Density training is a is a style of weight training with a focus on how much work can be done in a given time frame. Typical lifters will talk of density in terms of how much total weight they moved over a given session of lifting. To put numbers on it, if you performed 5 sets of 5 reps of 225lbs during a 30 minute bench press workout, you have moved a total of 5625lbs, resulting in a density of 187.5lbs/min.
When training with a focus on density, there are a number of ways to improve your numbers from session to session:
Reduce your rest times or otherwise speed up the work — doing the exact same 5x5x225 in 25 minutes rather than 30 gives us a density of 225lbs/min
Increase the reps per set — adding one rep to every set (5x6) increases our density to the same 225lbs/min
If you add a set, up to 6x5, but it took you 5 more minutes, the overall density would be 192.9lbs/min — a net gain from the initial 187.5!
Higher density means some aspect of your fitness is better than it was, and focusing on improving this density gives you multiple interesting ways to add meaningful progress to your training — reducing rest, increasing rep speed, increasing rep count, or increasing sets. You won’t need to calculate the density for each workout — unless you want to — because improving one variable while the rest remain the same is enough to know you’re better.
When you train with an eye toward density, you end up improving fitness modalities beyond just maximal strength. Increasing reps improves muscular endurance — the ability to do work for longer before tiring. Reducing rest improves your conditioning — that ability to continue to work while fatigued and to recover from that fatigue quickly. Increasing total weight moved in the same amount of time in the same amount of time often results in more hypertrophy — muscular size and mass. You get to cover strength, endurance, conditioning, and hypertrophy is one training style by modifying multiple variables! You can have you cake and eat it too (cake flavored whey, I mean).
Theory is well and good, but what about application? Instead of giving you my own thoughts, here’s some actual practical applications of density training written by fitness professionals:
Back in 2005, Charles Staley wrote a book called Muscle Logic. This book details a specific style of density training he calls Escalating Density Training, or EDT (see here or here for summaries). This style of density training pairs two non-overlapping exercises together, performed back to back with minimal rest for 15 or 20 minutes. You start with sets of 5 using a 10RM weight, and increase load based on how you perform from session to session.
Similarly, around 2002, a man named Bryce Lane wrote a 20 minute density training program often referred to as the “50/20 Method”. In this program, you perform a single large compound exercise for 20 minutes, aiming for a total of 50 reps in that period. You choose two big exercises and do each twice a week, for a total of four training days.
There was additionally a more recent variation on EDT by T-Nation author Derek Woodske that focuses on using EDT with lower repetitions for a more athletic focus. This one is a little more complex than the other two, but shows how the concept can be extended.
John Romaniello has some interesting ideas on using Density Training for Fat Loss. This program is different than the above three in that it focuses on circuits, and increasing the density between rounds of the circuit. I haven’t ever done this, but it seems novel and interesting.
Training in this style is not for everyone. If you have goals of being the strongest person in your gym, or competing in some event, or even simply losing weight, density training can nudge you toward those goals but you will eventually need more focused work to achieve what you want.
Instead, I believe that density training is perfect for the people with fluid or general fitness goals. You want to be “strong” but don’t have specific numbers for your deadlift you want to hit; you want to be “big” but don’t intend to compete or model; you want to be “fit” but don’t really know how to define that. Density training can give you some of the effects of strength training, body building, and endurance work all in one training method.
If you want to try it out, use one of the programs above, and give it 8-12 weeks before deciding if it’s for you or not.
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