Beyond Sets and Reps: Density Training (Including an Interview With Its Developer)

In progressive strength training, focusing on sets and reps is absolutely essential. And sets and reps could not be more important. When I first started chasing muscle as a young twenty-something back in the early 80’s, I did what the muscle magazines said that the bodybuilders did. On bench press, for example, they recommended a set of twelve reps with 135 lbs, then ten reps with 185, eight reps with 205 and six reps with 225. This is a standard pyramid for an intermediate lifter. Once I could handle 135 lbs fairly well I would try this pyramid. The first set would go well, but by the third rep of the second set (with 185 lb.) I was done. I would fail on the 4th rep of the second set. I’d get frustrated, wondering why I couldn’t do what the magazines said to do, so I’d rest a bit and try it again. I’d maybe get one additional rep. This kind of failure showed a tremendous lack of insight and humility. I paid no attention to how the weight felt or how the muscles felt or maybe what weight *I* should be lifting. I just wanted those sets and those reps at those weights like the magazine said.

Definitely worth $2.95

I eventually managed to get that pyramid but I spent a lot of time lost and frustrated as to why I couldn’t progress as quickly as I wanted. The problem was that I saw the people in the magazines that had muscle that I wanted and I saw the printed workout as a kind of recipe. It didn’t occur to me that that recipe might not work for most people or that it might take a very long time to even try it. Just about everything in weightlifting is oriented towards numbers. From the very beginning I focused on how many sets and how many reps I should do and what was a respectable number of pounds to be lifting.

Now I realize that sets and reps are really just measuring sticks or a place to start. When I chase sets and reps now, particularly totals that exceed my current abilities, I lose sight of what I’m actually trying to do and I begin to focus on numbers for their own sake. What I should have done to accomplish the pyramid described above without wasting time would have been to forget about the sets and reps and instead become very familiar with the weight itself. Become very good at lifting 135 lbs, or maybe even 100 lbs. Or 60. I never would have known at the time that this is what I should have done.

A Numbers Game
So much about body-weight calisthenics helps me get away, if temporarily, from the trappings of numeric goals. I’ve had enough time now to get good enough at push-ups and pull-ups and dips and squats to be able to handle a progressive workout, and so I don’t tend to make the same mistakes that I did decades ago with the weights. Nevertheless, from time to time I still find myself chasing numbers for their own sake. For example, I’ve thought many times that if I could do three sets of 25 chin-ups, I’d really be a superstar! A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to be able to do a set of 50 push-ups. And I eventually did. But you know what? The closer I got, the more I cheated. Form dropped off, pace increased, elbows were not locked, range of motion left much to be desired. If I’d seen a video of myself getting that set of 50, I would not have clicked the “like” button. And making it to 50 brought no magic with it. It’s not that I hadn’t accomplished something, it’s that I had lost sight of what I was really trying to do for the sake of an arbitrary number that seems impressive but really isn’t. Fifty push-ups is a warm-up for some and completely impossible for others. It doesn’t mean much.

20 reps, sure, but the form’s not good.

If I HAD made it to 50 push-ups with great rather than mediocre form, what would be next? 100? Then 200? Do I want to, at the age of 55, some day be able to do push-ups all day long, like Herschel Walker? I’d be strong, to be sure, but I think there might be a better use of time.

Breaking Free of the Numbers
Fortunately there is another way, and it’s called Density Training. With Density Training, sets and reps go out the window. In a nutshell, Density Training refers to the amount of work you do in a given span of time. While traditional strength training focuses on load (how much weight you use or how difficult the calisthenics exercise is) and volume (the numbers of sets and reps), this approach focuses on the density of the work, or how much work you can pack into a fixed amount of time.

Pick a span of time, say 10 minutes, and during that time do as many quality reps as you can of an exercise or two. Don’t worry about how many sets you do or how many reps in a set. Pre-ordained rest periods are also out the window because you rest only as long as you must in order to keep going. Only the final rep count really matters. With Escalating Density Training (EDT), in the next workout you either try to do more total reps in that same amount of time, or do the same number of reps in less time. Or you may try to do more difficult exercises for the same number of reps in the same amount of time. These are three different ways to increase density in a workout. The chart below, designed for weightlifting, shows how powerful increasing density can be.

This chart illustrates how you can do much more work with the same amount of weight. For calisthenics, you can substitute “exercise” for “weight”.

The first time I tried density training, I did push-ups for five minutes. Since I normally do sets of 30 or more reps of push-ups in a workout, I assumed I might be able to get 200 or so in five minutes. I got 94. EDT is intense.

What Is the History of EDT?
The concept of density training was developed by Charles Staley, who published a book on the subject called Muscle Logic in 2005. Given that 15 years is an eternity in Internet terms, I was disappointed at the lack of historical information available on density training and its impact on the strength training world. In an attempt to get some useful background for this article, and to understand the ideas leading up to the development of the concept, I emailed Charles Staley directly. He was kind enough to answer not only my questions about the context and history of EDT, but also how the concept has evolved and changed over the last fifteen years.

Charles Staley

Here is a summary of our email conversation:

Steve: I am writing a piece for my blog on applying escalating density training to body-weight calisthenics and wondered if I could ask you a few questions.  I primarily want to know what the context was for you conceiving of the idea and what kind of impact it had on the muscle building scene after the book was published.  Was it considered controversial?  Did you (do you) use it today?  Was there anything prior to your book similar to EDT?  Any other resources I could look at for some background on EDT?

Charles: In 2002, I first wrote about a training concept I had been developing, called “Escalating Density Training” (EDT) ( https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/escalating-density-training). Instead of utilizing more conventional forms of progression focused on gradually increasing intensity or volume, the hallmark of EDT was its focus on increasing the density (work/rest ratio) of each training session.

Charles: Taking a 30,000 ft view, the underlying principles if EDT were borrowed from time-management and personal-productivity literature: since ultimately, fitness is the result of the work you perform (both the difficulty and the amount), any tactic designed to improve work output applies quite well to resistance training. For the unfamiliar here are the crib notes on EDT:

  1. Workouts consist of between 1-2 15-minute work sessions where the lifter seeks to accumulate as many total reps as possible with 2 “antagonistic” or opposing exercises (examples include bicep/tricep, upper body drill/lower body drill, etc).
  2. In order to accomplish the above, the lifter identifies or approximates a 10RM load for each exercise, and starts out performing not sets of 10 (which quickly elevates fatigue, reducing the overall performance), but sets of 5, initially moving back and forth between exercises. As time elapses, the lifter gradually shifts from sets of 5 to 4’s, 3’s and so on, while simultaneously increasing rests between sets, to offset the accumulation of fatigue.
  3. When the 15 minutes is up, total reps are counted, and the next time these 2 exercises are repeated, the goal is to improve upon that number.

Charles: EDT quickly grew in popularity, but it had shortcomings, which include:

  1. The “rules” of EDT are simple, but require making intuitive judgements about when to lower reps, how long to rest between sets, etc.
  2. Reaching high levels of fatigue on relatively technical movements like squats, deads, etc., can be risky,
  3. EDT can be tricky to implement in busy gym settings.
  4. Metabolite training (which EDT is a form of) tends to lead to adaptive resistance after 4-6 weeks.

How EDT Has Evolved:
Charles: These days, my default training approach is known as “Primary Pattern Programming” (PPP) ( https://www.t-nation.com/training/the-primary-pattern-workout-plan ). Unlike EDT, which is mainly focused on loading organization, PPP is mostly a method of populating workouts with the smallest number of exercises that train the most muscular topography, with minimal redundancy. In its current form, PPP utilizes 4 “compulsory” exercises per session, each representing one of the following four “primary” patterns:
Squat: (Knee/quad-focused)
• Upper-body push
Hinge: (Hip/glute/hamstring-focused)
• Upper-body pull.

Charles: In addition to the 4 compulsories, PPP also allows for up to 2 “optional” movements per workout, to allow the lifter to customize the program to individual needs, and also to provide a place for exercises that don’t easily fit into the 4 primary pattern categories (ex: Olympic lifts, famers walks, etc.)

Charles: Conveniently, PPP can be paired with almost any type of loading scheme, including EDT. It’s strength that it provides structure while still allowing for maximum flexibility.

Charles: Despite the fact that most of my training today is based on PPP, ETD continues to have great value for lifters, especially those who are:

  1. Time-starved
  2. Focused on work capacity, fat-loss, and/or anaerobic endurance
  3. Looking for a change to their usual training routine.

Charles: I urge lifters to avoid fixating on the specifics of either system, but instead look deeper to understand the underlying principles of both, which include:

  1. Emphasizing work output, not the pain that is often associated with it.
  2. Focusing on fatigue management rather than fatigue acquisition.
  3. Prioritizing progressive overload, and ensure that all training decisions are based on facilitating a continuous increase in intensity, volume, and density.

Here’s a link to Charles Staley articles.

EDT in Body-Weight Calisthenics
Whether it is intended or not, whenever you see calisthenics gods and godesses attempting to perform a certain number of push-ups and pull-ups in a short period of time, then you know that the concept of EDT is alive and well in the city parks, in gyms, and in basements around the world. Probably the most iconic example is the 5MD, developed by the great Zef Zakaveli of the Bar-Barians. The 5MD is the “five minute drill”, which is 50 pull-ups and 100 push-ups in five minutes. It’s a killer. I’ve tried it twice and never gotten below 7:30.

Here’s one of my favorites:

What Does EDT Do?
EDT may seem like a simple, temporary break from standard sets and reps dogma, like a free-for-all or a cheat meal, but it is actually much more than that. Rather than asking your muscles to move heavier loads or do more difficult things, you are asking your muscles to work harder with the same load or exercise difficulty because your muscles are performing this work under increasing fatigue, like a runner trying to beat her time in mile. This happens with a standard sets-and-reps workout as well, but density training accelerates and compacts the process. By adapting and doing more work with successive workouts, you are able to accumulate a lot of volume in a small amount of time, which is a magic formula for hypertrophy. It is widely believed that “time under tension” is the key to muscle growth, and EDT is a superior way to increase time under tension, even if you don’t have much time.

How to Apply EDT to Your Body-Weight Calisthenics Workouts
Choose antagonistic exercises such as push-ups and rows, dips and pull-ups, squats and bridges. Let’s go with push-ups and rows. For simplicity sake, let’s say your maximum on each is twenty reps. For fifteen minutes, do sets of ten reps, alternating between each exercise. You will likely fatigue pretty quickly so you will want to manage your time and remaining energy. After each completed couplet of push-ups and rows, write down the number of reps for each. You will likely need to decrease the number of reps per “set” as you go along. At the end of the fifteen minutes you will be exhausted and you will have an incredible pump. Make sure you note the date and total reps for each exercise so you know what to try and beat the next time you try this workout.

Here are some other possible exercise pairings: body-weight curls and body-weight tricep extensions, knee-raises and drinking bird, split squats and table bridges, pike push-ups and chin-ups, pistol squats and candlestick bridges.

One day I intend to complete the 5MD. When I finally do, I’ll probably be the oldest person who’s done it!

Published by FormIsEverything

Primal health and fitness coach http://www.formiseverything.com

One thought on “Beyond Sets and Reps: Density Training (Including an Interview With Its Developer)

  1. This is something I’ve tried before and always enjoyed but like most people, I went back to the standard reps and sets routines. It’s reminded me of an early video by Matt on red delta project where he talks about having as many different workout ideas as possible to keep the workouts fun and interesting. The key was the exercises stay the same so you consistently hit pull-ups, dips, squats etc but rotate through different workout methods. Of course by keeping a log you can still keep track of your progress so it’s not just random. I think I might give that a go as I feel my routine is taking a bit too long and a bit too much mental energy these days. Short and sweet is what I need at the moment. Thanks for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: