Ladders are a way to add volume (total reps + load) without the crazy fatigue (unless you do too much, of course).
The idea is to start with 1 rep at a resistance that you could lift for 5 or so reps, and then lift for 2 reps, 3 reps and more. You rest minimally between these reps, but rest longer AFTER the string of reps is done (which is 1 set).
So 1 set would look like this:
1-2-3-4-5... (the whole thing is the ladder, and each number is called a "rung" which represents the reps you do at that stage)
But 2 sets would look like this:
2x1-2-3-4-5... (you complete 1 run-through, rest 2-3 mins, and do it over again)
I'll often use ladders for pull-ups, presses, and push-ups because these are often the most taxing exercises and it's easy to get frustrated at not progressing. So ladders can really boost your strength.
If the above example ladder was for pull-ups, you could start with band assisted pull-ups and use the same band for every rung. OR, what I also do is suggest making the lower reps harder and use different regressions as you move up the ladder. Either option is valid IMO.
The main thing is NOT to reach failure. You don't want to max out at all. You're are aiming to get a high exertion level, but not burn out.
So how many rungs should you have?
This part is very subjective, but if we look at pull-ups and say you can't yet do an unassisted rep or more than 5 in a row, then I wouldn't go any higher than a 3 rep rung. What I would do instead is first tweak the volume (you might do: 3 or 4 sets of 1-2-3), then the loading to a level that works with your strength. My priority with coaching pull-ups is to maintain quality motor control. This can't happen if you're muscling your way through reps that are too difficult.
If it's push-ups, I may have more rungs because the burnout potential of this exercise tends to be lower, but it depends on the person.
When should I add more rungs?
Well, again, this is hard to gauge as a sweeping statement because everyone responds differently to intensity and volume tweaks, but as a general rule:
First you need to know your MAX set of unassisted pull-ups. Then you figure out your "training set", which probably should be about 1/4 or 1/3 of that. You can comprise a "training set" of assisted pull-up progressions (like band pull-ups, jumping pull-ups, partial reps etc) or mix these progressions with your growing number of unassisted reps. Eventually your training set will be unassisted reps only, and maybe even WEIGHTED reps 😀
Current max set: >1 unassisted rep
Training set: 3 pull-up progressions (bands, jumping, partials etc)
So you'd do all reps with some kind of progression.
Current max set: 1-5 unassisted reps
Training set: might be 1 unassisted pull-up or 3 pull-up progressions (or rep 1 could be unassisted, and the rest of the ladder made up of progressions)
You'd still do most reps with some kind of progression.
Current max set: 6-8 unassisted reps
Training set: 2 assisted reps
You'd train only unassisted, but make the top of your ladder 2 reps. To get the desired volume you'd do multiple ladders. If doing this, you'd be best doing these ladders more frequently through the day and week so you're getting enough total volume.
Eventually you'd be able to add a 4th rung to the ladder. And in fact, many ladder protocols out on the interwebz have you going all the way up to 10 rep rungs from the start. I prefer this approach because it cultivates better recovery.
Still confused? More confused?
Look, there are many ways to utilise ladder sets, and it can take a little tweaking to get right for you. This is just one way to do it.
So a) don't get too tied up in the details because b) I'm here to help 🙂 You can ask me in the group, or book a one-to-one coaching call to discuss what might be best for you if you're wanting to improve your pull-ups, presses, or push-ups (or others). If you want to build strength in something, you have to train it several times per week at an appropriate intensity for you etc, so that's a little harder to design as a one-size-for-all program.