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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Ladders: An easy way to increase volume

Here is a quick way if you feel a need for more volume in your training, it is fairly easy to do.  It can work with either a person on their own or a pair as long as they are similar strengths, it is quick & easy to include (although it is slightly long winded to describe).
First let's look at some ways to increase volume in your workout.  The easiest ways are to either increase the amount of sets you do or increase the repetitions in each set.  The draw-backs are that if you increase a workout by an extra set, then volume goes up quite a bit as a set can be 5-10 or more repetitions & so that is a big jump in reps in one go (ladders also increase reps, but the set ranges are very, very different & so it kind of dodges the issue a bit in my view).  If you increase the repetitions per set then you usually have to lower the weight, so you get less intensity in a workout & so less adaptation (ladders can dodge this one as 'sets' in this case is of a different design).  You can also do things like cut down on time between sets (ladders does this, as you will see). There are other ways to increase volume, such as a 'finisher' set, that is doing as many as physically possible (while still keeping good form), drop sets, & many other ways to increase volume, so ladders are another variation to stick into your toolbox.
So, now you what ladders are NOT, just what are they?  Let's start with an easy example.  In this example you are a relative beginner, you can do let's say 6 chin-ups if you go to failure (failure in this case is failure in form, not the total inability to move yourself by heaving & swinging as many people do when doing chin-ups).  So, we want you to do 16 reps, that would be a hard slog & you would probably be exhausted by using a normal rep-set scheme.  But here is the rep scheme using ladders:

Basic ladders

(If you are doing this with a partner, simply take turns  -you go, they go etc...if you are on your own imagine a friend is going & simply rest for that long then go again - be honest, do not loaf!).

first you do 1 rep, then the friend does 1 rep
next you do 2 reps, then the friend does 2 reps
then you 3 reps, then the friend does 3 reps
You then do 4 reps, then your friend does 4 reps
Next you do 3 reps, then your friend does 3 reps
Then you do 2 reps, then the friend does 2 reps
& finally you do 1 rep, then your friend does 1 rep

There you go you have stayed 2 below your absolute max ability & still managed an easy 16 reps.  Can you see why it is called "Ladders"?   First you go up, then you come down the ladder, each time you are either one step up or one step down the ladder.  It's an easy way to increase volume.

 OK so we have the basic ladder sorted in our minds, how do you progress using this model.  This looks complex, but once you have it in your mind it makes perfect sense.  Let's stick with the ladder that goes up to 4 reps.  We want to add volume to this system.  If we just go up to 5 reps on the way up we go from 16 reps to 25 reps!  A BIG leap in reps.  Doing an easy movement that may actually be possible, but something like chinning, this usually won't happen, so this is the method I use:

So, week 1 you get
a/1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1
the next session go
b/1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1
the session after
c/1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 2, 1
the one after
d/1, 2 , 3, 4, 3, 3, 2, 1
the one after that
e/1, 2 , 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1
next you go
f/1, 2 , 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1
g/1, 2 , 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 2, 1
h/1, 2 , 3, 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 1
i/1, 2 , 3, 4, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1
j/1, 2 , 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

You see how you first work up to a set of 2 at the highest number, then 3 at the highest number, then go up a number & start the whole process again.  This is for exercises you can only add a single rep to each session, so you can add more &  if that is the case simply use the every other one in the list (so go a, c, e, g, i for example, or a, d, then h whatever works for you). 
There is a simple way to work out how many reps each ladder is, you just times the top number by itself, that's how you know a ladder going up to 4 has 16 reps (4x4), a ladder going up to 6 has 36 reps (6x6) & a ladder going up to 10 has 100 reps (10x10). See how if you can get say 12-14 reps of a movement, you could build up to a frightening amount of reps very quickly using this method, your 'tonnage' (the amount of weight lifted per session) could sky rocket!

So there we have basic ladders, with a progression you can use.  Let's look at some progressions & variations you could use if you wanted to.

Ascending ladders

Simply a ladder but only going up, so with our example you would do 1, 2, 3, 4 & stop , notice you get a lot less you get 11 reps rather than 16, so it could be used to get you started on using ladders if you are used to very low volume.

Descending ladders

I thing you've guessed this one, it is simply 4, 3, 2, 1 again it's 11 reps rather than 16reps, so has less volume than a full ladder, but might be of use.

Even ladder

Use only the even numbers.  So, 2,4,2 so in this case 8 reps would get done.

Odd ladder

Use only the odd numbers.  So, 1,3,3,1, so 8 is the same in this case.

Inverted ladder

This is like starting at the top, going down, then back up.  So, you would go 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4.  This is the hardest variation as you start & end on the highest reps you can do.  I don't usually do this variation, but as I thought of it, I will add it in as you never know in some specific circumstances it might be of use to someone?

Summing up

Really the variations are limited to your imagination.  I could continue to imagine an endless variety of variations for you, but you get the idea.  This method has been used by the military in some countries, who use it to keep up there pull-up numbers (in some cases being able to do 20 pull-ups at any time is required in some branches of the service in some countries).  If you trained doing set after set of 20 rep pull-ups you would find that when you needed it, you could be so fatigued that you were unable to complete the task.  So, the introduction of ladders allowed the military personnel to still keep the ability they needed without over-training or fatiguing themselves too much.  At least that is the version of how they came about that I have heard, I don't promise that it is true, but I thought you might be interested.
As a final note ladder do not have to be only used on chin-ups or pull-ups.  You can use them on dips, shoulder pressing, bench pressing, squats (ouch!), deadlift (if you feel the urge for high volume deadlifting!), I've not used them on curls, dumbbell kickbacks (to be honest I haven't even done a dumbbell kickback in years), or many other things, but they should work with anything that isn't designed for single rep work (so do NOT use them on the Olympic lifts) & most kettlebell work is designed better for reps under time rather than this method in my view [NOTE:  If you are interested I can do you a quick how to on kettlebells using density training which is a great way to increase your kettlebell volume (& to prepare for the RKC or HKC if that is your goal), again post below & ask & I'll be happy to do it for you.]

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