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How to Design Density Programs for Fat Loss

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...and why it's one of the most underappreciated training modalities on the gym floor.

Density training is easily one of my favorite training methods.

I’ve been using density for about a decade now, and practically every major program I’ve written features some type of density-based work for any number of goals.

Like most people, my first exposure to density training was with Charles Staley’s Escalating Density Training (EDT), which is designed for the purposes of hypertrophy. Charles being Charles, the program was fantastic and I gained some muscle every time I did it—but I also got noticeably leaner. When I started tweaking the density of my clients’ programming for added hypertrophy, I again noticed some fat loss.

Now I may be dense (I don’t need to tell you that pun was intended, do I?), but I realized that with a bit of modification, density-based training could be geared specifically for fat loss.

So I took the density concept, blended it with the other successful bits of my fat loss programs and—I’m not bullshitting you here—created one of the most effective fat loss training methods I’ve ever seen. I’ve been using it in my programs for most of my career, and some variation is featured in programs like Final Phase Fat Loss, Fat Loss Forever, The Super Hero Workout, and even my book, Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha

To say I lurve me some density training is an understatement, and I want you to lurve it, too.

And so today, I want to do something a little different: Rather than giving you some information and then hitting you with a workout, I figured it was about time to stop being greedy and share what I’ve learned.

Meaning: today I want to actually lay out my entire process for designing density based workouts for fat loss.

After this article, you’ll not only have a few new workouts to try, but you’ll have all the tools to design your own—Roman style.

So What the Heck Is Density Training?

First, you need to look at two very specific factors of training: volume and duration.

  • VOLUME is your total workload, or how many sets and reps you perform in a given workout. (Generally, sets x reps.) 
  • DURATION is the length of time your workout lasts.
  • TRAINING DENSITY, therefore, is a result of combining these two—how much work you do in given time frame.

There are a few ways to increase density, which we’ll cover, but first I want to address why this should be a variable you want to manipulate during your training. In addition to burning a ton of calories and gaining some muscles, by increasing the amount of work you do in a given amount of time, you also enhance your ability to do workwhat’s known as improving your work capacity.

This is certainly fantastic for fat loss, and while some may argue that this isn’t necessarily the “best” way to approach hypertrophy, the results are undeniable. Additionally, increasing training density helps to boost both strength and strength endurance, which has implications for muscle growth down the line.

Got it? Cool, so let’s look at how we get it goin’, as the kids say.

Increasing Density

Traditionally, there have been two ways to add to density:

Method 1: Keep Workload Static and Decrease Duration

If you’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps for squats, you’re doing 100 total reps. For the sake of argument, let’s say you perform this workout in 40 minutes. If I tell you that you must complete that workout in 30 minutes, that will call for a drastic increase in training density because I’m asking you to complete an identical amount of work in 25% less time. You’d also call me bad names.

Method 2: Keep the Duration Static and Increase Workload

Staying with that same example, you have another option: keep the duration static at 40 minutes, and simply try to do more work within that time period by adding more sets of squats. So rather than just doing 10 sets, you’d aim to complete as many sets as possible, ending up with 12 or even 15 sets.  (As an alternative, you could also add more reps to each set.)

In either case, in order to accomplish the goal while sticking to the parameters, you’d have to increase training speed and decrease rest periods. This would also increase your work capacity.

Density Training as a Fat Loss Method

In other versions of density training, the idea is to do a few exercises over a specific block of time and get as many reps per exercise as possible, seeking to beat those numbers in subsequent training sessions. And that truly is a fantastic method for gaining muscle with fat loss as a consequence.

However, when fat loss is the primary goal, I set things up differently.

As with nearly any great plan designed for drastic fat loss, I look to the old standby: Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT), or put another way, fast-paced circuits. First we select a series of exercises (more on this below) and set them up in a non-competing fashion.

Sounds like just about any MRT protocol, right? Wrong.

Instead of having a predetermined number of reps, you’re going to be performing each of these exercises for time—you simply have to do as many reps as you can in a given time period. That’s where density comes in. The idea is to perform more reps on each exercise, and that’s where the increase in density becomes a factor.

Now, here’s where it gets kooky: for your second circuit, you’ll be using heavier weight—sometimes, substantially heavier weight. Rather than just create density circuits, my programming takes advantage of some other cool things that happen when your body adapts and seems to get stronger instantly.

Not only are we seeking to increase reps, but also increase weight before we repeat a given exercise. Again, this is applied to all exercises within a circuit.

Here’s an example to illustrate:

Let’s say you did each of the following exercises for 30 seconds* each: overhead press, bent-over row, squat.

*NOTE: Depending on the exercises, you’ll vary the length of time in each set from exercise to exercise and circuit to circuit. Movements with a greater range of motion are done for longer periods of time than those with shorter movements. A chart is provided below.

In performing such a circuit, your results might look like this: 

  • Barbell Overhead Press:  100 pounds for 12 reps
  • Barbell Bent-over Row: 165 pounds for 15 reps
  • Barbell Squat: 185 pounds for 11 reps

Your second attempt at that circuit might look like this:

  • Barbell Overhead Press:  110 pounds for 15 reps
  • Barbell Bent-over Row: 190 pounds for 18 reps
  • Barbell Squat: 200 pounds for 14 reps

Now, how is it that you’re able to perform more reps with more weight? Simple: your nervous system is kicking ass. Essentially, you’re looking to increase neuromuscular activation.

This has been written about fairly extensively, so I won’t rehash too much. Suffice it to say that the degree to which you can stimulate your nervous system will have carry over to how much muscular force you can generate. The more neural activation you achieve, the easier it is to push heavier weights, because you’ll have an easier time recruiting muscle fibers to do the job.

Therefore, the purpose of the initial set is actually twofold: first, it establishes a baseline number of reps for all exercises, and gives you a frame of reference for performance as well as a goal. Second, and perhaps more importantly, your initial set serves as a neurological primer. The weight is relatively heavy on the first set and will certainly start the metabolic processes involved in fat loss, but the best part is you’ll be sparkling neural activation.

Your first set should be a bit of a feeler set—sort of a challenging working warm-up. But the limiting factor should be time, not fatigue.

That is, at the end of the first set on any circuit, the feeling should be, “Oh, damn, I ran out of time; I totally had a few more reps in me!” and not “Holy crap, that sucked! I can’t believe that was only 30 seconds!”

With the first set, pace yourself and move at a quick but steady clip. Don’t speed up as the clock winds down. Instead, just allow your pace to carry you through to the end of the set.

Your second set should be (if you’ll pardon my use of scientific jargon) balls to the wall. As you get toward the end, speed up and try to crank out as many reps as possible.

Overall, you’ll be lifting more weight for more reps in the same time period for an entire circuit of exercises. A few of these sets and you can see how fat loss—as well as the obvious increases in both efficiency and capacity—would be the end result.

The best part about density training is how fun it is. Because it’s challenge-based, you have an immediate goal every set and every workout: Do more than you did previously.

Additionally, this version of density training is instantly adaptable to any type of fat loss training. I’ve provided two density circuits below, one using weights, and one done with just bodyweight (which you can try right now, just to see how awesome this is). However, density training works with kettlebells, resistance bands, sandbags and pretty much anything else you feel worthy of lifting and lowering.

Of course, in the case of a bodyweight circuit, you may be saying,

“Wait a minute, Roman! You said we’re supposed the increase the weight. I can’t do that with bodyweight!”

That’s a very fair point. You’re going to make progress even without a weight increase, but to get the most out of a circuit or workout of that nature, I’d recommend using a harder variation of each exercise for the second circuit (going from regular push-ups to decline push-ups, for example).

The main thing is that you’re working harder with each progressive set, aiming to take the greatest advantage of neural activation possible to do more work and burn a metric crap-ton of calories.

As a further benefit (as if you hadn’t already figured it out), density training is exceptional for retention of lean mass.

Creating Density Workouts

Now that we’re clear on the method and the benefits, let’s talk training.

As previously stated, the goal of this article is to provide you with insight into how I utilize and design programs with this training method, as well as a template for creating your own density workouts.

To that end, let’s cover some basic rules for creating density workouts.

  • Each workout should consist of 2-3 individual circuits, each repeated a second time, for a total of 4-6 performed circuits. 
  • Each circuit should have no less than 3 but no more than 6 exercises.
  • Each circuit should have one of each of the following: A push, a pull, a dynamic leg movement (think lunges), a stationary leg movement (stiff leg deadlifts, for example) and some sort of abdominal movement (optional). This is more of a guideline than a rule.

Of course, the most important aspect for density circuits is the length of time for which you perform each exercise. While you can ultimately decide on any interval you want, the chart below illustrates the recommended times that I have found to be most effective for each type of exercise.

set up for density exercises

And, because I  looooove you and don’t want to leave you hanging, I’ve also designed two circuits for you to try out. (I’d love for you to give’em a shot and leave your thoughts in the comments section.)

Weighted Density Fat Loss Circuit

Set-up:  Perform A1 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. After this, perform A2 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. Continue this pattern for all exercises.  Rest 120s and repeat. For your SECOND circuit, INCREASE the weight by 10%-20% and REPEAT the exercises, trying to match or exceed the number of reps in that same allotted work duration.

density circuit with weights

 Perform this circuit at the end of a workout the day before your “off day”—trust me, you’re going to need the rest!

Bodyweight Density Fat Loss

Set-up:  Perform A1 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. After this, perform A2 for as many reps as possible during the prescribed work duration, then rest for the prescribed rest period, recording your reps. Continue this pattern for all exercises.  Rest 90s and repeat. For your SECOND circuit, REPEAT the exercises, trying to EXCEED your number of reps from the previous set.

density circuit bodyweight

Perform this circuit at the end of a weight training workout to give you some extra work, or just when you’re home and don’t feel like going to gym.

Closing Thinkingzez and SOUND OFF

Although manipulating training density was originally designed for hypertrophy, we’ve seen that with a bit of ingenuity we can further modify the idea for fat loss. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is one of the best fat loss training methods I’ve come across, and certainly one of the best I’ve designed.

And remember, if you’re interested in the best of the best when it comes to density workouts, several are featured prominently in my new book, Engineering the Alpha, which is currently available on Amazon.

Engineering the Alpha

In any case, density workouts are fun, challenging and extremely effective.

Try your hand at designing your own and post them below – if we get just 25 COMMENTS, I’ll go through and personally critique the first 50 workouts and give you my feedback. 

note: a shorter version of this article
was published at T-Nation.com
About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • BetaKing69

    Hi John, my question may be difficult to answer. I was wondering if the evidence behind the two methods (increase workload vs work rate) was based on a survival system of fight vs flight mental processes?

  • Elton Toledo

    Yo, Great workout Mr. Roman.
    My question is, is this effective to increase VO2? I keep reading on how circuits may increase VO2. Such as MRT, Strength circuits, Giants compound sets, HIIT, Dumbbell complexes, Barbell Complexes etc. All these training techniques are very similar. Sorry to drag out the question but are these training styles good for VO2, muscular endurance, athletes ( soccer) ?

    • BetaKing69

      Personally, I found that these will increase your VO2 the same way that lifting heavy gives you a pump. They are both indicators of a level of exertion. The same way that lifting effectively and efficiently can give you a pump, increasing your oxygen intake effectively and efficiently will increase your VO2 max.

      If you want cardio results the pillars are active lifestyle, positive thinking and frequently elevated excercise intensity. When your fitness improves, your heart rate and your VO2 max become wonderful health benefits.

      • Elton Toledo

        Hey Betaking, thanks for the reply. So from my understand is resistance circuit training can lead to an improve in max VO2? I understand the first paragraph you wrote but honestly the bottom sort of threw me off. I mean I get overall if your fitness improves so does your health.

        How would you prescribe a endurance circuit. aim for high reps? short rest periods?

        • BetaKing69

          Wrote a response in paragraph 2, a suggestion at the bottom and more thoughtful commentary if you are interested.

          First, It’s almost impossible to give good advice without designing a program like John has done here! I’d recommend something similar to his because it is important to be stimulated mentally and physically and have comradeship. I’m planning on using his ramp up to metabolic resistance training with clients because its better then the baseline test our gym does!

          On to your question, I was roughly quoting Shad Forsythe, definitely look him up. He believes that peak performance is based on mentality, nutrition, movement and recovery and he’s at the forefront of recovery techniques not found on most sites.

          I wanted to give you some universal tips for work rate that weren’t specific to this program…in case you choose another one. Because vo2 max is somewhat impossible to master, but it makes sense that athletes bodies are better at turning potential energy into the real thing doesnt it?

          In order to improve your VO2 max there are three wishes you can make and they are all very straight forward.
          1.increasing your breathing rate (still breathing deeply)
          2. increasing lung size (make yourself pant…but over 75% effort for 30 min straight is a general wall for us)
          3. weigh less (have a healthy weight because vo2 needs access to sugars and fats).

          The best gauge for free is knowing when your lungs are being challenged, expanding, burning fuel.
          If you want to pay to improve endurance, bikers, swimmers and joggers stand by “having an EMR test is the best way to learn about VO2 performance” because diet and sugar intake is relevant (my free advice is your vo2 can increase by simply having good amounts of water prior to competition) Breath through your nose more also.

          And personally, I think if you need results soon then sprint intervals are the absolute best approach to improving VO2. (like ivan drago) with different levels of difficulty being put together into a circuit. (sprinting 95% for 100 metres, 80% 200 metres 60% 400 metres 40% 400 metres break) repeat x4

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  • Sam

    Roman,
    Question on repetition speed. In your example you said overhead press for 30 seconds then gave an example of 100 pounds for 12 reps. This would mean that your repetition speed is relatively fast (around 2.5 seconds per rep). With these workouts do you believe that you should speed up reps in comparison to the speed you might use in a normal strength workout ?

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  • Marco

    HI
    great workout. I have one question about the weights i have to choose…
    If i want to to the exerc. in a good form during the whole time i have to choose lower weight, like in classic muscle building workouts. But than i´ll do more reps than 15 or 17. – is it ok for muscle building??
    If i higher the weight, that i am only able to do max. 10 – 12 reps during the time. i cant do the exc. in a “liquid” (??) motion during the whole time period
    I heard the heavy weights with less reps are better for muscle building:
    What i have to choose??
    Sorry for my english – Marco from germany

  • John Matulevich

    This seems very similar to the program I designed for Muscle and Strength, (http://www.muscleandstrength.com/workouts/density-giant-set-training-v2) great minds think alike I suppose.

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  • Augie S

    Quick question about Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. Let’s face it, about 3/4 of training and physique goals are determined by what you eat. Is there a nutrition/diet component in the new book?

    • Hey Augie, there is a full nutritional plan complete with sample meal plans =)

    • Augie S

      Bueller…Bueller…

      • Hey Augie – yup, diet is completely outlined in the book.

  • melkon

    double kb complex-

    3clean-3squat-3 press-rest 1:30

    5×3-6×3-7×3-8×3-9×3-10×3 move up to heavier bells

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  • RJ

    Everytime you exercise and loose fat, it is hard to keep a paper and write every single exercise. I use a branded wristband from Amiigo to track every single exercise I do. It has a shoe clip too so it can track things like swimming and cycling apart from bicep, tricep or any hand movement exercise. Its a great product and gives points for doing different exercises which can be shared with other people in the gym or with friends. Go Amiigo!

  • Nice article Roman. I have one question about this method. How do you deal with what I would assume would be a natural tendency for many to push the envelope in a time based workout by essentially letting their form go to shit? With someone doing an online program that seems like a piece which could lead to injury relatively easily. Have you run into this much?

  • Steve

    Just curious, why is the kindle edition of your new book more expensive than the physical copy? I prefer ebooks but not when they are more expensive.

    • That’s odd! The ebook should be about 30% cheaper. I dunno, bru. Gotta be a glitch on Amazon. Thank you for letting me know.

  • A1 Floor Press 35 Seconds
    A2 Sumo Deadlift 30 Seconds
    A3 Side-to-side Pull-ups 45 Seconds
    A4 Hand walkout 50 seconds
    A5 Bench Jumps 35 Seconds

    B1 Lunberjack Press 30 Seconds
    B2 Front Squats 35 Seconds
    B3 Explosive switch Row 40 Seconds
    B4 Push up Position Spiderman Plank 45 Seconds

    C1 Y-Press 35 Seconds
    C2 DB Hammer Curl 40Seconds
    C3 Funky Chicken 30 Seconds

    10-15 seconds rest between exercises

  • Ben Briar

    Lovin the article, man, just pre-ordered your book. Killin’ it!

  • Dim

    John, tell me, why “no more than 6 exercises” in one circuit and “2-3 individual circuits” in one workout?
    I mean, is it inappropriate to use only 1 individual circuit of 10 exercises with fixed rest/work time repeated 3 times total ?
    Here is the example, wich you’ve seen, maybe )
    1. Goblet Squat 60sec work/15sec rest
    2. Mountain Climber 60sec work/15sec rest
    3. Alternating Single Arm Swing 60sec work/15sec rest
    4. T-Push-up 60sec work/15sec rest
    5. Jump Lunges 60sec work/15sec rest
    6. Dumbbell Row 60sec work/15sec rest
    7. Alternating Side (Latera) Lunge 60sec work/15sec rest
    8. Push-up Position Row 60sec work/15sec rest
    9. Lunge & Rotation 60sec work/15sec rest
    10. Dumbbell Push Press 60sec work/15sec rest
    120sex rest and repeat 2 more times
    And it wil be very cool to know your opinion about this one circut!
    Thanks!!!

    • Well, if you look at the way you have it laid out, you’re doing 10 minutes of actual work, separated by only 15 seconds of rest.

      You just won’t be able to perform at that level, especially on your second set.

      • Dim

        John,thanks!
        And what is your opinion about using, let’s call it, “heart rate level” (next HRL) as a direction for rest period? I mean, one should rest until achieve a certain HRL after finishing an exercise, and only then goes on. So the rest period is determined by individual’s ability.
        Will this approach give any incentives for phisical progress ?

      • Dim

        John, thanks!!!
        And what is your opinion about using, let’s call it, “heart rate level” (next HRL) as a directions for rest period? I mean, one should rest until achieve a certain HRL after finishing an exercise, and only then goes on. So the rest period is determined by individual’s ability.
        will this approach give any incentives for phisical progress ?

  • Mike Whitfield

    Ahhh yeah, Density Workouts. You sir, have been an inspiration to many of my finishers using this style. Your Final Phase Fat Loss system was a big impact. Awesome stuff as always Roman.

    – Mike

  • Eugene Zuger

    A1) low box jump 20sec / 10sec rest A2) DB squat in front rack pos. 30/20 A3) Renegade row 30/20 A4) TRX pikes 20/ 90 then repeat 2 more times
    B1) Plyo push up 10/20 B2) alt db bench press 30/20 B3) band pull aparts 30/20 B4) Burpee 30/90 then repeat 2 more times

    C1) Db hang clean to oh press 20/10 C2) Db RDL 30 /20 C3) chin up 30/20 C4)Plank with resistance band 30/ 90 repeat 4 moe times

  • Love the workouts mate. I’ve found that working for time is great as it really pushes you harder. To many people just go thru the motions and do the prescribed number of reps.

  • Sophie

    I love your workouts Roman and am currently doing the ZAW course.

    When are you going to write a book similar to Man 2.0 for girls?

    • Funny you should ask! That one–tentatively titled Woman 2.0–will be released in late 2014 =)

      • Sophie

        Wonderful! Thanks so much Roman!!!