Escelating Density Training and the Olympic Lifts

There’s gotta be a better way!

I’ve been competing in Olympic Lifting for about 8 years, on and off. It’s a wonderful sport filled with great people and challenging, but rewarding exercises.

While the Olympic Lifts and their variations have been a part of my programs since I started nearly 15 years ago, they were, frankly, starting to let me down.

My training became stale and I was not producing on the platform. I decided to take a break from the O-lifts for a while and stumbled on an article by Charles Staley, strength coach extraordinaire, about his Escalating Density Training (EDT) system. For those of you unfamiliar with EDT, here’s a brief explanation from one of Charles’s Articles.

If you know when it’ll be over, you’ll work that much harder. The EDT system employs time frames for work sets. When the time frame ends, you’re done, no matter what you have or haven’t accomplished. Your goal is to discover ways to do more and more work within these time frames. As the old saying goes “You can work hard, or you can work long, but you can’t work hard for long.”

My take on EDT was always simple. Time your work, record what you do, then, the next week, you try to beat your total number of reps, amount of weight used, or time you completed the work in. It’s a very simple and straightforward way of tracking progress.

I liked the idea and formulated a basic template. Unfortunately a football induced knee injury meant I was going to have to scrap that idea for a while. I read about the EDT for Arms program and decided to specialize for a while. Well, 6 weeks later, my knee was healed and my arms were much bigger and stronger. I decided to look at this EDT program much harder.

I wanted to go to one more Olympic Lifting meet. My last 3 had been disappointing, missing weights I had hit in training, always feeling like I’m leaving a ton of potential on the platform, especially in the C & J. I wanted to get one good meet in, then move on to Powerlifting for a while.

But, what to do? My old approach was not working at all. I was on the path of following percentages and extreme specificity. Problem was that I’d often have to go up to 95%+ of my contest maxes and it would just be too heavy and not provide enough reps to really refine the skill.

Then I was watching a tape of the Bulgarian Olympic Lifting team training and I noticed something strange.

They didn’t follow any percentages, nor did they worry about a prescribed number of sets and reps. I hauled out a few of my other tapes and saw that while every team did things differently, the one thing they had in common was that they picked a lift for the session, then worked it extremely hard for 30 minutes. Hmm, this got me thinking, “I wonder if I could use the principals of EDT to prepare for my last meet?”

Being a lifter with a decent Snatch, an excellent Jerk, and a sub-par Clean, I needed to formulate a plan to work my weaknesses, yet still hit my strong points.

I came up with a basic template fairly quickly.

Day 1

Zone 1 – 30 minutes

Snatch – Singles or doubles for a 30 minute block. I didn’t follow any percentage guide, but I was usually in the 85 – 95% range. Sometimes I’d work up to a Training Max and try to hit it as many times as I could.

Zone 2 – 25 minutes

Clean Pulls

Front Squats – If this zone seems like a lot of work, it’s because it is. Reps were between 1 and 3, and rest periods were as short as possible. Remember, we’re trying to increase density here.

Day 2

Zone 1 – 30 minutes

Front Squat – 30 minutes of doubles and singles with whatever felt heavy that day (training max)

Zone 2 – 25 minutes

Incline or Push Press -Typically 1-3 reps (1-8 for the Incline work)

Rows/Chins/General Back Work -Higher reps, usually sets of 5-8

Day 3

Zone 1 – 30 minutes

Clean and Jerk – 30 minutes of doubles and singles with whatever felt heavy that day (training max)

Zone 2 – 25 minutes

RDL’s or SLDL – Usually doubles or triples

Clean and Clean Pull – These were for speed and form, usually done for 1-3 reps. One rep of a clean, followed by 1-3 reps of Clean Pulls

Zone 3 – 10 minutes

Optional Arm Work -If I felt like doing some vanity work, I would. If I was tried, I didn’t. Reps were 4-8.

The sessions were fairly similar for the entire 12 weeks. Progression was measured in three ways:

1. Beat the number of reps

2. Add weight

3. Same weight, same reps in less time

The first thing I noticed was my work capacity was greatly increased. Also the ability to “follow myself” became almost automatic. In a meet, if you miss a weight, you are cut down to 60 seconds rest, and must repeat the attempt. This used to be fairly difficult, as one minute is not a lot of time to rest in between max attempts. However, after just a few weeks, I was hitting 90%+ for set after set with ease.

About 4 weeks in I decided to play with exercise order. Whereas most people put the classic lifts first, I would often put the accessory lifts first and the snatch or clean and jerk second or third.

Blasphemy, I know. We’ve all heard it a million times. “The Olympic Lifts are a high-skill exercise and should always be done first.” Well, anyone who’s ever been in a meet knows that you might attempt your first Clean and Jerk two or three hours after completing the Snatch. You will be tired at this point and if you are not used to doing the lifts in a fatigued state, you’re done. While no training program can replicate a meet, doing Snatches after 25 – 30 minutes of heavy leg work will certainly help.

I was about at the 9-week mark that I started to notice huge jumps in weight. I took week 8 off, other than pulling a light sled, stretching, and walking. When I got back in the weightroom in week 9, the weights were flying up. I had not only surpassed my previous meet weights; I was doing them for 12-15 singles!

This is another huge strength of the EDT program: It builds amazing levels of confidence.

Going into a meet wondering “Wow, can I actually DO this weight?” is much different from; “Ok, a new P.R., but I’ve done it in the gym fifteen times.” Which mindset would you rather go to the platform with?

I pushed hard through weeks 9 – 12. I did a de-load the week before the meet to allow my body to recover, as at this point I was getting beat up from the much heavier weights I was not using. Meet day came and it was almost anti-climactic.

The Snatch went easily, hitting a P.R. of 10kg. I felt I had more in me, but I had a decent lead and didn’t want to risk it. Now on to the Clean and Jerk. This is the lift that has disappointed me time and time again throughout the years. I decided to open with the same weight I ended with last meet.

Smoked it. Next up, a 10kg P.R. attempt. The weight came up so easily that I actually missed racking it! So here I was, following myself, shooting for a 20+lb P.R. This time I was ready for the bar, racked it, and smoked the jerk. I won the meet easily and wondered why I didn’t try this sooner!

Take Home Lessons

Following my program completely might be a mistake for you. I provided it as a template and it’s up to you to figure out your weak points and strengthen them.

You’ll notice I Front Squatted for most of the program. I’m not anti-Back Squat and it would be perfectly acceptable to use both or alternate. Front Squats have always had a much more positive impact on strength for me, and that’s why they were so prominent in the program. It should be said however, that my legs got much bigger and stronger, and that strength carried over big time to my next cycle.

The best approach would be to learn the principles of EDT and start to apply them to your training as soon as you can. Experiment; find an approach that fits you and your needs. With some hard work and smart planning, EDT can help you too have your best meet ever!