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Introducing the Ladder:  Autoregulation Made Easy

Autoregulation is a hot topic today among strength trainers and enthusiasts.  The reason is simple:  It works.  However, many programs that feature autoregulation use fairly complex methods to control the volume of your training.  My goal with this piece is to show you that autoregulation does not have to be complex, and it can be a simple “drop-in” for many programs. 

But let’s define ‘autoregulation’.This is straight from Wikipedia.

“Autoregulation is a process within many biological systems, resulting from an internal adaptive mechanism that works to adjust (or mitigate) that system’s response to stimuli. While most systems of the body show some degree of autoregulation, it is most clearly observed in the kidney, the heart, and the brain.” 

Autoregulation within the confines of a training program is an automatic method to control program parameters, usually volume, intensity, frequency, and/or fatigue management. 

For the sake of being thorough:
Volume” is going to refer to the meaningful amount of work within a program…for most this will be work at 70% of the 1 repetition max or above.  Work below often contributes minimally.
 “Intensity” is the percentage of the 1 repetition max you are working with, not intensity of effort as popularized by high intensity training literature.
Frequency” describes how often you train a particular movement, and
Fatigue Management” is the ability to do as much work as possible while remaining as ‘fresh’ as possible. 

 
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What Is the “Ladder”?
 
 The Ladder is a set/rep progression volume and fatigue management scheme that a friend and I came up with some time ago after reading some other literature on strength training.  We wanted to work on the “skill” aspect of strength training, while remaining as fresh as possible.  At the time we were competing in powerlifting, and were following a popular template that allowed you to perform extra workouts, as long as you were recovering from them.  We decided to do an extra workout using the close grip bench press three times a week during our lunchtime.  We tested our one repetition maxes and started.The results were pretty stunning.After 4 weeks I had added 30 pounds to my close grip bench press and so did my training partner.  We knew we were onto something. Over the years, the testimonials have rolled in…10, 20, 50 pound PRs were reported over periods of up to 3 months.  Even over long periods of time, consistent use of ladders in a program has led to consistent gains in strength and muscle mass.  

How to use the Ladder

 

First, pick an exercise you want to improve.  Plan on working it 2-3 times a week. Multi-joint exercises seem to work best, but some folks have had good success with single joint isolation exercises too. 
  • Then, pick a repetition range.  Experience has shown me that there are 2 repetition schemes that work the best:  1/2/3 and 2/3/5.  1/2/3 seems better for strength, and 2/3/5 seems better for a combination of strength and muscle growth.  I will use the 1/2/3 pattern to illustrate how to set up and progress a basic ladder, but you can use the 2/3/5 pattern exactly like the 1/2/3, but keep in mind it’s twice the workload (you would look at a 8-10 RM to set the intial weights for that rep scheme)
  • Next find your approximate five repetition max (5RM) for the exercise.  Let’s use the front squat as an example.  You find your 5RM for the front squat is 275.  Now you have another choice, you can either use that 5RM or you can take around 10% off that number for the starting weight.  The reason to take 10% off that number is that some people need to establish some momentum in the training program.  I’ve done it both ways, and taking 10% off the number seems to work best with lifts that have been stagnant for a while.  10% of 275 is 27.5 lbs. We are going to round that to an easy to use 25lbs for a training weight of 250.
  • Warm up appropriately, then load the bar to 250.  Do 1 rep.  Rest a bit, this should be an incomplete rest, not long at all.  Later on when you’ve pushed these further past your current 5RM, you might need to rest longer, but now, rest only briefly.  Do 2 reps.  Rest.  Do 3 reps.  Congratulations, you’ve done your first ladder!

The notation I use looks like this:  250×1/2/3 Now, reset to 1 rep and repeat up to 3 reps.  After this ladder, you need to evaluate how that last triple felt.  If it was moderate and crisp, then repeat for a third time. My definition of ‘crisp’ is basically “speedy and skillful”.  If it’s an ugly, slow, grinding rep, it’s not crisp.

Let’s look at that in notation: 
250×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3  That’s 9 sets.


That is probably enough for the day.  Completing 9 sets is also a trigger to progress. You will add 5-10 lbs to the bar for the next session.  The next session may look like this: 260×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3.

Once again, that last set of 3 being crisp is the trigger for progression.  If it is crisp, you have the option of adding a ladder.  I would go up to 5 ladder series for one workout if you have the work capacity to do it that day.  The whole point of adding ladders or rungs is to surf the wave of adaptation.  Do more work when you are capable of doing so.  Do less work when the weights feel heavy and you feel slow and sluggish.  Let me illustrate that last point.  
 Let’s say you’ve done front squat ladders for 2 weeks, 3 times a week and you are now up to 290.  First off, congratulations, you are doing ladders with a weight that exceeded your previous 5RM, however, you do seem to stall a bit.
Your ladder looks like this:  290×1/2/3/1/2/2. Uh oh.The first triple felt heavy, but you pushed it. Instead of a triple for the last set, you bailed on an ugly, grinding rep and only got 2 reps.  The ladder is done.
 
It’s ok.  This is important to do.  The body is not a linear system, this is all part of autoregulating your training.  You have to bail out instead of grinding out the reps. Let the volume do the work, and today, you’ve hit your volume. Move on to something else.  Trust in the program.  It can also be helpful to have a training partner determine whether or not you terminate or move on, as long as they are on board with the system. So what do you do?  You repeat that weight.  You stay there until you reach your progression trigger.  Often this will only take one or two workouts.  If you go past three without and sign of progression, you may have pushed the system as far as it can go for this cycle. 

These are not the ladders you’re looking for!

pin up for laddersLet me highlight this particular aspect of the ladder system by reiterating that it is absolutely necessary to stop a ladder when it gets to be a grind instead of pushing forward.  If you push it, you are going to kill long term progress very quickly.This has been demonstrated in numerous case studies.  Those who pushed these sessions stalled.  Those who stopped training when the program indicated to stop, went on to blow past that sticking point very quickly.Let me take some numbers from my own training log and illustrate how things can go. This was one of the first times I put the ladder into serious practice, and it really paid off.
My exercise was the close grip bench press.My max at the start was 335. 275 is about 82% of the max, but it was an everyday 5RM. I want you to notice how often workouts were repeated. Notice how I’d drop to only 2 series of ladders depending on how that lift felt that day. Notice how I’d reset back to 1 rep if rep 2 started to get grindy, or even bail out on the second or third rep if necessary.This is how you need to manage things when you train this way. No ego. No pushing through. Just listen to what your body is telling you and do the work that way.

 

Week 1: 
Day 1: 275×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3 
Day 2: 285×1/2/3/1/2/2 –second rep was grindy so I terminated. 
Day 3: 285×1/2/3/1/2/3 –third rep was not as crisp as I liked so I stopped. 
 
Week 2: 
Day 1: 285×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3 
Day 2: 290×1/2/3/1/2/3 –last rep was really grindy 
Day 3: 290×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3 
 
Week 3: Day 1: 295×1/2/1/2/1/2 –everything felt bad and heavy, this was probably pushed too hard. 
Day 2: 295×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3 
Day 3: 305×1/2/3/1/2/3 
 
Week 4: 
Day 1: 305×1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3 
Day 2: 315×1/2/2/1/2/1 
Day 3: 315×1/2/3/1/2

 


When I tested my close grip bench on week 5, I hit 365×1.   Note that in many of these workouts I completed 2 ladders, or even less.  This is because the weight I picked to start was too heavy.  It worked out well in the end, but I feel that the increase in volume is more important than the average intensity for long term progress and this had held true for most of the people who have tried ladders.  You will need to play around with it if you want to optimize your starting weight.  I prefer to start too light then add weight a bit more quickly than starting heavier.
 
This is the power of auto-regulation and the ladder.  It lets you do an optimal amount of work each session.  It is a very forgiving and adjustable system of managing sets and reps.  The big downside is that it requires you to leave your ego at the door, and carefully evaluate the performance of each and every repetition.
 
There are many different options and ways you can skin the ladder system for a more advanced lifter, but I’m not going to go into them in this introduction. The ladder is easily customizable, and it’s easily dropped into an existing program with a minimum amount of tinkering.  
 

Good luck and good training.  I hope you find experimenting with ladders as fruitful as I have.


 
Author Bio: Steve Shafley is a former competitive athlete and lifter with 25+ years of experience training and coaching. He can be reached at on Facebook as Steve Shafley, on twitter @Shafpocalypse and at SShafley@gmail.com
 
EDITORS NOTE: Nick will be doing a follow up to this article in the near future on what is a PHENOMENAL system of training for strength and size.