How to build strength, muscle, and mental toughness – without ever leaving the squat rack

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By Craig Weller

Having a hard time gaining muscle? I may have the solution.

To get over a plateau and start gaining muscle fast, you sometimes have to stop following traditional bodybuilding methods and get creative with your workouts.

I've used the following method with hundreds of guys – from special military operators to guys who just want to build muscle and look better – and it works like a charm every time.

If you're ready to start gaining muscle again, breathing ladders will help you push past your plateau and have you looking forward to going to the gym.

What's a Breathing Ladder and What's It Do?

A breathing ladder consists of multiple sets of a compound lift (like a squat) performed with a fixed number of breaths in between sets. (Don't worry, I'll give you a sample program in a minute that lays this all out for you.)

Breathing ladders will help you develop:

  • Strength
  • Muscle mass
  • The aerobic energy system
  • Respiratory patterns
  • Mental toughness

Breathing ladders are extremely effective for guys who want to gain muscle fast because they allow you to use a lot of volume (total amount of weight lifted in a given workout) without running your body into the ground.

The Difference Between Typical Rest Periods and Breathing Ladders

Bodybuilding-style workouts are typically high in volume (which is good for muscle growth) but also high in stress (which is bad for pretty much everything). In fact, if you use too much volume and stress your body too much, you'll stunt your ability to gain muscle, build strength, or recover fully from your workouts.

Breathing ladders, on the other hand, allow you to increase the amount of volume you use without exceeding your body's ability to recover.

That's because you're measuring your rest periods by how many breaths you take instead of waiting for a specific amount of time, like in most bodybuilding workouts.

For example, a breathing ladder with squats could be done from one to ten reps (1-10) with rest intervals measured by breaths.

You'd do one squat, rack the bar, and take one deep breath. Then you'd un-rack the bar, do 2 squats, rack it again, and take two deep breaths. If you were to do the full 10 reps, it'd look like this:

1 squat - 1 breath
2 squats - 2 breaths
3 squats - 3 breaths
4 squats - 4 breaths
5 squats - 5 breaths
6 squats - 6 breaths
7 squats - 7 breaths
8 squats - 8 breaths
9 squats – 9 breaths
10 squats - 10 breaths

Total amount of reps: 55

(Note: Don't hold your breath while you're doing the squats. Just breathe normally.)

Breathing ladders work best with big compound movements like squats, kettlebell swings, or pullups and are a great way to get a lot of high-quality reps of a big lift into a workout in a short amount of time.

Up or Down? It's All Good.

Breathing ladders can also be done up to a number and back down. For example, after performing your tenth set of squats, you could move back down to nine reps, then eight reps and so on. That would be written as (1-10-1) and would total 100 reps.

They can also be repeated for multiple sets, so you're effectively "climbing" a short ladder several times.

A ladder from one to four reps (1-4) repeated four times would equal forty reps.

Why Use Breathing Time For Rest Periods?

Measuring your rest periods in terms of breath allows you to focus on an important component of recovery and maintain conscious control over what is often a subconscious process. (Normally you're not aware that you're huffing and puffing while you're lifting weights.)

By controlling your breath and working on taking long, slow breaths, you can rapidly shift your body into instant "recovery mode" as your parasympathetic nervous system takes over momentarily.

Working hard during your sets and recovering better during your rest periods will boost your performance by increasing oxygen delivery, removing waste products from within your muscle, and replenishing your cellular energy stores.

In other words, you'll be stronger, longer.

How To Breathe (Yes, Really)

Most guys are breathing incorrectly. (Weird, but true.) So let's see where you're at.

Take a deep breath right now. Did your shoulders or chest rise? If so, I hate to tell you that you just failed our little test.

Proper breathing should be focused on using your diaphragm (your stomach) instead of using your chest.

This is also known as "belly breathing." When you breathe in, you want to think of your belly expanding and not your chest rising.

You can practice this by lying on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees, feet off the floor, and your lower back, shoulders, and head all in contact with the ground. Place your hands on your sides and take a deep breath in through your nose, pushing your belly out and expanding the sides. Hold for a couple of seconds and exhale through your mouth.

Here's a video demonstrating it:

It takes some time to learn how to breathe this way naturally, but it's worth practicing.

The 3-Day Breathing Ladder Program

Note: Only one exercise on each day uses a breathing ladder. This is because breathing ladders work best as a complementary part of a workout program.

A1) Deadlift 8 x 3, 2-3 minutes rest between sets

B1) Pullup Ladder 5 x (1-4)
B2) Weighted Pushup 5 x 10, 30 seconds rest
B3) Dumbbell Overhead Press 5 x 10, 45 seconds rest

C1) Waiter's Walk 3 x 30 seconds per side, no rest
C2) Band Pull Apart 3 x 15, 45 seconds rest


A1) Front Squat Breathing Ladder (1-10)

B1) Dumbbell Bench Press 5 x 5, 30 seconds rest
B2) Chest Supported Row 5 x 5, 45 seconds rest

C1) Walking Dumbbell Lunge 3 x 8, 60 seconds rest

D1) Ab Wheel Rollout 3 x 8, no rest
D2) Banded No Money 3 x 8, 45 seconds rest

A1) Single Arm Dumbbell Row 8 x 3, 30 seconds rest
A2) Barbell Bench Press 8 x 3, 60 seconds rest

B1) Kettlebell Swing Ladder (1-20-1)

C1) Farmer's Walks 5 x 20 seconds, 60 seconds rest

D1) Wide Stance Pallof Press Iso – 3 x 30seconds per side, no rest

D2) Face Pulls – 3 x15, 45 seconds rest

Couple Quick Notes About the Program

More Muscle: If you're trying to get in more volume with a lift in which you can't normally do reps in the double digits like pullups, use a low range breathing ladder like the (1 - 4) used in Monday's sample workout. That setup will allow you to get a total of forty good quality reps in fairly quickly while never doing more than four reps at a time.

More Conditioning: If you're going more towards the conditioning end of the spectrum or are working with a lift better suited towards high rep work, use something like the (1-20-1) kettlebell swing ladder found in Friday's workout.

More Strength: Lifts like squats often provide best results in low rep ranges for strength and in the 6-10 range for gaining muscle. The (1-10) ladder found in Wednesday's workout hit this range well and gets in a good quantity of total reps for muscle growth and strength.


Craig Weller is a coach for Scrawny To Brawny and helps hundreds of guys gain muscle every year through their online muscle-building coaching program. He spent 6 years in Naval Special Warfare and 2 more years in private security work in places like Iraq and Sudan.

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