How to perform a ladder set workout effectively
June 5, 2024

How to perform a ladder set workout effectively


Picture this: You decide to do four sets of alternating dumbbell bench presses, each with eight reps and two minutes of rest time between each set. 

You pull off the first set with ease, but then things start to fizzle out. Maybe you only do six reps for your second set, five reps for your third, and four for your last one. In the end, you've done fewer reps than you hoped. 

This happens more often than you might imagine — even among the most seasoned fitness enthusiasts! 

Incorporating the ladder method into your workout is a great way to help you complete more reps within shorter periods and maximize your gains. Below, we’ll explore ladder training in detail: what it is, its benefits, how to set up a workout, and top tips for success. 

What are ladder set workouts?

A ladder set workout is a structure that involves increasing or decreasing the number of reps in each set rather than trying to complete the same number of reps in each set — like going up or down a ladder. The goal is to help you increase your intensity progressively. 

Let’s say you decide to work on your glutes with bodyweight reverse half lunges. Instead of doing three sets of 10, you can start with five reps, rest, then move to seven reps, rest, nine reps, rest, etc., gradually increasing your reps until you finish your workout. This is an example of an ascending ladder workout. 

Alternatively, you can choose a descending ladder workout, where you gradually reduce the number of reps in each set until you complete your workout. 

If you prefer to shake things up, you can also use a mixed ladder approach, where you switch back and forth from your highest to lowest reps. For example, you could start with nine reps, then two reps, then eight reps, followed by three reps, etc. 

The beauty of ladder set workouts is that you can incorporate them into many types of exercises, including bodyweight, weightlifting, and cardio. Specific exercises you can use this structure on include barbell overhead squats, push-ups, dumbbell presses, jump rope, and kettlebell deadlifts. Typically, you can use the ladder method for any exercise that involves sets and reps. 

It's worth noting that ladder sets aren’t always the best way to structure a workout, as you can end up getting too tired during your true working sets. But they can be a valuable tool to add variety, add a new challenge, and change up stale workouts! 💪

Working with a personal trainer to determine which approach to use is ideal. They can use their expertise to help you determine how long to work out to gain muscle, advise you on the best exercises to help you reach your fitness goals, and create optimal ladder sets to help you get the most out of each workout. 

Top 3 benefits of ladder set workouts

Sometimes, you can do everything right to maximize your workouts — from maintaining a balanced diet and proper food portions to incorporating more fluids — but still struggle throughout your sets. If this happens, it may be time to switch things up in your workouts. Ladder set workouts are one of the best ways to do so — here’s why:

1. Overcome plateaus

It's normal to hit fitness plateaus, regardless of your fitness level. A fitness plateau is when you stop seeing any progress in your fitness journey despite putting in the same effort and maintaining your training. It occurs because your body gets used to the same routine, and can understandably be frustrating or disappointing. 

Ladder set workouts can help you overcome plateaus by challenging your body in new ways. Varying the intensity and volume of your workouts switches things up, helping reignite progress when your gains stall. 

2. Increase workout intensity

Want to push more weight or perform more reps? A ladder set workout is one of the best solutions. By varying your reps, you can increase your workout intensity and, as a result, advance your fitness level. 

High-intensity workouts can also increase calorie burn, enhance muscle endurance, and boost cardiovascular health. They typically help lower heart rate and blood pressure and continue to burn fat for hours after your workout ends. 

3. Add variety and customization

Let's be honest: Doing the same things repeatedly, even if they're intense workouts, can get boring. If you feel like your workouts have become a little stale, it may be the perfect time to try the ladder method. 

Ladder workouts can prevent boredom, engage different muscle groups, and help you stay motivated. This is because they keep things interesting: You can be as creative as you want, incorporating different exercises, choosing varying ladder directions (ascending, descending, or mixed), and including different parameters (time, reps, weights) into your routine. This keeps things unpredictable and exciting, helping reignite your passion for working out. 

How to structure a ladder set workout

One of the nice things about ladder set workouts is that you can do them anywhere. So, whether you're building a home gym or attending your local fitness center, you can add them to your routine.

There are many ways to structure ladder set workouts, depending on your fitness level and goals. But, while there's no one-size-fits-all solution, creating a workout is relatively straightforward. Here's how:

  • Choose exercises: Select exercises that target the parts of the body you want to work on, or that align with your workout goals, like strength, muscle building, endurance, or fat loss. For example, if you want a full-body workout for strength training, you might choose kettlebell bench presses, barbell forward lunges, and barbell calf raises
  • Set rep counts: Determine rep counts for each exercise. You can choose ascending, descending, or mixed rep counts. 
  • Arrange sequences: This is the order in which you'll perform the exercises. You can arrange them based on intensity levels or alternate between upper-body and lower-body exercises. 
  • Execute your ladder set workout: You typically start with your first exercise's initial rep count and rest, move on to the next exercise's initial count and rest, and continue until you finish your workout. Then, you go back to the first exercise's next set and continue until you complete your pre-determined sets and reps. 

One thing to keep in mind when structuring your ladder set workout is that you don't want to structure your set in a way that results in back-half fatigue. This can occur if you ramp up your intensity too high or over too long of a period, and can affect your form — and thus, the effectiveness of your workout.

Over time, too much fatigue as you descend the ladder can lead you to develop poor form habits or, even worse, injury. To play it safe, work with certified personal trainers who can monitor your form and recommend the best structure for your ladder sets to prevent too much exertion. 

Tips for more effective ladder set workouts

Want to maximize your ladder workouts’ effectiveness? Here are some of our top tips to keep in mind:

Optimize rest periods

Rest periods between sets are vital, as they allow your body to recover. This can maximize your performance and limit your chance of injury, bringing you closer to your workout goals. 

The appropriate length of rest periods depends on the intensity and volume of a workout and your workout goals. Depending on these factors, it can range anywhere from a few seconds to minutes. For example, if you have a high-volume or high-intensity workout, you need longer rest periods (typically of a few minutes) before moving on to the next set. 

In terms of goals, you need a 20-second to two-minute rest period to enhance your endurance, a 30- to 90-second period if your goal is muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth), and a two- to five-minute period if you're strength training. 

Of course, it's important to remember that these are just general recommendations. Your personal trainer can provide customized recommendations based on your goals, fitness level, and workout plan. 

Incorporate progressive overload

Progressive overload involves gradually increasing the difficulty of your exercises over time to continue gaining strength and endurance. This can help you avoid plateauing in your fitness journey. Remember, the human body adapts pretty quickly. Without constant challenge, your gains may stagnate. 

As with typical workouts, your progressive overload needs to occur gradually in ladder workouts. You can start with a few reps and increase them over time, add your weight loads, or increase your workout frequency. 

Let’s say you start with a ladder set of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Over time, you could move to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Similarly, if you start with bodyweight exercises, you could transition to kettlebell or dumbbell exercises to make your workouts more challenging. 

Monitor your progress with trainwell

The best way to get the most out of your ladder set workouts is to get guidance from expert trainers — and that’s where trainwell (formerly CoPilot) comes in. 

Trainwell connects you with certified remote personal trainers who can help you structure your ladder workouts and track the specifics of each session, such as the number of sets, reps, and rest periods. Our app and personal trainers use this data to provide insights and suggestions for further optimizing workouts, which can bring you closer to your workout goals. 

Skeptical? Check out our client success stories to see how trainwell has helped people from all walks of life progress in their fitness journeys! 

Create a fitness routine that works for you with trainwell

Tired of the constant fitness plateaus or the monotony of doing the same workouts every day? Make trainwell your fitness partner for customizable ladder workout plans that adapt to your performance and feedback. 

Trainwell offers one-on-one training and integrates seamlessly with Apple or Wear OS-powered smartwatches, allowing your trainer to monitor your progress and make real-time adjustments and personalization based on your data. Our trainers and app can help you manage your fitness goals effectively by providing guidance, tracking progress, and suggesting modifications to keep improving.

Ready to crush your fitness goals with ladder set workouts? Join trainwell today for personalized plans!

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