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How to Overcome Plateaus in the Gym with Rep Ranges and the Ladder Technique

Home Improvement /  ladder, paint can and paint roller

I first started weight lifting in high school.  It was halfway through my sophomore year.  I remember the Saturday after my first full week of lifting.  I woke up…and could barely lift my body to get out of bed.  I was INCREDIBLY sore!  I remember my coach, Mr. Summers said that the best way to not be sore was to “work out the soreness” by continuing to lift.  He was right.  As I continued to lift over the next few weeks and months, the soreness wasn’t as severe.  And it started to feel really good.  As I got stronger, I felt more confident and could see my body taking form.  My weight lifting coach was a master at building the foundation for us.  Here’s what our week looked like:

  • Monday: 5 sets of 10, 8, 6, 4, 4 reps for Incline Bench Press, Hang Cleans, Bench Press, Squats
  • Tuesday: Matt Room drills, including abs, ladder drills, box jumps, etc.
  • Wednesday: 5 sets of 10 reps for Incline Bench Press, Hang Cleans, Bench Press, Squats
  • Thursday: Matt Room drills, including abs, ladder drills, box jumps, etc.
  • Friday: 5 sets of 6 reps for Incline Bench Press, Hang Cleans, Bench Press, Squats

I remember getting so much stronger over the course of my junior year and into senior year, but then I felt like I started to hit a plateau.  It was getting harder and harder to make gains.  And if you’ve ever hit a plateau before, you know this can be frustrating.  Enter rep ranges and the “ladder technique”.

The Discovery of Rep Ranges to Overcome Plateaus

Many years later, I discovered rep ranges.  Instead of having a set number of reps that you have to achieve, you have a range that you’re shooting for.  An example, you might be doing Bench Press, so you would have 4 sets of 8-12 reps.  Now you might be thinking, “what’s the difference between 4 sets of 10 and 4 sets of 8-12?”.  Well, here’s what it does for you.

In a 4 sets of 10 situation, if you don’t get 10 reps, you feel like you’ve failed.  In addition, if you’re on your 3rd set and you only get 8 or 9 reps, you might be tempted to drop your weight so that you can get 10 reps.  This isn’t a great mindset to get into.  In addition, you typically want to be adding weight as you move along your sets, not subtracting weight.

With a rep range, you can shoot for the top end of the range like 12 for your first couple of sets.  If you can’t quite get there in your last set or two, you still feel like it was a success. Rep ranges also allow you to move up in weight without worrying about needing to get 10 reps. You can mentally tell yourself all you need is 8 reps at a higher weight.

Rep ranges help you to overcome the mental barrier of either going up in reps or weight. Let’s use the same example of 4 sets of 8-12 on the Bench Press.  If you’re tracking your workouts, you’ll see that last time, you did a set of 12, a set of 12, a set of 11 and a set of 10.  So your goal for this workout becomes this: increase your reps by at least 1.  So you might shoot for a set of 12, a set of 12, a set of 11 and a set of 11.  Or you might shoot for a set of 12, a set of 12, a set of 12 and a set of 10.  It gives you more flexibility based on how your body is performing.  If you’re feeling strong on set 3, go for 12.  If not, try to grunt out an extra rep on the last set.

Use the Ladder Technique to Overcome Plateaus

In order to use the ladder technique, you MUST track your workouts.  Maybe you’ve been working your way up and you’re trying to get all 4 sets of 12 reps at 185 pounds on bench press, but can’t quite seem to get there.  You get 3 sets of 12 and then a set of 10.  You get 2 sets of 12 and 2 sets of 11, but you just can’t get all 4 sets of 12.  This is where you employ the ladder technique. The ladder technique focuses on going up in weight during your second to last or last set. It allows you to not have to jump up in weight for all 4 sets. So you “ladder” up from the last set increasing weight in the last set, then next week increasing weight in the last two sets, the following week increasing weight in the last three sets, and finally doing all four sets at your increased weight.

So, using the bench press example, I like to try doing 2 sets of 12 with 185 pounds and then attempting 2 sets of 8 at 195 pounds.  Further, using the high and low ends of the rep ranges combined with the ladder technique allows you to ladder up your weight more effectively because you have more flexibility and because you are not trying to make a big weight jump for all four sets.

The ladder technique has worked so well for me and Rachael that we haven’t plateaued in over a year and a half with the same workout program.  That’s never happened to me in over a decade of lifting weights.

I’d love to hear from you all about any techniques you have found effective for breaking through plateaus.

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