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High Density Weight Training

By Tom Venuto - author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle

A simple, safe and scientifically-sound method for gaining more muscle and losing more fat in less time

If you’ve been working out for any significant length of time, then you’ve surely heard of “high intensity training but have you heard of high density training? If not, then youll want to read every word of this article because high density training is a scientifically based system that can legitimately help you gain more muscle and lose more fat in less time, while at the same time allowing you to avoid joint pain and work out safely without injury.

The word “Intensity” has been given many meanings in the context of weight training and bodybuilding. For example, some strength coaches say the true definition of intensity is the total amount of weight you lift or the amount of weight you can lift relative to your one repetition maximum (“load” intensity).

Other bodybuilding experts claim that the optimum measure of intensity is the amount of perceived momentary muscular effort you can exert during a set (“effort” intensity).

I have also seen intensity defined as the amount of muscle building hormones released as a result of a workout (“anabolic” intensity), and the amount of physical stress imposed on the body (“relative” intensity). Sports psychologists often refer to intensity in terms of focus, concentration and mental toughness (“mental” intensity).

There is another definition of intensity which few people ever consider, yet it is equally, if not more important, than any other form of intensity…

If you perform four sets of squats with 185 pounds in a span of eight minutes during workout #1 and then you decrease your rest intervals so that you perform the same four sets with the same form and tempo with the same 185 pounds in seven minutes during workout #2, then you have successfully overloaded your muscles and increased the intensity of your workout.

This type of intensity is so important that it has been given it’s own name: “DENSITY.” Density is the amount of muscular work you can perform in a specified period of time.

I’m not sure who originally coined the term “density” as it relates to strength training, but certainly strength coach Charles Staley deserves a lot of credit for popularizing use of the term in recent years with release of his book “Escalating Density Training” also known as EDT (visit Charles at for more information).

Although mainstream use of the term “density” may be new, the principle behind the name is not. The first time I heard of high density training was in 1983 when first I picked up a Joe Weider Muscle and Fitness magazine as a young teenager interested in learning about bodybuilding. Joe Weider, who was known for compiling bodybuilding training principles (and adding his name to them as part of the “Weider System”) was a proponent of the high density method for pre-competition training, although he called it the “Weider Quality Training principle.”

I never thought “quality training” was a good name for the technique because it was not accurately descriptive. If you look up density in Webster’s dictionary, it will give the definition as, “The quantity per unit area, unit volume or unit length.” If you add the unit of time, then “density” is truly the most accurate and descriptive way to name the technique.

In Weider’s 1983 book, "The Weider System of Bodybuilding," Joe wrote, The Weider quality training principle is a vital tool in the arsenal of any serious bodybuilder during a precontest training cycle. Quality training consists of progressively reducing the average rest interval between sets from approximately 60-90 seconds during the off season, down to as little as 15-20 seconds at the end of the precontest cycle. This works hand in glove with a tight precontest diet to bring out the maximum degree of muscularity and muscle density in a bodybuilders physique.

If you just “tuned out” because you’re not a bodybuilder, hold on just a minute because the benefits of the density technique go far beyond bodybuilding. In fact, for busy executives, (which is about as far from competitive bodybuilding as you can get), various forms of density training may be the perfect solution for getting in great shape on a tight schedule.

My next exposure to the subject of high density training came from legendary bodybuilding trainer Vince Gironda. Just one year after being introduced to bodybuilding magazines by Joe Weider, I then stumbled onto Vince Gironda’s training courses and his 1984 book, “Unleashing the Wild Physique” via Robert Kennedy and Muscle Mag International. Gironda was a strong advocate of high density training in general, but specifically, by using a system he pioneered called 8 sets of 8 which involved minimum rest between sets, ultimately dropping to as little as 10-15 second rest intervals.

Many years later, the subject of high density training emerged in the magazines again when Charles Staley released EDT in 2002, which is a completely new, unique and highly effective way to apply the density training principle. In the book, Charles gave an excellent summary of the density principle. He wrote, “Other programs focus mainly on manipulating volume (usually by increasing it). EDT acknowledges the importance of both volume and intensity, but focuses primarily on a little appreciated, yet critically important facet of the training load called ‘density.’ Essentially, density is the work/rest ratio of your training."

Okay, enough "history." By now you’re probably drooling at the prospect of finally discovering a legitimate method of gaining more muscle in less time and you want all the gory details! Patience, we’ll get to that in just a moment. First, let me explain exactly how high density training works, how it will benefit you and when it’s best to use. Then I’ll give you the goods and show you six different ways you can use the technique yourself.

High density training is simply when you condense more muscular work into less time, thereby achieving increased intensity and progressive overload without necessarily increasing the weight. As Coach Staley explains, "Your (muscles) will get bigger when you force them to do gradually more and more work in the same period of time."

Many things are debatable when it comes to strength training. In fact, I’ve never met any two trainers who agreed 100% on everything. However, one thing that is accepted universally by ALL trainers is that progressive overload is an absolute requirement in order to increase muscle growth – it’s the foundational principle of all effective strength training programs. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. In order to make progress you have to challenge your muscles to do something they haven’t done before by applying progressive overload.

Many people believe that the only way to apply progressive overload is to increase the amount of weight you use with each successive workout. That’s known as progressive resistance, but progressive resistance is only one of many possible ways to achieve progressive overload. Increasing density is a method of progressive overload, which, while not capable of replacing progressive resistance completely, has many unique benefits that cannot be duplicated with any other form of training.

One great benefit of high density strength training is time efficiency: It allows you to complete a highly effective and result producing workout in as little as 30-45 minutes. In fact, with split routines, you can zip through a couple of body parts in as little as 20 minutes, leaving time for cardio, a post workout drink, and a shower, all in less than an hour. In this day and age, a legitimate method to get an effective workout in less time is a godsend. That’s why trainers who specialize in workout efficiency and workouts for executives and other busy people use the high density principle heavily in a variety of ways.

Another advantage of high density strength training is that it can allow you to work around sore joints and minor injuries. If you’re suffering from an acute or serious injury, naturally you should follow the advice of your physician and avoid stressing the injured area at all while the muscle is healing. However, if you’ve been training for a long time, you are no doubt familiar with those achy, painful joints and muscles that are not “major injuries,” but are more like “annoyances” that don't prevent you from training completely, but often prevent you from training as heavily as you’d like. If, despite feeling the aches and minor pains, you get a little bold and you slap on more weight than you should, that annoying “irritated” area often turns into a full blown injury that sets you back days or even weeks before you can train it at all. This is a frustrating and probably all too familiar scenario for an awful lot of people.

The ultimate solution of course, is to find the cause of your pain and fix the problem from its source, but if minor joint or muscle pain is preventing you from training heavy, then don’t train heavy! Many people get themselves in great trouble because they labor under the belief that they “must” use weights as heavy as possible all the time or their training is in vain. Many training systems (which shall remain nameless) that dogmatically call for heavy loads all or most of the time are partly to blame. The alternative is to train with lighter (moderate) weights with briefer rest intervals…. aka, “high density” training!

Overload and intensity are necessary to achieve muscular growth, but that overload/intensity does not have to come in the form of extremely heavy weights. For example, if you are a 300 pound squatter, you probably believe that you must use 85% (255 lbs) or more for maximal strength gains, and 70% (210 lbs) or more for maximal hypertrophy. That’s not entirely true. Take 150 – 185 pounds (for starters) and squat it for 8 sets of 8 reps with 30 seconds rest between each set and see how “heavy” that weight feels to you by the last few sets. You'll discover very quickly that the term "heavy" is relative. More importantly, continue with that protocol for at least 6 - 8 weeks, adding weight with every workout while maintaining or even reducing your rest intervals further to 15-20 seconds and see what type of muscle growth and fat loss you experience. I assure you, you will be amazed at the results - if you can get through it! Despite the reducced poundages, this is not an easy workout and it’s not for beginners.

A third reason to use high density training is to increase the effects of a fat loss program by burning more calories in a given time period and by maximizing the hormonal response to training. This is particularly effective when you train the large muscle groups and compound movements. When you shorten your rest intervals to 30 seconds or less on exercises such as barbell squats, you may be stunned to find out how cardiovascular in nature the workout becomes. In fact, cardiovascular fatigue can often be the limiting factor in high density workouts while training legs and back, at least during the initial phases until your conditioning improves.

Your heart rate spikes after the set, and recovers partially during the brief rest interval, but not fully, so your heart rate stays up the entire duration of the workout. You burn more calories in less time, your metabolism is stimulated more, and you unleash a flood of fat burning and muscle building hormones.

If this sounds good so far, then hold on to your hats, because it gets even better! The high density method can be literally doubled in effectiveness by going beyond a simple reduction in rest intervals between sets and also adding progressive resistance into the equation. As you adapt to each reduction in rest intervals, you simultaneously increase the amount of weight you use, effectively achieving a “double overload factor.” By increasing density and resistance in the same training cycle, this “double overload” can produce results beyond your wildest imagination.

With all these benefits, high density training may sound like the “ultimate”… the end all be all… the mother of all workouts! Well, not exactly. First, there is no single best training method. You will adapt to any training protocol in time, so variety is of the essence. Second, every technique carries it’s own unique set of risks and benefits and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. In the case of high density training, the trade off is strength. When you reduce your rest intervals progressively, invariably the amount of weight you can handle is reduced substantially. This means that density training is not the ideal method if one of your primary objectives is strength. To develop maximal strength, longer rest intervals are a necessity – usually 2 – 3 minutes between sets and occasionally even longer. On the other hand, if your goals include health, fitness, bodybuilding, or fat loss, and if you want to get the best results in the shortest time possible, then high density training may very well be the “ultimate” method for you under those circumstances.

Train hard and expect success all-ways,
Your friend and coach,

Tom Venuto

Author Tom Venuto

Tom Venuto is a bodybuilder, gym owner, freelance writer, success coach and author of "Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle" (BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World's Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written over 150 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom's inspiring and informative articles on bodybuilding, weight loss and motivation are featured regularly on dozens of websites worldwide. For information on Tom's "Burn The Fat" e-book, click here.

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