Bulk Up With Training Density
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Advanced lifters looking for ways to keep packing on the muscle may find that chasing volume and intensity isn't enough anymore. Training density may be just what they need to stimulate new muscle growth and break out of a stubborn plateau. Better yet, it'll help you build more muscle in less time, and may even help you lean out a bit.
When More is More
Your body doesn't want any more muscle. It's expensive (metabolically speaking), and your body is lazy, er... conservative. Put more scientifically your body is a tremendously efficient system concerned with maintaining homeostasis. There's an evolutionary reason it's so easy for us to store fat and so hard for us to build muscle; fat stores protect us from famine, while muscle mass is a bit of a luxury item. If and when things go south we're stuck paying a metabolic tax on all that muscle in the form of calories.
What's that mean for anyone looking to put on a little size? We're gonna need to apply enough stress to our body to convince it to do what we want.
Whether you've thought of it in those terms or not, you've put this principle into action.
Making a muscle move a weight is a source of stress. Making it move more weight, or move it more times increases the stress. That's the thinking behind every halfway bodybuilding decent program in existence. In the training field we refer to this as progressive overload—gradually and continually subjecting a system (in this case muscle) to increasing and unfamiliar stress. That stress, combined with adequate recovery, results in an adaptation, be that bigger muscles, less body fat, or a more efficient cardiovascular system.
When you put more weight on the bar, squeeze out an extra rep, decide to try four sets instead of three, or even throw a new exercise onto the end of your workout you're applying progressive overload and essentially forcing your body to adapt. Adaptation is the name of the game (literally in our case).
In each of these cases—up to a point—more is better. More weight, more reps, more sets... all of these add to the total volume of work performed. In physics work is defined as the product of weight and distance; moving more weight, moving it farther, or doing a bit of both ups the volume. ("Distance" can be a little confusing here, but think about your bench press: if you move the bar 18 inches 10 times you've moved that weight 180 inches.)
Increasing volume is a pretty good formula for building muscle, and a lot of lifters have seen a lot of progress by manipulating a combination of variables to do just that. But what happens when you reach the upper limits of volume? There's a concept known as "maximum recoverable volume", beyond which adding to the total workload is actually detrimental. Again, whether or not you're familiar with the concept, you may have stumbled across its effects. If all you're working with is the combination of volume and intensity, at some point your gains will slow or stall, resulting in the dreaded plateau.
When Less is More
Well, congratulations. If you've run into this particular wall of diminishing returns then you've done some serious work. And chances are you've got some good muscle to show for it. But if simply adding weight, reps, or sets (either in the form of additional exercises or just more of the stuff you're already doing) isn't getting it done anymore, where do you turn?
Years ago I'd hit this very same wall for the first time. I was convinced that novelty was the solution; I just needed to find more and more obscure versions of the exercises I was doing to stimulate new muscle growth. Muscle confusion, right? Not so much. The only thing I confused was myself, and I wasted more workouts than I'd like to admit chasing down a road to nowhere. And if my Instagram feed is any indication, you've probably done some of the same. Every day I run across "new" and novel exercises guaranteed to be the missing piece of the puzzle for everything from abs and biceps to pecs and glutes. There's a better way.
Instead of looking for some hidden gem of an exercise (if it worked that well word would get out, right?), or burying yourself under an avalanche of volume, try increasing your work density.
Density In Action
So if work density is so powerful, why isn't it used more? Because it's hard. It requires (among other things) that you to put your phone away—or at least start using it as a stopwatch—and get back to work. While there's no substitute for experience, it's easy enough to outline.
The concept is simple: do the same amount of work in less time. Sometimes all you need to do is to start timing your rest-periods ("It's really been 8 minutes!?"). Sometimes density comes from structure: I've used a ton of different protocols that build density into the workout, ranging from circuit training (not just for Grandma) to supersets , complexes, and timed work blocks (Stay tuned for more here... I've got something fun in the works!) Whatever the source of the density, it's effects can be profound. And just like volume and intensity, it's measurable. Simply divide the total work done by the total time taken.
If I lift 10,000 pounds in an hour, my work density is 167 pounds per minute. If I manage the same volume but do it in half the time my work density jumps to 333 pounds per minute.
That's double. I don't know about you, but I don't often double my volume or my intensity. But doubling my work density? Absolutely doable. And that change represents a pretty serious threat to my body. Its solution? More muscle.
But Wait, There's More!
One noteworthy side effect of some of the more intense methods of building more density into a workout is a responsive surge in human growth hormone. There seems to be a fairly strong correlation between blood lactate and growth hormone. Blood lactate is a byproduct of anaerobic glycolysis, one of the body's three strategies for energy production. This system becomes more dominant as energy needs rise beyond the body's ability to meet them aerobically, and the downstream effect is a surge in a powerful hormone that not only stimulates growth (hey, the name isn't creative, but it's helpful) but also aids in fat metabolism.
Caution and Common Sense
If you do the math, it won't take you long to realize that lighter weights done for higher reps with less rest is an easy recipe for work density. The problem is, that doesn't really move the hypertrophy needle. Think of volume, intensity, and density as the "big three" of gaining muscle: each one is good on its own, but together they're unstoppable.
The second caveat is that some of the more extreme methods of building density into a program are just that: extreme. I've messed around with protocols that had me lifting 70,000 pounds in just over 35 minutes (of running time). That's definitely a case of being good in small doses. Without some planning, too much density will chew you up and spit you out like nothing else; exhaustion, injury, and overtraining are right around the corner.
Other Factors To Consider
Volume, intensity, and density aren't the only factors determining the effectiveness of a program aimed at building more muscle. In the right doses and with the right intent, novelty, time under tension, velocity, power, frequency and more can all help or hurt your muscle-building efforts.
It can be a lot to manage, but doesn't need to be overwhelming. Having said that, the difference between a good program and a great one comes down to details like this, and if you're serious about getting the most out of every set and rep, consider letting us help.
There's a lot to digest here, and a ton of ways to keep your training fresh and effective for years to come. For now, here are a few ways to put the underlying concept into action when you hit the gym tomorrow.
Time your rest periods. If you aren't doing this, I can all but guarantee you're taking longer than you expect. Keep things brisk: anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes between sets.
Supersets. I mentioned that structure determines density: this is an oldie but goodie. Two opposing movements (push pull is a favorite) done with no rest between them.
Circuit training. One of the toughest workouts I've ever done in my life was built around a circuit.
Heart-rate mediated training. As soon as your heart rate comes down to a certain level (I've seen good results with 130bpm) it's time to start your next set.
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