by Eric Cressey
All things held equal, if you want to continue to improve over the course of a training career, you need to progressively increase the training stimulus. While increasing the weight used is the most well known way of progressing, increasing training density is another means of making things more challenging. In other words, you need to do more work in less (or the same amount of) time.
To that end, here are some of my favorite strategies for making your training more dense. As you’ll notice, some of them are as much “mindsets” as they are actual programming strategies.
1. Be accountable to rest intervals.
Here’s the breakdown of a typical powerlifting training session:
a. Lift something heavy over about 10-15 seconds.
b. Sit around cracking jokes with your training partners over about 8-10 minutes.
Repeat a and b over the course of about an hour, then do some assistance exercises and go home.
Obviously, I’m embellishing things – but not by much! I can’t say that I know of many powerlifters who rigidly adhere to rest intervals – and I’m not saying that they necessarily should. However, their approach can certainly impact how “everyone else” trains in a trickle down effect, so I do think it’s important for the general fitness enthusiast to be cognizant of monitoring rest intervals. If you’re not careful, you can easily get distracted and wind up wasting too much time between sets.
2. Remove distractions.
This goes hand-in-hand with point #1, as distractions compete with sticking to rest intervals. However, I think it’s one thing to just procrastinate before the next set, but another thing altogether to actually get distracted by something. This might be checking your cell phone, or striking up a conversation with somebody when you know you’ve only got 20 seconds left before the next set needs to start. Clear out the distractions if you’re trying to make your training more dense.
3. Minimize variety.
I’m normally a huge believer in variety in a training program, but when you’re trying to make your training more dense, variety is actually your enemy. You see, the more variety you work into a training program, the more set-up that’s required. We never realize that we might spend 10-15 minutes of every training session setting up equipment and loading/unloading plates. If you want to get a lot of volume in over a 45-60 minute period, you can’t spare that 10-15 minutes. In other words, the “densest” sessions might only include four different exercises, as opposed to 6-8.
4. Don’t be afraid of drop-offs in loading.
This is another mindset note. Many individuals – myself included – absolutely hate having to drop the weight from one set to the next. However, unless you’ve undershot your initial weight selections, it’s pretty much inevitable when you’re doing several sets of higher reps. If you want to be successful with density-based training programs that involve higher-rep sets and shorter intervals, you’ll have to eat a bit of humble pie when the loading starts dropping off.
5. Incorporate back-off sets.
I discussed “back-off” sets in my recent article on the stage system. While they can be used for training strength and power, the real density benefits come with respect to accumulating volume – whether it’s to increase muscle size or help with fat loss. Adding in back-off sets of 6-20 reps after your heaviest strength work can quickly increase the density of your overall training sessions.
6. Don’t think that increasing high-intensity density work will yield as great an energy expenditure as increasing moderate-intensity density work.
This example might seem complex, but it won’t be after this example.
Imagine you can deadlift 400 pounds, and you want to get more density in your program. Let’s say that you can hit 90% of 1RM (360 pounds) for a single every 60s for ten minutes – for a total workload of 3,600 pounds.
Let’s say that in this same time, you could hit a set of five reps at 75% of 1RM (300 pounds) every two minutes. That’s a total workload of 7,500 pounds.
The point is that more reps – even with a noteworthy drop in intensity – will always “outdo” lower-rep work – even with more sets – when it comes to increasing the total amount of work in a given session. In other words, use your strength work to build or test strength, not to try to make for a more dense training session. Otherwise, you wind up getting stuck in a tough middle ground where you aren’t building strength optimally, and really aren’t making your training any denser.
7. Position exercise pairings in close proximity to one another.
If you pair up a front squat and a chin-up in the same power rack, you can get a lot of volume in without having to move around the gym at all. Conversely, swap those chin-ups for a lat pulldown, and there’s a lot more walking involved. This is an especially important consideration in a commercial gym where someone might jump in on a piece of equipment while you’re a few feet away.