speed

LADDER DRILLS DO NOT INCREASE SPORT PERFORMANCE

 

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.


Recommended Reading:

Endurance vs. Conditioning

The statement is simple – Endurance is the most overrated of all sports specific qualities. Why Because endurance is neither necessary nor the limiting factor in most sports. Conditioning is. Where is the difference?

Definition of Endurance and Conditioning as follows:

Endurance is the ability to maintain a certain effort with minimal fatigue – A classic example is a marathon. At a marathon it´s crucial to run 2+ h in one go with minimal fatigue.

Conditioning is the ability to repeat a certain effort with minimal fatigue – Classic examples are team sports like Soccer, American Football, Basketball and Ice hockey. In those sports it is crucial to keep fatigue between the first and the last sprint (and all the others in between) as minimal as possible.

Most Olympic, Team- and Combat Sports are cyclical, that means certain efforts must be repeated. A 100m sprinter has to repeat his performance in heats, semi-finals and finals. A thrower has 6 attempts per competition and an olympic weightlifter has 3 per discipline.  If the performance decreases too much from attempt to attempt then his conditioning is the limiting factor.

A more extensive example is soccer. Depending on the position of a player he runs about 8-12km per game. From which he runs 400-1200m above 85% of his top speed. The remaining 8-10km are walking, trotting and hardly relevant for the game.

These 400-1200m are crucial. The average sprinting distance is about 17m. Sprints over 30m, thats the distance between mid- and penalty line, are very rare.

The critical distance is 0-5 m. That´s the famous “one step faster”. Based on player statistics of the English Premier League, players with the highest salary, regardless of their position have one thing in common, they are the fastest over 0-5m.

At an average sprinting distance of about 17m and a game-relevant total distance of 400-1200m those are about 24 to 70 sprints per game. Assuming a uniform load density, it is a load of 2-3 seconds followed by a 1:20-4:00 minute break. I sprints are repeated with minimal rest its more than 3 in a row before the ball is out of sight.

So what is critical for a game in this case in terms of physical qualities?

Endurance or Conditioning?

Critical are those 24 to 70 sprints in under 90 minutes game time and their repetition with minimal fatigue, not endurance. Endurance isn´t relevant in soccer because of the short bursts of sprints they do.

To run 10-60 minutes at once has very poor correlation with the ability to repeat 24 to 70 sprints in 90 minutes with minimal fatigue.

2 FORMS OF ENDURANCE

Endurance at high intensity – that is the ability to maintain a stress of high intensity upright with minimal fatigue. A good example is a 100m sprinter. A sprinter reaches his top speed after 60-70m. From 60-70m the critical factor becomes maintaining the top speed as long as possible without getting tired. In this case we speak of speed endurance. Usain Bolt is a great example for this. His greatest advantage over his opponents, and the reason why he is even more dominant over 200m than over 100m, is his exceptional speed endurance, the ability to maintain his top speed with minimal fatigue and leave all his opponents behind after 60-70m.

Endurance at low intensity – that is the ability to maintain a stress of low intensity upright with minimal fatigue. A good example is the marathon. In a marathon it´s crucial to maintain a performance for 2+ h with minimal fatigue. In one go and without interruptions.

Intensity – definition: Intensity is the load of a performance in relation to the maximal performance. A performance at high intensity for example is a sprint over 50 meters at maximum speed or BB Back Squats for 3 reps with 90 % of 1RM. In contrast to this, a performance of low intensity is a run over 10000m at maximum speed or squats for 25 reps with 50 % of 1RM. That means intensity is not defined on the subjective level of effort but correlates performance with maximum power/effort.

Both forms of endurance, especially the last one, are not relevant in most Olympic-, Team- and Combat Sports because the duration of the load in those sports is far lower.

In most Olympic-, Team- and Combat sports conditioning is critical. The ability to repeat a performance with minimal fatigue.

2 FORMS OF CONDITIONING

Conditioning at high volume – the ability to repeat a certain performance very often with minimal fatigue.  The best example is soccer, where depending on the position of the player the average sprinting distance has to be repeated up to 70 times per game with minimal fatigue.

Conditioning at low volume – the ability to repeat a certain performance a few times with minimal fatigue. Best example is Olympic Weightlifting. There you only have to repeat an attempt 3 times per discipline and competition – so 3 Reps of the Snatch and 3 Reps of the Clean & Jerk, thats it.

The lower the volume, the more critical becomes the performance during the attempt itself. It is not that crucial to repeat that performance often.

The higher the volume, the more critical is the ability to repeat it. Therefore in weightlifting the ability to repeat a performance is less important than the absolute performance, namely to move maximal weight. In comparison with weightlifting soccer players need lower maximal- and explosive strength level than weightlifters – but higher levels of conditioning. As the ability to repeat maximal Sprinting Speed for the 90 minute game is critical.

TRAINING ENDURANCE VS. CONDITIONING

The training for Endurance and Conditioning is obviously very different.

The Training of Endurance basically includes a higher volume of total work, a lower -if any – number and duration of breaks and lower average intensity of effort. While the training of conditioning basically comprises a lower total volume of work and an increased number and duration of breaks at higher average intensity of effort.

51 rounds divided into 3 blocks á (9 rounds, 3 minutes pause, 5 rounds, 3 minutes pause, 3 rounds) with 10 minute pauses between the blocks. The rounds have to be executed with minimal 85% of world record time.

That´s a solution for a 1500m short track speed skater whose limiting factor is endurance over 1500m. That means he fatigues too much in the last 3-5 rounds of the 1500m race which is 14,5 rounds.

This is a program written by the legendary short track speed skating Coach Yves Nadeau, whose athletes won 204 medals at World Championchips and the Olympic Games since 1983.

Sample training program for Conditioning in Soccer

This is a modified strongman medley used to condition a soccer player

A1 Forward Sleddrag, 20m, 5s rest
A2 Prowler Push, High Handle, elbows extended, 20m, 5s rest
A3 Sprint, 20m, 120s rest
Repeat 4-10 times depending on the current Conditioning Level of the Athletes

This is a solution for a player or a team whose physically limiting factor is fatigue in the latter part of the game.

The ability to repeat multiple blocks of three 20m efforts with minimal rest has clearly a higher correlation to soccer-specific performance than 10-60min straight jogging. To train the sprinting power, speed and conditioning at the same time a combination of strength- and condititoning training in the weightroom can also be utilized. To see how it looks in detail, here is an example of a squat training program for conditioning in Ju Jitsu.

Sample training program for Conditioning in Ju Jitsu

 12 sets of 4 reps of BB Back Squats with a 30X0 tempo and 60s rest.

From workout to workout increase the average- and maximal weight used.

That´s a solution for a fighter whose physical limiting factor is fatiguing from effort to effort. The higher intensity and resistance on the squats allow for training conditioning and power of a single action at the same time.

This is the program used for preparation of YPSI Athlete Romy Korn for the Ju Jitsu World Championship 2014 in Paris where she became World Champion in the 70+ kg weightclass at a bodyweight of 71,2kg with all her opponents outweighing her by 15+kg.

Conclusion: For a coach it is crucial to identify whether endurance and/or conditioning are necessary for a certain sports and disciplines. And to assess which the limiting factor of the individual athlete is. So the training program can be specifically tailored to the needs of the individual sport and the limiting factor of the individual athlete. To maximise the efficiency of training and therefore increase pPerformance on the field, court, ice or mat.

The Agility Training Fallacy

This video explains why foot turnover speed is impressive but has no transfer of training to agility. Here it is explained in depth so as to put an end to pointless ladder drills that are not making you a better athlete. Video courtesy of Sport Science Collective

 
 

Speed Notes

Speed is king for athletic performance, and the development of power is crucial. The athlete must “close the gap” between their maximal force output and their limit strength, and the faster they can achieve this, the more explosively they can perform. This can be achieved by utilizing Dr. Hatfield’s C.A.T. (Compensatory Acceleration Training) method. Essentially, this means completing reps explosively throughout the entire range of motion, so as leverages become more advantageous, the trainee continues to move the bar as fast and as hard as they can. A rep performed in this manner should not take more than ¾ of a second and one should use at least 60% of their 1RM, but not be so heavy as to slow down the rep speed.