by John Romaniello
Like many people, my first exposure to density training was with EDT, which I used as a hypertrophy program. I gained some muscle, but I also got noticeably leaner. When I started tweaking the density of my clients’ programming for added hypertrophy, I again noticed some fat loss.
Now I may be dense (pun intended), but after a while I catch on. In due course, I realized that with a bit of modification, density-based training would dramatically increase the rate of fat loss. (In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been surprising given the speed of the workout. Always trying to beat the numbers from my previous session, I was training at a pretty rapid pace, my heart rate was constantly high, and I’d always be exhausted when I was through.)
So I took the density concept, blended it with the other successful bits of my fat loss programs and—I’m not bullshitting you here—created one of the most effective fat loss training methods I’ve ever seen. I’ve been using it in my programs for the past four years, so I figured it was about time to stop being greedy and share what I’ve learned.
Before we can get into the specifics of this program, we must first define training density, which is the result of looking at two very specific factors of training: volume and duration. Volume is your total workload or how many sets and reps you perform in a given workout; duration is the length of time your workout lasts. By combining these two, we arrive at your training density.
By increasing the amount of work you do in a given amount of time, you also enhance your ability to do work or what’s known as improving your work capacity. While some may argue that this isn’t necessarily the “best” way to approach hypertrophy, the results are undeniable.
Increasing training density helps to boost both strength and strength endurance, which has implications for muscle growth down the line.
Traditionally, there have been two ways to add to density:
Method 1: Keep Workload Static and Decrease Duration
If you’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps for squats, you’re doing 100 total reps. For the sake of argument, let’s say you perform this workout in 40 minutes. If I tell you that you must complete that workout in 30 minutes, then that will call for a drastic increase in training density since I’m asking you to complete an identical amount of work in 25% less time. You’d also call me bad names.
Method 2: Keep the Duration Static and Increase Workload
Staying with that same example, you have another option: keep the duration static at 40 minutes, and simply try to do more work within that time period by adding more sets of squats. So rather than just doing 10 sets, you’d aim to complete as many sets as possible, ending up with 12 or even 15 sets. (As an alternative, you could also add more reps to each set.)
In either case, in order to accomplish the goal while sticking to the parameters, you’d have to increase training speed and decrease rest periods. This would also increase work capacity.
*I say “method” because this is not a complete fat loss program. This is something you can add toa good program.
In previous versions of density training, the idea was to do a few exercises over a specific block of time and get as many reps per exercise as possible, seeking to beat those numbers in subsequent training sessions. And that’s a great method for gaining muscle with fat loss as a consequence.
However, when fat loss is the primary goal, I set things up differently.
As with nearly any great plan designed for drastic fat loss, I look to the old standby: fast-paced circuits. First we select a series of exercises (more on this below) and set them up in a non-competing fashion.
Not only are we seeking to increase reps, but also increase weight before we repeat a given exercise. Again, this is applied to all exercises within a circuit.
Here’s an example to illustrate:
Now, how is it that you’re able to perform more reps with more weight? Simple: your nervous system is kicking ass. Essentially, you’re looking to increase neuromuscular activation.
This has been written about fairly extensively, so I won’t rehash too much. Suffice it to say that the degree to which you can stimulate your nervous system will have carryover to how much muscular force you can generate. The more neural activation you achieve, the easier it is to push heavier weights, because you’ll have an easier time recruiting muscle fibers to do the job.
So the purpose of the set is actually twofold: first, it establishes a baseline number for all exercises, and gives you a frame of reference for performance as well as a goal. Second, and perhaps more importantly, your first set serves as a neurological primer. The weight is relatively heavy on the first set and will certainly start the metabolic processes involved in fat loss, but the best part is you’ll be sparking neural activation.
Your first set should be a bit of a feeler set—sort of a working warm-up. The limiting factor should be time, not fatigue.
That is, at the end of the first set on any circuit, the feeling should be, “Oh, damn, I ran out of time; I totally had a few more reps in me!” and not “Holy crap that sucked! I can’t believe that was only 30 seconds!”
With the first set, pace yourself and move at a quick but steady clip. Don’t speed up as the clock winds down. Instead, just allow your pace to carry you through to the end of the set.
Your second set should be (if you’ll pardon my use of scientific jargon) balls to the wall. As you get toward the end, speed up and try to crank out as many reps as possible.
Overall, you’ll be lifting more weight for more reps in the same time period for an entire circuit of exercises. A few of these sets and you can see how fat loss—as well as the obvious increases in both efficiency and capacity—would be the end result.
The best part about density training is how fun it is. Because it’s challenge-based, you have an immediate goal every set and every workout: do more than you did previously.
Additionally, because it’s more of a method than a specific program, this version of density training is instantly adaptable to any type of training. I’ve provided two density circuits below, one using weights, and one done with just bodyweight (which you can try right now, just to see how awesome this is). However, density training works with kettlebells, resistance bands, sandbags and pretty much anything else you feel worthy of lifting and lowering—like children.
Of course, in the case of a bodyweight circuit, you may be saying, “Wait a minute, Roman! You said we’re supposed the increase the weight? I can’t do that with bodyweight!” That’s a very fair point. You’re going to make progress even without a weight increase, but to get the most out of a circuit or workout of that nature, I’d recommend using a harder variation of each exercise for the second circuit (going from regular push-ups to decline push-ups, for example).
The main thing is that you’re working harder with each progressive set, aiming to take the greatest advantage of neural activation possible to do more work and burn a metric crap-ton of calories.
As a further benefit (as if you hadn’t already figured it out), density training is exceptional for retention of lean mass.
Now that we’re clear on the method and the benefits, let’s talk training. As previously stated, the goal of this article is to provide you with a training method, as well as a template for creating your own workouts with the density method.
To that end, let’s cover some basic rules for creating density workouts.
• I recommend a push, a pull, a dynamic leg movement (think lunges), a stationary leg movement (stiff leg deadlifts, for example) and some sort of abdominal movement (optional). This is more of a guideline than a rule.
Of course, the most important aspect for density circuits is the length of time for which you perform each exercise. While you can ultimately decide on any interval you want, the chart below illustrates the recommended times that I have found to be most effective for each type of exercise.
|Type of Exercise||Duration|
|Weight Bearing Upper Body Press||25-35 seconds|
|Weight Bearing Upper Body Pull||30-45 seconds|
|Weight Bearing Lower Body Press||35-55 seconds|
|Weight Bearing Lower Body Pull||35-50 seconds|
|Bodyweight Upper Body Press||20-30 seconds|
|Bodyweight Upper Body Pull||35-45 seconds|
|Bodyweight Stationary Lower Body||40-50 seconds|
|Bodyweight Dynamic Lower Body||45-60 seconds|
|Any Abdominal Movement||30-60 seconds|
And, because I don’t want to leave you hanging, I’ve also designed two circuits for you to try out. Give’em a shot and leave your thoughts in the discussion section.
Set-up: Perform A1 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. After this, perform A2 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. Continue this pattern for all exercises. Rest 120s and repeat. For your SECOND circuit, INCREASE the weight by 10%-20% and REPEAT the exercises, trying to match or exceed the number of reps in that same allotted work duration.
|A1) Single Dumbbell (Goblet) Squat||35 seconds||10 seconds|
|A2) Lumber Jack Press||35 seconds||20 seconds|
|A3) Dumbbell Pullover||45 seconds||30 seconds|
|A4) Abdominal Rollout on Swiss Ball||60 seconds||Rest 120 seconds and repeat circuit|
Set-up: Perform A1 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. After this, perform A2 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. Continue this pattern for all exercises. Rest 90s and repeat. For your SECOND circuit, REPEAT the exercises, trying to EXCEED your number of reps from the previous set.
|A1) Push-up||30 seconds||10 seconds|
|A2) Alternating Lateral Lunges||45 seconds||20 seconds|
|A3) Superman Contraction||30 seconds||30 seconds|
|A4) Hand Walkouts from Toes||60 seconds||Rest 90 seconds and repeat circuit|
Although manipulating training density was originally designed for hypertrophy, we’ve seen that with a bit of ingenuity we can further modify the idea for fat loss. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that is one of the best fat loss training methods I’ve come across. Density workouts are fun, challenging and very effective. Try your hand at designing your own and post them in the forum for some critique from yours truly.
John Romaniello is a strength coach and trainer working in the greater New York area. In addition to writing his own bio in the third person, Roman also runs an online coaching program through which he helps people all over the world get hotter. You can check him out at his website.