I am here for one reason and one reason only. This article has been inspired by the countless time my athletes have asked me if we are “going to do ladders.” This would usually be followed up by a fifteen minute rant where I would rattle off multiple reasons why ladders are the worst thing you can do for speed training. Essentially, mentioning ladders in the same breath as speed training and agility is the biggest crime in athletic performance training today. It is an epidemic. Go on social media and you’ll see a pro athlete posting a video of their lightening “quick feet,” and their coach proclaiming how much faster they have gotten. Do yourself a favor and read this and pass it on. It will explain why I do not have ladders in my gym and might add a few more years onto my life, as I will be less likely to have an aneurism from people asking me why I do not like speed ladders!
Sports Are Not Linear
We can start here right off the bat. Sports are not pre-determined. Meaning, an outfielder in baseball is never going to take the exact same route to a ball as they did the play before, and a football running back is never going to maneuver in the exact same manner to evade a defender. The list can go on and on, but you get the point. This is where my first problem occurs. Ladder and pre-determined cone drills aimed to improve agility are formulaic and repetitive. If anything, an athlete is simply becoming more proficient in a practiced and rehearsed pattern than they are becoming more agile. Agility is the ability to react visually and cognitively to stimuli and adjust as quickly as possible. A running back sees a linebacker cut across the field to tackle him and he cuts back (agility), a shortstop processes that a ball has been hit to his left and there is a runner on third so he must act in a certain manner (cognitive reaction and agility). Again, the list could go on and on. In what way does a rehearsed ladder or cone pattern do anything to prepare an athlete for visual, audible or cognitive reactions? Hint, they do not!
Small Choppy Steps Are Detrimental To Linear Speed
My next point is fairly cut and dry as well. I see numerous coaches with a video of an athlete performing a “speed” ladder routine and proclaiming they are working on increasing their speed. Let us take a quick second here and explain some fundamental running principles. We are faster (this may be a reality check to some of you), when we take longer and less strides to get from point A to point B. If you don’t believe me here is some hard data. Aside from the fact that I have a particular athlete (who cut off .2 seconds from his 60 yard dash time in four months), who’s direct speed increases coincided with reducing his strides to cover the first 10-yards of his sprint (from 7 strides to just over 5.5), I will share some cold hard facts from the best sprinter this world has ever seen. That’s right, Usain freakin’ Bolt. Remember in the 2012 Olympics when he was absolutely obliterating the competition and shattering records with his shoes untied? You do? Great. Guess what? THE MAN RAN 4.5 LESS STRIDES THAN EVERY OTHER COMPETITOR. So, while you have your small hurdles and ladders and can brag about how “lightening fast,” you or your athletes feet are, you are not improving linear speed!
What Is Agility and How Do We Actually Improve It?
As I mentioned earlier, one half of the equation in terms of agility is being adept and well equipped to react to visual and cognitive stimuli. The other half of the equation is eccentric strength (ability to slow down and stop), and starting strength (think coming out of the hole in a squat). Consider this. That same running back we discussed hits the hole hard to the left, and then has to juke right to evade a linebacker. The stronger he is eccentrically the faster he can slow down and stop, and then redirect (starting strength) into the other direction. That is agility! Ladders and coaching “quick feet,” through these ladders accomplishes nothing. Cone drills only cover half of this equation. They practice and improve “starting and stopping” ability but do nothing to account for the non-linear nature of sports.
How To Improve Agility:
Acceptable Uses For Ladder Training
There are some acceptable uses for ladders. I sometimes will make use of them for a warm-up or even use them for conditioning. The bottom line is that they do not improve linear speed nor do they work on agility. If you want to argue that they can work on footwork for certain sports (for example a wide receiver in football) where certain quick and choppy steps are rehearsed, then fine. However, I tend to leave those things to the actual coaches and stick to improving aspects of sports performance that coincide with strength training.
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.