density training

Density Training To Kickstart Stubborn Muscle

Building muscle isn’t easy.
When you first hit the weights, your gains come quickly. But within a few months, they begin to taper off.
Now you’ve got to fight for every ounce of added muscle. Inevitably there will come a time when muscle gains will stop altogether.

That’s when you’ve got to throw convention out the window and shock your muscles into renewed growth with something out of left field – something like Escalating Density Training (EDT).

Beyond Sets and Reps

Most workouts are based on round sets and reps.

The workout is done when we’ve finished our prescribed number. Your muscles, however, don’t count reps.

All they know is how much tension they are under and how long that tension lasts for. If you maintain that tension for long enough, it will cause a host of chemical reactions in the cell that will trigger muscle growth.

The problem with the traditional 8 to 10 rep system is that it doesn’t last long enough to elicit this response. Most people do their reps too quickly, meaning that the average guy’s set lasts for just 12 to 18 seconds.

density training

The reality in most gyms is that almost no one counts the time under tension. Image courtesy of T-Nation.

The reality in most gyms is that almost no one counts the time under tension. The fixation on reps is actually robbing most people of the time under tension that is vital to eliciting an anabolic response.

Escalated Density Training goes counter to this model by focusing on both the total time working out and total reps performed. Popularised by Dr. Charles Staley, EDT is based on the principle that the workout protocol that encourages you to do the most amount of work in a set amount of time will lead to maximum muscle growth. In other words, if you are able to do more work in the same amount of time as the last time you trained, you will build muscle.

Escalating Density Training allows you to know exactly what you are doing each workout and gives you a fail-proof way to determine whether you are making progress. It also allows you to zero in on a specific goal in each workout – to hit more reps than you did in the last timed workout.

EDT in Practice

Your workout consists of 20-minute phases  separated by a 5 to 10 minute recovery period.

During each 20-minute phase you perform two exercises for opposing muscle groups. You move from one exercise to the next without any rest.

You tally the total number of reps performed in each exercises.

In the next workout, your goal is to perform more reps than you did the last time. You rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then perform another 20-minute phase with opposing exercises for two other body parts.

Resistance Level

You should select a weight that will allow you to perform 10 reps but no more.

Remember that you need to be performing the exercises with perfect form for them to have any benefit for you. You also don’t want your early sets to be to failure.

In fact, for the first few sets, you should feel as if you still have ‘one in the tank’ as you perform the last rep before switching to the second exercise. Your first few sets should be in the 5-rep range. As you alternate, you will find that your rep count drops. You will eventually  perform doubles and then singles as the 20-minute time limit approaches.

The rationale behind selecting a 10-rep max and starting with just 5 reps per set is that you can achieve the the ideal balance between force and speed. This will result in a greater motor unit recruitment. You should, therefore, move the weight quickly, resulting in greater work over a unit of time. This helps reduce fatigue over the course of your training phase.

Your single goal in the next workout is to do more work (increased reps) in the same amount of time. Once you have been able to perform 20 percent more work, then it will be time to increase the weight on the bar by 5 percent.

density training

Your single goal in the next workout is to do more work (increased reps) in the same amount of time. Image courtesy of How to Beast.

As an example, let’s say that your exercises are dumbbell bench press and bent over row. In your first 20-minute workout, you are able to perform 64 reps on the bench with 70 pound dumbbells and 62 reps on the row with 90 pounds on the bar. Twenty percent of 64 is 12.8, which we’ll round up to 13.

So, when your total reps for the bench over the 20 minute workout hits 77 (64 + 13), you will increase the weight by 5 percent to 75 pound dumbbells (70 + 5% rounded to the nearest dumbbell gradation).

You’d stick with the same weight on the bent over row until you were able to achieve 74 reps within the 20 minute time-frame (62 + 20% rounded). At that point, you would increase the weight on the row to 95 pounds (90 + 5% rounded).

Rest Between Sets

Ideally you will want to perform your sets back-to-back with no rest between them.

In practice, however, you will find it difficult to alternate between two movements for twenty minutes non-stop.

That’s why you need to taper your rest periods. The earlier into the twenty minutes you are, the less fatigued you’ll be and the shorter rest you’ll need. For that reason you should set the following rest period goals over the course of the 20-minute exercise phase:

  • Aim for absolutely no rest between the exercises during the first seven minutes
  • Aim to keep your rest period to less than 20 seconds for the second seven minutes
  • Aim for no more than 40-second rest between exercises during the final 6 minutes

Simple But Effective

As you just discovered, the Escalated Density Training protocol is deceptively simple.

Your goal for each workout is simply to do more reps in total in twenty minutes, with perfect form, than you did last workout. You only need to try this once, however, to discover just how brutally hard it is.

After 7 to 8 minutes, you will find yourself struggling to push out 2 to 3 reps on each movement. The last 4 or 5 minutes will be sheer hell. They will tax your mind just as heavily as they are calling on your muscle fiber. You’ll want to stop at 15 minutes as you barely grind out singles. But you won’t stop – you’ll keep pushing all the way through to the 20-minute mark.

density training

At that point you’ll feel pumped like never before. But it won’t be until the next day that the intensity of this type of training will fully register. Image courtesy of youtube.

At that point you’ll feel pumped like never before. But it won’t be until the next day that the intensity of this type of training will fully register. You will feel a deep, satisfying pain within the muscle fiber. That agony will tell you that you have successfully created micro-tears within the cell. Your body will be primed for lean tissue growth. It will be in a positive nitrogen balanced anabolic state just awaiting the protein that will rebuild it – bigger and stronger.

While 20 minutes is an ideal training time, and in theory it sounds pretty achievable, once you’ve actually experienced it, you might wish that you’d dialed it back to 15 or even 10 minutes per phase. If you find that you can’t push out single reps well before hitting the 20-minute mark, consider dropping to 15 minutes and then slowly building up over time.

Optimized Density Phases

To get the most out of your density training, you have got to pair the correct exercises together.

Working antagonistic muscle groups and incorporating push and pull type movements will ensure the development of functional muscle mass and complete balanced development of both strength and muscle.

Working opposing muscle groups also makes use of a training phenomenon known as reciprocal innervation.

Reciprocal innervation allows you to work two opposing muscle groups back-to-back with less fatigue than if you worked them seperately. This is because when you work one muscle group (e.g. the quads in front squats), the opposing muscle group (the hamstrings) relax in order to allow the quads to do their work. This opposing muscle group pairing will allow you to get more work done in the given period of time, which is what EDT training is all about.

The following Phase Exercise selections will allow you to optimize your sessions to achieve complete development:

Day One Workout

Lats / Triceps

Phase One:

Chin Ups (Palms Facing)

Lying EZ Bar Triceps Extensions

Phase Two:

Seated Rowing

Reverse Grip Triceps Pushdowns (Palms Up)

Day Two Workout

Legs / Core

Phase One:


Swiss Ball Crunches

Phase Two:

Leg Extensions

Leg Curls

Day Three Workout

Chest / Biceps

Phase One:

Dumbbell Bench Press

Low Cable Curl

Phase Two:

Barbell Incline Press

Hanging Leg Raises

Avoid Heavy Duty Compound Moves

You may have noted that the above exercise selections do not include the traditional mass building compound moves like squats and deadlifts.

There is a reason for that omission – during the last third of every phase, you will be in an extremely fatigued state. That is not the time to be pushing around heavy weight on compound moves like the squat.

The rapidity of the movement between the exercises and the striving to complete more reps than in the previous workout will create a ‘panic’ that could very easily cause you to compromise your form on these movements. It is far safer to stick with exercises that will not leave you in traction for six months if your form drops slightly toward the end of the phase.

You will notice that the dumbbell bench press has been included above, but not the flat barbell bench press. It is easier to maintain correct form with dumbbells. Also, if you get in trouble, it easier to extricate yourself from the situation (simply drop the weights to the ground).

Power Density Training

The Density Training protocol outlined above is ideally suited for muscular development. However the system can be tweaked to promote strength and power as the primary goal.

To do so, simply increase the weight until you can only hit a six-rep max. Now start your Phase with 3 rep sets, dropping to two and then singles until the pre-set time has elapsed. You should also drop the time of each phase to 15 minutes.

Density Training Work-Arounds

Density training definitely makes sense.

Do more work in the same amount of time and your muscles will have no choice but to adapt. But just how practical is it to hog a piece of training apparatus in a crowded gym for a whole 20 minutes?

This can be a challenge if you are training at a busy time of the day, like straight after work. The solution is to be creative – and  smart. Ensure that one of your exercises requires a barbell or dumbbell. Then carry that piece of equipment with you to your other movement. If you can’t take control of a machine for a full 20 minutes, consider how you could replace the machine with either a bodyweight or free weight exercise.

density training

What about if you turn up at the gym without a stopwatch? Well, because you are training in two distinct phases of exactly twenty minutes, you can train from the gym’s wall clock. Image courtesy of flickr.

What about if you turn up at the gym without a stopwatch? Well, because you are training in two distinct phases of exactly twenty minutes, you can train from the gym’s wall clock. Start your first set as the second hand hits 12 on a five minute block (say 12:05pm) and keep going until 12:25.

How about using body weight moves like chin ups and push ups? You should start with no resistance apart from your bodyweight on these moves. When you have to increase your reps by 20 percent, you need to add resistance. With moves like chin ups or dips, make use of your gym’s weight belt, adding 5 or 10 pounds. For moves like push ups, you need to get a little creative. A back pack that you can put a weight plate in works as does a weight vest or having a training partner balance a plate on your back.

Full Body Density Training

After several months of escalated density training, you will be ready to take it to the next level.

Your body has now acclimatised to the EDT system. You’re still pushing through your rep count in the allocated time and, as a result, doing more total work every session.

Your body is now able to handle the stresses that you are placing upon it and is becoming more and more anabolic after every EDT session.

You are now ready to add in those compound movements that you steered away from as you introduced yourself to the EDT training system. Compound movements, like squats, deadlifts and bench press, allow you to work multiple muscle groups along with a host of synergistic smaller muscles that act as stabilisers and balancers.

When pairing full body, compound exercises, you should match up movements that have minimal prime mover overlap. For example, you could pair up the front squat with the bench press – one focuses on the lower body, the other the upper body. Another smart pairing with squats is the chin up, which is often referred to as the upper body squat. Squats have a tendency to compress the spine, whereas chin ups involve a vertical pulling action which decompresses the spine.

The following compound movement pairings will give you the most lean muscle bang for your buck:

Bench Press / Chin Ups

Floor Press / Reverse Grip cleans

Push Up / Pull Up

Front Squat / Back Extension

Back Squat / Chin Ups

Front Squats / Dips

Deadlift / Floor Press

Overhead Squat / Clean – Pull

Muscle Up / Power Clean

EDT For Stubborn Body Parts

Certain body parts are more stubborn than others.

Typically they are body parts that are most heavily used throughout the course of our day. Their high adaptability to work means that they require high-frequency, high-overload training to make them sit up and take notice.

Escalating Density Training is the ideal solution to shock these stubborn body parts into renewed growth.

The high volume of work that goes into a 20-minute EDT phase is exactly what is needed to overcome the load adaptability of stubborn muscle groups. Performing between 60 and 90 reps over that 20 minutes presents a huge workload to the muscle that will challenge it in a unique way. And the progressive overload that comes from constantly pushing to increase the rep count and subsequently the weight being used, will push those apathetic muscle fibers to their limit.

density training

Calves are a stubborn muscle group that will respond to higher volumes of work. Image courtesy of Anabolic Animal.

The muscle groups that are the most stubborn and respond to higher volumes of work are:





Because these muscles are accustomed to a higher general workload, you should make the following adaptations to your EDT protocol when working them:

Base your starting weight on your 20-rep max, rather than your 10-rep max. Start with 10 reps on your first few sets, rather than 5 reps.

Rather than pairing antagonistic muscle groups, pair your stubborn groups as follows:

Calves / Forearms

Chest / Biceps

Train your stubborn muscles on the same day, Calves / Forearms in Phase One and Chest / Biceps in Phase Two.

How Many Reps?

So, how many reps should you be aiming for in your 20-minutes of EDT?

Although there are no hard and fast rules, if you are using a weight that you can perform 12 reps on, and your first set is 5 to 6 reps, you should hit between 60 and 70 reps on each of the two movements by the time that the 20 minutes is up.

If you aren’t able to reach 60 reps on the first session, you should consider lowering the weight by 10 percent. When you are able to get to 20 percent more reps than your starting total rep count, increase the weight by 5 percent.

If you are unable to make traction on your 20 percent extra reps goal after a considerable period (6 or more workouts), you should drop the resistance by 10 percent and start the process over again.

How Often

Without experiencing EDT for yourself, it is impossible to understand just how intense it is.

For that reason, it is critical that you provide your body with enough rest and recuperation between workouts. You should, as a result, take a full day off training after every workout.

That means that in effect you will be training on alternate days, such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Train the EDT way for six weeks to give your body an intense muscle growth shock. It will be six weeks of pain, but it will also quite possibly be the time when you make the most gains in both lean muscle and strength gain.

Follow up your six-week EDT routine with a conventional sets and reps program for another six weeks.  Then switch back to another round of EDT to pack on even more lean mass.

Darden, Ellington, High Intensity Bodybuilding For Massive Muscles Fast, 1984, Perigree Books.
Kraemer WJ, Noble BJ, Clark MJ, et al: Physiologic responses to heavy-resistance exercise with very short rest periods. Int J Sports Med 1987;8(4):247-252.
Robinson, Joseph M., Stone, Michael H., et al: Effects of Different weight training exercise/rest intervals on strength, power, and high intensity exercise endurance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 1995; 9(4), 216-221.
Staley, Charles, The Ultimate Guide to Massive Arms: Escalating Density Training, 2002, Integrated Sports Solutions.


Escalated Density Training Cheat Sheet (Take to the Gym)

You need:

  • Stop Watch
  • Water Bottle

The Parameters

  • Two 20 Minute Phases
  • Two Opposing Muscle Groups Per Phase
  • 10 Minutes Max rest between phases
  • Start with 5 reps
  • No rest between sets
  • Keep going – keep it strict!

Phase One:

Exercise One: ___________  Target from last w-out _______

Total Reps: _________

Exercise Two: ____________  Target from last w-out _______

Total Reps: __________

Phase Two:

Exercise One: ____________  Target from last w-out _______

Total Reps: ___________

Exercise Two: ____________  Target from last w-out _______

Total Reps: ____________

About the Author

DanavirDanavir Sarria is the owner of Iron Sensei, a site for men who want to build muscle and burn fat with home workouts. For free daily fitness and nutrition articles, go to