March 11, 2011

Squat Ladders

After a few questionable months after moving back to Texas, and then a very brief obsession with 20-rep squats, my own training has been going very well of late. I have been squatting 3/days per week, usually 2 days front and 1 day back (M: Front, W: Back, F: Front), with some occasional variation just to keep it interesting. 

The past 2-months I have been experimenting with ladders in the back squat on Wednesday.  I am sure the idea of ladders has been around forever, but I first read about them 5+ years ago on the old P&B forum where the idea and routine were written up by Steve Shafley.  In his original post, and with my recent training, they are used to allow heavy training with decent volume while breaking up some of the monotony of a standard 5x5.

A ladder is basically performing repetitions in ascending order for multiple sets – a set of 1 / a set of 2 / and a set of 3 is one ladder.  I have capped my number of ladders at 3, so a typical ladder on Wednesday would be 1/2/3/1/2/3/1/2/3; 9 sets and 18 total reps.  With the increased number of sets, and lower max reps per set, you are able to train at a heavier load than you could with a similar volume but different configuration (6x3, 4x4, etc.)

Working off a solid 3-rep max of 150 kg I performed a few weeks earlier, I started my ladder adventure using 120 kg and was able to complete the entire 3 ladders fairly easily. Each week, I added 5kg and tried to complete the entire 3 ladders.  Twice (at 140 and 145 kg), I stopped after 2 ladders and used the same weight the following week and completed all 3 ladders.  

My progression was as follows: 120kg – 3 ladders, 130 – 3, 135 – 3, 140 – 2, 140 – 3, 145 – 2, 145 – 3, and this week 150kg – 3 ladders.  

So, in 8-weeks I was able to move my squat up a decent amount.  Next Wednesday I will work up to a new 3-rep max and report back, but I am something in the 170-175 kg range will fall.  Looking back the 150 kg 3-RM was a pretty low estimate, and 120 kg was far too low a starting point.  If I decide to do it over again, and work up over another 6-8 week period my 1st week will be in the 85% of 3-RM range and go from there. 

Post a comment and let me know if you have ever done anything similar, and end result.  If nothing else, I enjoyed trying something new and managed to bump up my squat weights.


  1. I did something similar except it was over the course of a week instead of a workout. So first day 1s, second day 2s, third day 3s, and increase weekly (volume average ~12 reps/workout). Between April and early June my 3RM moved from 145 to 155 on the front squat and 160 to 175 on the back squat. I started at 135/150 and made an effort to increase at least 2.5kg a week.

  2. Ladders are great with working with a large S & C group. After i've gotten a group past the novice stage i will sometimes use ladders. I will program a 1/2/3/4/5 (15 reps) ladder on the first strength day of the week, then a standard 3x5r on the second strength day of the week on the squat and press, using the I go, you go, they go, (groups of 3). It allows me to keep control of athletes in a large group better as they have to stay a little more alert as their turns come around quicker. Sometimes changing the loads on the bar so frequently can be a pain, but if you sort your groups correctly, the should only be changing the silverware at most.

    On the press, taking the bar from the ground, it also allows me to sneak a few more power cleans into their programs.

  3. Great idea. I love the picture that you put up to symbolize all this information. That guy is incredibly strong. I'll have to give this a try. What do you think about doing somewhat of a drop set. 1st do at 85% 2nd at 90% 3rd at 85% of 3 rep max. The idea being that you're pushing yourself a little bit more and then coming back and polishing up your last set making 85% much more easy. Just an idea.

  4. Hi, I chanced upon ur blog while googling for squat ladders. With rgds to this, do u still squat 3x a week using the ladders?

  5. I was squatting 3x per week (Mon, Wed, Fri), but I only did the ladder on Wednesday. I have not gone through the ladder the past few months, and currently I am only squatting 2x per week. I still like the ladder but really only added them in for variety and to help break a training plateau. Hope this helps.

  6. Sorry for reviving an old blog but I just completed week 5 of back squat ladders:
    - started with 130 right after the last meet
    - took 5kg weekly increases
    - did 150 for three waves of single,double, triple!

    Thanks for the idea Michael - this seems to do the trick for me - no soreness/lactic acid from high reps.

    4 weeks out this Saturday - probably will start hitting singles heavier - maybe I should try for a new 1 RM?

    Thanks for sharing!

    Onward and upward...