Density Training – More Work in Less Time


Density Training – How to do More Quality Work in less Time

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If you follow some of my writings, you will know that I view every single exercise as a separate potential form of adaptation. The more exercises you do, the more total volume you are performing, and the more ability to adapt to different movements (myelinate different pathways). This increased movement ability and myelination translates into increased strength at every joint, not just squat and bench, joint and muscle endurance by doing more reps with every muscle and joint, and arguably most importantly, increased ability to acquire sport specific skills. What many people would consider “accessory” work, in my view, is simply an extension of the totality of the training program. Its all important!

Think of the brain as a computer motherboard. If every exercise you do sends another wire to the muscles to increase ability to perform different movements, wouldn’t more wires be more beneficial for acquiring sport specific abilities when training?

Force production and maximal strength are huge in athletics, and MUST be focused on. However, just because you are training those doesn’t mean you cannot increase the density of your training and acquire the benefits of more exercises (more ability for adaptation). It all comes down to how you structure your training program and teach your athletes, and the pace you are willing to train at.

Lets say we have two example programs: a program designed to increase the squat, bench, deadlift and clean, and a high density program that spreads its training emphasis around. With the first example, lets say we use a Westside template, with the main lift and 3-4 accessory movements per day. If using this program, your squat increases 5% faster than an athlete who follows a high density program that spends less time focusing on the squat and bench and more time on joint by joint, total body development, does that make your program better? Does having that simple measurable analytic of “my guys squat more than yours” make your training regime for athletes a success?

The answer to that question is it all depends on context and the population. For powerlifting, 5% is a huge margin of increase and would absolutely be appropriate. For athletes, the opportunity cost spent increasing that extra 5% in squat strength comes at the expense of training the body for athletic development. Instead, focusing on a joint-by-joint approach and more sporting specific actions and less on eeking out additional gains in the main lifts will give a much higher return on the energy investment in terms of on field play. Ask yourself, at what point does the investment no longer net a usable return, and how can you adjust the investment to make it more effective? In addition, the time spent developing that maximal strength could have been used focused on more specific qualities such as speed and power.

If you adjust your program to be higher frequency, higher density, you can achieve great general strength gains in the main lifts IN CONJUNCTION with the additional adaptation resulting from doing more exercises. An example would be using a 3×3 Tier program with slightly lower than normal main tier volume, followed by high volume “accessory” work (2×15, 2×20 etc) addressing all the joint and sport specific actions needed by those athletes (see article on specialized exercises).

You could even follow a DUP High Frequency Model for higher end athletes, or a 1×20 Model for low to moderate end athletes. You can mix these various protocols together and measure your result, using a Tier 3×3 followed by 1×20 Training! Being creative and always looking for the best, most optimal and research backed way to accomplish the specific task at hand is what makes a great floor coach into a great programming coach.

Take a look at these two programs. The first is a low total volume program with emphasis on training the main lifts.


The second has taken this first one and tied in a bunch of supersets and various training options to increase the amount of work completed during the hour.


With smart structuring, the quality of the main lifts will stay the same, as more single joint and simple action exercises do not require full recovery for execution, and are not very high stress items on the nervous system, so they should not affect recovery between sets. In addition, by using lower dosing and higher rep sets, you can do fewer sets and still accomplish same total volume. For less intensive exercises, quality exposure to the movement is significantly more important than a defined sets and reps. Further proof of this can be found by looking at research on multi set lifting. Multi set lifting always makes you stronger, the more sets the more strength you gain, as we all know. But in a team setting, this extra work has a fast diminishing return and a huge opportunity cost of time. Get the most bang for your buck from your training exercises and move on.

Using this model and shifting your mindset from “bigger squat” to “stronger body”, you will see amazing returns.

1. Use more exercises, in more creative ways. Every exercise is a new potential stressor and form of adaptation. Take advantage of that!

  1. Increase total training volume of the workout with supersets and active recovery exercises.
  2. Focus on the end goal, and how to get there. If athleticism is key, make your program build that.
  3. Learn and integrate different training models and modalities, even if they seem crazy!
  4. Focus less on sets and reps and more on quality execution of lots of exercises. One or two sets of higher reps is more than sufficient to cause or retain a physiological adaptation. Don’t overthink this part.

About the author 

Steve Olson, MS, CSCS

Steve is a strength and conditioning coach, gym owner, and founder and CEO of Strength Coach Pro. Prior to founding SCP, Steve owned Excel Training Designs, a company created to help coaches better learn and use Excel for programming. Steve also owns a strength and conditioning gym in Cary, NC, and has his bachelors and masters in Exercise Science.

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