Workout of the Week: The Double Ladder

(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Veronica Montes)

The question of when to do a double ladder or a pyramid workout is a personal preference, but it also could be dependent on your current fitness abilities. If you are familiar with the PT pyramid, where you would go up each step of the pyramid until you reach a certain level and then repeat in reverse order, then a double ladder workout will make sense.

Many prefer the double ladder to build in recovery sets in what’s normally the peak of the pyramid. Typically, sets 7, 8, 9, 10, 9, 8, 7 are the toughest seven sets of a 19-set workout.

The double ladder offers an easier way to get the same volume of exercises. Here’s how it works.

Double Ladder 1-10 (20 total sets)


Pull-ups x 1

Push-ups x 2

Abs of choice x 3

Dips x 1

Run 400 meters every set (or run one mile every fourth set)

  • Set 1: 1 pull-up, 2 push-ups, 3 abs of choice, 1 dip and a 400-meter run option.
  • Set 2: 2 pull-ups, 4 push-ups, 6 abs of choice, 2 dips and a 400-meter run option.
  • Set 3: 3 pull-ups, 6 push-ups, 9 abs of choice, 3 dips and a 400-meter run option.
  • Set 4: 4 pull-ups, 8 push-ups, 12 abs of choice, 4 dips and a 400-meter run option.

You also can opt out of the 400-meter runs each set and instead run a mile every fourth set. No matter what, you will get five miles of running when you total up the 400-meter or one-mile runs after 20 sets.

Keep going up the ladder until set 10, where you will do 10, 20, 30 and 10 reps, respectively, of each of the four exercises in the circuit. Once you hit level 10 or fail at more than two events, stop and start over again and see whether you can repeat your previous efforts.

After set 10 is completed, your 11th set will be exactly what you did on set 1, and each set will get progressively tougher.

The difference with the pyramid is the peak is loaded in the middle of the workout, while the double ladder has a double peak that may be an option for better performance as you build your muscle stamina to handle more volume.

When to Rest

Regardless of whether you’re doing the double ladder or the full pyramid, try to keep an active rest workout where you rest by working other muscle groups or even running. Yes -- “rest with running.” Take a sip of water or stretch when needed.

When you do this much calisthenics, it’s good to balance out many of these movements with a few sets of what we call the PT reset. This is a great way to work the back side of the torso from the shoulder girdle and the upper back to the lower back.

PT Reset (Repeat 2-3 Times)

Rev push-ups 20

Birds 20

Arm haulers 20

Swimmers 1 min

Side plank 1 min (right)

Plank 1 min

Side plank 1 min (left)

Another classic workout section to put into this training day is the 50-50 swim workout. This will help anyone get into better swimming shape if their future holds a 500-yard or 500-meter swim test, like the Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force special warfare programs. These are required as part of their initial screening tests. It’s OK to do this workout later in the day in a separate session if you prefer.

Here’s how it works:

Swim a 500-meter warmup without stopping (if possible). Then repeat two 50-meter swims of different strokes, using the first to get winded and the second 50 meters to catch your breath (active rest). The rest between 50-50 sets is minimal.

When you first start, you may need 15-20 seconds between sets but as you progress, the 50-meter combat swimmer stroke (CSS) should be a decent “rest” for you. This workout will help you get in shape for any military 500-meter swim test. The goal is to do this workout 4-5 times a week to get you in shape to handle what may be a new medium in which to train -- water.

Warmup -- Swim 500 meters easy (nonstop)

Repeat 10 times Swim 50 meters free at 6-8 strokes/breath Swim 50 meters CSS goal pace

Cool down -- 10-minute tread or aqua jog/stretch

The final cooldown is to tread water or aqua jog for 10 minutes to help loosen up the legs and arms. Getting used to treading water will be needed if your future goal is to endure military diving or rescue swimmer programs.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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