Thus one’s victories in battle cannot be repeated — They take their form in response to inexhaustibly changing circumstances…it can be likened to water, as water varies its flow according to the fall of the land – Sun Tzu, The Art of War, via Robert Greene’s awesome book, The 50th Law


Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

The above quote illustrates perfectly the problem with attempting to emulate the success of one person’s fitness routine — namely, you are not of that particular person’s make-up, recovery ability, or overall circumstance.

Now, this is not to say that I in any way advocate “program hopping”.  Far from it, because that’s a dead-end route as well.  Rather, one ought to use these routines as a template and adjust according to individual make-up and circumstance.  Again, using the chef metaphor: one can blindly follow a recipe, and end up with something that’s generally “ok”.  Or, one can delve into the culinary arts and create, from that base template, something extraordinary.

What follows is my angle on density training — specifically, the type most recently popularized by Charles Staley (Escalating Density Training).  This is my own, unique angle, something I’ve honed in accordance to my own goals, and relative to my own n=1 circumstance and make-up.

The goal of density training (or Escalating Density Training; EDT) is to maximize the amount of work done in a particular movement (or movements) in a given amount of time.  Or, turning this into a rest-pause hybrid, I’ll keep the load a little heavier, hit between 21 and 30 reps, and strive for a high repeat power output, using time as the floating variable.  So keep in mind the variables we have to manipulate: time, load, and reps (or distance).  Two examples follow:

I performed push-presses recently, first working up to two sets of 7 at 185, then I hit a “density” sequence of pressing 170 lbs for 25 reps in 4:53.

A couple of things going in: first, I was pretty well smoked from the work-up/feel-out lead-in, followed by  2 sets of 7 at 185.  I knew, gauging from an autoregulatory perspective (and knowing that my last few workouts prior to this were pretty damn intense), that hitting big, single-set numbers load-wise was likely not in the cards.  A safer way of pushing the envelope at this point would be attacking the work capacity side of things; i.e., handling a lighter weight for repetitions.

Now, I knew that I wasn’t going to dust any records from a density (work capacity) aspect, either.  Didn’t prevent me from trying, though 😉  And the thing is, a higher-rep, lower-load, low technical ability exercise selection, performed under fatigue, would allow me to push work capacity without fear of risking mishap/injury.  Yes, by all means, push the envelope under fatigue, but do so intelligently and without putting yourself at risk.  In other words, choose adequate exercises.  Push-presses?  Sure.  Oly snatch? Not so much.

So here was the goal: how much total work could I pull-off in the push-press movement while (1) following strict form (explode in the concentric portion; slow, controlled descent).  In other words, striving for max total power output in the concentric phase, and a nice, controlled (hypertrophy emphasis) eccentric — each and every rep.  And no slacking on form just so as to pad the output.  Discipline here is key.

We know that work = force x distance.  If we consider time as a variable, we can then throw and track power output into the mix as well.  In this case, the distance — stroke (defined by limb length) x a goal of 25 reps — we’ll assume as constants.  So essentially, this boils down to a load vs time (or power output) issue.  And again, I’m in good faith keeping my concentric power bursts as high as possible, with a strict and controlled eccentric.  So 170 lbs x 25 reps means I horsed 4250 lbs over a fixed (for my limb length) distance in 4:53.

Next time out, how could I better this?  Obviously moving that same load in a decreased amount of time would work, as would moving a greater load in the same time.  Or, even a slightly longer time, so long as the total output (or total power output) is greater.

And so now you can see where the juggle (and the fun challenge) begins to settle in.  At a certain point, the total load vs total time begin top out; I could handle more load, yes — but at a time cost.  Such a time cost, in fact, that a higher load now negatively affects my work and/or power output ratio.  Think of this in the same way that an increased load eventually negatively affects power output due to its effect on the speed of execution.

The interesting part of this is how different people, because of their make-up, will naturally gravitate toward their inherent strengths.  A slow-twitch dominant trainee will skew toward a lighter load with a reduced rest period.  A faster-twitch trainee will gravitate toward a heavier load moved in more numerous “bursts”.  So this naturally becomes a “play to your strength” methodology.

The more traditional way of performing density training would be to set the time and load, and chase total distance (or reps).  So I could have put 170 lbs on the bar, set the clock for, say, 10 minutes, and recorded how many reps I could have produced.  In fact, on those infrequent occasions where I perform dedicated arm work, this is exactly how I set it up.  Here’s how I’ve performed this protocol recently:

In 15 minutes:
(A1) straight bar bi curl: 95 lbs @ 72 reps (95 x 72 = 6840)
(A2) EZ bar tri extension:105 lbs @ 72 reps (105 x 72 = 7560)

Caveat here: no sloppy reps!

This was done in superset fashion, i.e., 10 reps of curls followed by 10 reps of tri extensions, wash, rinse, repeat.  In the final few minutes, I was fatigued to the point of dropping the reps to sets of 8…and then 6.  Next time out I’ll likely up the weight on both exercises by 5 lbs, and drop the reps to the 8 or 6 zone initially (a nod to my personal strengths).  This will have me moving more quickly between exercises, but will also mean I’ll waste more time in total transition (or rest).  And this is where the fun really begins.  Because you’d think that this would be a simple time/load/rest calculation that will easily transfer from paper to real-world application.  Not so.  It’s funny how pain and fatigue render paper calculations moot in no time.  You’ve got to make a gut feel adjustment and test it out in the real world.  Test, critique, and move on.

And density training is another way I like to employ the ARXFit equipment.  Work output is one of the variables tracked via the ARXFit software, and so it’s easy to set a time variable, then gun for a max work output in that established time.  Nothing will make you beg for mercy faster than attacking a 5-minute max work output in the ARXFit leg press.  Or hell, any ARXFit exercise, for that matter.  And with the ARXFit equipment, the added bonus is this: one can push to “tap-out” without fear of fatigue-induced, loss-of -technical-form injury.  Awesome, awesome stuff.


Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –


  1. Friggin awesome. I wonder though, is 5 minutes to failure too long? Couldn’t you program in failure to occur sooner, like 60 seconds to failure? That would save a lot of time if it worked the same.


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