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Today, I come to you with a gift—a gift that money can’t buy:
Oh boy, barely 20 words in and already two memes; I really thought I was better than that...
Anyway, in this article, I will teach you how to optimize your training density. Training density simply refers to how much work (volume) you’re able to perform in a given time period. There are two basic ways of improving training density:
And how does that lead to more muscle? Well, for one, quicker workouts are easier to adhere to and increased adherence will typically lead to increased muscle. And secondly, once you have that additional time freed up, you now have the option of increasing the volume of your workout by performing additional sets and reps.
Now, whether or not you actually need to perform more volume is another point entirely (see here for more info), but sooner or later, that 40 minutes it takes you to finish your Starting Strength routine isn’t going to cut it anymore.
And for those of us with jobs, families, and all the other wonderful responsibilities of adulthood to deal with, optimizing the efficiency of your workouts is a great way to make the gym an easier commitment for your busy lifestyle.
I’ve had some of my online clients shave up to 30-40 minutes off their workouts by following the strategies outlined below, so if that sounds like something that interests you, keep reading!
Training Density Tip #1: Get in the Zone
The amount of time I see being wasted at the gym is absurd. Now don’t get me wrong, if you’ve got the time and you don’t mind long workouts, then do your thing, but I don’t think that’s the case for most. When I look around the average gym, I see a distinct lack of focus. People wandering around, chatting, looking at their phones…not the best use of time if you’re trying to be efficient!
Here are some quick tips for staying “in the zone” and focused while you workout:
All kidding aside, if you are serious about gaining muscle, try showing a little more discipline and focus while working out—this will not only save you time, it will increase the quality of your sessions. Following these tips is a good first step, but it’s really your mindset and attitude that will make the difference. The phone and the excessive socializing are just the symptoms.
Training Density Tip #2: The Quick Warmup
I tend to see two extremes with warmups: Either people don’t do them at all, or they do way too much. Don't be that guy who claims the squat rack and then proceeds to do 20 minutes of foam rolling before hitting a 3x12 on squats. Most people will do just fine with 5-10 minutes for their general warmup. All your warmup needs to do is get your core temperature up a bit and move your joints through a range of motion similar to the movements you’ll be performing that day.
My first tip for a quicker warmup is to dress in layers. This is especially important for the colder months. A warm hoodie plus some sweats will help you get nice and warm quickly and has the added benefit of hiding your body until you’ve got a nice pump going.
As far as an actual warmup, here’s a quick full body one that will work for many:
This may look like a lot but it goes quickly and shouldn't take much longer than 5 minutes to perform.
Utilize your rest periods for movement specific prep/additional warmup:
If you’d like to shorten your warmup even more, here’s a nice trick. Only warmup for the exercise you’re about to perform. So, if you were doing squats first, you’d leave out the upper body warmup movements and just stick to the lower body. Then, during the rest periods of your squats, you can perform the upper body warmups. This will save you some time and is low intensity enough to not interfere with your recovery for squats.
Training Density Tip #3: Optimize Your Rep Ranges For Volume Accumulation
The same people I hear complaining about not being able to put on size are often the ones who are taking an hour to perform 10 sets of 3 on the bench press with full rest periods because they don’t want to have big, puffy bodybuilder muscles that “don’t do anything.”
And yes, while it’s true that studies have shown if you equate for volume, low rep strength work can be effective for hypertrophy, it doesn’t quite play out like that in the real world.
Let’s take the study linked above for example. Here's the last sentence of the abstract (cause that's all you need to read, right?):
"In conclusion, this study showed that both bodybuilding- and powerlifting-type training promote similar increases in muscular size, but powerlifting-type training is superior for enhancing maximal strength."
If you just read the abstract, your takeaway might be simply that both approaches (3x10 vs. 7x3) resulted in similar increases in muscle size, but that the powerlifting style workout resulted in greater strength gains.
So, a clear win for the 7x3 group right? You get the best of both worlds—hypertrophy and strength!
Not so fast…
If you actually dig in and read the study, you’ll see that of the 10 participants in the low rep “strength” group, two had to drop out due to injuries and they also reported greater overall mental and physical fatigue. But here's the real rub:
The volume-equated, lower rep workouts took substantially longer to perform (1 hour versus 17 minutes!).
The hypertrophy group performing 3x10 was artificially handicapped for the sake of the study so that volume could be equated.
I’m willing to bet the results would have been quite different had the time and/or effort had been equated and the 3x10 group was allowed to perform additional volume.
The reason 8-12 reps is often cited as the sweet spot for hypertrophy is not because anything lower in reps doesn’t work, it’s because it’s simply very efficient way to accumulate lots of volume. And, based on the current literature, volume is the variable most closely associated with muscle growth!
So, for maximal volume accumulation in minimal time, consider performing the majority of your reps in the 6-15 rep range.
Training Density Tip #4: Reduce Your Rest Periods (The Right Way)
So, here's the thing, research has shown that longer rest intervals seem to be optimal for both strength and hypertrophy. 2-3+ minutes rest on average between major compounds (up to 5-10 minutes if you're really going heavy) and at least 60-90+ seconds between isolation exercises is a good place to start.
Using short rest intervals makes your workouts feel tough and will get your heart rate up, BUT it will also limit the amount of weight you're able to lift as fatigue accumulates.
You will increase metabolic fatigue, but lose out on mechanical tension (arguably the most important component of muscle growth).
So how do we balance what is optimal (long rest periods) with what is practical (getting in and out of the gym quickly)?
Antagonist paired sets!
Antagonist paired sets (APS) are similar to supersets but differ in a couple important ways:
Generally, a "superset" is when you move right from one exercise to the next without resting. Often, this exercise is for the same body part—performing dumbbell bench press and then moving directly into dumbbell flyes, for example. Unfortunately, this type of superset has the same drawbacks as using short rest intervals...
Because you're not resting AND you're hitting the same muscle again right away, you'll have to use much less weight than you would normally and performance suffers.
Again, not ideal from a strength and muscle building perspective.
In APS, you alternate between exercises that work OPPOSING muscle groups (chest/back, triceps/biceps, hamstrings/quads, etc). You also REDUCE the rest period rather than eliminating it.
Here's what it looks like:
· Bench Press Set One: 10 reps
· Rest 60 seconds (as opposed to 2 minutes)
· Barbell Row Set One: 10 reps
· Rest 60 seconds
· Bench Press Set Two: 10 reps
· Rest 60 seconds
· Barbell Row Set Two: 10 reps
· Rest 60 seconds
You are essentially using the rest periods of one exercise to perform another exercise that works the opposing muscles, chest versus back in this example. This method of supersetting your exercises will still allow you to save a significant amount of time but your performance won't tank. In fact, some research suggests performance may improve slightly!
This is because as your chest is resting, it is being moved passively through a similar range of motion as you perform the barbell row. The back muscles are doing all the work, but they take the pressing muscles along for the ride. This may lead to some active recovery that would not have been present otherwise.
I learned about the concept of antagonist paired sets from this video by Eric Helms in case you'd like to learn more about it.
So, if you’re still doing bro splits (chest day, back day, arms, etc.), you might want to reconsider; in fact, even if you’re doing God’s gift to aesthetics, the fabled “push/pull/legs” split, you’re still missing out.
In terms of increasing training volume through optimizing workout density, both those splits leave something to be desired because they don’t allow for APS to be performed.
If you’re performing a “push” workout for example, all your shoulder work (with the exception of lateral raises) would interfere with your chest movements. Same with triceps. So, while you could superset to save time, you wouldn’t be able to perform APS.
Full body; upper/lower; or even the 70s "chest/back, shoulders/arms, legs type splits," however, provide ample opportunities to perform APS.
A couple more things to consider:
Key Takeaways For Optimizing Training Density:
I mentioned an “easy trick” in the title of the article. In truth, there’s nothing easy about building muscle: it takes dedication, discipline, and lots and lots of TIME...
But if there was a nice piece of low-hanging fruit on the muscle-building tree of gainz, this is it.
Optimizing your workout density without sacrificing your performance is going to free up time you didn’t think you had. I’ll often hear high volume routines be criticized because, you know…
Well, now you do.
Use it wisely.
What time saving tips do you use to get in and out of the gym more quickly?
Drop a comment below!