Ladder Work Programing

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 overtraining, and it increases the chance that your form will break down.

Types of Ladder Workouts

I started programming ascending ladders (the number of reps goes up each set) of 1–10 reps for some MMA Fighters I train. For variety, I would sometimes reverse the order and have them do a descending ladder—starting with 10 reps and working down to 1, 3, or 5. I like the descending ladder because most of the work (the higher-rep sets) is done early in the workout when the athlete is less fatigued, leading to better technique on all the sets, but either approach will allow you to perform a lot of volume in minimal time. Experiment with both and see which one you like best.

The one potential problem with these two types of ladders is that the hardest sets are done in sequence. For example, you do 8 reps, 9 reps, and then 10 reps, or the other way around, if it’s a descending ladder. For some people, that just creates too much fatigue for them to make it through the whole ladder without using sloppy form or going to failure. To fix the problem, I started using waving ladders. Alternating high and low reps really minimizes the buildup of fatigue, and it helps potentiate the nervous system to improve muscle strength.

To do a waving ladder, you switch back and forth between the highest and lowest reps in your ladder and meet in the middle. For ladders of 1–10 reps, your sets would go: 1, 10, 2, 9, 3, 8, 4, 7, 5, 6, or, if you wanted to do them descending style, 10, 1, 9, 2, 8, 3, 7, 4, 6, 5.

Try this type of training on your next workout and let me know how it goes. 


Michael Greenhouse