Use this Escalating Density Training workout to improve your Strength Endurance.

The hardest thing about designing a program for mountain biking is finding the right balance between strength and endurance. While you don’t need to be as strong as a powerlifter, you also don’t need to have the endurance of a Tour de France rider and focusing too much on one side of the spectrum will compromise your results.

What makes this method so effective is that it makes smart use of a training variable know as density.

In the gym this means that you need to make sure you don’t try to turn everything you do into endurance training. While I use a lot of circuit training in my programs, I usually advise that you rest long enough between exercises to let your breathing slow down so that you aren’t panting when you start the next exercise. Getting stronger in the gym fills in a lot of fitness gaps that hurt us on the trail and always turning strength training into a test of endurance is a sure way to stay weak and get hurt.

But sometimes you do need to push the Strength Endurance side of things a bit in your workouts. After you’ve spent some time getting stronger more mobile then working on the endurance to use your strength over and over on the trail can help. This means that you need a way to safely train for Strength Endurance and in my experience the best way to do this is through a training method called Escalating Density Training.

Also known as EDT, Escalating Density Training was developed by strength coach Charles Staley. Ironically enough, I used to work with Charles at the International Sports Science Association back in late 90’s. I started as an intern and eventually got hired on to graded papers and answer calls from students with questions on their tests and that job was the springboard for where I am today.

Anyways, that is getting a bit off topic. My point is that EDT is an extremely effective training method for improving your Strength Endurance and there are a lot of different ways to use the EDT method.

EDT is unique because instead of focusing on a specific number of sets and reps, you look at getting as many reps as you can with the same weight within a specific time period. You can do as many or as few reps as you want in each set but you usually want to avoid taking a set to failure – leaving a rep or two in the tank during your early sets will help you get more reps in during your later sets.

You usually pair exercises together as well so that you can do one while resting from the other one, which places even greater demand on your cardio and Strength Endurance. When the time is up you count how many reps you were able to complete of each exercise and you write that down. The next time you do that same workout you try to beat that number of reps and get at least 1 more in the same amount of time and using the same weight.

For example, instead of telling you to do 5 sets of 5 reps (25 reps total) I would tell you to pick a weight you can do for 6-7 reps for the deadlift and the shoulder press. Your goal is to get as many reps as you can in 10 minutes.

After getting your weights set up you start a timer for 10 minutes and hit your first set of deadlifts. You do 5 reps even though you know you could have done more if you really pushed it because you know it is going to be a long 10 minutes. After resting a bit you start your shoulder presses, doing 5 reps and stopping short of your limit again.

Odds are you will end up getting 2 sets of 4-5 reps before things start to get harder. You’ll end up doing a some sets of 2-3 reps before finishing out with some 1 rep sets towards the end. Be sure to write down how many reps you do after each set so you can add them up at the end.

When you are finished with the 10 minutes add up your reps. In this example let’s say you did 24 deadlifts and 22 shoulder presses. The next time you did that workout you would use the same weights and try to get at least 25 deadlifts and 23 shoulders presses. You can usually spend 3-4 weeks adding reps before you will need to increase the weight a little and repeat the process.

What makes this method so effective is that it makes smart use of a training variable know as density. While most of us pay attention to the sets, reps and weights we use we rarely focus on how long it takes us to finish the workouts, which is where the density variable starts to come into play.

Density is literally how much work you got done per unit of time. If you do more work (sets, reps or weight) but you take longer to do it, you did not improve in the density of the workout. This isn’t bad, it just is.

Conversely, if you do more work but it takes you the same amount of time to complete it then you did improve the density of the workout. To illustrate this using our example, it is time for a little math.

Just to keep it simple lets say that you were using 200 pounds for your deadlifts. In the example above we said that you got 24 reps in your first workout. This breaks down to 4800 pounds (24 reps X 200 pounds) lifted in the 10 minutes, or 480 pounds each minute.

The next time you do this workout you stick with 200 pounds but lets say that now you get 26 reps in 10 minutes. This comes out to 5200 pounds (26 reps X 200 pounds) lifted in 10 minutes, or 520 pounds lifted each minute.

As you can see, those 2 extra reps added up to a lot when looked at from the density variable. You were lifting an extra 40 pounds per minute, which means that you were able to sustian a higher workload during the 10 minutes.

And that is exactly what we want to see happening on the trail – more work getting done per minute of effort. For this reason EDT is a great way to work on building strength endurance and general High Tension Cardio, both of which are extremely valuable on the trail.

Here is a sample workout you can use to try EDT in your own program.

Core Circuit – 2 rounds

A1 – Turkish Get Up X 1 rep each side

A2 – Plank X 60 seconds

EDT Circuit #1 – 10 minutes

B1 – Deadlift X As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP) using your 6-7 rep max

B2 – Shoulder Press X AMRAP using your 6-7 rep max

EDT Circuit #2 – 10 minutes

C1 – Stagger Stance Squat X AMRAP using your 6-7 rep max

C2 – Chin Up X AMRAP using bodyweight


Kettlebell Swings 10 sets X 10 reps with 5 recovery breathes between sets

Please note that this type of workout is best if you have a good strength and mobility base. I also like to use it as a late off-season or early in-season workout since that is when you want to be focusing all of your strength and fitness into the direction of endurance.

If you’ve spent the time to build some strength and mobility and need a workout to help you put a mountain bike specific edge on it then give this workout a shot. And if you have any questions about EDT and how it might help your riding let me know and post a comment below.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

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  1. Mauro says:

    Hi, James;

    Exactly was I was looking for! Now for how long should I do such a workout? 2/3 times a week for 4 weeks and then go back to the other workouts that you recommend during the in-season training?

    Thank you to make me a better rider.

    Reply • February 23 at 7:36 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, 2-3 times a week for 4 weeks would be good if you wanted to use this workout. If you do that I’d recommend that you have one “hard” workout where you focus on trying to beat your reps from the previous week and the rest be moderate workouts where you pace yourself a but more and do 10-20% fewer reps. That way you won’t burn out and you will be able to make progress from hard workout to hard workout each week.

      Reply • February 23 at 8:49 am
  2. James says:

    Hello James,
    Great work out. I don’t have barbells. Two 50lb Kettlebells (can do more than 7 reps) is all I have.
    Any suggestions to substitute? Thanks.
    ps: have you been working on any work outs for us older guys?( I used to do 5-10 wall pushups and could do the same bridge push ups but cannot (shoulder and wrist pain) get into position any more.)

    Reply • February 23 at 5:33 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You could try single leg deadlifts but it will take longer. You can also do more reps per set, the 6-7 reps max is just the range I like to use.

      Hopefully you are doing a lot of stretching and foam rolling, for us older guys that becomes more important on some levels than the strength training stuff. I’ve got some ideas for a 40+ year old rider’s program, hopefully I can get it together at some point in the next month or so.

      Reply • February 24 at 9:06 am
  3. Jim Hooper says:

    James, Great to see recommendation of EDT – this is a great method to strength train for MTB, climbing, etc. The system works best if you pick and pair basic compound exercises (simpler the better) that are capable of being progressively overloaded over weeks and months – anything where you can make it harder after a few weeks by just adding more resistance or increasing the angle. Deadlifts, box step ups, single leg squats, paired with rows, chins, pushups, presses – many great combos that will build strength and work capacity that actually transfers to the sport are possible. 4 pairs worked for 15 minute rounds will kick the ass very thoroughly.

    Reply • June 5 at 4:11 pm
  4. Emir says:

    EDT workout is one of the best workouts. I just wish I did it before I did my cross country bike tour back in 2011. After I learned about it, I just stuck with it. It’s great. I can’t wait to publish this app for tracking it: http://splitworkout.com/

    Reply • September 5 at 6:14 pm

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