Ladders: Pavel?s Ladder
Alternate approach to synaptic facilitation delivers more volume in less time
In "A Small Experiment with Chin-ups" (article No. 49), I related how Pavel Tsatsouline?s "grease the groove" technique allowed me to do the most chin-ups I?d done since high school. By doing multiple sets of chin-ups spread out over the course of the day, several days a week, I was able to work up to 20 full-range chin-ups. The theory is called synaptic facilitation, which simply means doing frequent, non-exhaustive sets of a specific exercise to strengthen the nerve pathway. Bulgarian and Russian Olympic weightlifters have been using the method for years to beat the pants off the rest of the world. The problem is scheduling time to do many sets of an exercise throughout the day. It?s just not practical for most people.
That?s why I was excited to find an article by Pavel in the December 2000 issue of Milo magazine explaining "how to grease the groove on a tight schedule." He says it?s a method used by the Soviet Special Forces to meet the Spetsnaz requirement of 18 dead hang pull-ups wearing a 10-kilo (22 pound) bullet-proof vest. I tried it and it seems to work ? with much less training time. It allowed me to reduce my chin-up sessions to one or two a day, and more then double my reps, while still staying fresh.
Here?s how Pavel describes the technique used by special forces personnel to work pull-ups into their busy classroom and training schedule: "We would file out to the pull-up bars and perform what we called ladders. I do a pull-up, you do one. I do two, you match me, etc. until one of us cannot keep up. Then, if we still had time, we started over. One rep, 2 reps, 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10... 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,... 1,2,3,4,5. We totaled hundreds of pull-ups almost daily without burning out, and the extreme PT tests of our service were a breeze."
If you train alone, you can simply time your breaks by estimating how long it would take a partner to match your reps. That?s what I do, and it works fine. In fact, Pavel says it?s better that way, because "your odds of burning out are lower." To maximize volume without overtraining, you should stop each ladder one or two reps short of your limit. In other words, if you can work up to 10 reps at the top of the ladder, it?s best to stop at about 8, and then begin at 1 again. The non-competitive approach allows you to stop at a preset number that suits your capacity, not that of your partner.
The beauty of the technique is that you get a break each time you return to the bottom rung, which allows you to do more total reps. If you tried to do repeated limit sets or used the pyramid approach (1,2,3,4,5, 6,7,8,9,10, 9,8,7,6,5...), for example, fatigue would build much faster and volume would be compromised. As Pavel says, "The ladder, on the other hand, enables the strong man to grease the groove of his chosen feat with extraordinary volume."
I?ve found that to be true. During the experiment described in my earlier article, I generally did sets of 12 or 13, for about 50 total reps a day. Using the ladder technique, I can easily do 150 chin-ups in two sessions lasting a little over 15 minutes each, or occasionally in one session of about 35 minutes. ( I generally do chin-ups only two days a week, because I don?t want to interfere with my regular training sessions.) Ladders are obviously a more efficient use of one?s time, and they give your synapses plenty of work. As Pavel says, they allow more volume, without burnout, than any other structure.
I haven?t tried for a new PR, but if Pavel?s "high-volume plus specificity minus burnout" principle works as well as he says, it shouldn?t be long before I am doing more than 20 chin-ups or, better yet, working my way up to the Spetsnaz requirement of 18 chin-ups with a 10-kilo plate attached.
Give it a try, and let me know what happens. You?ll have fun, and you may be surprised at what you can accomplish.
Thanks to Pavel and his commandoes for the tip.