Do agility ladders really make you faster and more agile?

Hunter Bennett Performance. Agility, agility ladders, reaction time, speed, acceleration, power

Not really.

Now I will be upfront here. I am not a big fan of agility ladders. I feel they are over utilised, and don't deliver what they promise.

'But they make your feet faster right?'.... well maybe. But what does that even mean? So if my feet move quicker I will be faster? If we think about it, It’s not particularly shocking that that’s not really how it works.

Defining agility

Agility can be broken down into two components:

Change of direction (COD) speed. The speed at which we alter the direction of travel in a PRE-PLANNED manner. Note the emphasis on pre-planned. COD speed is completely physical, and simply the rate at which we can alter direction of movement.

And

Reaction Time. The time taken to react to an unknown or unpredictable stimulus. This is effectively the time taken to assess a situation or stimulus, and then react to it. This is a mental process.

So Agility is therefore both the process of making a decision and moving in accordance to that decision, in response to an un-controlled stimulus.

An example of Agility would be a rugby player making a tackle on another player who is coming towards them with the ball. The player with the ball is likely to move in one direction in an attempt to evade the tackler. The tackler must cognitively react to the unknown stimulus (the direction of the side-step), and then change direction in accordance, as means to make the tackle.

Soooooo? What about agility ladders?

So agility ladders don’t have a cognitive component, so they don’t directly train agility. But they do kind of train COD speed right? And that may transfer to agility?

Again, not really.

Speed, whether it be COD speed or straight line speed is function of power ((force x distance)/time). If you apply a greater amount of force into the ground in the same or less amount of time, you move faster. It makes sense. The more force that goes into the ground, the further you travel per step in the same amount of time.

To improve speed you therefore have to train at maximum speed, and produce enough force to increase maximal power production.

Now do you see the issue?

When using an agility ladder, you are not producing enough force to elicit a training response. Also worthy of note, is that when you use an agility ladder, you move inefficiently, in a way that does not replicate sprinting or changing direction. You’re just moving your feet quickly, while they stay within your base of support. Changing direction quickly involves the foot producing high levels of force rapidly whilst outside the base of support, producing lateral movement. If the foot is not outside the base of support the ability to move laterally is limited.

So now you can see the issue I have with agility ladders?

Again, this is a bit of an opinion piece, and one could argue that they may have some usefulness as an effective warmup tool, or potentially in a rehab setting. But  just don’t try and sell them as something that will significantly improve speed or agility, when in reality, they will not.

So what should we do instead?

Improving strength and power through resistance training exercises would be an important step. This will improve our ability to produce force, which is integral to speed. This could be followed by some speed/agility specific training, such as straight line sprinting, or lateral movement work. This specific training will allow us to develop the ability to use our increased strength in a speed/agility specific way.