Ladder workouts are a quick and effective way to get shit done. I used to think that they were cleverly named but when I sat back and tried to explain why they were named this way l couldn’t actually make a comparison. The rungs of a ladder are spaced evenly along the beams and you will see this makes no sense once I explain how a ladder workout goes.
How they work
The way a ladder workout is completed is by starting with one rep, then completing two, then three and so on, only resting a very short time in between reps. It’s basically a form of cluster training but instead of completing the same number of reps each mini set, the intensity increases as the workout progresses. You can go “up” the ladder or “down” the ladder. You can even go “up and down”. (I can only assume this is where they got their name, but the literal side of me has a hard time with it, but it does sound good I suppose). Ladder workouts are very versatile and useful in many situations.
Ladders can be used for warm up purposes. If you are ever short on time a good option is to go through some quick mobility work specific to the exercise you are going to complete and then use a ladder rep scheme for your training. For example: Complete some drills for hip, knee and ankle mobility and perhaps a core activation drill or two then follow that up with your set of squats completing 1 rep, resting 10-20 seconds then a second etc. The cluster-type rep scheme allows your body to warm up gradually and adjust to the weight. It’s a good time saver that allows you to get some training volume in with the time you have.
This type of workout can be completed very quickly so it is a good option to use if you are short on time and completing a quick workout snack. Again, the cluster-type rep scheme allows you to warm up throughout the workout as the intensity increases from start to finish.
Most people despise conditioning so ladder workouts are a less tedious, more interesting way to get your conditioning workouts done. A more intense version that is appropriate for the end of your workout (or for a snack) is to combine two exercises back to back throughout the ladder. An example would be a lunge and a push up. Complete 1 lunge on each leg and then a push up. 2 lunges each leg then 2 push ups and so on. I suggest a lunge for this conditioning example so you can use less load and beat up on your spine a little less but also the single-leg nature of the lunge increases the duration of the conditioning workout.
Strength & Hypertrophy
Using clusters is an effective way to build strength and increase lean mass. They allow you to complete a higher volume of a given load. Ladders are not as effective for building maximal strength as standard cluster training can be but can be very useful for increasing strength at higher rep ranges. Completing multiple sets of ladders for strength work is similar to wave loading, however here the load remains the same for all clusters where in wave loading the weight is generally increased as the reps are decreased or kept the same. They are also useful for those people that just can’t count past 5 and get lost when working in higher rep ranges.
Other ways to use the ladder are to start at the top and count down or invert your two exercises (start one high and one low). Some recent research shows that using a descending duration of intervals was preferred to increasing the duration of intervals as the workout goes on. The reverse ladder is also useful for ensuring that the quality of reps is maintained throughout the workout. If inverting two exercises then start your more technical exercise high and start your other exercise low so you can maintain your form and safety on the more difficult exercise.
If external load is being applied to exercises then you should choose a weight that you could complete slightly fewer reps with than the total number you will complete. For example, if you were doing a 1-2-3-4-5 ladder the total would be 15 reps so choose a weight that you can complete 10-12 reps with. The final 5 reps will feel like you’re getting to 15 reps but the quality will be much better. If you are not sure what this number is then it’s a good idea to undershoot your weight for the first set rather than overshooting and not being able to complete all reps or getting injured. You can always add weight if you are completing multiple sets.
These aren’t the only ways to apply a ladder to training but they are a good start. Ladder workouts aren’t the secret to solving all your fitness woes, they are a tool in the tool box, but if you have never tried them then I suggest using this rep scheme for one or two exercises. For many people ladder workouts can be an interesting way to add some hypertrophy training or conditioning to a workout or a way to sneak in a quick workout on a busy day.