Ladders to Success

Want something that increases your maximal strength, muscular endurance, conditioning, and aerobic fitness? How about a cardio drill that’s a good deal more manly than slogging away on the elliptical while watching television? Say hello to ladders, your new best friend.

The principle behind ladders is simple—pick a number of exercises and perform each back to back without any rest while following an ascending or descending rep scheme. The basic ladder is great because it trains all the functions listed above, but you can vary it to focus more on strength or more on endurance or cardio.

Here’s a basic ladder. You can use any exercise, but for this example, let’s go for kettlebell swings and push-ups.

Set 1: 10 swings, 10 push-ups

Set 2: 9 swings, 9 push-ups

Set 3: 8 swings, 8 push-ups

Several grunts, curses, and a bucket load of sweat later

Set 10: 1 swing, 1 push-up

Sound easy? Well, it’s probably tougher than you think, but I will concede that this is a beginner’s ladder. Obviously, you can make it harder by using a heavier kettlebell or by performing your push-ups elevated or with a weighted vest, but it still isn't the hardest workout invented, so let’s get creative.

Strength ladders

Strength training is awesome, but even the most dedicated powerlifter will admit that at times, resting five minutes between sets of squats can get a little tedious. This is where ladders make strength training far more time efficient.

One of the best strength ladders is 5-3-2, stolen from Dan John.

Do a set of five semi-challenging reps on the deadlift, bench press, power clean, or any other compound exercise. Add weight to the bar and then do three reps. These three reps should be pretty tough, but you should have a rep or two still in the tank. Add more weight to the bar and do two hard, heavy reps.

The only rest you get between sets is changing the weight. Because you aren't killing yourself on the first two sets, you shouldn’t need to take huge breathers between sets. Yet you’re still training your maximum strength. You can go even heavier with this and do 3-2-1, too.

It works the other way as well, kind of like a drop set. So you would do a super heavy single or double followed by a challenging triple and finish with a slightly easier but still gut-wrenching set of five.

For conditioning-based ladders, there’s even more variation. The first kettlebell swing/push-up example posted above works well with any exercise, and you can make it a lot harder by starting at fifteen or twenty reps or adding in extra exercises. You don’t have to hit every single number on the way up and way down either. A 5-10-15-20 ladder can be a killer, or you can start with the high reps and work your way down. For an extra challenge, why not climb the ladder up and then come back down again to make it into a pyramid?

Here are a few of my favorite ladders:

Kettlebell swing/goblet squat combo: Grab a heavy kettlebell and do ten swings. Without putting it down, take it into the goblet position and squat for ten deep reps. Go straight back into swings for nine reps and then another set of nine squats and so on until you hit one. Again, vary the rep scheme depending on how difficult you want to make it. The key is not to put the weight down at all. Even if you need to rest briefly, keep holding the kettlebell in the rack or goblet position or with your arms straight down. Not only is this a great test of your fitness and posterior chain muscular endurance, but it’ll torch your forearms, too.

Alternating ladders: You may need a math degree for this one, and if counting isn’t your forte, you might want to give it a miss. Again, just go for two exercises. Let’s use front squats and medicine ball slams.

Perform ten front squats, rack the bar, and do one medicine ball slam. Go back to front squats and do nine reps followed by two slams. Keep going until you’re at one squat and ten slams. You will need to keep track of the numbers here, as even with just two exercises it can get confusing. I’m sure there’s a way you could work in a third or fourth exercise, but my brain isn’t clever enough to work out how. Good luck if you want to try.

With this one, do descending reps on the most demanding exercise. You don’t really want to be doing a set of ten front squats when you’re really fatigued and risk form going out the window.

Core ladder: I use this one a lot with my clients. I try not to spend too much time doing what most of the general public considers “ab work”—sit-ups, crunches, and leg lifts—as I generally favor stabilization and anti-rotation exercises. But clients like to “feel the burn” when it comes to core training. Let’s face it—even though a heavy set of Pallof presses or kettlebell windmills might do far more for core strength than hundreds of toe touches, you just don’t feel them in the same way. Therefore, I started introducing core ladders in the last couple minutes of every session to get that ab fatigue going without having to spend too much time on it.

Pick four movements. I like a combination of toe touches, reverse crunches, scissors, and Russian twists, all movements that don’t really do too much for strength and core control but that you can certainly feel working. Follow the same ladder strategy—five on everything, then ten, fifteen, twenty, and so on. Then go back down again. I find that most people can go fairly high with the reps on this because even though the muscles get tired, the movements are fairly small and simple, so recovery time is quick and you can blast straight through.

Sprint ladders: Ideally you need access to an outside track or a hill for this, but you could make do with a treadmill. If you’re outside, kettlebells work best, unless you have some way of transporting a barbell and squat rack to your local athletic club!

Place two kettlebells of the same weight around fifty meters apart or, if you’re running hills, put one at the top and one at the bottom. Stand by the first kettlebell and do ten snatches on either arm. If you only have lighter bells, you can do more reps. Put the kettlebell down on completion of the set and sprint to the next one as fast as you can. Do another set of snatches with a decreased number of reps (nine if you did ten the first time, eighteen if you did twenty). Put the bell down again and sprint to the first kettlebell. However, this time touch it and sprint back to the one you just used. Another set of snatches follows, accompanied guessed it...three sprints.

Keep going until you’re down to your last set with a final ten sprints. This is possibly even more awesome with sandbag clean and presses. If you’re a beast and find even this workout too damn weedy, throw in burpees with the snatches.

Ladders—get stronger, fitter, and faster, all without touching a treadmill or resting for light years between sets.