Alternating Rung Method

The manipulation of sets, reps, and weight increments is probably one of the most confusing and tedious aspects of effective programming for strength training.

However, as I often tell my clients “the devil is in the details.” This is one of the great challenges of programming.  And the devilish details are the subject of this article.

Arranging the weekly schedule and the order of exercises is fairly easy. This is in part due to the fact that there are only a handful of arrangements that actually work well.

Unless you adhere to the old Weider “muscle confusion” principle, there are not an infinite amount of exercises to choose from that all work with equal effectiveness. It’s quite easy to stratify exercises in terms of their effectiveness, and that stratification easily determines the level of attention and priority they receive in the weekly schedule and in each individual workout.

Where the rubber meets the road in programming is how we manipulate volume and intensity (determined by sets/reps/weight/frequency) from day to day, week to week, or month to month. This is the tricky part because it tends to be so highly individual and the same formulas do not apply to every lifter or every lift.

Another challenging aspect of programming is rate of progression. In other words how much should each lifter add to the bar each workout? Or should they even add weight at all? Is it better in some circumstances to say, keep the weight on the bar the same but increase reps? Or add a set? Should you add weight but drop the reps? If you drop the reps should you add more weight than normal? How often should I drop the reps? If I drop the rep range down, when do I go back up again?

There are other questions that pop up as well, but these are particularly frequent.

One method I have come to rely on heavily with my clients is what I call the Alternating Rung Method of progression. This system involves weekly progression so technically this qualifies as intermediate level programming – although the nature of the progression is not as straight forward as many of my clients are used to, and many view it as slower than what they might like.  The argument is that this methodology is steady.  It tends to produce far fewer and less frequent stalls, and in the long run this saves time.  Conservative yes.  But I’d rather have a year of conservative progress than 6 month of aggressive progress followed by another 6 months fumbling around in the dark trying to replicate the previous 6 months.

Simple entry-level intermediate level programming involves adding weight to the bar once per week. For instance, someone following basic Texas Method style programming would focus their efforts on a weekly improvement of their 5RM strength on each of the main lifts. This means that once per week the objective is simply to add 2-5 lbs for 1 set of 5 reps on each of their main lifts. Simple.

So why not just do that all the time? Unfortunately simple weekly progression does not stay simple for long.

Within Practical Programming for Strength Training, we introduced 2 primary mechanisms for sustaining longer term weekly progression – “running it out” and “alternating rep ranges.”

The Alternating Rung Method is a variation of “alternating rep ranges” as described in PPST3, with just a little bit more complexity.

We’ll use The Squat as an example of how to set this up.

What I like to have my clients do is start with heavy sets of 6-reps. Depending on exactly what type of program you are running, this could be a single set of 6, or multiple sets across. For our example, we will use just a single set of 6 reps for the sake of simplicity.

On week 1, we will say that our hypothetical trainee does a set of 6 reps with 300 lbs.

In week 2 the client will perform a set of 4 reps with 320 lbs (that’s a 20 lb increase for those of you who struggle with math).

In week 3 the client will perform a set of 2 reps with 340 lbs – another 20 lb jump.

In week 4 the client will increase the reps back to 5 and decrease the weight – 310 lbs for a set of 5 reps. Notice that the 5 rep set is right in the middle of what was done for a set of 6 and a set of 4.

In week 5 the client will perform a set of 3 reps with 330 lbs.

In week 6 the client performs a heavy single with 350.

In week 7 the cycle starts over again at sets of 6. This time with 305×6. Just a little bit more than what you did for 6 reps last time.

Below is a sample progression of 12 weeks’ worth of training.

(We will refer to weeks 1-3 and weeks 4-6 as mini-cycles.  We will refer to the entirety of weeks 1-6 (or 2 mini-cycles) as a mesocycle).

Week 1: 300×6

Week 2: 320×4

Week 3: 340×2

Week 4: 310×5

Week 5: 330×3

Week 6: 350×1

Week 7: 305×6

Week 8: 325×4

Week 9: 345×2

Week 10: 315×5

Week 11: 335×3

Week 12: 355×1

In case you are confused, let me try to further clarify. In the above example we use increases of 20, 10, and 5 lbs at various points in the program. These are the Alternating Rungs.

Twenty pound jumps are used within each 3-week mini-cycle: Between the 6s, 4s, and 2s. And then again between 5s, 3s, and 1s.

Ten pound jumps are used between mini-cycles one (6-4-2) and mini-cycle two (5-3-1). So between 6 and 5 is a 10 lb increase. Between 4 and 3 is a 10 lb increase and between 2 and 1 is a 10 lb increase.

Five pound weight increases are used to start a new 6 week mesocycle (642531 is a six-week cycle).

Twenty, ten, and 5 lb weight increases are just an example for the Squat, for a lifter at this particular level of strength. A stronger lifter might use even bigger increments – especially on say, the deadlift.

A weaker lifter, or someone applying this method to the Bench or the Press might use smaller increments. For instance, a hypothetical progression might go like this:

Week 1: 100×6

Week 2: 110×4

Week 3: 120×2

Week 4: 105×5

Week 5: 115×3

Week 6: 125×1

Week 7: 102.5×6

Week 8: 112.5×4

Week 9: 122.5×2

Week 10: 107.5×5

Week 11: 117.5×3

Week 12: 127.5×1

In this instance the lifter uses 10 lb increments within a 3 week minicycle, 5 lb increments between 3 week minicycles, and 2.5 lb increments to start a new 6 week mesocycle for the Press.

If you are confused about how to progress, when to progress, and you keep running into walls try introducing this style of programming into your training. This level of complexity is not necessary for early intermediate lifters. However, if you’ve been plugging away at weekly progression for more than a few months then this method might be just the thing that gets you unstuck. And the plus side is that it can keep you unstuck for many months with little to no changes to the programming.




13 Responses to Alternating Rung Method

  1. Isaac says:

    Awesome program. I use something similar. I had a solid 10 months of gains and it got me unstuck from fumbling around with stalls. Especially useful for me as I have recovery issues due to life/work demands.

  2. LOu says:

    good Stuff

  3. theo says:

    So do you find out what you can do for 6 rep max or damn near close to it. And use that as your weight selections?

    • Andy Baker says:

      Doesn’t have to be a true 6RM – but just a good solid set of 6. Usually not too hard to find that number if you are at least a semi-experienced lifter. And anyone using this approach will be somewhat experienced under the barbell. This is generally mid to late stage intermediate level stuff.

      • isaac says:

        With Andy’s coaching, I’ve learned to do it by feel. Set the initial weights and increases by feel. Then I just plugged in my increases once they were consistent. Ran it until I started to struggle a bit. Then by feel. Repeat. Like I said, it did wonders for me. I’m stronger than I’ve been in decades. Kind of like a crock pot. Set it and forget it. 9 hours. 11 hours. Whatever works.

  4. Don says:

    This really looks like what I’ve been looking for. So to be clear, the main lifts are done once a week?
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!

    • Andy Baker says:

      You might do them multiple times per week but usually for a light/medium day. In this format, yes each lift is only done “heavy” once per week.

      • Jeremy says:

        When you’re doing HLM, what kind rep/set scheme do you use on light/medium days on the weeks when the heavy day is low rep (1-3)?

  5. Russ says:

    This is cool. I sort of stumbled on something similar to this by taking the HLM concept and cycling the rep ranges that I’m progressing each week. I had two squat days, the heavy day (I actually did this later in the week, and did a 3×5 backoff after the heaviest set), and a medium day (earlier in the week) to grab some more volume. I only did the 5-3-1 rep ranges though, so my variation was a little more aggressive (less time before increasing the weight of a particular rep range). To illustrate how the heavy set progression went:

    Week Weightxreps
    1 340×5
    2 350×3
    3 360×1,1,1
    4 345×5
    5 355×3
    6 365×1,1,1
    7 350×4 (failure to hit 5 reps)
    8 360×3
    9 370×1,1,1

    If I failed, like on week 7 in my example above, I just kept all the other rep PRs moving up and repeated that one, naturally letting the weights sort themselves by rep range. It worked for a fair amount of time, but was a little more aggressive than what you’re proposing, and my volume work got a little out of hand by the end. I might go back on it for a few weeks to make up some lost progress due to end of Summer vacation, then give your approach a shot.

    Thanks, Andy. Good stuff, as always.

  6. Shaun says:

    Good article andy with this setup do you have your lifters doing a volume day aswel? Would you have to be mindful of pushing that volume day aswel so it dos’nt affect the intensity day? Thanks mate

    • Andy Baker says:

      Typically no, but you could. You’d use the rung method on your intensity day.

      • Shaun says:

        Thanks andy, have you found this method to be a good change from 531? Reason i ask is ive gained a good amount of mass on 531 but 1rm strength hasnt changed in some time now.

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