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Ladder to Success

Ladder to Success

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Ever have one of those days where you get to the gym, open your training log, and your scheduled workout sounds about as appealing as drinking raw sewage? I love training as much as anyone, but I know I've had those days, particularly during the hot, humid, and busy summer months where I find myself dragging a bit once I finally get to the gym.

When I find myself in one of these ruts, and the workout I have been doing for the last 3 or 4 weeks is just not "hitting me," I pull out a routine I call the Dumbbell Ladder to climb out of it. The simplicity and efficiency of this routine is a thing of beauty, as you can hit all the major upper body muscle groups hard with about 12 sets and a 40 minute time commitment using minimal equipment.

The Dumbbell Ladder

1A. Dumbbell Pressing 6 sets of 10 reps
(you'll need a multi-setting 0-90 degree adjustable bench)

  • Ladder Rung 1: Seated DB Shoulder Press 1x10 (*choose a 12 rep maximum resistance…this is critical)
  • Ladder Rung 2: 70 Degree DB Incline Press 1x10 (increase the weight by 5 lbs. per dumbbell from set 1)
  • Ladder Rung 3: 45 Degree Incline Press 1x10 (increase the weight by 5 lbs. per dumbbell from set 2)
  • Ladder Rung 4: 30 Degree DB Incline press 1x10 (increase the weight by 5 lbs. per dumbbell from set 3)
  • Ladder Rung 5: 10 Degree DB Incline Press 1x10 (increase the weight by 5 lbs. per dumbbell from set 4)
  • Ladder Rung 6: Flat DB Bench Press 1x10 (increase the weight by 5 lbs. per dumbbell from set 5)  
1B. Major Upper Body Pulling Exercise of Your Choice 6 sets of 10 reps
(use a 12-15 rep maximum resistance)

  • Choose from any variation of DB rows, barbell rows, chin-ups, pull-ups, etc.

  • The pressing ladder will thoroughly overload all the upper body pushing muscles: chest, anterior shoulders and triceps. The first 3 sets emphasize the anterior delts, and, as the angle of the bench opens up, the emphasis shifts to the chest. You will get a mechanical advantage on each set as the chest comes more into play, which allows you to use more weight on each set. I want to reiterate it is imperative you choose the appropriate resistance on the first set of presses: if you go too heavy you will screw up the entire protocol. Alternating the pressing ladder with sets of a major upper body pulling movement ensures structural balance and addresses the lats, upper back and biceps.
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While this routine is a great rut buster on days you just are not feeling your normally scheduled workout, I should also note it's perfect for those traveling on business or vacation: almost every hotel gym or chain gym will have an adjustable bench and dumbbells. I also like to use the ladder as a full blown assistance routine after opening my workout with a big barbell upper body lift like a bench press or standing barbell press. If you train your upper body twice weekly, the two workouts, using the ladder routine, could look like this:

Day 1: Bench
  1. Bench Press: 3-5x3x5 (2-3 min rest)
  2. Ladder routine as described above supersetted with 3 point DB Rows
  3. 6 sets of direct arm work
Day 2: Press
  1. Press: 3-5x3-5 (2-3 min rest)
  2. *Reverse ladder routine supersetted with a lat pulldowns
  3. 6 sets of direct arm work
*start with a flat DB bench press and work your way up towards a seated press, reducing the dumbbell weight by 5 lbs. per pair each set

No matter how you choose to implement it, the dumbbell ladder routine will surely deliver a comprehensive, time efficient, no hassle workout. If you are in a rut, you can trust this routine will help you climb out of it! Stay strong!

Patrick mentions that every gym has at least a set of dumbbells and an incline bench in its gym. What was the worst hotel gym you ever encountered? Tell us in the comments field below.

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