Escalating Density Training (or EDT) is a program I first heard about through Charles Staley, a respected strength and conditioning coach.
The idea is simple: sets and reps don’t matter since there is no perfect number of sets or reps.
Instead, only the total workload performed per workout is important.
The goal: perform the maximum amount of work in a minimal amount of time.
To do that you must manage your fatigue levels over the course of a workout.
You want to maximize your total reps rather than worrying about how many repetitions you perform in any one set.
You will use the same weight for all sets so in the beginning you will generally start off with higher reps, which will generally need to decrease towards the end of the workout as fatigue builds.
However, if you start off too hard and close to failure on initial sets, you will hurt your overall training volume for the workout.
You have to pace yourself which is opposite of most traditional bodybuilding programs that have you trying to completely exhaust a muscle and usually yourself.
Escalating Density Training workouts are usually prescribed in constant 15 minute time blocks using antagonist (opposite muscle) supersets.
An example would be supersetting bench press with barbell rows to work the opposing muscles on the front and back of the body. The reason for this is based on the idea of reciprocal innervation which states the opposing muscle is required to relax while the other muscle is worked.
This means that your muscle could actually recover faster by pairing the opposing muscles than it would have if you allowed it to rest by itself.
You will also accomplish more total work in the defined time period since you will be doing two exercises instead of just one. A benefit is you will burn more calories per workout using two exercises since the body is accomplishing more work.
Progression from workout to workout (with each workout completed either once or twice weekly) is determined by the ability to get more total reps with the exercise at the same weight used previously.
The general rule used in Escalating Density Training is when you increase the total reps by 20% or more (and this might happen in one workout or it may take several) over the first time you did the exercise with a particular weight, you can increase the weight by 5% or 5 pounds (whichever is less) the next workout for that exercise.
For example, if you get 50 reps in the 15 minute time period on the bench press with 185 pounds the first time you try that weight, once you are able to get 60 reps (50 reps multiplied by 1.2 or 120%) you can increase the weight the next workout to say 190 pounds. As with all progression models, it is important to make small weight increases so choose less over more when possible.
Escalating Density Training Workout Setup:
- Choose two opposing exercises, as an example: biceps curls with triceps pushdowns or bench press with barbell rows or leg extensions with leg curls. Although it works best with opposing muscles you can also choose two unrelated muscle groups such as squats with chin-ups or calf raises with forearm curls for example. You can even use unilateral exercises such as lunges where you alternate back and forth between the left and right leg.
- Next, test or estimate a weight for each exercise that you can do about 10 reps max (10RM) with. It doesn’t have to be exact just close.
- Start a stopwatch or timer for 15 minutes and start your first set.
- As a general rule (although you can do more), start your first sets with about half of the total reps you can get with the weight (in this case about 5 reps, which is half of the 10). Do the first exercise, write down the reps, then do the second exercise, write down those reps. Don’t worry about rest periods, just rest as needed.
- As you begin to fatigue, you most likely will not be able to keep doing the 5 reps you started with, especially toward the end of the 15 minute period. You may need to decrease the reps down as low as single reps which is fine. Again, the goal is the total reps completed, not how many in each set. You will probably need to increase the rest periods also toward the end so that you can continue to do more sets. This does take some learning about how to pace yourself so that you can get as many reps with minimal rest while you fatigue.
- An important note is that toward the end of the 15 minute period don’t perform one last set of the first exercise unless you’ve got enough time to perform a corresponding last set for your second exercise. Keep the 15 minute time period strict so that you can monitor your progress.
- In general, in the 15 minute period you should be able to complete between 40-60 reps if you’re using a weight you can get about 10 reps maximum with. But this also depends on your ability to recover between sets and how close to failure you are on each set.
If you’re more interested in strength gains than muscle size gains, start with a weight you can get about 6 reps maximum with (instead of the original 10 recommended) and do your first sets with around 3 reps and go down from there as needed. Rest periods are still just taken as needed.
15 minute time periods typically work the best but you can experiment with others between 10-20 minutes. Just keep it consistent between workouts to track progress.
You can also complete a second 15 minute round with different exercises if you want. In this case the full workout would now be the first 15 minutes with 2 exercises, then another 15 minutes with 2 more exercises for a total workout time of 30 minutes (not including warmups and cool-downs).
I like the general principles behind Escalating Density Training. This program will teach you the difficult task of self regulation and control. You have to learn when to push and when to rest to see success.
The downfalls I find are it can be difficult to try to constantly perform better than you did over time without some structure other than just the defined workout time period. This can create a mental barrier. Plus, using the same weights each workout can quickly lead to plateaus.
Overall, it is a nice change of pace than always worrying about sets, reps, and rest periods. You can just lift the weights when you feel ready and let the sets and reps be whatever they are.