Progressive overload is the golden rule for getting bigger and stronger. You must do more work than you did before in order to keep making progress.
There are two obvious ways to do this:
- Add weight to the bar
- Add volume (sets and reps).
But there’s one often-forgotten training variable that could help you unlock newfound strength and muscle: density.
Density refers to the amount of work performed in a given amount of time. You can increase your training density in one of two ways:
- Do more work in a given amount of time
- Do the same amount of work in less time
So if you squatted 315 for 5 sets of 5 in 30 minutes one week, and the next week you squatted 315 for 5 sets of 5 in 20 minutes, you increased your training density. Similarly, if you did 315 for 5×5 in 30 minutes the first week, then did 315 for 6×5 in 30 minutes the next week, you’ve also increased your density.
And while training efficiency is important for your squat, bench press and deadlift (what regular human has 3 hours to train every day?), we primarily use density training at The Strength House as our go-to method for hypertrophy.
As per the advice of many great coaches, such as Greg Nuckols and Josh Bryant, powerlifters should train like bodybuilders when they’re not working on the competition lifts. Bigger muscles means the potential to lift bigger weights.
What’s more, the squat, bench press and deadlift don’t provide much metabolic stress when trained heavy for low reps. What’s metabolic stress? Quite simply, it’s “the pump”. You know that burning feeling you get when a muscle becomes engorged with blood? It’s actually pretty important for muscle growth.
Here are 4 ways to increase your training density with a focus on hypertrophy:
Density circuits have become a staple in our Conquer program. Our lifters will tell you how much they love to hate these circuits. They’re brutal to perform, but the gains in muscle size and specific work capacity are second to none.
They’re also super simple: pick a handful of exercises, set the clock for a given amount of time and perform as many rounds as possible in that time. Each week, either keep the weights the same and perform more rounds, or increase the weight and try to perform the same number of rounds.
For example, here are two circuits we’ve used after our main lifts on squat and bench press days, respectively.
Max Rounds in 12 minutes
DB Reverse Lunge x 8/side
DB Bent-Over Rows x 8
Reverse Crunch x 8
DB Bench Press x 8
1-arm DB Rows x 8/side
Ab Wheel Rollouts x 8
Rest-pause sets use intra-set rest periods to help you squeak out extra reps beyond what you could do in a single set. Training to failure is a quick way to spark muscle growth but is often risky because technique can deteriorate quickly. Rest-pause sets let you push yourself close to failure while actually performing MORE total reps because of the brief rest periods.
We often use rest-pause sets on the bench press. High-rep and near-failure sets work better with the bench than with the squat and the deadlift, and often times these density sets are exactly what a lifter needs to break through a stubborn plateau.
Our preferred rest-pause method uses 3 “clusters” of as many reps as possible (AMRAP) as a single set, with 20 seconds rest between each cluster. Perform 2-3 total sets, resting 2-3 minutes between. We often use lighter weights (about 70% of 1RM) so the lifter can get 10-12 reps in the first cluster. For example:
- 70% x AMRAP (probably 10-12 reps)
- Rest 20 sec
- 70% x AMRAP (probably 2-3 reps)
- Rest 20 sec
- 70% x AMRAP (probably 1-2 reps)
- Rest for 2 minutes and repeat
Total Reps in Minimal Sets
Hypertrophy typically requires a certain number of TOTAL reps. By self-pacing to get to a certain number of reps with a given weight, you can increase training density over the course of several weeks by reaching your target reps in fewer sets.
For example, when we opened The Strength House, we knew we wanted to use pull-ups in our Conquer groups, but there was a drastic difference in the number of pull-ups people could do. Some lifters could do sets of 10 with ease, while others could only squeak out 2-3 at a time. Rather than prescribing exact sets and reps, we set a total number of reps (15-30, depending on the week) and let the lifters pace themselves.
So progress over several weeks might look something like this:
- Week 1: 20 total pull-ups in sets of 6, 6, 5 and 3.
- Week 2: 20 total pull-ups in sets of 8, 6, 4 and 2.
- Week 3: 20 total pull-ups in sets of 8, 8, and 4.
- Week 4: 20 total pull-ups in sets of 10 and 10.
While the total amount of work stayed the same, the lifter completed the work in fewer sets (and ideally less time, assuming rest periods are reasonable).
6 Reps for 6 minutes
Want to finish a muscle off like a Mortal Kombat fatality? Try the 6 reps for 6 minutes method. We’ll often use this with single-joint exercises for the arms or shoulders to finish an upper body day. Biceps curls, triceps pushdowns and lateral raises all fit the bill here.
- Pick a weight you could lift 10-12 times
- Perform 6 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Repeat for 6 minutes total
It may seem easy at first, but it gets rough quickly. Start light, and don’t stop til the clock hits 6 minutes!
Time is On Your Side
When it comes to density training, time is on your side if you manipulate it properly. The next time you want to spark new muscle growth, instead of adding weight or volume, try increasing your training density over the course of several weeks. If you can push yourself to beat the clock, you’ll end up bigger and stronger.
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