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The Ups and Downs of Ladder Workout

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As she gets back into a gym routine, our fitness editor relies on ladder workouts for volume, skill work, and a little mindset magic.

The coronavirus pandemic threw wrenches into nearly every aspect of our lives this year, including many fitness routines. Personally, my lifting-heavy gym regimen was put on pause indefinitely.

Instead of strength training, I walked. I ran. I swung my kettlebell. I toyed with regular HIIT workouts for the first time in years, thanks to body-weight boot camps that I could stream in the comfort of my own home. My favorite Zumba instructor moved her classes online too, giving me the opportunity to dance in my backyard.

After about three months of this cardio-heavy routine, I had the opportunity to take at least some of my training back into a gym — in this case, my brother-in-law’s garage, which he had outfitted with a squat rack, bench, barbells, dumbbells, and a cable tower.

The space had everything I needed to resume weight training in a way that felt controlled and comfortable. I was ready to jump back into my old program — but my trainer had other plans.

He devised a new three-day program that leaned heavily on rebuilding consistency and confidence in lifting, as well as overall strength. One of the ways he did this was through high-volume workouts based on ladders.

In a ladder workout, the rep scheme is designed to ascend or descend with each set, while the load stays constant. For example, in an ascending ladder you might do one squat, then rest, then two squats, rest, three squats, rest, and so on up to, say, 10 reps. In a descending ladder, you might start with 10 reps and decrease by one in each set.

You can certainly increase or decrease by one rep at a time, but you can also adjust the reps in increments of two, or three, or five. You can go up to (or come down from) 10, 20, 50 — whatever suits your fancy and the exercise.

A ladder workout can also include more than one movement. Ladder the reps of one exercise while holding the counts for your other exercises steady. Or you can pair two or more exercises, increasing the reps of one while decreasing the reps of the other. For example, you might do 10 bench presses and one pushup in set one, then nine and two, then eight and three, until you get to one bench press and 10 pushups.

Ladder variations are almost endless and can be adapted to any strength move. The ladder you choose will ideally match your time, energy, strength, and overall skill and fitness level.

You might look at this and, like me, think, Fun! You might also look at this and wonder, Why go to the trouble?

One benefit of doing a ladder workout is that you can build a tremendous amount of volume, often in a short amount of time, without brutalizing your body by maxing out or failing reps. It’s also a great way to work with a limited amount of equipment at home (or limit how much equipment you have to touch in a fitness space) because you aren’t changing weights from set to set.

Another benefit is what I think of as “mindset magic.” Ascending and descending rep counts offer a distraction and even a bit of excitement as you move through the ups and downs of a workout.

Want to try a ladder workout? You can always talk to a trainer or coach, or search online, for ideas. You can also take any of the earlier suggestions or build your own. Keep the following tips in mind as you go:

  1. Be conservative with your reps when starting out. One to 10, or 10 to one, increasing or decreasing by one rep at a time, is a safe place to start and get your “ladder legs,” so to speak.
  2. Be mindful of load. Remember, you’re keeping the same weight per exercise throughout the ladder, so pick something you can stick with for even the highest-rep sets.
  3. Focus on form. High volume is not an excuse to compromise form. If anything, the high rep counts are an opportunity to really hone your mechanics. Make each rep matter by keeping it clean.
  4. Tailor your rest breaks in order to go into the next set with gusto and great-for-you form without wasting time. A good guideline is to rest for as many breaths as the number of reps you just did.

This originally appeared as “Ups and Downs” in the November 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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Health & Fitness

Small Shifts to the USDA Dietary Guidelines

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The recent updates to the USDA nutrition guidelines recommend lowering sugar and alcohol intake and opting for breastfeeding over infant formula.

Every five years, a government-appointed committee draws up a national healthy-eating menu. Since the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans was issued in 1980, this nutritional advice has been broadly focused on our health, but it also affects food-stamp policies and school-lunch menus.

It influences processed-food formulations for the food-manufacturing industry, as well — and this is where politics and big business enter in.

More than half of the members of the panel formulating the 2020–2025 guide have food-industry ties. And those involved in adding first-ever advice for pregnant mothers and toddlers are all connected to baby-food makers.

“My concern is that these guidelines, heavily influenced by the food and beverage industry, will dictate what kinds of food are offered at schools and set the eating habits of children, particularly Black and brown children, for the rest of their lives,” says pediatrician Yolandra Hancock, MD, an obesity expert at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health.

Despite her own reservations, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, has been pleasantly relieved by this panel’s work. “I was concerned about this when the committee was first appointed because so many of the members had worked with companies making products high in sugar, salt, and fat. But the committee surprised me. It stuck to the science and came out with recommendations quite consistent with previous recommendations, but even more restrictive.”

Among the new guidelines:

  • The committee reduced the recommended limit for alcoholic drinks from two to one daily.
  • The panel advised lowering daily consumption of added sugars by 40 percent, cutting intake from 12.5 to 7.5 teaspoons, or a maximum of 120 calories or 30 grams.
  • For the first time, the guidelines recommended breastfeeding versus infant formulas, stating that being breastfed “may reduce” the risk of obesity, type 1 diabetes, and asthma.

For her part, Nestle — who served on the 1995 committee — recommends the dietary guidelines be taken with a grain of salt compared with our own intuitive common sense.

“I always have concerns about the guidelines’ increasing complexity — it’s now 835 pages,” she says. “From my standpoint, [journalist] Michael Pollan’s seven-word mini-haiku takes care of things quite nicely: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’”

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