Escalating Density Training
by Derek Woodske T-Nation
Middling strength coaches tend to get married to certain training methodologies. The reasoning is simple: they experience some success with a tool or technique and then decide that it's The Best Way For Everyone to train.
Throw in the allure of being branded as "The Kettlebell Expert" or the "Super Slow Training Guru" and you wind up with an industry full of pseudo-specialists but no real expertise.
It doesn't have to be this way, and I can tell you first hand that real strength coaches – the kind that get their contracts renewed every year based on how well their athletes perform – don't pledge an allegiance to any particular training philosophy.
Instead, good athletic coaches are driven purely by results – and if an old school or "outdated" training modality is determined to be the best tool to achieve the desired outcome, then it's the tool of choice, period.
So there's no "one" perfect system for developing athletic performance. It's not like training for bodybuilding where all you need to do is Crush, Eat, Rest, and Repeat, until you reach your genetic threshold. Sports performance is as unique to the person as it is to the sport they play.
Even today I'm always working and playing with variations of old but effective ideas to try to squeeze a little more out of them, which is how the crux of this article, this variation of Escalating Density Training, came about.
Popularized by Charles Staley in T Nation over a decade ago, Escalating Density Training (EDT) can best be summed up as doing more work in a set amount of time.
Generally, each workout consisted of two 20-minute time frames separated by a short (5-10 minute) rest period. In each time frame, trainees performed two exercises for a total of 4 exercises per workout. The two exercises were performed in alternating fashion, back and forth, until the time frame had elapsed.
Staley's original exercise recommendations were slanted decidedly towards the everyday hypertrophy-seeking trainee (cable curls, Hammer presses), so it would stand to reason that strength athletes and their coaches should thumb their noses at it. Not so.
This article will show how EDT can be modified to suit the needs of the time-pressed strength athlete seeking an effective change of pace.
But first, to assuage your fears that I'm yet another online strength guru with a gimmicky patent-pending product or training system to hock, a little about me.
I was a thrower at the University of Wyoming for three years following a two-year stint at North Idaho College under perhaps one of the best coaches in the country, Bryan "Bud" Rasmussen.
I had a successful collegiate career both on the field – I threw for Team Canada and set the men's hammer record at 73.79 meters, which at the time ranked me #1 in the world indoors – and in the weight room, squatting 700 pounds and power cleaning 386 before a ruptured patellar tendon ended my athletic career. Or so I thought.
In the fall of 2002 I got a call from Jud Logan, Ashland University Head Coach. He had a small assistant strength coach job that paid less than the taxable minimum but would allow me to train again full-time for the Hammer throw with AG Kruger, a current three-time Olympian for the USA.
It also meant working with a program that produced more All-Americans and National champions in track and field than any other school in the Midwest. I sat there holding my archaic cell phone in my hands and let out a soft "**** yeah."
It was the single most important step that I've taken in my career. For the next four years my knowledge of strength went into hyper drive, meeting and working with incredible people from all walks of strength – powerlifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, and martial arts.
Thanks to Jud I interviewed Charles Poliquin and met Buddy Morris, Dave Tate, and Jim Wendler. I was able to coach for the Cleveland Browns under the mentorship of Head S&C Tom Myslinski, and eventually rose to my current role as master course conductor for the Poliquin Strength Institute in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, a position that puts me in eight to twelve countries a year and in front of more then 1500 passionate students from around the world.
Jud taught me how to squat over 600 pounds again and break a Canadian national record (twice) and stay injury free. He also taught me that there's no "best system" – just effective additions and alterations that you can add to what you're doing – and if you start to believe the dogmatic propaganda, you'll be screwed quicker then a two-dollar hooker during shore leave.
Under Jud I developed as an Olympic lifter, but we also used single-joint isolation and traditional powerlifting systems. During phases of the year unrelated to competing, our workouts even had a healthy dose of Crossfit variation, long before Crossfit exploded. (Back then we just called it "off-season.")
As we moved linearly towards our goals, Poliquin-influenced remedial work would progress into Louie Simmons-influenced maximal strength cycles with a touch of Staley's EDT – yes, EDT, which brings us back to a very effective variation of an old training system.
The EDT for Athletes Program
Due to career demands I was becoming increasingly pressed for time and needed to get the biggest bang for my buck in the weight room.
I had a period of three weeks where I could only train three sessions per week. Some would argue that I should've just went on "maintenance mode" and held off on trying to make gains until my schedule relaxed, but I had other plans. Despite the limited training time, I wanted to improve my anaerobic work capacity while still getting stronger.
To accomplish this, I took the concept of "density training" and made some subtle changes that would allow me to get very large amounts of specific volume in a few key areas while still staying under 60 minutes per session for the most part.
What To Expect
Although three weeks is not a long time, this intensive pattern program will deliver a substantial increase in work capacity and hypertrophy, provided you bring your balls to the gym and put the work in.
In my case, my quads grew a solid inch in three weeks. Certainly part of that growth was simple muscle memory, but now I can also crush maximal strength workouts that just a few months ago made me feel labored.
That's a pleasant side benefit but not totally unexpected – an increased work capacity and mitochondrial proliferation will always result in higher performance.
The EDT For Athletes Breakdown
Much of my training is influenced by efficiency and time. That's why I'm such a huge fan of Wendler's 5/3/1 or Poliquin's GVT for Athletes.
So when putting together this program I broke things up according to the "movements" instead of the specific body parts that I wanted to emphasize, and in doing so kept things rather simple.
I had one squat variation, one press variation, and one pull variation per session.
I started every session with a short period of dynamic or anaerobic capacity work.
I ended every session with core training or stretching.
Next, I set up my days using three different time frames and three different intensity brackets. I also used variations of movement patterns and aligned the week to evoke decreasing levels of CNS involvement as the week progressed.
This let me maintain weekly volume per week without having to do a large amount of volume per set. It also allowed me to maintain intensity (meaning percentage of RM) during the early part of the week, while inducing anaerobic capacity systemically and promoting hypertrophy during the latter phases of the week.
As complicated as it all sounds, do I think I invented something new? **** that – there hasn't been an original idea since Milo of Croton started packing the bull. I just took good ideas that were already well established and applied them to a body that's trained very hard for the better part of 21 years.
The hallmark of Staley's EDT is doing more work – total reps – than the previous workout in a fixed amount of time. This forces you to forget all the extraneous data and focus on the progressive part of the progressive overload model of hypertrophy, namely beating last week's numbers.
This particular model takes a different spin. Instead of chasing more reps in a given time, the reps are fixed – just 2 – but the rest intervals are reduced each week, forcing more sets be performed in the allotted training time and increasing the athlete's anaerobic work capacity.
Since this program has athletes in mind, I called upon my heavy Olympic and sports background and broke the week up into multiple exposures split between heavy, medium, and light workouts.
Part of the reason is to establish volume over the course of the week or month in terms of total tonnage without having to always do a lot of reps per set or depending on one session a week. I'm a big believer that, like sport, the body responds very well to exposure in a given stimulus.
As an aside, I've found that, regardless of having had three knee surgeries, I can squat more than once a week, even heavy, if I change the pattern of movement every session and keep the volume per set low.
So here's my 3-week template.
Simply do 2 reps of movement A, rest the prescribed time, and repeat until your 10 minutes are up. Then proceed to the next movement. The following week, your rest periods will be reduced, thereby ensuring more work in less time.
Give it a run if you have a time-compressed schedule (and still want to make gains) or just want to try something new. I would alternate between this and a more "traditional" 4-5 day a week schedule.
* With this exercise you have to estimate your 1RM with added weight, so week 3, if you could do bodyweight (220 pounds) + 90 pounds, that equals 310 pounds. Sixty five percent of that equals 201 pounds. However, this is lower than your bodyweight, so just use bodyweight with no additions until you get stronger. Only add weight if the percentage calls for it.
You can change the exercises, but due to the short (and rigid) rest intervals I wouldn't recommend the more complex movement patterns like snatches or cleans. Still, there's a lot of room for user discretion and variation.
Once you've decided on an exercise, however, don't change it midway through (switching from high bar squats in week 1 to trap-bar deadlifts in week 2).
The sprints can easily be replaced with the Prowler, Concept2 rower, stairs, or weighted sled – whatever you feel will be successful at helping you reach your goals.
I hope you can see how something simple and "outdated" on paper can lead to three weeks of really good workouts and fantastic changes in muscular development and work capacity. Give this split a try and see if it doesn't turn you into an EDT fan.
Remember there are very few truly bad programs or exercises. Only bad coaching and even worse execution!