by DEAN SOMERSET
Agility ladders. Speed ladders. Quick feet ladders.
They’re venerated among trainers looking to add athleticism to their clients, believed to result in more speed, agility, and faster feet. They’re available for sale in any fitness equipment retailer, with dozens of books of drills, games and patterns you can use to get the best benefit from them.
But do they do what we think they do?
Ladder training typically involves following a set pattern through a ladder that lays flat (or relatively flat) on the floor. By moving your feet inside and outside of the rungs of the ladder, the goal is to increase speed while still maintaining the pattern. American football typically uses tires or hurdles to encourage getting the knees up, but the mechanism are somewhat similar.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the article, I know I’ll probably get some hate mail from those who just skim through this and don’t read the entire context, so let me make a couple of statements to start.
When it comes to beginners, youth, and deconditioned, everything works to improve their strength, endurance, power, etc. EVERYTHING. I don’t doubt there are coaches who use ladder drills with their 12 year olds and see fantastic results, as there are also trainers who use them with their elderly and see balance and gait improvements, but it could be said that just doing body weight squats for an hour once a week would also produce the same or similar benefits, especially if their relative training age is low. The ladder is meant for the upper end of athletic performance in the definition of speed and agility, so let’s focus here.
Speed involves covering more ground in a shorter time frame. The basic formula is increasing stride frequency and stride length to increase speed. If you can run a 40 yard dash in less time, then you increased your speed
Agility is the ability to change direction rapidly through applying more horizontal force into the ground at an angle different than your current momentum. In order to do this effectively, your legs have to be well outside of the vertical position of your center of mass. If your center of mass doesn’t move, you haven’t changed direction, you’ve just moved your legs and not fallen over.
Everything done in the gym is merely general physical preparation for sports not performed in the gym. As a result, attempting to correlate athletic performance to any drill is futile due to the lack of specificity to the activities and chaotic nature of sports, as well as the processing of multiple variables in any instant of gameplay.
Speed and agility are products of the rate of force application, which means if you go slowly through the ladder, you’re not improving anything other than conditioning. If your rest periods are less than a 1:10 work to rest ratio (and in most instances more like a 1:30), you will not be maxing out power production, you will be working on cardio (GASP!!!)
For any training modality to work, it has to replicate or produce fundamentally similar benefits as the end goal. This means the given exercise or tool should closely replicate the speed, force quantity, force direction, rate of force application, and metabolic & neural demands of the activity. If it doesn’t, then it will not produce the desired benefits. This is a universal concept known as Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. It will rear its’ head throughout this article.
Now that that’s out of the way and the people who barely read the article will comment like they read the article, let’s discuss the specifics.
Speed is a function of power, and the basic formula for power is (force x distance) / time. You apply a greater amount of force into the ground at a more horizontal angle in a smaller time, you run faster. As mentioned earlier, for running speed the basic formula is stride rate x stride frequency. You take more steps that are longer for each step and you outrun your opponent. An example of this is how in the last Olympics Usain Bolt completed the 100 m sprint with a stride count of 42 while everyone else did it in closer to 46-48 strides. His stride length was much higher and his stride frequency was roughly the same.
For a speed ladder to produce speed benefits, the individual doing it has to be moving at maximum possible speed, hitting the floor with maximum force, and at an angle that produces the best horizontal force as possible. If you hit the ground with a vertical force, you get a vertical force back.
To develop speed, especially horizontal run speed, a ladder may not be sufficient. Foot speed (the ability to move your feet) and linear speed (the ability to haul ass) are two different and quantitatively different things. To increase speed, you could do like this Keith Williams does and just run like you’re being chased by a grizzly.
True speed training requires a much longer recovery period than most other types of training as it’s highly demanding of the nervous system as well as requires much more utilization of creatine phosphate, both of which take a while to recover. As a result, true max speed training requires an all-out effort for 1-10 seconds, followed by recovery for at least 5 minutes in many instances. This means a work to rest ratio of 1:30 up to 1:300, and possibly longer. If you do an all-out sprint and then only recover for a minute, you’re only working with a 1:5 or 6 ratio, and won’t be able to put out the same resultant efforts.
Speed training is something that does tend to beat someone up with volume though, so most speed phases in training should be relatively small with more work done at lower intensities and only cycling up to max once in a while. For most elite guys, they can work at max for only a very short period due to their crazy high power output, but for more novice and intermediate athletes, they can use slightly longer cycles to work on technique and the development of neural efficiency as long as they’re not getting injured. It’s not an all-the-time thing.
Ladder drills could be very effective to work as a warm up for true speed training. The repetitive action of loading and unloading the legs can be a great warm up for the muscles, tendon elasticity, and also the cardio component of sprinting. However technique is very important, and focus has to be paid to speed above all else. Most people tend to go too slowly while also trying to make it too fancy.
Agility training involves a rapid change of direction from the initial direction of momentum. Essentially, if you’re running straight forward and someone jumps out of the bushes, you want to turn either away and run or turn towards them and drop the hammer. The most effective way to change direction involves having the legs move well outside of the vertical alignment of the center of mass, and driving into the ground at as horizontal of an angle as possible to create a strong impulse against the pull of momentum. Momentum could also be inertia if the person isn’t moving, and a rapid change from no movement to movement could be considered their “first step,” which isn’t classically speed training.
To train agility effectively, there has to be a large change of direction impulse, where the body has to absorb momentum and press out against it in an altered direction.
While ladder drills involve a rapid change of direction force from one position to the next, the direction of application is more vertical in nature compared to horizontal, and the extension out from under the center of mass is usually pretty small compared to more conventional agility training.
Ladder drills would work well as a warm up for the same reasons as for speed, but in terms of developing higher levels of agility, it may not be as beneficial. It could be incorporated more in lower threshold workouts to involve some change of direction with low loads, much like when doing deadlifts or Olympic lifts with less than maximal weight to work on technique and stay sharp.
Improving reaction time involves decreasing the amount of time it takes to process a stimulus and create a decision and action to respond. Essentially, think if someone was to throw a ball at your head when you weren’t ready. The time it would take for you to recognize you’re going to get beaned and either move or make a spectacular catch would be the difference between getting onto the ESPN highlight reel or winding up on America’s Funniest Home Videos.
With any set pattern devoid of external forces acting on the body or randomness, there is nothing to react to. Therefore, typical ladder drills are more repetitive in nature in a set pattern and don’t involve reaction time. One way to work on reaction time with ladders is have blind signals to produce a change in the pattern. For instance, have the person go forward in the ladder and when you clap, they have to turn and sprint back the way they came or sprint forward. Another way is to have them go through a pattern then yell out either LEFT or RIGHT and they have to process the direction and make an action.
Now given the previous information, I probably came across as hating on the ladder. I don’t, and routinely use it in training my clients. It’s very beneficial for developing coordination, general conditioning, and also as a warm up for speed and agility training. I also use it as a precursor for agility and reaction drills, as mentioned previously, and I’ve found it’s very good for rehabbing ankle, knee and hip injuries for people looking to get back into running and chaotic movement sports like football and soccer. The lower force application and elastic recoil effect from the foot hitting the floor and responding back helps to improve the tendon response and also build up conditioning to impact-based activities.
Every device is a tool to use in the gym, and it has a specific application to provide the specific results you want. The ladder is a great tool when used appropriately, but much like a screw driver isn’t a hammer, it doesn’t help to build top end speed, agility or quickness compared to conventional training, and relying on it could potentially make athletes slower. It’s very beneficial for conditioning, rehabbing lower body injuries, and as a warm up for higher level demands, but on its’ own it’s not going to help build a better athlete.
BSc – Univ. of Alberta,
Certified Exercise Physiologist – Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists
Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist – National Strength & Conditioning Association
Medical Exercise Specialist – American Academy of Health, Rehabilitation & Fitness Professionals