Continuing with the 'simple progressions' series; here's another entry on maximizing training efficiency with minimal equipment: density training. There are many ways to go about it, but basically, density training involves doing maximum work in a minimum time period, thus creating a high 'density' of work done. Going by my previous blog entry, most density formats would be high volume, moderate intensity, and moderate to low frequency. However, some versions can be set up with relatively high volume, and also high intensity, making them tremendously potent for fast progress--but also creating the risk of a quick burnout and stagnating progress. 50/20 is one of these.
Bryce Lane, who came up with 50/20, freely admits that he got the idea from Charles Staley's EDT/escalating density training formats. These generally involve two lifts or exercises supersetted in 15 minute blocks, with maximum repetitions of each done in that time period. (For those interested, here is Staley's website, and T-nation has several of Staley's articles about EDT.) Lane's version is a bit different--more focused, and more bare-bones, whereas most of Staley's versions are tailored for bodybuilding.
Staley walking the walk.
Personally, I prefer Bryce Lane's version. Here's the basic idea: pick a big compound exercise that can be loaded pretty heavily. Take a set weight and do 50 total repetitions in 20 minutes using any set/rep/rest combination. Bryce writes "I have thought many times about one workout that could give you 'it all' or as close to it as possible. A simple, short, to the point workout where you would get stronger in a very practical sense, increase your work capacity and conditioning level and add bulk if you eat like you mean it... [this is] aimed at people who want 'the big picture', and the bigger the better.... Here's how it works. For twenty minutes do as many reps as you can of your chosen compound exercise, squats, deadlifts, power cleans or snatches, clean & presses etc. You do this twice a week. You use the same weight throughout the twenty minutes. About 75-80% of your gym-maximum in good clean form is fine to start. Begin with something you can easily do and add as you can."
That's the program in a nutshell, and if all you had were those guidelines you'd have a piece of training info worth its weight in gold. Really--this thing works. It worked for Bryce very well, in fact it was one of the programs he used over and over again and he was a complete and utter beast physically. (I'll probably end up doing one of those 'lifter profile' blogs on him and his training at some point.) It's worked for me, and almost everyone who's tried it got something very useful out of it. 50 reps with your 10-rep maximum or thereabouts is, as Pavel might say, "a very powerful stimulus." Doing it on a twenty-minute timer with a big compound exercise ups the intensity factor even more. If you really emphasize good form and a full range of motion instead of allowing your technique to fall apart in order to get more reps (never do this, especially with something as demanding as the 50/20 program) you'll be getting plenty of practice in your chosen movement as well and 'greasing the groove' very efficiently. The GTG factor, by the way, is one reason the gains come fast and hard with this routine.Take something you can hit for 10 reps with a struggle in the olympic-style full squat and work up to doing that for 50 reps in a fast workout. The end result? A bigger, stronger, better conditioned version of yourself who's had a ton of practice doing squats.
The key to making it work: do it only twice a week, and do just that one big exercise for the twenty minute time period. Sure you can do 'extras' but they really have to be kept to a minimum. As you can see, the basic idea is somewhat similar to Pavel's 'Bear' version of 'power to the people' and similar guidelines must be followed as far as recovery goes.
Here are some of Bryce's basic suggestions:
Day 1: Barbell clean and press
Day 2: full back squat
that's it. Each twice weekly, so C&P Monday/Thursday and SQ Tuesday/Friday. Or:
Day 1: barbell deadlift
Day 2: barbell bench press
Hill sprints or cycling go well with that variant if you want to round things out with a bit more conditioning and lower body work.
Something Bryce did several times, it's a bit more demanding but if you have plenty of time to sleep, and a lot of food lying around it can be done:
Day 1: bench press
Day 2: weighted chinup
Day 3: barbell squat OR romanian deadlift (alternate each time)
Day 4: off, then repeat day 1.
Now, 50/20 works well with a barbell but I believe it's even better suited to bodyweight movements, or kettlebells, or a sandbag. Bryce wrote about doing it with odd objects too, saying that "things like this, you just don't get bored with. The implement just begs you into the fight."
The level of strength shouldering 260 pounds of loose, dead weight requires is... significant, to say the least. This fellow shouldered a 200-pound (his own weight) bag for 55 reps in 20 minutes.
Moreover, density training formats are uniquely suited to objects that are difficult to adjust. With your own bodyweight, a kettlebell, or a sandbag it's not really possible to set up a detailed progression plan like you can do with a barbell--5 or even 2.5-pound increases, or percentage-based cycling plans just can't be done. 50/20 offers a simpler progression. Being able to bang out 50 reps in twenty minutes means you can manhandle a certain weight fairly well; so moving up to the next harder variant, or next kettlebell size, or adding 25 pounds to your sandbag, should be pretty doable. At this point you'd probably be stopped dead with, say, 30 reps in twenty minutes at your next workout, but eventually work back up to 50. As Bryce says, "50 reps is the goal, not the starting point [though the first time you try this, definitely start out light] what usually happens is that you get 28-32 reps/20m the first time (after a 10% increase) then up to 42-45 reps then you get the 50r and then comes more weight. You just have to fight this thing through and it's just not 'on' every day."
So, here's a sample progression with bodyweight: You start out doing bodyweight lunges. At first, 5 reps at a time is tough for you, you stumble around, and can barely get your 50 reps (each leg) in 20 minutes. Eventually you work it out so that you're doing 5 reps each leg, every other minute and 'clockwork' it out that way. You try moving on to box pistols (one legged squats sitting back onto a bench or box) but don't feel quite ready yet so you go past 50/20 with the lunges, doing as many as you can every set and doing sets as often as you can. Eventually, you nail 80 reps each leg in 20 minutes. At this point, you feel ready to move on so you take a week off to recuperate and start in on the box pistols. At first it's tough, of course, but eventually you hit 50/20 each leg with the box pistols and lower the box... guess what, in a few months you'll be doing 50 reps in twenty minutes, with each leg, of full pistol squats. Your leg strength and endurance, as well as hip and ankle flexibility, and balance, will have greatly improved and if you're a guy who's been eating plenty of solid, protein rich food you might have some decent leg size gains on top of it.
Here's another example with a kettlebell. You can clean and press your 16kg for 10 reps but only get the 24kg for one on a good day, with your strong arm. So, you set out to hit 50/20 with your 16kg. Twice a week, you just go to town on one arm C&Ps with your 16. Eventually you hit 50/20 each arm and you try the 24. You've basically been doing very concentrated, intense 'practice', maybe gotten a little bigger in the shoulder girdle too, so now the 24 can go up a bit easier and with each arm. You don't have any interim weights so back you go to the 16 and try a harder press variant instead of the simple C&P (savickas presses or bottoms-up presses would work well here) and when you finally hit 50/20 with that, the 24 should be much easier. At this point, you can probably try to use your 24 for 50/20, perhaps starting with push presses and gradually working towards doing full strict presses.
Once you've got 'the groove' down, don't be afraid of higher reps!
As for exercise choices, two exercises is the base program (upper and lower). A push, pull and squat, or a push and two pulls (upper and lower) could work well too. Depending on what you have available, chins and dips on day one (this is where you can use a more Staley-esque supersetted deal) and pistols on day two is one option. One arm pushup progressions and deadlifts; sandbag bearhug squats and divebomber pushups, one arm kettlebell C&Ps and shrimp squats, double kettlebell presses (one clean for each set of presses) and double kettlebell front squats... all good options. Bryce Lane had one beast of a program idea that had a trainee doing handstand pushups on day one and sandbag shouldering on day two. I introduced it to several guys I know and they've had great improvements--I will try and get their feedback on a future blog.
That should be more than enough for anyone who's interested to get started with this. For the next 'simple progressions' blog I'll continue writing about 50/20 and density training (because the possibilities really are nearly limitless with this kind of format and it's VERY useful for busy people who want solid results): how and when to deload, proper exercise choices, and manipulating the volume, intensity, and time variables. Perhaps in another blog after that I'll write about some options for preserving and improving a 1RM while using this program: perhaps the only complaints of people who have run it are that 1. they burn out quickly and 2. they do not always get a good gain on their 1-rep max after doing 50/20 or a similar density routine. Both problems have rather simple fixes... but that's a subject for next time.
As always--I hope you enjoyed this article and find some useful information for your own training! If you have questions, comment below or email be at firstname.lastname@example.org.