WHAT IS IT?
Ladders are a technique that emphasizes escalating and deescalating through a pre-selected variable in order to accumulate a high density of work and accumulation of metabolic stress. The variable in question can be intensity, reps, or load, but the defining feature will be the minimization of rest. In a sense, Ladders can be thought of as a “pyramid” on the way up and a “drop-set” on the way down.
Beginning with a load that is about your ~50RM, perform 5 reps. Without rest, increase the load by ~50% and perform another 5 reps. Continue with this pattern until you reach a load in which you can no longer complete 5 reps with reasonable technique. From this point, begin your descent back down in load—touching every increment used on the way up—and perform as many reps as possible at each stage.
HOW TO TRACK PROGRESSION?
Progression on Ladders can be measured via the highest load reached, reps completed at various stages of the descent, and/or total work done (as a function of load x reps).
WHO SHOULD USE IT?
Because of the prerequisite intensity needed and fatigue generated, Ladders are going to be an intermediate-to-advanced technique. Trainees who are short on time (thus needing dense training), have a lagging muscle group that needs additional stimulus (without increasing systemic fatigue too much), and/or are looking for a way to increase frequency for a given muscle group (i.e. for a 3rd or even 4th weekly session), should give a serious consideration to Ladders.
WHO SHOULD NOT USE IT?
Beginners will have very little use for the density of volume offered from Ladders. They can get by sufficiently on traditional sets or even just regular load drop sets. Additionally, trainees with sensitivity to volume or intensity spikes should be hesitant to jump into Ladders.
WHEN TO USE IT?
Ladders should be included in training phases with a volume bias (as opposed to higher-intensity blocks) and those that emphasize metabolic stress. Because the chronic fatigue generated from Ladders will be low but acute fatigue is high (as compared to straight-set equivalent), Ladders can be implemented at any point in a mesocycle (once exercise-specific adaptations have been made) but should be confined to the end of single training sessions (in terms of exercise sequencing).
Best practices: Perform them last in a training session so as to not compromise the rest of the workout. Start Ladders on the second week of a mesocycle using the first to establish baselines for the given exercise. Progress them for ~4 weeks at a time. Only perform Ladders as the primary intensity technique for 1-2 movements at a time.
WHEN NOT TO USE IT?
Ladders are contraindicated during periods of prioritized recovery or intentional suppression of volume/intensity. Ladders will also be recommended against for intensity-specific training blocks due to the volume bias associated with the Ladders. Do NOT use Ladders at the beginning of a training session (unless you want to be useless for anything after). Do NOT use Ladders during deloads. Do NOT use Ladders when pushing for maximal strength or power.
HOW TO USE IT?
The most important factor to note when applying Ladders into a program is the emphasis on short rest between transitions. The exercise selected needs to be conducive to quick load changes so recovery is handicapped and density of work is maximized. This means that DBs, cables, and pin-loaded machines will be the primary modalities. Though it is worth noting that plate-loaded machines can be used with a partner assisting with load changes. Additionally, isolation exercises are almost always better due to more specific targeting of a muscle and limiting of systemic fatigue. Stability and external support should be maximized as well when possible.
The rep target used per “set” doesn’t actually have to be 5 reps even though that is the reference here. It can be anywhere between 1-10 reps depending on goals. And the descent doesn’t have to be AMRAP either—It can just as effectively be done with the same rep target that was used on the build-up (though this doesn’t necessarily make it that much easier).
1)Standing DB Laterals- Start with 5s and perform 5 reps. Increase load by 2.5lb increments up until failure to get 5 reps then go back down performing AMRAP at each weight stage. For example- Sets of 5 reps at 5/7.5/10/12.5/15/17.5/20s and then only 3 reps with 22.5s. Then 4/6/4/7/9/12/15 reps on the way back down, respectively.
2)Leg Press- Start with 1pps and perform 6 reps. Increase load by 1pps (with help from partners so the trainee doesn’t have to move) up until failure to get 6 reps then go back down performing sets of 6 at each weight stage. For example- Sets of 6 reps at 1/2/3/4/5pps and then only 5 reps with 6pps. Then 6 reps on the way back down for each weight increment.
3)Cable Curls- Start with the lowest weight increment and perform 5 reps. Increase load one weight increment at a time until failure to get 5 reps then go back down performing AMRAP at each weight stage. Note that most cable systems will have non-standardized increases in the weight stacks.
HOW NOT TO USE IT?
Pretty much all free-weight barbell variations should be avoided due to logistical shortfalls. Movements that place high stress on the axial skeleton should be used sparingly, if at all. Ladders can be used with compound exercises, but they should be carefully managed for fatigue accumulation and potential for injury with training close to failure. Ladders should be done bilaterally (or very rarely unilaterally) but never alternating because of the intraset recovery advantages that come with the latter. Exercises that have potential failure points outside of the target muscle(s) will inherently limit the effectiveness of Ladders as well.
Ladders should NOT be done more than once in a single session.
1)Leg Press- Though Leg Press was used as an example for above, it can easily be an example here without use of partners to help change the load. In this case, the rest period between each “set” would be too long.
2)Barbell RDLs- In addition to the inefficiency with changing load and unracking/reracking, the axial-loading here is an immediate contraindication.
3)DB Walking Lunges- Ladders should be done bilaterally rather than alternating. The instability of lunges would be an additional point against their use here.
BENEFITS OF THE TECHNIQUE:
-Increased density of work
-High accumulation of metabolic stress
-Easy to progress, track, and quantify
-Relatively high volume and intensity without increasing systemic fatigue as much as other techniques (though this is exercise specific)
-Due to the multiple vectors of progression, it is easy to beat previous efforts by just pushing for another rep here or there
DRAWBACKS OF THE TECHNIQUE:
-Not the best for pure overloading
-The underlying mechanisms are counter to those that promote strength and power
-Can be challenging to perform with limited equipment
-Much of the “pyramid” up to the top load is wasted or non-stimulative volume