The Basics of Training for Size, Part 3: Cutting-edge Modalities for Accelerated Growth

By John Romaniello

Over the last two installments of this series, I have shared some basic and intermediate training protocols with you. In the first part, we discussed high and low rep training; both good protocols that work well in traditional split routines. In part two, we discussed full-body workouts in general, and more specifically touched on two of the best: High Intensity Training (HIT) and Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST).

Today, 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, both of the systems covered below fly in the face of traditional models.

If you’re looking for more advanced ways to bring your training to the next level, pay careful attention to the

Escalating Density Training

Escalating Density Training (EDT) is a training protocol developed by Charles Staley sometime around 2002, and which has taken off tremendously in that time.

As the name implies, EDT factors in training density—the amount of work you do in a given time frame. You see, Staley looked at training and muscle growth in a whole new way, at least relative to how much.

While we generally look at mainly load (weight) and volume (sets x reps), with EDT, Staley looked at density—that is, 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 a bit insight on how EDT is performed.


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 RM for each exercise. Ideally, the weight used for each exercise should be equally difficult.

Sets, reps, and rest intervals: Generally, most people will 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 rep with very short (15-30 second) rests. As you begin to fatigue, you’ll increase 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.

NOTE: 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-RM 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.

Progression: 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.

And 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.

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, (Rodale, 2008).

A good part of the book and the methodology focus around lifting heavy weights as quickly as possible—hence the name—and this in and of itself is worth the price of the book. Many coaches advocate lifting very slowly (such as the previously discussed HIT) but Waterbury asserts that faster cadences (even faster negatives) are 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 5x5 training method, as developed 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 very 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.

Looking at this, Waterbury began to question if there is a reason that particular number of reps per was so effective. And, of course, there is.  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.”

According to CW, the number of sets doesn’t really matter; 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, and—which in the long run will lead to growth.

However, if you wanted slight 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.

And you never know in advance how many perfect reps you’re going to do on any given set. 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.

So the take home here is lift heavy weight, FAST, for a preset number of reps. By terminating a set when your form starts to degrade, you ensure that all reps are performed with a maximum number of fibers being recruited for the task at hand. Simply perform as many sets as it takes to complete the prescribed number of reps in perfect form.

The most difficult part about this program is learning when to terminate sets. 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, this method is great for gaining muscle AND losing fat (as it is very metabolically demanding).

For intense growth in a short period of time, this protocol is an excellent option for intermediate to advanced trainees.

And that wraps up todays discussion. Two excellent methods which—while relatively “new” to the training world—are so effective that in the short time since their arrival, they have been indelibly burned their mark on the fitness landscape.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it.

Six training protocols for gaining size, each one 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.

Join the discussion in the forum to share motivation and progress.


John Romaniello is an angel investor, the author of two upcoming books with HarperCollins, and the founder of Roman Fitness Systems, a training and online coaching company based in NYC. Romaniello regularly works with all types of clients, from youth athletes to social media moguls.

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