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Improve Both Cardio and Strength With Density Training

By July 16, 2013January 13th, 20172 Comments

Don’t let conventional wisdom fool you—you can train both at the same time

A lot of trainees and trainers believe you should only train cardio and strength separately: do your heavy lifts first, and then – or on a separate day – do your steady-state aerobic exercise or intense interval training.

And when you train strength, it’s important to take a few minutes of rest between each set to make sure you have enough power and energy to go again. Because this is strength training, not cardio – right?

It turns out, with just a stopwatch (and a little bravery), we can break out of that template and achieve both simultaneously and in less time than ever before. Sounds too good to be true?

Enter density training.

What Is ‘Density Training?’

Density training is a training program where you do as many sets as possible of a few exercises in a circuit fashion and in a specified time limit. Created by renowned strength coach, Charles Staley, this method (originally called “Escalating Density Training”) simplifies your training goal:

If you do more reps or weight than before within the same timeframe, you’ve gotten stronger and bigger. Period. You’ve also improved your cardio and muscular endurance too.

To him, there was no substitute for doing more each workout.

Since then, density training evolved in its time limits, exercises, rep ranges, and training goals. One in particular – pioneered by Robert dos Remedios – gives us the best total-body workout, size, strength, and metabolic effect.

It’s called “circuit escalating density training.”

How It Works

With circuit escalating density training, choose five exercises that target different muscle groups, pick a challenging weight (approximately your 10-12RM), perform 8 reps of each, and cycle through as many times as you can in a specific time limit – depending on your fitness level, you’ll use time intervals of 10, 15, 20, or 25 minutes.

Your goal is to move as fast as you can through the workout. When you finish, lie down, wipe off your sweat, and count how many sets you did. Your target is to average about one minute per set – by maintaining that pace, you find a balance between challenging weights and consistent improvements.

If you finished at a faster pace than one minute per set, increase the weights for the next workout. If you finished at a slower pace, the weights are too heavy at the moment; either keep trying or drop the weight.

Choosing The Exercises

Choose one exercise from each of the following categories:

  • Knee-dominant or hip-dominant
  • Upper-body pull
  • Upper-body push
  • Core
  • Explosive

A few examples of each:

  • Front squat – Trap bar deadlift – Reverse lunges – Romanian deadlift – Split squat – Single leg squat
  • Inverted rows – Pullups – Dumbbell rows – Cable rows
  • Overhead press – Pushups – Push press – Dips – Dumbbell bench press
  • Body saws – Rollouts – Cable woodchops – Jackknifes
  • Kettlebell swings – Hang power cleans – Medicine ball slams – High pulls

Don’t see an exercise on the list? As long as it fits the categories, use it – just make sure it’s not too complex or difficult to set up. You want to still move the weight safely as you fatigue and jump to exercises with little delay.

For the explosive exercises, however, don’t go too heavy as to compromise technique; instead, choose a weight that’s tough, but not bone-crushing.


Strength And Size

With circuit escalating density training, you’ll use a weight equal to your 10-12RM for 8 reps. To see how intense that is, let’s use the back squat as an example and add some numbers:

If your 10-12RM on the back squat is 225lb, your 8RM is about 240lb – 260lb. By doing 225lb for 8 reps during the density-training workout, you’re pushing 86 – 94% of your relative max with each set.

With that intensity, you’ll gain some serious strength.

The volume from density training also targets hypertrophy. A 20-minute density-training routine, for example, should ideally do 4 sets of 8 reps with each exercise – under normal rest conditions (60 – 90 seconds between sets), that’s already a solid routine to build size.

Now, by eliminating that rest and still keeping the weights heavy, we create a bigger stimulus for growth on the body because we’ll fatigue the hell out of the muscles.

Huge Cardiovascular Effect

Some trainees find that their cardio holds them back during density training, not their strength – thus, they run out of breath and take long breaks to recover.

That’s because your ability to display strength, power, and endurance as the clock ticks relies heavily on your anaerobic system. During an intense density-training workout, it’ll work like a beast to supply the energy to your muscles to keep going.

You’ll know that your cardio improved when you start doing more work in less time. It also shows gains in muscular endurance because it’ll take more work to fatigue.

Your heart rate will also skyrocket for the entire workout – if that isn’t cardio, I don’t know what is.

Kicks your ass

Density training ain’t easy – it’s heavy, it’s intense, and it tests your physical and mental limits. Worse, once it gets easier, you have to make it harder just to maintain the one set per minute average.

Good thing it’s over fast.


With density training, you have a goal to beat every time. There’s no way to get around it – your weights are in front of you, your timer is set, and your target is there. You just have to move.

Also, because there’s a time limit, you will push harder. Unlike a typical strength workout where you finish when all your scheduled sets and reps are done, a density workout ends when time runs out. And if, for example, there’s only three minutes left and you’re behind pace, you’re going to bust your ass to finish strong and beat what you did last time.

“Times up!”

For those who want to boost your strength and cardio, density training lets you have your cake and eat it too. Start light and with a shorter duration – as it gets easier and you beat the one-minute-per-set pace, slowly increase the weight. Then start shooting for longer workout durations.

You might surprise yourself with how quickly you progress.

Give it a shot and tell me what you think.

Anthony Yeung

Author Anthony Yeung

Anthony Yeung, CSCS, is a Los Angeles-based strength coach, fitness writer, online consultant, and nerd. Featured at STACK, the Personal Trainer Development Center, and ConFITdent, Anthony specializes in movement-based strength and conditioning.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Kyle Hoffman says:

    I’m just gonna stick to the traditional RPT training with ample rest and maximize my IF output to lose body fat. It just seems like you might start sacrificing good form when you feel rushed. Kinda like Crossfit.

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