This article originally appeared in “Experience Life.”

The concept is simple: Pick your time frame, and pack as much work into it as possible. It’s tough but extremely effective for building strength, definition and size.

With so many variables, strength training can sometimes feel like a repeat of third-grade math: “If Johnny does five sets of 15 pushups, how many total pushups does Johnny do?” Or, “If Susie performs 48 squats and rests one minute for every 12 squats, how many minutes does Susie rest?” But rather than bench your way toward pre-algebra, what if your goal is simply to do the most work in the time you have available?

Enter Escalating Density Training, or EDT, which involves performing alternating sets of two exercises within a given time frame. Sets, repetitions per set and rest time are undefined: All that matters is how many total reps of each exercise you can manage before time is up. No messing around.

“EDT is based on time-management principles,” says its developer, performance coach Charles Staley, MS, author of Muscle Logic (Rodale, 2005) and owner of Staley Performance Institute ( in Phoenix. “A dense workout is one that involves a very low rest-to-work ratio. The denser your workout, the more total work you can accomplish.” More mechanical work in a short period of time means more muscle fibers fire, stimulating gains in strength, definition and muscle size.

Every workout, your goal is to exceed your previous number of reps completed, until you’re ready to increase the weight. This built-in method of progression compels you to work harder, forcing your muscular and cardiovascular systems to adapt. “If you have even a speck of competitiveness, this system brings it out,” Staley says.

EDT is not just for the Olympic athletes and professional weightlifters who report having great success with it. Staley says the method is effective for anyone — and simple enough for beginners. Best of all, you’ll be done with your workout in 30 to 40 minutes.

Escalating Density Training (EDT) Workout

Designed by EDT’s developer, Charles Staley, this routine works your whole body in just 30 minutes (plus warm-up and rest time). The selection of multijoint exercises targets major muscle groups and spikes your heart rate for muscular and cardiovascular benefits.

PR Zone 1

Pairing: Barbell Squats and Cable Lat Pull-Downs

1. Barbell Squats
• With a spotter behind you or using a squat rack, secure a barbell evenly across your shoulders, gripping the bar overhand and just wide of your shoulders.

• With feet hip-width apart, push your hips backward, letting your knees bend. Squat as low as you can while still maintaining the natural arch of your back. Knees should track in line with the second or third toe, and heels should stay on the floor.

• Stand to return to starting position.

2. Cable Lat Pull-Downs
• Sit at a lat pull-down machine with the pads touching your thighs and feet flat on the floor.

• Stand to grasp the bar with a wide overhand grip and resume seated position.

• Pull bar down in front of shoulders to just below your chin, keeping elbows in line with sides of torso.

• Straighten arms to return bar to starting position and repeat.

PR Zone 2

Pairing: Dumbbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Lunges

1. Dumbbell Bench Press
• Lie face-up on a bench and press feet into the floor. Maintain the natural arch in your lower back.

• Hold two dumbbells just outside chest, with elbows pointing downward at a 45-degree angle.

• In a circular motion, extend arms so dumbbells come together directly above chest.

• Lower weights to starting position. Repeat.

Note: You may want to ask someone to spot you during this exercise as you get more fatigued.

2. Dumbbell Lunges
• Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding two dumbbells at your sides. Keep an upright posture with abs engaged and shoulders pulled back.

• Step forward with your right leg and bend your right knee, letting your left knee drop toward the floor. As you lower your body, don’t let your hips tilt or twist to one side. Your right knee should track in line with your second or third toe. Your left (back) heel should lift up so that only the ball of the foot touches the floor.

• Push off on your right foot to return to starting position. Repeat on left side.

• Each complete left-right movement counts as one repetition.

Five Advantages of EDT Training

Novice and seasoned lifters alike can benefit from Escalating Density Training, says Charles Staley, MS, the trainer who developed the system. Here’s why it works.

  • Stimulates muscle growth. By the time you’ve completed an EDT workout, you may have performed 50 to 100 repetitions of each exercise. This large quantity of mechanical work in a short period of time stimulates more muscle fibers and results in hypertrophy, or growth in muscle size.
  • Improves cardiovascular fitness. The race against the clock keeps you moving and causes your heart to work harder than if you were working at a relaxed pace.
  • Ensures progression. Progressive overload, or the gradual increase of load on the body, is crucial to fostering adaptations in muscle strength and size. With EDT, you are constantly progressing, whereas some training programs limit you to the same workload until you can manage a heavier weight. “The idea of bringing up volume or density before increasing intensity is like base building,” Staley says.
  • Distracts and motivates. EDT can trick you into working harder than you normally would. “It becomes a game with yourself,” says Staley. “You’re so busy monitoring time and reps that it distracts you from discomfort you’re in.”
  • Saves time. Four moves, a little more than 30 minutes, and you’re done. “It’s just an efficient way to pack a lot of work into a short period of time,” says Staley.

EDT Training Chart PDF

Download the PDF.