OK, I was reminded that I wrote a big piece for Dan John's Get Up.
Here it is.
Ladders - Practical Autoregulation
There’s a little used tool for training called “autoregulation” that I’d like to talk about. It’s not used very often, because many of the techniques that could be called autoregulation are fairly complicated. Pain-in-the-ass complicated, not you’re-too-dumb-to-do-it complicated. Unless you read the mind-numbing material from “DB Hammer”, then you’ll just be kind of pissed off and toss it all on the pile of things not worth trying. That’d be a shame, because with a few easy additions to your record keeping, and some different things to try, you might be striking out for new PR territory.
Autoregulation is really just setting some conditions up that tell you when to terminate a set, or a Autoregulation is really just setting some conditions up that tell you when to terminate a set, or a workout, or even an entire cycle. A few people have spoken about it. Charles Poliquin has an article or two that deals with it, and, most recently, the people behind the fictitious “DB Hammer” at Innosport have really been promoting their autoregulation techniques. Both Poliquin and the Innosport people use “drop off percents” to tell you when to terminate an exercise and a set. I’m not going into percent drop-offs in this article, mostly because I’d have to extensively review the literature I have on it, and I am too lazy to get into it right now.
RPEs, Performance Scales, and Cybernetic Periodization
Somewhere, there is an accomplished lifter terminating his sets on the snatch. He’s reached his max for today, and maybe done some backoff work. He knows he’s had enough. For a regular kind of lifter to reach this point, he needs to start harnessing the power of his training log. I don’t think anyone who’s been around competitive strength athletes would be surprised to know that most of them train somewhat instinctually, after having put in the time to learn about how they react to the stimuli of weight training.
First off, lets talk about using a simple scale to assess the difficulty of a set. I typically use a very simplified E/M/H/VH scale. (Easy/Medium/Hard/Very Hard) It doesn’t matter what I use for these particular ratings, what really matters is that you get a good feeling for how hard a set is for you, and apply the rating consistently. This type of scale is often called a RPE scale, or, rate of perceived exertion. You can use numbers, letters, or anything else that might be useful for you.
Another scale that I like to use describes the performance of the movement. I use somewhat vague descriptive words for this scale in my own training. Ugly/OK/Crisp are the words I use.
Why should you bother to use these kinds of scale? I keep a fairly detailed training log, with the exercises listed on the left page, and notes for that particular exercise on the right page, on the same line. Using these two scales adds useful information regarding that movement with only a few letter. This can be useful in gauging progress. For example, if an entry in my log says “500x1 (H, ugly)” and two months later I have an entry that says “500x1 (M, crisp)”, it indicates that progress has been made. I might not have gone any heavier in that particular movement, but the lift has gotten easier and prettier
Keeping track of that kind of thing is a very simple and useful form of “Cybernetic Periodization.” I’ve always liked that term. I am pretty sure Mel Siff coined it in one of his editions of “Supertraining.” I think you get a much better feel for where you are, and where you are going when you use these techniques, even rudimentarily. My edition of “Supertraining” is the 1999 version, and information on cybernetic periodization can be found starting on page 331.
OK, so we’ve got some of the basic background crap out of the way. Let’s get down to the easiest, and, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways to autoregulate your training: the ladder set/rep scheme. Below is an edited version of my “primer on ladders” post. The unadulterated version can be found on the PowerandBulk.com forums, the BodyRecomposition.com forums, and on Bryce Lane’s “Iron Works” message board:
Using the “Ladder” Set/Rep Variation
About 4 years ago, my old training partner and I trained together about 6-8 times a week. We'd train at lunch, and then after work. We followed a pretty typical WSB template, but did have ample opportunities for extra workouts. For those who aren’t familiar with the WSB template, you have a minimum of 4 weekly session, one dealing with speed and performance of the competitive bench press, one dealing with maximal effort attempts on special exercises for the bench press, one dealing with speed and performance of the squat and deadlift, and one dealing with maximal efforts on special exercises for the squat and deadlift.
We decided to do a variation of a low fatigue/high volume routine based on the "ladder" technique as extra workouts. We called it "Power Ladders". We chose 3s as our top set kind of arbitrarily. The term “ladder” refers to a progressive repetition scheme. See below. It's illustrated amply. I would like to note that both my training partner and I were drug-free powerlifters, competing in both the USAPL and the APF powerlifting federations at the time. Testing initially indicated I had a 335 close grip bench.
This is how I set it up: Rep range was to be 1-3 or occasionally 1-5. Completion of 3 “ladders” at a set weight would trigger progression. Note: These numbers are approximations, as I couldn't find my training log from back then to get the actual numbers.
Day 1: 275x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 2: 285x1/2/3/1/2
Day 3: 285x1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 1: 285x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 2: 290x1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 3: 290x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 1: 295x1/2/1/2/1/2
Day 2: 295x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 3: 305x1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 1: 305x1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3
Day 2: 315x1/2/2/1/2/1
Day 3: 315x1/2/3/1/2
Tested my CGBP max. New max was 365. Training partner’s results were similar. A 30# increase in 4 weeks of training.
The CGBP was done 3 times per week, often two days in a row. Not one rep went to failure.
Not too shabby
What do you notice? Higher volume, low "relative" intensity, self-regulating "ladder" pattern, ~4-9 sets per "ladder"
I first read about the “ladder” set/rep scheme in one of those old bodybuilding books by Robert Kennedy. Circa 1988-89. That particular book (and I'll eventually look up which one) gave an example of using ladders to work on chins. Sounded easy enough. Do one rep, take a little break, do 2 reps, take a little break, and so on and so forth until you can no longer improve on your rep count.
Fast-forward a few years. Hell, maybe even a decade. “Chain Yourself to the Power Rack and Call Me in a Year” appeared in MILO: A Journal for Serious Strength, published by Ironmind Enterprises. It was written by a relatively unknown trainer named Pavel Tsatsouline. In it he described how to “grease the groove” of a movement.
This article is now on line, at the Dragondoor website and can be found here:
(editor’s note, it can no longer be found here)
The concept of frequent, heavy practice of a lift while staying fresh is the heart of the concept, when applied to strength training.
Why use ladders?
First, they are easy to set up. Pick a rep range. Could be 1-3, could be 1-3-5, could be 5-10-20. Pick the number of times you'd go “up” the ladder, given that you don't reach the point of momentary muscular failure. Pick the condition that will trigger progression. Now do it. Probably the most important thing is the fatigue management. It's better to start a ladder over than to attempt to force an extra rep out. With ladders you let the volume do the work.
Let me reiterate:
1. Pick your repetition range. Taking your approximate 5 RM and doing a ladder with 1-3 reps is a good place to start.
2. Pick the number of times to run through the ladder. I'd suggest starting with 3 runs through. If you get all three ladders, then you need to add weight next time.
3. It's about staying fresh and crisp. It's not about grinding them out and gritting your teeth.
4. Let the volume do the work.
Other ways to use the ladder: Bodyweight calisthenics are ideal for the use of a strength-endurance ladder. The most frequently recommended way of using a ladder is with a training partner in a “I go, you go” format. This becomes very competitive. Another variation is the breathing ladder made popular by Gym Jones. Do a rep, take a breath, do two reps, take 2 breathes, do three reps, take three breathes....keep adding reps and breathes until you can't add any more. This gets surprisingly hard with stuff like kettlebell swings and even bodyweight squats.
Reverse ladders or countdowns are another useful way. When I do an “EDT” type or “Have it All” type of workout, I often use reverse ladders to manage my fatigue so I can make or exceed my repetition target. This would look like a 3-2-1 or a 5-3-1 type of rep scheme.
The “ratchet” is a version of the ladder I read about over on Scott Sonnon's Circular Strength Training forum. A ratchet would look like: 1-2- 3-2-3-4-3-4-5-4-5-6-5-6-7...and so on. The ratchet is a good way to mix things up and keep you on your toes.
In the original post, there are some examples of how you might set up a routine based on ladders. In addition, on the thread on the Bodyrecomposition.com forums, there is a lot of additional information posted, mostly Q&A stuff, and some other routine design stuff.
That thread can be viewed here, but you need to be a member of the forum:
Another guy I know online tried to incorporate a lot of ladders in his workout. Here’s what he came up with:
OHP (2/3/4/2/3/1/2/1) -- pyramid wt on 4th, 6th & 8th set
DEADLIFT (6/6/5/4/3) -- pyramid
WEIGHTED CHINUP (1/2/3/2/3/4)
CGBP (5/3/1/5/3/1) - pyramid
separate M wkout:
ROWS (5 sets of 4-6) - pyramid
KTE/TWISTING KTE (3 sets)
100 reps pushdowns or bw dips
POWER CLEAN or POWER SNATCH (4x4)
BB SHRUGS (8/8/6/6)
DB/BB ARM CURL (2/3/4/2/3/4)
BB "MOST REPS w/ 95 lbs" ARM CURL (1 set each, sometimes 2)
W BENCH PRESS (1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3)
WEIGHTED CHINUP (3/4/5/2/3/4/1/2/3) - pyramid wt on 4th & 7th set
DEADLIFT (10/7/4/6/8) - pyramid
BB ROW (4x6-8)
HEAVY CORE CROWBAR (3x6-10)
Th 250 medicine ball throws (4-5 sets each ~90 sec)
20-30 min. stepmill w/ weighted vest or truck pushing/dragging
150 swings w/ 16 lb sledgehammer (sets of 30- 50).
WEIGHTED CHINUP (2/3/4/1/3/5/2/4/6)
GOOD MORNING (3x5)
separate F workout:
ALT DB ARM CURL (2/3/4/2/3/4/2/3/4)
DB shrug (6x10)
FACE PULLS (3x8-12)
Truck Push (5x100 yards)
Truck Drag w/ towrope (2-3x80-100 yards)
150 swings w/ 16 lb sledgehammer
Farmer Walk; 2-100 lb orange home depot buckets! (4x100 yards)
100' monkey bars
His comments upon the results:
“Me and two buddies have been doing heavy ladder workouts for about 7 or 8 weeks now. I drew up the workouts using Steve's primer on ladders (posted at Body Recomp) as a model. Results have been fast and substantial. I'm not setting the world on fire with my weights, but understand that my body's been so shattered the last few years, it's been hard to train consistently or get results.
For the first 5 weeks, I wasn't eating nearly enough. Despite that I'm amazingly up 10 lbs in bodyweight. It's very hard for me to gain weight, and so the last few weeks I've been chowing at least 3000-4000 kcal/day. The real amazing difference has been in my shoulder health. I've had pussycuff for years now, and haven't been able to bench over 225 w/o pain in a long, long time (best ever was 305 I think).
In fact, I had to grit my teeth to rep anything heavier than 185. Right now I'm back to benching 275, almost totally pain free, and amazingly I haven't been pushing the effort on bench days like other lifts in these cycles (although, I admittedly am pressing more frequently). Both my training partners are benching 310-320, each having started the ladder cycles ~ 275.
On Monday I pulled 405x5 and 440x1, missed 455. Wednesday my lower back wasn't quite right, so I kept it light and repped out. Pulled 315 and 355 each for 12. Standing overhead strict press is 185 (cleaned from floor to shoulder), almost bodyweight. Weighted chin is +70lbs x 3 reps. One of my buddies is right at +100lbs x 1. The other is strict pressing 200, although his clean so fugly we let him unrack it at shoulder height.
I've been having hip issues last few months, so my squat hasn't quite breached 405 again (I'm having to lean forward to get low enough; can't stay upright). However, my training partners have each ressurected their pussylegs. They're doubling 335 and 365 (staretd at 205 and 280, respectively). All in all the training's been very positive. I do have hip injury, and a strange torsional strain in my left forearm (bone), but otherwise I feel pretty good.”
The ladder technique, in my opinion, is a powerful, yet underused tool. The concept of lots of practice, moderate, progressively heavier weights, and low fatigue really works well for many people. The emphasis really is on managing fatigue. This is where the autoregulation come into play. The RPE and performance scales I mentioned above become invaluable when performing ladders.
I’ve found that the last rep in a ladder should be of “medium” to “hard” difficulty. If you are doing ladders for the same movement multiple times a week, it should be closer to “medium”, if you are only doing ladders once a week, then you can move into the “hard”, or even “very hard” category, as long as the repetitions are being performed in an “OK” or preferably “crisp” fashion (these are using my scales, but I am sure you get the idea)
Note for a moment that using a ladder style of sets and reps can very easily be dropped into almost any existing framework. Dan John’s “One Lift A Day” training? No problem. Charles Staley’s EDT or Bryce Lane’s “Have It All” routines? Once again, no problem. Ladders can even be dropping into the ME days on a Westside template. The possibilities are myriad.