Most experts toll, with clock-like predictability, that abs are made in the kitchen. Is it true? Yeah, but it's not the whole story.
Beyond nailing your diet, losing fat is simple: Increase the amount of work you do in a given time when you train. Now, this doesn't mean turn everything into a lightweight metcon circuit where you lurch from move to move until you collapse. In fact, that last sentence is the only time you'll see the word "circuit" in this piece.
I'm talking about a different kind of sequencing, where you use the breaks between strength moves to engage in quality activity that helps you become more mobile and athletic while, yes, burning some extra calories too. It'll help you achieve a lean physique without spending one extra minute in the gym.
What Is Session Density?
In training terms, the definition of density is simple: It's the amount of work completed during a given training time. The more work you do, the denser the session. And, ladies and gents, density is what we want.
Density's brother-in-arms is inefficiency, which in this case is actually a good thing. Strength coach Dan John explains that inefficient exercise produces greater fat loss because your body has to use more energy to do what you're asking it to do. So if you're a great Olympic weightlifter but a terrible dancer, dancing might be your ticket to melting the layer of fat that covers your abs.
As you increase density, you inherently want to increase inefficiency by asking your body to do something complex—and especially something it's not used to.
Improving session density means making good use of the rest time between strength-training sets. We'll strategically add "fillers" to increase the amount of work done during a training session while also creating training inefficiency.
Level 1 Fillers Mobility Drills
Focusing on expanding your movement abilities pays training dividends to all kinds of athletes. If it feels good to move, you'll do it more often and will develop a better physique as a result.
Mobility drills are a double-edged fat-loss sword. They help joints feel better, increase your ability to move well and achieve good form in the big lifts, and they're a great entry-level filler for adding density to a training session.
Let's say your prescribed rest period is one minute. As soon as you finish your lift, immediately begin your mobility drill. If there's still time left in the rest period, prepare for your next set. If you've maxed your minute out, jump right into your next set.
Rather than wasting time resting on a bench between sets, you'll perform mobility drills for the hips and/or shoulders during rest periods. For instance, after finishing a set of an upper-body strength exercise, complete 5-10 reps of a mobility exercise targeting the shoulders or upper back. Follow lower-body strength sets with hip-mobility drills done in the same rep range.
Here's a sample workout using mobility fillers. If you're new to this type of training, I would stick with mobility fillers for at least a month before progressing to anything more challenging. After all, if you're immobile, these will be plenty challenging!
Level 2 Fillers Calisthenics and Light Plyos
Now that you've graduated beyond simply filling time between sets, let's add fillers that increase your heart rate and compound training-session stress. Basic bodyweight calisthenics and light plyometrics, such as bodyweight squats, push-ups, jumping jacks, and jumping rope, considerably increase the work you can perform when alternated with strength moves.
Progressing from mobility fillers to bodyweight exercises accomplishes a few ends:
- You increase the amount of stress during a training session, and you ask the body to do more work.
- You make your body consume more oxygen because of the increased work rate, which makes it burn more fat.
- You put your newly improved mobility from Level 1 to good use.
Start your filler immediately after completing your strength set, and continue for 30-60 seconds. After finishing your filler set, rest another 30 seconds before beginning your next strength set.
Do lower-body calisthenics between upper-body strength sets, and vice versa for lower-body strength sets. This keeps the work rate high without exhausting the muscles performing the actual strength movements. Light plyos, like jumping rope or jumping jacks work great between upper- and lower-body strength exercises because they don't overly tax any particular muscle groups.
Once again, use these fillers for one month before progressing to Level 3.
Level 3 Fillers Light Strength Movements
The final density builder employs lightly loaded strength movements between sets of heavier strength movements. They're programmed the same way as the bodyweight fillers: 30-60 seconds of filler work between heavy strength sets, and another 30 seconds of rest before starting the next heavy strength set.
As with the bodyweight fillers, you'll also pair lower-body fillers with upper-body moves, and vice versa. For example, let's say your heavy lower-body strength movement is the deadlift. You'll perform light dumbbell bench presses or dumbbell rows for time between sets. Heavy bench presses or rows are paired with light kettlebell swings or goblet squats.
Chest-supported dumbbell row
Here are some great light strength movements to use as fillers:
- Goblet squats
- Kettlebell swings
- Turkish get-up variations
- Dumbbell bench press variations at various angles
- Dumbbell row variations
- Dumbbell and kettlebell overhead press variations
Here's a sample workout using light strength fillers.
The Intensity Sweet Spot for Fat Loss
It's important to remember that your main goal with this type of programming is fat loss, not max strength gain. This method won't deliver on that; the strength movements are just a means to an end. They're introducing stress to the body so that it has to use energy, leading to muscle gain and fat loss.
With this in mind, load your strength movements like squat, bench press, deadlift, row, and overhead press variations in the 70-80 percent range of your one-rep max. That's roughly a weight you can lift for 8-11 reps.
In addition, do those sets for just 5-8 reps, keeping a few reps "left in the tank" at the end of each set. At no point should you flirt with failure on any set. If fatigue builds and a weight becomes too taxing, lower the weight in the name of safety and progress. Redlining these sets will compromise the quality of the sets to come, which will mean fewer reps, less work done, and fewer calories burned.
Just be clear about your goals for this style of training, and commit to doing it right. That's the kind of mindset that will earn you lasting results.