalating density training is not something I’m going to try to take credit for, I do want to provide some blueprints that adhere to the same principles in that, as long as more work is done per unit of time, progress is apparent.


The original EDT protocol called for 10-20 minute intervals, in which 2 antagonistic exercises were performed back to back, until time elapsed. The prescribed weight was ones 10-12 rep max, but sets were to be terminated after performing roughly half as many reps as was thought to be possible. This was to reduce fatigue from becoming a limiting factor in the later minutes of the interval. Anyone who’s ever started a workout with a balls-to-the-wall first set knows firsthand, that the rest of the workout is pretty much shot if you do so (try performing as many pull ups as you can and then matching it on your next set to see what I mean). The protocol was to be performed for 2 series of movements.

A1 – Bench Press, 20 minutes
A2 – Pull Ups, 20 minutes
B1 – Incline Press, 15 minutes
B2 Barbell Rows, 15 minutes
*C, C1, C2, D, E, etc – option to perform additional work should you choose to with a more traditional 3 sets of 8-10 parameter, or whatever appeals to you most

At the completion of the workout the reps were counted as a grand total, and as soon as you could beat your baseline number by roughly 20%, the weight was to be increased by roughly 5%.

A Slight, But Intense, Modification

While the traditional EDT protocol paid little attention to sets and reps, a modification of EDT that you could make would be to limit your reps per set, but reduce your rest time between sets from workout to workout.

A – Squat
B – Leg Press

For this workout you could use the same 10-20 minute intervals, whichever suits your needs best, and perform a set of a given number of reps (for example 3 reps with a 6 rep max) with only 45 seconds of rest between attempts. With each progressive workout, instead of trying to beat your rep total, you are trying to beat your time total by reducing the rest time from workout to workout.

Week 1 – 45 seconds rest
Week 2 – 37 seconds rest
Week 3 – 30 seconds rest

*Yes, that does say THIRTY SEVEN SECONDS of rest! I’ll add that when you are serious about your results, you will pay attention to the littlest details to ensure every second of your allotted time is maximized. The template above however is just an example, and the numbers can easily be modified to your goals.

Also worth noting is that you may also need to reduce the amount of weight you are using in direct proportion to the reduction in rest intervals, should you choose to reduce your rest intervals dramatically.

Week 1 – 75%
Week 2 – 70%
Week 3 – 65%

Should you choose to perform full body workouts for either of the EDT options above, you may also want to reduce the intensity from the first training day of the week, to the last, as systemic muscular, as well as neurological, fatigue, is likely accumulate and increase the risk of injury, or lead to overtraining.

Day 1 – 75%
Day 2 – 70%
Day 3 – 65%

Who EDT, And Its Variations, Are Best Suited For

EDT, and the endless variations of EDT, are effective for those with minimal training experience, as well as seasoned veterans. While those with minimal training experience are likely to progress with nearly any training program, EDT and its variations offer the less experienced lifter a chance to expose their neuromuscular system to higher volumes of work than traditional set and rep protocols, simply because fatigue has much more pronounced effects on beginners than those who’s muscles are used to high levels of tension for prolonged periods of time. With a lifter who lacks training experience, the traditional 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps could tire an individual out to the point that, to get the desired number of reps on the later sets, a dramatic reduction in weight, to the point where it is not all that significant at all, may be necessary. With EDT, because you are terminating the set at the perceived halfway point, gas is left in the tank, and the overall volume with greater intensities is preserved.

The seasoned vet could easily benefit from EDT, in that, the more training experience one has, the less progress they are likely to make each and every year. For example, one may easily double or triple their strength gains well within their first year of training. But each and every year after that the increases are smaller and smaller, as a human body is only capable of getting so strong. So for those who have pretty maxed out their strength limits, and have been hovering around the same levels of strength for quite some time, attempting to perform more work with the amount of strength you have now, may be a new way to stimulate your body to further development.

Implementing Density Work In To Your Current Routine

While following the same parameters for the entire body is likely the most effective way to go, as the body will have little guessing as to which strength quality you want it to adapt to, sometimes integrating different types of training with what you are currently doing can be mentally stimulating, as well as more practical given the environment.

For example, those who have likely maxed out a given machine that they like to use, but are no longer benefitting from because they are ‘too strong’ for it, can benefit from using density work to increase the difficulty of the movement, and promote further positive adaptations. A good example of how this can be practically applied is with the leg press machine.

Most leg press machines in commercial gyms fail to provide an advanced lifter with a long enough lever, or enough levers, to add enough weight to fail within the traditional strength and hypertrophy rep ranges. Given that most commercial leg presses hold roughly 10 plates a side, and the only way to increase the weight is to have a partner sit on the machine (which is prohibited in most gyms), or load a barbell across the top with additional plates (which is not all that safe given that there’s a reason the machine only has a lever long enough to hold a certain amount of plates), performing the exercise with a density protocol may be in ones best interest.

In this case, instead of performing a given amount of reps for a given amount of sets, you could set a timer and perform as many reps as you can within that time frame, and try to beat it next time. OR, you could select a predetermined amount of repetitions that you would like to be able to perform with the amount of weight of your choice, and try to get them all done as fast as possible, and try to beat your time next time. Using the leg press as an example:

Stack the leg press and perform as many reps as you can in 8 minutes
Stack the leg press and perform 50 reps in as short a time as possible
*Any machine, or even free weight exercise that you are having trouble increasing the weight in, can be performed in this manner, and can be implemented into your current routine easily.

The Sweet Spot

If you look at the set and rep schemes of those who train for strength, you’ll notice that more often than not, the total reps of a primary exercise falls in the 20-30 rep range.

5 X 5 = 25
6 X 4 or 4 X 6 = 24
8 X3 = 24
10 X 2 or 3 = 20 or 30

Using density as a manner of quantifying progression, one could also select a given weight that resembles anywhere between a 5-7 rep max, and aim for 25 total reps in as little sets as possible. Once you can perform 2 or more reps on your first set, or get to the grand total in one less set, you’ve earned the right to increase the weight the next time out.

For example, if week 1 you get – 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 = 25, and in week 2 you get – 9, 6, 5, 5 = 25, you would be inclined to increase the weight because you beat your first set total by 2, and also completed the desired rep total in one less set (which is not all that likely, but is possible. Had you only done one of the two, you it would still be suggested that you increase the weight the next time out).

The Benefits

The major benefit to this type of training is that, using a set weight is one of the best ways that can be thought of to get better at handling a specific poundage. Because you are constantly exposing the neuromuscular system to a specific poundage, the high volume of high quality work will translate into positive strength gains. A milestone for many beginners in the gym is to bench press a plate (or 2, or 3) for a given number of reps, but if you get into the gym and bust out a set of as many reps as you can with your goal weight, assuming your goal weight is challenging for you, it’s not likely that you will be able to replicate that many more times throughout the workout. But if you were to hold back, and aim at increasing the overall volume in which you expose your brain and muscles to that weight, you may find yourself moving faster towards your destination than you presently are.

If you have any questions about how you can implement escalating density principles outlined throughout this article into a routine, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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