The Ladder Method: Easiest Way To Get Big and Strong
Are you familiar with the ladder method for strength and muscle growth? Since the ladder method is arguably one of the ultimate hacks for growth we’re going to dive deeper…
Think about how you train pull-ups. You jump up to the bar and grind out as many as you can, right? Rest until you think you can get the same number of reps again (or close to it), and repeat. You probably do the same thing for push-ups and dips.
Regardless of the exercise, let’s say you do three sets, getting 10 reps the first set, 8 the second, and 7 the third, and you rest about two minutes between sets. Altogether, that’s 25 total reps and six minutes of rest time.
Now what if there was a way to do more total reps in less time? Your workout would be more efficient, and you’d deliver a bigger growth stimulus to your muscles. How might that be done?
Here’s one way, called a waving ladder. Do 7 reps, then 1 rep, then 6, 2, 5, 3, and 4 reps, resting 30 seconds between sets. Add it all up and you’ve done 28 total reps with just three and a half minutes of rest. Compare that to your normal routine—it’s 12% more volume and 40% less time spent resting!
By holding back and doing fewer reps than you’re capable of each set, you can actually do more work overall, get out of the gym faster, and have it feel almost easy to boot.
So, what Is The Ladder Method?
Ladders were developed by strength coaches in the Soviet Union, and were a secret weapon in the training of Eastern Bloc athletes—guys and gals who dominated strength and power sports in the Olympics for decades. They’re a time-tested trick for getting big and strong fast, and they’re not hard to do.
For example, you do one pull-up, rest, then two pull-ups, rest, three pull-ups, and so on until you hit a goal number for the workout. Climbing, shall we say, from 1 to 10 reps, is one ladder. The second ladder starts over at one rep and works back up to 10 reps, or 8, or 6, or whatever suits your time and energy.
The whole point is to end up doing more work on an exercise than you’d normally be capable of. Instead of maxing out every set and burning out quickly, you leave a little in your tank and, subsequently, you’re able to get more total reps. Greater volume means greater overload for your muscles, and ultimately greater gains.
The 4 Rules of Ladder Workouts
Ladders can be done several different ways, but there are four guiding principles you need to follow.
1. The most fatiguing sets (high numbers, like 9 or 10 reps) must be followed by the longest rest periods. This is one reason that ladders are great to do with a partner. Old-school gym rats call it the “I go, you go” approach because you can gauge rest periods by how long it takes your partner to do his/her set. You rest while he does his reps, and vice versa. It takes longer for a partner to perform 10 reps than it does 1 or 2, so working out with someone else usually builds appropriate rests into your workout automatically.
If you’re by yourself, remember not to rush to the next set, or you won’t be able to complete the ladder. A good rule of thumb for solo lifters is to match the number of deep breaths you take with the number of reps you just performed. For example, after a set of three reps, you’ll take three slow, deep breaths before the next set; after a set of 10 reps you’ll take 10 breaths, and so on. Nevertheless, if you feel you need more rest to get the number of reps you need next, take it. The higher the reps in your ladder, or the heavier the weights you’re using, the more rest you’ll need.
2. The most fatiguing set (again, the one with the most reps) is followed by the least fatiguing one (the lowest number of reps). After doing a set of 10 on an ascending or waving ladder, for instance, you’ll start over at 1 rep. Note that the one exception is a descending ladder, which is explained below.
3. No set is ever taken to failure. Every rep should be done with perfect form and performed explosively. For this reason, choose ladders with conservative rep ranges that you know you can perform properly. If 10 reps is your max on pull-ups, your ladder should only go as high as 7 or 8 reps.
4. Limit your ladders to 2–4 per workout. Doing more work than that can lead to over-training, and it increases the chance that your form will break down.
Put Ladder Workouts To Work For You
You can choose the type and number of ladders you do based on how you’re feeling on any given day. Work up to as many reps as you feel comfortable doing that day, and let that be the top rung of your ladder. One day when you’re feeling sluggish, you might prefer an ascending ladder on kettlebell swings that uses 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 reps. Another day, you might feel strong and choose a waving ladder that starts with 12 or 14 reps. The key is to listen to your body and use the approach that’s right for you on that day.
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