How to Use Ascending Reps to Build Size and Strength

Will Davis

Personal Trainer, Strength Training


Assuming that building strength and muscle ranks highly among your training priorities, then you may be interested to learn about ascending reps (also known as ladders).


What are ascending reps?



Ascending reps are simply sets of increasing reps, with the same weight, until a total number of reps are completed. You can also work back down again (pyramids) or repeat the sets (waves), but more on this later.


For example, instead of performing 5 sets of 5 reps, you could do:


  • Set 1 - 1 rep
  • Set 2 - 2 reps
  • Set 3 - 3 reps
  • Set 4 - 4 reps
  • Set 5 - 5 reps
  • Set 6 - 5 reps
  • Set 7 - 5 reps


Or even:


  • Set 1 - 1 rep
  • Set 2 - 2 reps
  • Set 3 - 3 reps
  • Set 4 - 4 reps
  • Set 5 - 5 reps
  • Set 6 - 6 reps
  • Set 7 - 4 reps


You’ll notice immediately that ascending reps calls for a higher number of total sets to be performed, however, due to the fact that the first 2-3 sets are very sub-maximal, you’ll be able to get away with a considerably shorter rest period, and as such, the total time taken to perform 7 ascending rep sets should be around the same time it takes to perform 5 straight rep sets.


If you’re concerned that all the low rep sets will have minimal effect on building muscle, then fear not.


When it comes to building strength and muscle, total volume at a certain percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM), is what counts—reps and sets are merely a way of organizing training load.


Although there are rules that need to be adhered to (more on this in the programming section), using ascending reps allows you to hit the total volume required to build muscle and strength while only using high-quality reps.



Why Use Ascending Reps?

Have you ever felt like your first set with the working weight is way more challenging and exhausting than it needs to be?


I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that when a set feels like this, it’s likely that rep quality has suffered, and when rep quality suffers, so can results—but using ascending reps totally eliminates this problem.


On paper, this protocol may not look that appealing—it surely looks like you’ll be getting more and more fatigued as the sets go on, and therefore rep quality would suffer.


Actually, it’s the total opposite. As the sets go on, the weight will actually feel lighter and the reps will become much easier.


This can be explained by the phenomenon of post-activation potentiation where a muscle is able to produce more force as a result of a previous contraction. Following a muscular contraction, a muscle is both fatigued and potentiated and as long as the fatigue dissipated first, the muscle will be left in a potentiated state, and capable of producing more force.


Since the first few sets of ascending reps are lower rep, fatigue is going to be very low, which means the potentiation effect is almost immediate.


Ascending Reps Produce Increased Motivation

Another benefit of ascending reps is the increase motivation.


When you move heavy weights with greater ease, the brain will consider this a tremendous success, and as a result, will reward you with a hit of dopamine. Instead of feeling more and more fatigued, you’ll actually be more aroused (not that kind) and more stimulated.


Furthermore, the change in stimulus from set to set will keep you alert, so if you’re someone who gets bored easily during the main exercises, ascending reps are a fantastic way to stay focused and switched on.


How to Program Ascending Reps

As previously mentioned, ascending reps can be used for both size and strength, and here’s what you need to know about programming ascending reps.


Ascending reps work best with large compound barbell exercises, such as squat variations, deadlift variations, presses, and bench press.


I’ve also found it works very well with weighted chin-ups and pull-ups (assuming that you can do 10+ strict reps with your body weight)


Ascending rep sets can be set up in three different ways:


  1. Ladders - Start with low reps and add reps until all reps are complete.
  2. Waves - Start with low reps and work up to a higher-rep set, then repeat.
  3. Pyramids - Start with low reps and work up to higher-rep sets, then finish off with a few lower rep sets.


Setting your strength parameters when using an ascending rep format will help you reach your goals, whether it be the desire to gain size or strength.


Strength Goal - Using Strength Parameters

Intensity ≥80% 1RM
Rep Range Per Set 1-6
Total Reps 10-25


When training for strength, there should be an upper limit of around 6 reps per set. If you’re able to perform more than this, then it’s an indication that your working weight may be too light.


On the flip side, you’ll know if you’re using a weight that’s too heavy if you’re unable to obey the "Rule Of 3 Singles." (See below.)


Ladder (15 reps): 1/2/3/4/5


  • Set 1: 1 rep
  • Set 2: 2 reps
  • Set 3: 3 reps
  • Set 4: 4 reps
  • Set 5: 5 reps



Wave (12 reps): 1/2/3/1/2/3


  • Set 1: 1 rep
  • Set 2: 2 reps
  • Set 3: 3 reps
  • Set 4: 1 rep
  • Set 5: 2 reps
  • Set 6: 3 reps


If the first set of 3 feels easy, then you can put the weight up for the second wave.


Pyramid (25 reps): 1/4/4/5/5/4/3


  • Set 1: 1 rep
  • Set 2: 4 reps
  • Set 3: 4 reps
  • Set 4: 5 reps
  • Set 5: 5 reps
  • Set 6: 4 reps
  • Set 7: 3 reps


Size Goal - Using Hypertrophy Parameters

Intensity 60-80%
Rep Range Per Set 1+
Total Reps 25-50


When training for size, you can use any number of reps per set, but bear in mind that if you are going to start with lower rep sets (i.e. 1 or 2), then you will need to perform more overall sets.


Additional Rep Scheme Examples

Ladder (30 reps): 3/4/6/8/9


  • Set 1: 3 reps
  • Set 2: 4 reps
  • Set 3: 6 reps
  • Set 4: 8 reps
  • Set 5: 9 reps


Wave (40 reps): 3/3/6/8/3/3/6/8


  • Set 1: 3 reps
  • Set 2: 3 reps
  • Set 3: 6 reps
  • Set 4: 8 reps
  • Set 5: 3 reps
  • Set 6: 3 reps
  • Set 7: 6 reps
  • Set 8: 8 reps


Pyramid (50 reps): 3/5/7/10/10/7/5/3


  • Set 1: 3 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 7 reps
  • Set 4: 10 reps
  • Set 5: 10 reps
  • Set 6: 7 reps
  • Set 7: 5 reps
  • Set 8: 3 reps


Feel free to switch the number of reps around for each set.


You can also switch the method up each week, for example:


  • Week 1 - Pyramid
  • Week 2 - Ladder
  • Week 3 - Wave


Ascending Reps Progression

During each session, you’re aiming to either use more weight or perform more total reps, as per the table below:


Session Progressions For Ascending Reps

Weight Total Reps Strength or Hypertrophy
Decrease Decrease Strength
Same Same Strength + Hypertrophy
Increase Increase Strength + Hypertrophy


Unless you’ve used a weight that was too light in your initial session, refrain from increasing both weight and sets from session to session, as that’s a very easy way to burnout.


The Rule Of 3 Singles

You may find that you have sessions when you can’t increase the reps from set 2 and the first set wasn’t enough to wake you up and the body needs longer to prepare.


While this is absolutely fine, take note of the following:


If you need more than 3 singles before you’re ready to start increasing the reps, then this likely means one of two things:


  1. You’re using too much weight.
  2. You’re still fatigued from your previous session.


If this happens, then either lower the working weight, or drop the exercise completely, and focus on recovering properly.

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