This was originally posted at Lyle McDonald's "Bodyrecomposition" forum, here:
Using the “Ladder” Set/Rep Variation
Let's jump start this shit, it's going
to be kind of garbled anyway:
About 4 years ago, Bob Lipinski and I trained together about 6-8 times a week. We'd train at lunch, and then after work. We followed a pretty typical WSB template, but did have ample opportunities for extra workouts.
Once we decided to do a variation of a low fatigue/high volume routine based on the "ladder" technique. We called it "Power Ladders". We chose 3s as our top set kind of arbitrarily. The term “ladder” refers to a progressive repetition scheme. See below. It's illustrated amply.
Testing initially indicated I had a 335 close grip bench. This is how I set it up: Rep range 1-3 or occasionally 1-5. Completion of 3 “ladders” at a set weight would trigger progression.
Day 1: 275x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 2: 285x1/2/3/1/2
Day 3: 285x1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 1: 285x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 2: 290x1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 3: 290x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 1: 295x1/2/1/2/1/2
Day 2: 295x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 3: 305x1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 1: 305x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 2: 315x1/2/2/1/2/1
Day 3: 315x1/2/3/1/2
Week 5: Tested my CGBP max.
New max was 365.
Bob's results were similar.
4 weeks of training.
3 times per week on the movement, often two days in a row
Not one rep went to failure.
Not too shabby.
What do you notice? Higher volume, low "relative" intensity, self-regulating "ladder" pattern, ~4-9 sets per "ladder"
I first read about the “ladder” set/rep scheme in one of those old bodybuilding books by Robert Kennedy. Circa 1988-89. That particular book (and I'll eventually look up which one) gave an example of using ladders to work on chins. Sounded easy enough. Do one rep, take a little break, do 2 reps, take a little break, and so on and so forth until you can no longer improve on your rep count.
Fast-forward a few years. Hell, maybe even a decade.
“Chain Yourself to the Power Rack and Call Me in a Year” appeared in MILO: A Journal for Serious Strength, published by Ironmind Enterprises. It was written by a relatively unknown trainer named Pavel Tsatsouline. In it he described how to “grease the groove” of a movement. This article is now on line, at the Dragondoor website and can be found here:
The concept of frequent, heavy practice of a lift while staying fresh is the heart of the concept, when applied to strength training.
Why use ladders?
First, they are easy to set up. Pick a rep range. Could be 1-5, could be 2-20. Pick the number of times you'd go “up” the ladder, given that you don't reach the point of momentary muscular failure. Pick the condition that will trigger progression. Now do it.
Probably the most important thing is the fatigue management. It's better to start a ladder over than to attempt to force an extra rep out. With ladders you let the volume do the work.
Let me reiterate:
Pick your repetition range. Taking your approximate 5 RM and doing a ladder with 1-3 reps is a good place to start.
Pick the number of times to run through the ladder. I'd suggest starting with 3 runs through. If you get all three ladders, then you need to add weight next time.
It's about staying fresh and crisp. It's not about grinding them out and gritting your teeth.
Let the volume do the work.
Other ways to use the ladder:
Bodyweight calisthenics are ideal for the use of a strength-endurance ladder. The most frequently recommended way of using a ladder is with a training partner in a “I go, you go” format. This becomes very competitive. Another variation is the breathing ladder. Do a rep, take a breath, do two reps, take 2 breathes, do three reps, take three breathes....keep adding reps and breathes until you can't add any more. This gets surprisingly hard with stuff like kettlebell swings and even bodyweight squats.
Reverse ladders or countdowns are another useful way. When I do an “EDT” type of workout, I often use reverse ladders to manage my fatigue so I can make or exceed my repetition target.
The “ratchet” is a version of the ladder I read about over on Scott Sonnon's Circular Strength Training forum. A ratchet would look like: 1-2-3-2-3-4-3-4-5-4-5-6-5-6-7...and so on. The ratchet is a good way to mix things up and keep you on your toes.
And finally, here's a program I wrote a while back making extensive use of ladders. I think I went a bit overboard, but it's worth taking a look at. I did edit it from the original version. You can see that here:
First off let's say some things about volume. Too much volume too fast is bad. You'll feel like a pussy, and regress like nothing else. But, greater volume isn't bad, it is good. And it has it's place in every routine much like some HIT-like to failure training does.
Volume is a good way to boost work capacity. Add a set a week for 3 weeks, then back it back down, then ramp it back up. Cycling is the way to success. Life is a cycle. Training should be cycled. Unlike some other unnamed idiots believe, periodization was not invented to coorespond with steroid cycles.
Volume is also a fine way to boost strength. A technique that is tailor-made for pussies is the power ladder, first popularized by Pavel the Latvian Sell-Out. For increased strength, a ladder could be constructed this way:
Train frequently, maybe every other day, and don't even approach the point of failure. If you think you might fail on the next set, stop right there, and return to a single. If you have a bad day, the ladder might look like this:
Don't be a pussy and get all wound up over it. The body's capacities change from day to day. Just don't go near failure, and keep up the ladder 2-3 x weekly, and you'll be amazed when your pussed out 315 lb deadlift is now around 355! Amazing. You just have to be prepared for the Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness that accompanies the initial sessions of higher volume work.
So, let's say you want to get stronger now. Stronger than you've ever been, but without getting crazy with the Westside Barbell stuff. Who the fuck can understand that shit anyway, eh?
This program will be a 4x weekly program. Just for shits and giggles, and to assist the average candyass who will do this routine, let's base it on ladders.
Session 1: Leg Strength
Squat Ladder: I don't care if you use the front squat or the back squat. Start out with an easy ladder of 1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3. Add weight when that ladder gets easy.
Step Ups: Strictly for assistance. Use heavy dumbbells. Do 3 sets of 10 the first week, 4 sets of 10 the second week, and 5 sets of 10 the third week. If you aren't doing them anywhere else, feel free to sub RDLs here, or good mornings, or even the split squat with the rear leg elevated.
Ab work: Pick two hard ab exercises, superset them, and do 3-5 supersets at the end of your workout.
Session 2: Overhead Strength
Press Ladder: Once again, I don't really care what press variation you use. I'd suggest standing overhead press. Start out with an easy ladder of 1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3. Add weight when that ladder gets easy. On your last set, do as many 4-6" lock outs as you can. I got that directly from Dan John.
Weighted Chin Ladder: Oh yeah, you can't get away from the back work you pussies! A pathetic bastard like myself might start with unweighted ladders. Once again, try for 1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3, and add weight when that's pretty easy.
Oblique Work: Choose 1 oblique exercise and do 3-5 sets. Do 'em heavy and quit whining.
Session 2: Lower Back Strength
This is where we separate the men from the boys
Good Morning Ladder: Keep the form strict, start off with something you can handle, and follow the guidelines for the squat. You might also consider 5 rep ladder here, depending on how you do with good mornings. You could also sub RDLs or regular deadlifts here as well.
Zercher Squats from bottom position: We'll keep it simple: Do 5s until it gets too heavy, then do 3s. Don't kill yourself, but make it hard.
Just a quick note: This is my least favorite movement, and probably one of the most painful things you can do. Feel free to eliminate this in favor of Glute/Ham Raises done in the methodology I described above for step ups. You should evaluate how you feet before doing this! You could even substitute front squats.
Ab Work: If you did the Zerchers, you don't need to do ab work. If you didn't, follow the above guidelines.
Session 4: Horizontal Pressing Strength
Bench press variation ladder: Perform as already described. Pick CGBP, BP, Floor press, Board presses, or whatever.
Chin Ladder: at this point in the week, you lower back will be trashed. Do another chin ladder to help yourself stretch out.
Oblique work: As above.
As always, feel free to toss in bicep, calf, and grip work AFTER you have done the rest of the workout. Even some interval style cardio or sled draggin' might be in the picture if you manage to grow a dick.
I would do the above workout for 3 weeks. On the fourth week, reduce the volume to a single trip up the ladder or 1-3 sets of assistance work, then on the fifth week, choose different variations of the main movements, and maybe even change up the assistance. Every fourth week should have a dramatic decrease in volume, to let yourself deload, rebound and supercompensate.
Here's an example of how a P&B guy used ladders in his training and some results. The guy is a very knowledgable lifter (and has had success training other lifters), and I think it's slick that he liked the concept well enough to give it a serious run. He's running around 175-185 or so at the start, if I remember right.
OHP (2/3/4/2/3/1/2/1) -- pyramid wt on 4th, 6th & 8th set
DEADLIFT (6/6/5/4/3) -- pyramid
WEIGHTED CHINUP (1/2/3/2/3/4)
CGBP (5/3/1/5/3/1) - pyramid
separate M wkout:
ROWS (5 sets of 4-6) - pyramid
KTE/TWISTING KTE (3 sets)
100 reps pushdowns or bw dips
POWER CLEAN or POWER SNATCH (4x4)
BB SURGS (8/8/6/6)
DB/BB ARM CURL (2/3/4/2/3/4)
BB "MOST REPS w/ 95 lbs" ARM CURL (1 set each, sometimes 2)
BENCH PRESS (1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3)
WEIGHTED CHINUP (3/4/5/2/3/4/1/2/3) - pyramid wt on 4th & 7th set
DEADLIFT (10/7/4/6/8) - pyramid
BB ROW (4x6-8)
HEAVY CORE CROWBAR (3x6-10)
250 medicine ball throws (4-5 sets each ~90 sec)
20-30 min. stepmill w/ weighted vest or truck pushing/dragging
150 swings w/ 16 lb sledgehammer (sets of 30-50).
WEIGHTED CHINUP (2/3/4/1/3/5/2/4/6)
GOOD MORNING (3x5)
separate F workout:
ALT DB ARM CURL (2/3/4/2/3/4/2/3/4)
DB surg (6x10)
FACE PULLS (3x8-12)
Truck Push (5x100 yards)
Truck Drag w/ towrope (2-3x80-100 yards)
150 swings w/ 16 lb sledgehammer
Farmer Walk; 2-100 lb orange home depot buckets! (4x100 yards)
100' monkey bars
His comments upon the results:
Me and two buddies have been doing heavy ladder workouts for about 7 or 8 weeks now. I drew up the workouts using Steve's primer on ladders (posted at Body Recomp) as a model.
Results have been fast and substantial. I'm not setting the world on fire with my weights, but understand that my body's been so shattered the last few years, it's been hard to train consistently or get results.
For the first 5 weeks, I wasn't eating nearly enough. Despite that I'm amazingly up 10 lbs in bodyweight. It's very hard for me to gain weight, and so the last few weeks I've been chowing at least 3000-4000 kcal/day.
The real amazing difference has been in my shoulder health. I've had pussycuff for years now, and haven't been able to bench over 225 w/o pain in a long, long time (best ever was 305 I think). In fact, I had to grit my teeth to rep anything heavier than 185.
Right now I'm back to benching 275, almost totally pain free, and amazingly I haven't been pushing the effort on bench days like other lifts in these cycles (although, I admittedly am pressing more frequently).
Both my training partners are benching 310-320, each having started the ladder cycles ~ 275.
On Monday I pulled 405x5 and 440x1, missed 455. Wednesday my lower back wasn't quite right, so I kept it light and repped out. Pulled 315 and 355 each for 12.
Standing overhead strict press is 185 (cleaned from floor to shoulder), almost bodyweight. Weighted chin is +70lbs x 3 reps. One of my buddies is right at +100lbs x 1. The other is strict pressing 200, although his clean so fugly we let him unrack it at shoulder height.
I've been having hip issues last few months, so my squat hasn't quite breached 405 again (I'm having to lean forward to get low enough; can't stay upright). However, my training partners have each ressurected their pussylegs. They're doubling 335 and 365 (staretd at 205 and 280, respectively).
All in all the training's been very positive. I do have hip injury, and a strange torsional strain in my left forearm (bone), but otherwise I feel pretty good.