In our Sunday morning workout, we talked about how the exercises you see on Instagram or in the gym might not give you the full story on an athlete’s program. All of us said that, as we go to different gyms, we see athletes doing crazy things, but you never know if what they are doing has a purpose, so we don’t say anything. If you don’t know the context it is hard to say if doing an exercise a certain way, e.g. partial squats, deadlifts or bench presses, are appropriate or not.
I just read a great article on increasing density in your training by Eric Cressey. It is an old post, about 3 years old, but still worth a read (many blog posts on strength and conditioning barely have a 6 month lifespan). While it is a pretty short article and easy to read, I want to create some context for why you’d want to add density to your program. Then I want to distill the 7 ways to 3 ways, plus one bonus that is useful for me. Many of the athletes who are reading this have already heard from me in person (more than a few times) but I want to put them down on paper (or 0s and 1s as the case may be) as a reminder to my current and future athletes, especially those who are doing distance training with me.
First, density is important, but density is a tool or a mode of training, that lives inside your purpose or your “Why“. Take time to think about why you are training. One of the most common questions I get as a strength coach is: “How do I know I am doing this exercise correctly when I am doing it at home?” In the spirit of that question, when you are thinking about your “Why,” the answer is usually going to be free of time and space constraints. Examples of a “Why” including time and space constraints (these are great goals, not great “Whys”):
- I want to lose thirty pounds by my wedding in June.
- I want to back squat 1.5 times my body weight in 12 weeks
- I want to do the Tough Mudder for my 40th birthday
Examples of a “Why” without time and space constraints:
- I want to be as healthy as I can during my marriage
- When I was younger, I was stronger and I felt better, I want to get strong again
- Competing in events is the best way for me to both stay consistent and be engaged with exercise.
If your “Why” doesn’t help you decide “What” exercises, movements and drills you use in your training and/or “How” you will do those exercises in your workout, you need to revisit your “Why.” Spoiler alert: Revisit your “Why” at least once a year, especially true for athletes over 40.
Second, none of the athletes I train are not currently competitive on the national, state or even local stage in strength events. What that means is that all of my athletes are using strength as means to an end. I am going to throw a Straw Man argument out here and see if it stands:
If you are using strength training as part of your overall training program, then using capacity (in this case, weight) as a metric of overall progress much less useful than movement quality.
For sure, athletes have to keep records detailing when and how much is lifted; however, there are better metrics that more accurately capture where you are (i.e. give you insight in to your readiness for training) and when to progress or regress or go horizontal (i.e. choose a different exercise).
Why do we care about increasing density? We don’t actually, what we really care about is consistency, but within the context of consistency, we want every workout to give you the most “bang for your buck.” Once you are pretty consistent, you have a “why” and a “what,” create density by doing the following (in this order):
- Create space on your calendar for your training and use a timer during your workout (here’s one example of how to use a timer in your workout).
- Use movement quality as your metric, progress by increasing reps, then sets, and finally, increase weight. I add a few more steps for my personal training athletes but this is basically the Triple Progression System detailed in this article. When you make the commitment to measure movement quality, you will notice that you will have to reduce the number of exercises in your workouts and program.
- Pair your exercises with an assistance lift, exercises or drill that helps improve movement quality of your main lift. Some good examples are Kettlebell swings (or deadlifts) and crawling, squatting and shin boxes, bench press and (Turkish) Get-Ups and, what I did yesterday, clean combo (clean segment deadlift, clean from the floor, front squat) and windmills.
- Bonus: Create a warm-up that is specific to you and to the main lift or exercise you are doing that day. This is probably a finer point, but if efficiency (i.e. density + consistency = efficiency) is the goal, then you have to plan for what happens when your time is cut short. A side note: One of my colleagues had only 12 minutes to do a workout so his solution was to do 10 burpee + pull-ups, aka GI Janes, on the minute for 12 minutes. No, he was not able to complete the workout “as written,” shocking! Anyway… Say that you’re squatting, you’re running late and you have 20 minutes, set your timer for 7 x 3:00 (stop the clock after your squats on round 7 if you have a hard stop at 20 minutes), start extra light, even unloaded squats is OK, then do your warm-up in each round after your squats. Focus drives density.