I’m all about efficiency. Why go to the gym for 7-10 hours a week when I can get the same results in 4-5 hours a week? Yes, I love hitting the gym. But, I also love life outside of the gym. People who warrant spending endless hours in the gym sacrificing their’ social lives in the quest for ultimate gains never made sense to me.
With that in mind, it has been my quest to discover the most effective workout techniques to maximize efficiency without sacrificing results. Density Training is a major factor in optimizing my, as well as my clients’, training programs.
What Is Density Training?
A Density Training program is very similar to traditional circuit training. Circuit training revolves around maximal volume in minimal time to lessen the duration of each workout. Again, it’s about efficiency. Circuit are usually based on a certain time frame and/or you complete a list of movements for a specific amount of sets and reps.
However, a Density Training workout is more focused on improving aesthetics and performance in the gym. Circuits tend to be used by beginners who don’t lift heavy weights and are only after the cardiovascular workout. We flip that and make sure that we are reaping the benefits of weight training and just enjoying the extra cardio boost as a little bonus. With density work, we are trying to maximize results, like: stimulating maximal muscle hypertrophy, increasing strength, increasing endurance, and eliciting positive changes from minimal time.
There is a general consensus that circuit training is not for those who are looking to get strong or gain muscle. Instead, they only see circuit and/or density programs as a conditioning tool and a calorie burning boost. While traditional circuit training may follow these rules, Density Training is more in-depth and can prove to be very effective for all training modalities when performed correctly. I’ll get into this a little later.
Escalating Density Training – The Beginning
The strength coach Charles Staley wrote the book on Escalating Density Training, literally (check out the book here). With this method, you are told to forget about sets and reps per set. Instead, he wants you to focus solely on the total amount of reps that you get done for the workout. You pick a couple of exercises and bang out reps of each back to back, avoiding failure to ensure that you need little to no rest between movements. That way, you are maximizing the total amount of reps you can get in a workout.
Escalating Density Training workouts are all based on time. You set a timer and get to work. The progression of the program is based on getting more reps every time you repeat the same workout for the same time frame. You might start out hitting 5 reps per “set”. As you get a little tired, you avoid failure by going down to 4 reps per set, then 3, etc. Antagonist movements are paired together to allow each muscle group to recover while the other muscle group is workout (think chest press paired with seated rows).
This program will definitely elicit positive changes for hypertrophy and endurance. Your heart rate will be elevated for the entire time block. However, you know I like to focus on performance just as much as I like to focus on physique development. So, where is the strength-focused work?. What about speed and power work? Escalated Density Training doesn’t mention these much because this type of layout is counterproductive for these goals. As you fatigue more and more, the less weight you’ll move and the less explosive you will be. Obviously, I need to make a few changes to ensure that density work can improve strength work!
Strength Training Circuits
Again, I mentioned that normal circuit workouts ignore developing maximal strength. So, throwing strength training and circuits in the same sentence seems dumb, let alone thinking they can actually work together in real life! It’s true, most circuits are terrible for strength development. Even EDT can’t effectively develop maximal strength if you are going quickly. But, don’t let that make you think that no circuit layout will allow you to gain strength!
A recent study shows that performing strength training in a circuit fashion with a little bit of rest between exercises can elicit the same strength gains as the traditional layout of “do a set, and rest 3 minutes before the next one” . Not only that, but heart rate was increased more throughout the workout, meaning positive changes on aerobic endurance and more calories burnt!
One way you can put this information to use with density work is pick two antagonist movements, like with EDT, and use traditional strength training loads and reps and perform jump sets. A jump set is when you do a set of movement 1, rest a specific interval, lets say half of the normal 3 minute recommendation, and perform a set of movement 2, rest with the same interval, and repeat!
That’s one way, but it’s not my favorite way. I’ve tried it and when you are past the beginner stage, it is beyond draining! By your last few sets, you aren’t lifting nearly what you should be, regardless of the study referenced above. Instead, I implement the Max Effort and Dynamic Effort methodology created by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell.
Max Effort is normal strength training to increase maximal strength. Dynamic Effort is much lighter, with loads around 40-60% of your 1RM, for about 8-10 sets of only 1-3 reps lifted with in the quickest way possible. This is to develop speed/speed-strength. Throw in some plyometrics at the beginning of your workout and you are dominating the Power-Speed-Strength spectrum!
My favorite way to implement this is to combine Max Effort and Dynamic Effort with EMOM (every minute on the minute) density work. I’ll use Squats and Deadlifts as an example. You’ll need a timer because you are going to start sets at the beginning of every minute and use the rest of each minute to rest. Set one would be M.E. Squats, sets two and three would be D.E. Deadlifts.
D.E. work requires much less rest time so two minutes back to back is no big deal. This allows your rest time between Squat sets to be around 2.5 minutes, depending on how long the set of Squats took you to complete. This ignores the effort you put into the D.E. sets affecting your strength for the next M.E. set, but the rest between each of them makes up for it.
Density Training Workouts & Hypertrophy
Most people believe that you have to be lifting in the 6-12 rep range if you want to maximize hypertrophy. This has led bodybuilders to ignore other rep ranges in pursuit of maximal muscle, which is their most important goal. While this is effective, it is not inherently more effective than other rep ranges, given that you are training to failure!
A study completed this year (2016) shows that low weights/high reps and high weights/low reps are just as effective at producing hypertrophy, given that the trainee is going to failure . This doesn’t mean that you should avoid the 8-12 rep range though. You are still training strength-endurance with reps in this range, which is important if you are all about total performance in the gym.
My favorite way to bang out the strength-endurance work is to set up an EMOM for one movement. Lets say you want to hit Lat Pulldown. Set a timer and do a set every minute for 9 reps. On your last set, make sure you are hitting failure. No need to hit failure on every set though.
Another set up that can work just as well is hitting a timed density round, like an EDT, for 2-3 movements. Instead of ignoring the amount of reps per set, we need to make sure that we stay within the 6-12 rep range to elicit positive strength-endurance benefits. You can even run a reverse pyramid like EDT. However, on the last set for each movement, go to failure! Muscle adaptations have been shown to be just as effective with supersetting movements compared to straight sets .
Improving Muscular Endurance
I love working on muscular endurance with calisthenics. I don’t really have any reason to do this. I just like to do it. What’s life without having some quirks? Bodyweight work might not be very effective for building strength (at least when you get stronger than your body weight). However, it can be awesome to hit 20+ reps of unassisted pull ups! That’s really why I like implementing calisthenics for muscular endurance work.
Remember, hypertrophy is effectively induced when you are training to failure, regardless of what rep ranges you are using. So, don’t think of muscular endurance as a lesser goal, which most people do. Just think of it as another way to improve your aesthetics and impress people with pull ups, push ups, and pistol squats. We want to work with around 15-25 reps per set, which is generally believed to be the most effective for increasing muscular endurance.
I actually think that CrossFit has a lot of WODs that cater to improving muscular endurance with density work. If you look at the popular 21-18-15-12-9-6 layout that they like to use for WODs, the first half of that workout will be great for a density round and muscular endurance. If you are really into CrossFit you can use the common movements too. However, no kipping pull ups! 🙂
Improving Cardiovascular Endurance
Something that doesn’t usually link up is increasing your aerobic endurance with weight training. With our density training layout, you are getting cardiovascular benefits from each phase. Recall the strength training study using jump sets showed that aerobic endurance (and fat loss) was increased compared to traditional strength training.
Also, the supersetting study showed similar benefits for endurance. So, not only are you developing your abilities on the strength-muscular endurance spectrum, you are getting what is basically a 2nd cardio workout within the weight training. It is very similar to HIIT when you look at the layout. Complete a set that takes about 20 seconds and then rest for about 40 seconds and repeat. Regardless of the exercise completed, that is essentially how HIIT works.
In my experience with this type of training, clients and myself included, the first thing that will hold you back is your cardio. If you are out of shape, you won’t be able to do these workouts to the full ability. Many people throw up one the first or second session, simply because of the cardiovascular work being just as intense as the weight training. Soon, this equals out and you will find that your heart doesn’t raise quite as much throughout the workout, showing the improvement with your aerobic endurance.
Density Training Routines
With our Optimal Physique & Performance Training (OPPT), density work is used for the majority of the program. I use some form of density training in every single program that we use in our training studio, as well as in online coaching clients’ programs.
Unless you have a specific reason to specialize in a certain training type, you should be developing everything in the spectrum. We have already shown that training to failure results in hypertrophy, regardless of the rep range. So, saying that certain work isn’t conductive to your end goals doesn’t apply if aesthetics are in your goals. Even if your main goal is overall strength, endurance work shouldn’t be avoided. Specialists include Powerlifters, Strongman Competitors, Olympic Lifters, etc.
Some programs will have more density work than others. For example, if you frequent a packed gym where equipment is crowded, your density work will suffer. Most density training involves multiple equipment necessities. You can work with one pair of dumbbells with a properly planned program, but some things will suffer. For example, if you are doing Squats and Deadlifts with the Westside template like I talked about earlier, you may have a problem reserving two barbells and plates for yourself.
That is a huge reason why I love the idea of having a home gym. You don’t need state of the art equipment and a huge area. If you have a barbell, weight plates, and a power rack+bench, you can complete a lot of the workouts in your own house! I hate waiting for equipment and always have. My whole life I’ve either trained in my home gym or my private personal training studio – I’ve never owned a gym membership.
The Perfect Body Recomposition Set Up
Body recomposition is the ever-elusive goal of building muscle and burning fat at the same time. While this is very hard to accomplish naturally, it can be done. I’ve seen it with many of my clients, and myself. Proper training and nutritional strategies have to be in place. One of these is very intense training that burns a lot of calories/fat to improve the ability to gain muscle and lose fat. Density training is the perfect example of maximal calorie burn per workout. Cardio and weight training together makes for a fat burning machine!
However, don’t confuse that last statement. Lifting light weights and having no rest at all is just like a traditional circuit, which is not good for body recomposition. To improve your muscle building ability, you need progressive overload in your workouts. With our strength training circuits and failure training throughout the spectrum, you allow for easy tracking and adding more weight next time you do the same workout. Always be looking for performance improvements, it’s not just about aesthetics all the time!
With OPPT, density training, nutritional strategies, optimal recovery, and more are used together to ensure that you have the best chance at body recomposition. Many people think body recomposition isn’t possible, but it really is. It just takes work and the proper planning and implementation of many steps. Results come slowly but amount to significance over time, which usually compare well with someone who goes through the traditional bulk-cut cycle.
Obviously, “enhanced” lifters will achieve body recomposition much easier, almost regardless of their training protocols.
It’s All About Efficiency
I’m all about efficiency guys! I hate wasting time, and I hate seeing others waste time getting similar results as my trainees in twice the time put in. Would you rather meet your goal in 5 months or 10? That’s a simple question, right? The same goes for this: why spend two hours in the gym doing what can be done in one hour?
Density training programs are very hard and intense. Some people can’t handle them very well. If that someone is you, you can still optimize your programming with more traditional methods. They won’t be as efficient, but they can be just as effective. But, don’t think doing straight sets all the time is the only answer!
If you are interested in a custom density training program, make sure you check out our online fitness coaching program. You’ll get an awesome OPPT based program suited specifically for you!
So, are you ready to try Density Training? Have you already tried it? What was your experience? Let us know with a comment below and don’t forget to share this article on Facebook and Twitter if you enjoyed the read!
 – Alcaraz, P. E., Sánchez-Lorente, J., & Blazevich, A. J. (2008). Physical performance and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of heavy resistance circuit training versus traditional strength training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(3), 667-671.
 – Morton, R. W., Oikawa, S. Y., Wavell, C. G., Mazara, N., McGlory, C., Quadrilatero, J., … & Phillips, S. M. (2016). Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of Applied Physiology, jap-00154.
 – White, J. B. (2011). Effects of Supersets Versus Traditional Strength Training Methods on Muscle Adaptations, Recovery, and Selected Anthropometric Measures (Doctoral dissertation, Ohio University).