May 4, 2014

Ladders - Maximize Performance While Minimizing Fatigue To Allow For A Greater Volume Of Work

What are we really doing here?

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that there’s definitely no shortage of training programs out there for those wanting to build muscle, get stronger, or transform their body. Hell, some programs are promoted to do all those things simultaneously. Generally these programs consist of the same exercises (because the same movements that provided the most bang for your buck before, are still the same now), with slight alterations to the parameters (sets, reps, rest, intensity, etc) to achieve the desired result. After all, that’s all training really is. It’s management of the parameters combined with showing up to the gym and working your ass off, and as long as you do the right amount of work (no more, and no less), then you’re in a good position to get the best result for your time and effort.

The way you structure that work though, is entirely up to you, and there is a ton of room for interpretation. Typically, people like to have a predetermined amount of sets and reps in place, whether it be 10 sets of 10, 8 by 8, 6 by 6, 5 by 5, 3 by 3 (you get the point), as it makes it easier to quantify progression, and also pinpoint what exactly you need to focus on, and what changes, if any, need to be made.

The war of attrition

The drawback to these types of programs, if there was one, is that the nervous system is constantly adapting and making incremental improvements on a rep-to-rep, and set-to-set basis, which normally would aid in performance of each subsequent rep, and set, but fatigue can quickly become a limiting factor as the volume increases, thus affecting the end result. When you think about it, training is really a war of attrition, with the goal being to get the greatest performance out of our body, while battling fatigue. The more high quality reps you can get out of your body, the greater result there will be.

Fortunately, modifications can be made to take advantage of the versatile, ever evolving nervous system, while limiting fatigue, but still maximizing the training effect.

Volume is volume, no matter how you slice it

For an advanced coach, structuring a training program is more of a numbers game than anything. Parameters such as sets, reps, rest, exercise selection, training split, etc, are all juggled with the expectation that it will produce the best possible result, but at the end of the day, those parameters are adjusted so that the neuromuscular system is subjected to a certain amount of total volume (in powerlifting this is often referred to as ‘tonnage’). The volume is what ultimately determines the end result, and is why all other parameters are based on it.

But this brings up an interesting concept in that, if the overall volume is the determining factor, does it really matter how that volume is accumulated? For example, as long as you complete the work in a timely manner, and it doesn’t take you hours to get all the scheduled reps in, could you still get the same, or better, training effect?

Practice... Yeah, we’re talkin’ about practice!

Each and every rep, no matter how perfectly executed, is a learning experience that becomes hardwired into your brain. If you perform a rep as perfectly as possible then the goal is to build upon that and repeat it each and every time. The more perfect reps you chain together the better. Unfortunately, because the body adapts, what is now, or was once a perfect rep, becomes less than perfect next time, because if you’re body has made the necessary adaptations you should be capable of more/better.

On the flip side, if a rep is performed with what is less than optimal execution, then that rep simply serves as a stepping stone to build upon so the next one can be performed better. In a perfect world, we’d be able to perform every rep perfectly, without having execution affected by fatigue, and still expose the body to the volume necessary to get the desired result.

While a program that allows for that kind of success does not exist, there is a training system that takes advantage of the on-the-fly adjustments the nervous system makes, while limiting fatigue, but providing the volume necessary to maximize the end result.

Snakes and ladders

A ‘ladder’ is a training system used to activate the nervous system so that each successive set feels easier even as fatigue sets in. Because of the way in which it’s structured it allows you to ultimately reaching a higher peak rep total than if you went all out every set, and maximizing the execution of as many reps as possible.

An example of a volume ladder would look like this:

Set 1 – 1 rep
Set 2 – 2 reps
Set 3 – 3 reps
Set 4 – 4 reps
Set 5 – 5 reps
Set 6 – 6 reps
Set 7 – 7 reps
Set 8 – 8 reps
Set 9 – 9 reps
Set 10 – 10 reps

Total reps = 55

*Reps increase while the weight stays the same

At this point it should be blatantly obvious why this system is called a ladder, as each set is basically a step up from the last in terms of volume. This specific example would be an ascending ladder in that the reps increase in direct proportion to the number of sets performed, but the ladder model can be adjusted anyway you choose. For instance, you could start with 10 reps (although you wouldn’t take advantage of the neural adaptations which take place during an ascending ladder, but may be able to use a slightly heavier weight), and work your way down to 1, making it a descending ladder. Or, you could go up, and then come back down, and if you went from 1 to 10, back to 1, you would have completed 100 total reps (which is the goal in the ever popular 10 by 10).

In comparison to 10 by 10 (more commonly known these days as German Volume Training – GVT), the ascending/descending ladder has a few advantages worth noting. As stated above, because you’re not going all out on every single set, you’re able to manage fatigue and complete all your reps, whereas with GVT, using the exact same amount of weight, it’s not likely you’ll hit all 100 reps on the first try (at least you shouldn’t if you selected the right amount of weight, generally 60% of max is the starting point with the hopes of completing all ten sets of ten within a few workouts). Also, because of the nature of the ladder, and how it keeps fatigue under control while still maintaining the training effect, the quality of reps are generally much greater, and depending on the movement you may be able to complete all your reps with a slightly heavier weight (the shorter range of motion, the greater weight that can be used – up to 75% of max in some cases). From a psychological perspective the ladder is much more tolerable as well, because you know that once you get over the hump, which is the tenth set consisting of ten reps, it’s all downhill from there, whereas the 10 by 10 can seem impossible and never ending with less than half of the work completed.

Ladders are not limited to just the ascending and descending models described above. The ladder method is as versatile as you want it to be and can be repeated, much like a wave with wave loading, or even applied to exercise selection. Here are some other ways in which you can apply ladders for various goals.

An example of an intensity ladder would look like this:

Set 1 – 1 rep
Set 2 – 2 reps
Set 3 – 3 reps
Set 4 – 4 reps
Set 5 – 5 reps
Set 6 – 4 reps
Set 7 – 3 reps
Set 8 – 2 reps
Set 9 – 1 rep

Total reps = 25 (same end result as if you were using a 5 by 5 protocol)

*The difference between an intensity ladder and a volume ladder is defined by the amount of weight used. The heavier the weight, the lower the ‘height’ of the ladder (as in, you’re capped in terms of the maximum amount of reps you can perform for any given ‘step’).

As with all training systems/programs, the amount of reps for the highest step of the ladder should ultimately determine how much weight you use. For example, if you can only manage 5 reps with 85% of max, it would be inappropriate to think you could work up towards that many reps (aside from performing a descending ladder in which you started with 5 reps before working your way down).

Waves and ladders

Wave loading is a very similar training protocol, in that is specifically designed to ramp up the nervous system while limiting fatigue to allow greater and greater loads to be used. Generally with wave loading, the weight and reps are inversely proportionate (lightest weight for most reps, increasing the weight and decreasing the reps). While wave loading looks good on paper, in practice it’s another story. A typical wave loading workout would look like this:

Set 1: ‘X’ amount of weight (ex. 85%) for 3 reps
Set 2: +3-5% for 2 reps
Set 3: +7-10% for 1 rep

That would be considered one wave. Then you start again with anywhere between 2 and 5% more for each set, and aim for the same amount of reps, and you keep going until you can no longer finish a scheduled set (generally 3 waves is suffice if you selected the appropriate amount of weight). As stated above, on paper this looks like a phenomenal training system, but in practice it’s very, very difficult to add upwards of 20% more weight between your first set and your last, especially since each set is close to a max effort. If you could make that kind of progress from set to set, it’s likely that you’re earliest sets weren’t challenging enough to contribute to developing the strength quality you are training for.

In comparison to wave loading, the wave ladder has a few advantages worth noting. As previously mentioned, you’re not going all out on every single set with any type of ladder, and definitely not nearly as much effort is required in comparison to wave loading, enabling you to minimize fatigue while maximizing all the benefits of enhanced neural activation. A wave ladder would look something like this:

Set 1: ‘X’ amount of weight (ex. 85%) for 1 rep
Set 2: same amount of weight for 2 reps
Set 3: same amount of weight for 3 reps

That would be considered one wave, only the first two sets are used to build upon each other, and are relatively easy by comparison, leaving you energized to continue ramping up to a maximum amount of weight for the day. The rules in terms of how much to increase the weight for subsequent waves would remain the same as with the original wave loading protocol, but because less total sets are performed with near maximal effort, the result is more quality reps performed, and possibly more waves performed.

Skipping steps

As briefly mentioned earlier, ladders can be as versatile as you choose, and much like you could choose to go up, or down, a ladder, two or three steps at a time, the same can be done with your training as well. Remember, ladders are about maximizing performance (quality), while minimizing fatigue and making up for the lack of reps on some sets with more total sets/volume (quantity).

For example, if the goal is to place your muscles under a great deal of volume, and you feel that performing only 1 rep with a weight you can handle for 15-20 reps with is a waste of time, you can adjust the ladder sequence to suit your needs. One example of a ladder in which you skip steps was popularized by Dan John, who divided the ladder into sets of 2, 3, 5, and 10 reps, equating to 20 total reps, and then repeating that sequence 5 times to get to 100 total reps. Worth noting is that you don’t have to go back to the bottom and start again, but that you could perform this type of ladder in the ascending/descending manner as described earlier.

This type of ladder in which you skip steps utilizes the lower rep sets to get into the groove, while the higher rep sets are used to fatigue the muscle. After the higher rep sets you get a chance to rest, if you can even call it that, by performing some lower rep sets again to add to the total overall volume, without exhausting you, or preventing you from completing the same total amount of reps.

Tension ladders

There are a few ways in which the ladder system can be structured to maximize time under tension, and they are, but are not limited to:

Descending ladders: Starting with ten reps, then working your way down to one rep, resting anywhere between 15-60 seconds per set (resting less as the reps decrease), then taking a minute once completing the ladder, reducing the weight and doing it all over again. Generally this is a good way to finish off a muscle group, and is especially effective if you have a training partner, as you rest only as long as it takes for your partner to perform all of their reps.

Ladder drill: This is pretty much a strength endurance battle of will that will leave you pumped and breathless far more than you could expect. You simply start by performing an ascending ladder, adding one rep until you can no longer continue, while trying to keep the rest intervals consistent (as in, pick a predetermined amount of time to rest and stick to it). Once you max out, take a minute and start back at one. You can repeat this drill as many times as you wish.

Step ladder: The step ladder is exactly like its real life counterpart – a smaller ladder! Basically this is identical to the ladder drill, only you put a cap on the total amount of reps performed before starting back at one. For example, should you decide that 5 reps is the top of the ladder, you can go from one, to five, for as many rounds as you can (while keeping the rest intervals consistent), and try to beat your total amount of rounds the next time.

Stairway to heaven!

Till this point, the ladder template has been implemented with only one parameter; reps. But the ladder template can easily be applied to other parameters as well. The rest can be increased or decreased depending on the goal, but my absolute favorite is to apply it to the sets/exercises. In this method you simply tack on another exercise to the end of each set (just make sure to keep the exercises in the order which they were tacked on, you’ll see what I mean below). For example a chest workout could look like this:

Set 1: 1 exercise – bench press
Set 2: 2 exercises (performed back, to back, in superset fashion) – bench press + db flye
Set 3: 3 exercises (performed back, to back, to back, in superset fashion) – bench press + db flye + incline press

And you continue on in this fashion until you get to the tenth set, in which you perform one giant set of ten exercises, for a total of 55 sets!

Set 10 could look something like this: bench press + db flye + incline press + incline db flye + decline press + decline db flye + incline db press + flat db press + decline db press + cable crossover (in reality more machine work would be necessary as the risk with free weights at this point is greater than the reward, but this is just an example)

The stairway to heaven is strictly geared towards those who want to build muscle, with a secondary benefit of improving your strength endurance. The amount of weight you use, and the amount of reps you get is going to alter dramatically from set to set, as each set is going to be progressively more challenging than the last, but the pump you’ll get from this workout will blow your fucking mind!

The beautiful thing about this workout is that you can structure it in a way so that you are performing your favorite exercise (which is obviously the bench press! Try doing this with squats or deadlifts at the beginning) up to ten times (given that you perform it first), while adding other exercises to give you the peace of mind that comes with hitting your muscles from as many different angles as possible (because everyone training to build muscle seems to think they need to perform every single exercise they can think of, not realizing it doesn’t work like that). This kind of workout is best suited as a way to shock the shit out of a muscle, but is extremely taxing, which is why you shouldn’t use it all the time, but rather proceed with caution. In fact, don’t use it for more than one bodypart in a week, or ya may end up in the hospital!

As with all the other examples above, this method is not limited to an ascending order, and can be performed in descending fashion (although starting a workout with a giant set of 10 straight exercises may leave you with nothing left in the tank to lift any substantial amount of weight after the first set), or can have a limit to the amount of exercises performed (ex. up to 5 exercises) in which you simply repeat the round upon completion, or can go on until you either die or give up (or run out of exercises to do).

If you have any questions about ladders, or how to apply them to your training, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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