In the early days of professional bodybuilding, the sport was rife with nicknames such as “The Blond Bomber” and the “Austrian Oak.” Magazines of the time often published workouts that attributed an enormous amount of work to these early champions: 80 or more sets per workout! While these legendary claims are more likely fabrication than fact, high volume is required if your goal is maximum gains in muscle mass. This is the premise of the Escalating Density Training (EDT) program.
EDT is a program developed by Charles Staley. Rather than focusing on a single set-rep protocol or rest period, in EDT the goal is to increase the total amount of work performed within a specific time period. EDT promises more muscle and less body fat. Let’s explore.
One example of an EDT protocol is to superset agonist and antagonist muscle groups, such as alternating between a biceps curl and a triceps pressdown. Using weights equal to your 10-repetition maximum in each lift, you would perform 5 reps per set – in effect, a submaximal weight – for a total of 15 minutes. Then you would record the total amount of reps you perform. In subsequent workouts you would try to perform more reps within that 15-minute period, and when you have increased the total reps by 20 percent, you would increase the weight by five percent and begin the process again.
To determine if this program is worth trying, let’s see how it stacks up to other high-volume workouts. Three obvious comparisons are the 100 Rep Method, circuit training, and the German Volume Training (GVT) program.
The 100 Rep Method involves performing 100 cumulative repetitions of an exercise in as few sets as possible. In effect, you are trying to increase the density of each set, which in turn increases work capacity. However, in contrast to EDT, in the 100 Rep Method the number of total repetitions performed for each exercise is fixed so there is no increase in total work performed, the exercises are not performed in superset fashion, and there is no time restriction. Also, the 100 Rep Method is not meant to be used as a training system you would perform for several weeks, but as a workout you might use every few weeks for a single training session.
Circuit training has been around since 1953, when physiologists at the University of Leeds in England proposed it as a method to integrate several components of fitness into a single workout and thus perform a greater amount of work in less time. However, because so many exercises are included in a single workout, circuit training is not considered as effective as conventional training or the supersets prescribed in EDT for increasing strength or muscle mass.
German Volume Training (or advanced GVT, in which sets of 6 reps are emphasized rather than sets of 10) works by subjecting the targeted fibers to an extensive volume of repeated effort. In contrast to EDT, in GVT you keep the rest time constant, which enables you to use more weight. The increased intensity makes GVT superior to EDT for increasing strength and muscle mass. A better case would be to compare GVT to the German Body Comp (GBC) program.
GBC’s benefits are many: The large volume and relatively short rest intervals increase energy expenditure, stimulate the release of growth hormone, and thus promote the reduction of body fat. This is also true with EDT. Upon closer analysis, you could argue that because GBC maintains a minimum of 30 seconds’ rest between sets, GBC would be slightly more effective than EDT for increasing muscle mass, but that EDT would be slightly more effective than GBC for decreasing body fat.
Of course, the effectiveness of EDT depends on many factors, one being the exercises you use. Alternating lat pulldowns and lateral raises would not create the same amount of work as chin-ups and barbell military presses. Likewise, exercises with machines generally do not impose the same amount of stress as equivalent free-weight exercises.
Another factor is the training level of the individual. For example, the Advanced GVT Program uses protocols of 10 sets of 6 reps, thus making it closer in design to EDT. However, the Advanced GVT program is generally reserved for those who have at least three years of training experience because advanced trainees have better neurological efficiency. Further, poorly conditioned individuals may find that they cannot handle a high number of sets without significantly reducing the weight they use. This means EDT may be too advanced for beginners, who may be better off performing more conventional training methods.
Finally, consider that EDT training is a challenging workout not only physically but also mentally. With GVT training the recommendation is to perform this training method only once or twice a year, and this appears to be good advice for EDT as well. Also, it would be wise to read Staley’s book on EDT, Muscle Logic: Escalating Density Training (Rodale Books, 2005), and his numerous articles on this training program to ensure you are performing the workout as Staley intended.
Escalating Density Training is a unique, high-volume training method that calls to mind the legendary workouts of past champions. By no means is it the most effective way to build strength or muscle, but if done for a short time EDT could be just the ticket to boost muscle mass and trim body fat.