The Basics of Training for Size, Part 4: Escalating Density and Total Rep Workouts

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The most advanced training modalities for mass

Don’t miss the previous installments of this series:

Part 1: The High Rep Approach / Part 2: The Low Rep Approach / Part 3: High Intensity Training and Hypertrophy Specific Training 

Over the last three installments of this series, I have shared some basic and intermediate training protocols with you, alluded to above. Today, in the final chapter, I am giving you two of the big boys.

I want to discuss two relatively new but highly effective programming methods. Each written by a top tier strength coach, the systems you are about to read about fly in the face of traditional models.

Escalating Density Training

Escalating Density Training (EDT) is a training protocol developed by Charles Staley sometime around 2002, and it’s spread like wildfire ever since.

While most people tend to mostly look at load (weight) and volume (sets x reps), EDT looks at density.

This refers to the total amount of work completed within a specific time frame; each successive workout, you aim to achieve more work in that same time period. (Escalating density, get it?) This was progressive overload in a whole new way.

Here’s how it works.


Each workout consists of two 20-minute time frames separated by a short (5-10 minute) rest period. In each time frame, you’ll perform two exercises, for a total of 4 exercises per workout.

In each time frame, the two exercises are performed in alternating fashion, back and forth, until the time frame has elapsed.

After warming up the first two exercises, select a load that approximates a 10-12 rep max for each exercise. Ideally, the weight used for each exercise should be equally difficult.

Sets, reps, and rest intervals

Generally speaking, most people find it most effective to do higher repetition (but not maximal effort) sets and shorter rests at the beginning, and then gradually progress to fewer reps per set and longer rests as fatigue accumulates.

As an example, you might begin by performing sets of 6 reps with very short (15-30 second) rests. As you begin to fatigue, you’ll rest more frequently and lift less frequently, increasing your rest intervals as you drop down to sets of 4 reps, then 2 reps, and as the 20-minute time limit approaches, you might crank out a few singles in an effort of accomplish as many repetitions as possible in 20 minutes.

Do not perform early sets to failure, or even near failure. My recommended starting point is to do 1/2 of what is possible (e.g., 5 reps with a 10 rep max weight) at the beginning of the time frame. As the time limit approaches, however, you’ll find yourself working at or near failure as you attempt to break your rep record.


Each time you repeat the workout, your objective is to simply perform more total repetitions in the same time frame.

Apply the 20/5 rule: as soon as you can increase the total number of reps by 20% or more, start the next workout with 5% more weight and start over.

That’s essentially it.

No pre-ordained numbers of sets, reps, or rest periods. It’s entirely up to you. Your job is only to complete the 20-minute work period, and then improve on it the next time around.

While I am not sure I’d go so far as to say Staley completely revolutionized training, I can say with certainty that he gave us a revolutionary training method. EDT was different than anything else at the time, and I’ve used it myself and with and a lot of my clients for rapid muscle growth. The workouts are quick, easily quantifiable in terms of progress, and have something that I always try to incorporate into my programs: a built in, intuitive method of progression.

For advanced trainees, and anyone trying to put on some mass, EDT is an exceptional option.


Photo: Niv Binyamini

The Total Rep Method

This training method is based off Chad Waterbury’s ideas, and is the featured subject of his book Huge in a Hurry.

A good part of the book and the methodology focus around lifting heavy weights as quickly as possible.

Many coaches advocate lifting very slowly (such as the previously discussed High Intensity Training) but Waterbury asserts that faster cadences (even faster negatives) are actually superior for muscle gain.

While an in depth analysis of the fast vs. slow argument is far beyond the scope of this discussion, it is worth mentioning that fast and explosive movements almost always have more carryover to sport, so this type of training is great for athletes who are looking to put on some functional mass.

Of greater relevance to this specific writing is the way the Waterbury protocol structures sets and reps. Or rather, doesn’t structure them.

Waterbury posits that muscles need to be challenged through a range of motion, and that the more muscle fibers you involve during that lift through that range of motion, the more muscle growth you’ll induce. According to Chad, the time it takes doesn’t matter—what matters is the number of reps and exercises.

As an example, most people reading this have probably used or at least heard of the classic 5×5 training method, as developed by Bill Starr. For those who haven’t, this is a method where you do five sets of five reps with heavy weight. While it sounds like a fairly basic approach to programming, it’s crazy effective—let’s look at why.

If you were to list at other combinations of sets and reps that most coaches agree are effective, you’d see any and all of the following:

5 x 5,
3 x 10
2 x 15
8 x 3
4 x 6
6 x 4
10 x 3

Waterbury noticed this, and noticed that the thing they all have in common is the number of reps per exercises—they all have between 24 and 30 reps per exercise. And, as any coach will tell you, they all work for building muscle.

There’s no magic to it, really, it’s simply right in the “sweet spot” of volume and intensity.

Being in this sweet spot means that you can gain size and strength but you can still recover from one workout to the next.

Looking at that, Waterbury went a different way. Instead of choosing a prescribed number of sets and reps, in the Total Rep method, you just (duh) select a total number of reps—and that number, of course, would be anywhere from 24-30. Or, as Waterbury puts it, “count the reps and let the sets take care of themselves.”

The number of sets doesn’t really matter here; what matters is that you’re using challenging weights and doing a prescribed number of reps.

For example, let’s say you select 25 reps: Even with the exact same weight on the exact same exercise, you might need five sets to get 25 reps one day, but just four sets a week later. It’s still 25 reps.

Of course, this method is doable with other ranges, including ones that are lower. For example, you can use very heavy weights for to three reps, and you might do just 15 reps. Fifteen reps probably isn’t really enough for hypertrophy, but it’s great for strength—which in the long run will lead to growth.

However, if you wanted slightly more volume, you would just use lighter weights and pick a slightly higher rep range. For example, you can employ this method using moderate weights, which you could lift for 10 to 12 reps, then do more reps, in the area of 32-40. And you’ll still be able to recover enough to do your next workout two days later.

To reiterate, with the Total Rep method, you’re not picking four sets and doing 10 reps to get to 40.  You’re going for 40 reps, in the fewest number of sets possible.

The key to all this is, you only do perfect reps.

In this context, an “imperfect” rep when your speed slows down, or when your range of motion shortens, or when you have to change your form to finish a rep.

Much like HIT, which we discussed last time, the Total Rep method terminates a set when you have to cheat, or go slower, etc. Any of those are a sign that some of your muscle fibers are exhausted and they’re dropping out, and terminating the set ensures that all reps are performed with a maximum number of fibers being recruited for the task at hand.

It is exceptionally difficult to really know when you are slowing down, or your form begins to degrade. Therefore, I recommend spending a week or so getting into the habit of lifting as quickly as possible and trying to figure out when to stop.

Other than that, this is a great training protocol, albeit a difficult one. Very quick, fun, and effective, the total rep method is great for gaining muscle and losing fat, as it’s very metabolically demanding.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it.

Six training protocols for gaining size: High Rep, Low Rep, High Intensity, Hypertrophy Specific, Escalating Density, and Total Rep.

Each is effective in its own way. Whether you prefer a traditional split routine, a classic full body workout, or something a bit more advanced, incorporating these methods into your current workouts will help you put on some of that mass you’ve been working so hard for.

For now, eat big, lift heavy, stay pretty.

What’s your favorite way to train for mass? Sound off in the comments below!

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.

Comments for This Entry

  • Basil

    Hi John Just some questions re the Total Rep Method let's say I was aiming for 25 total reps but wanted to keep my reps per set low, what weight and target rep should i be aiming to start at? Also what indication do you look for to know it's time to increase weight? I'm also considering using this for my bodyweight movements e.g pull ups, So i'm guessing I'd follow the same method minus the focus on how much weight I need to load up to begin with? Thanks Basil

    March 14, 2016 at 6:38 pm

  • Emir Plicanic

    EDT workout is one of the best workouts I've ever done. I can't wait to publish this app for tracking it:

    September 6, 2015 at 12:07 am

  • John Nguyen

    Regarding EDT, are the 2 exercises done as one super set per time frame? I've never heard of this method of training and it sounds really interesting. Just wanted to make sure I do it right, thanks! By the way, the site redesign is sexy as hell, great job!

    December 12, 2014 at 6:20 am

    • John Romaniello Author

      Hey John, Both exercises are done in the same time frame, so it's sort of a superset. However, you can rest between them as needed. The main thing is that you focus on getting as many reps as possible of each exercise during the allotted timeframe. Hope that helps! -R Thanks for the props on the site, btw!

      December 12, 2014 at 9:13 am

  • Forever a Thief…er, Student -

    [...] still the man I stole this from many years ago. For those interested, here’s an article I wrote touching on Charles’ method, one on my method of designing density training workouts and programs, and one on using density [...]

    December 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

  • Forever a Thief…er, Student - Health RSS Feed

    [...] still the man I stole this from many years ago. For those interested, here’s an article I wrote touching on Charles’ method, one on my method of designing density training workouts and programs, and one on using density [...]

    December 24, 2013 at 3:01 am

  • Forever a Thief…er, Student - Health Tips

    [...] still the man I stole this from many years ago. For those interested, here’s an article I wrote touching on Charles’ method, one on my method of designing density training workouts and programs, and one on using density [...]

    December 19, 2013 at 6:11 pm

  • Forever a, Student - Roman Fitness Systems

    [...] still the man I stole this from many years ago. For those interested, here’s an article I wrote touching on Charles’ method, one on my method of designing density training workouts and programs, and one on using density [...]

    November 13, 2013 at 2:31 am

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