Good luck being able to see a defender coming while you are staring at your superb footwork!
Ladder drills have become hailed as a top training tool for producing athleticism, but do the claims about creating faster feet really equal more speed and greater agility?
Ladder training typically involves following a set footwork pattern – moving the feet inside and outside the rungs of a ladder that is laid flat on the ground – where the goal becomes to increase speed while maintaining the pattern. These drills have become hailed as a top tool for producing athleticism, from youth leagues to the pros, yet the science of creating faster feet does not equal more speed or greater agility come game time. In fact, drills using speed and agility ladders under the guise of increasing on-field performance is counterproductive.
Before we dive in, let’s all agree that…
Everything done in a gym should be seen as physical preparation for sports not performed in the gym. Any attempt to correlate athletic performance to any drill is futile due to the chaotic nature of sports and the processing of multiple variables in any instant of gameplay.
For any training modality to work effectively, it has to replicate or produce similar benefits of the end goal. This means the given exercise or tool used should closely replicate the speed, force application, change of direction, as well as the metabolic and neural demands of the activity. If it doesn’t, then it will not produce the desired results.
And when it comes to youth or beginner, everything works in the trainers favor to improve all aspects of strength, endurance, quickness, etc. (However, it could be argued that doing body weight squats would have the same benefit.) Additionally, ladders can be a great tool for developing neuromuscular coordination and provide an excellent multi-planar dynamic warm-up at any sporting level.
That said, this article is aimed at addressing why ladder drills do not increase athleticism or on-field performance by improving speed and agility. It should be seen that producing speed is more than the ability to move your feet fast, just as agility is more than the proficiency of learning footwork patterns. If we think about the ground as a springboard from which we draw speed, it is not how fast you can dance over it, but how much force goes into it, and how an athlete overcomes inertia to generate a powerful movement; then we can see how ladder drills do not increase performance in your sport of choice, unless it happens to be salsa dancing. Therefore we need to have a better understanding of speed and agility:
Speed is defined by the following equation: (Stride Length x Stride Frequency) / Time. Research has shown that the fastest athletes are not faster because they take more strides, but because they cover more ground with each stride. This is possible because they put more force into the ground enabling them to cover a given distance in a shorter amount of time. It is a matter of power generation; driving the foot against the ground, enables the extensor mechanism from the hip extensors (the all-powerful glutes and hamstrings), the knee extensors (quadriceps), and the plantar flexors of the ankle to propel the body in a forward motion. When you apply greater force into the ground with a forward lean and at a horizontal angle in a smaller time, you generate more speed. As that force increases there is an inverse relationship between ground contact and distance covered. Taking steps that are more powerful than your competitor, will ultimately allow you to outrun them, at least in a straight line. An example would be how Usain Bolt can complete a 100 meter sprint with a stride count of 42, while everyone else in the field managed to 46-48; his stride length was much higher (force) but his stride frequency was about the same.
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Agility is the ability to decelerate one’s momentum, stop, overcome inertia and accelerate one’s body mass in another direction in as little time as possible. Essentially, if you’re running straight forward and a defender jumps out of the bushes, you want to be able to create a powerful movement that allows you to turn or change direction in a split second. The most effective way to change direction involves having the legs move outside of vertical alignment of the center of mass, and driving them into the ground at as horizontal of an angle as possible to create a strong impulse against the pull of momentum to continue in another direction. From a physics perspective, momentum along with impulse and inertia, are critical components of agility. The ability to decelerate and stop one’s momentum in as short distance/period of time as possible requires great amount of relative unilateral strength and power, particularly in the extensor mechanism musculature of the lower extremities. Equally important, impulse can be found in the period of time where switching from eccentric action (deceleration) to concentric action (acceleration) occurs. Thus, the quicker an athlete can decelerate, overcome inertia, shift impulse momentum and propel in another direction the more agile an athlete is seen to be.
Given the above description on speed and agility it should be seen that performance is inherently predicated on the application of speed in concert with the impulse of agility. The ability to generate forward momentum/force is equally as important as being able to act and react to the chaotic unpredictability of an outside stimulus. With this understanding of performance we can see that any drill that is directed toward constricting an athlete to tip-toe through a series of 15 x 15 inch boxes without posing a challenge to displacement of an athlete’s center of mass or an effort in creating forward momentum through the development of proper mechanics will only serve as a deterrent to the claims of improving performance.
There is very little to gain with the incorporation of ladder drills, as such drills are merely displays of an already present athleticism. Natural athletes learn skills quickly and replicate movement efficiently within a very short period. Within a few weeks of practicing with a ladder, an athlete can become very proficient in the drill, yet when it comes to performing in the game there is very little transfer. Why? Because ladder drills are learned patterns without the influence of an outside stimulus, like a ball or a defender coming at you, and all the hours and effort spent learning how to tip-toe properly while staring at the ground is only working against the athlete who needs to see and react. When athletes who use these drills as a main focus are required to respond in a chaotic environment like a game, their own muscle memory could work against them—tip-toeing gracefully around a defender instead of creating a quick and powerful movement, only to get blasted by a guy the athlete didn’t see because they’ve been trained to staring at the ground. Simply put, fast feet do nothing if you don’t go anywhere. Getting better at predetermined movement patterns is not indication of on-field performance as there is very little transfer from a learned movement to a chaotic gametime environment. In the end, there is no way to practice the perfect pattern for football, soccer, hockey, ultimate frisbee, or any other sport for that matter. It is a requirement to react powerfully and quickly, and there certainly isn’t any benefit to staring at the ground.
Instead of wasting precious time on ladder drills, a strong focus on strength and power development with emphasis on both bilateral and unilateral movements are the best approach, not only for performance but injury prevention as well. An example would be the following:
Bilateral Strength – Squats and Deadlift variations
Bilateral Power – Olympic lifts, Box Jumps and Depth Jumps
Unilateral Strength – Split Squat variations and Step-Ups
Unilateral Power – Olympic lifts, Sprints and Penta-Hops
Thinking of the springboard example used earlier, the ground is where we draw speed, how much force we apply to it is the amount of speed we are going to get out of it. Elite-level sprinters can produce over 360 pounds of force per leg when moving at top speed. Good luck tip-toeing your way to those numbers. Force into the ground equals forward motion, this is because speed is a matter of force production and being agile is the ability to react, absorb and overcome inertia, therefore the ability to maintain strength and generate power is the real solution to generating more speed and creating better agility. Once an athlete has corrected any structural imbalances, increased relative strength and reactive/ballistic ability, then and only then is it acceptable to place emphasis on drills utilizing the ladder. However it is important to remember that no drill is a better substitute than having the athlete play their specific sport, as the ladder will never juke one way or try to cross you over.