Football Speed Drills

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When NFL superstars Julius Peppers, Charles Woodson, Shawn Rodgers, Casey Hampton and Tommie Harris all travel to Houston at the close of each season, you know there's something going on deep in the heart of Texas. We can assure you it's not the famous Tex-Mex barbeque. It's Plex and its founder, Danny Arnold.

Plex attracts these athletes year after year because it produces results. Every time these NFL wonders step into the Plex facility, they break through to an extraordinary level of athletic performance enhancement. Although Arnold and his team employ a myriad of original drills to help athletes reach their potential, one drill reigns supreme: a self-made cone drill that mimics the game of football in every possible aspect—just short of strapping on the pads.

Arnold drops some serious expertise to help you take advantage of this training gem.

The Theory
Ask Arnold how to make a football player faster and you get a quick response: "When we train a football player—regardless of his position—our primary goal is to make him better on the football field, not at a sprint drill. That being said, we design football position-specific speed programs, not programs for track athletes."

If the 40-yard dash were on Arnold's version of Survivor, you can bet it would be the first drill voted off his training island. "I'd probably be the first to preach against running the 40, because it's not a football drill," he says."Football has so many direction changes, how is the 40-yard dash even close to what you do on the field?"

What does Arnold want to get out of speed training? He's happy to tell you. "Regardless of the type of sprint drills we do, we always work on two major things—on-field starting position and reaction."

Ask Arnold why his athletes start from their on-field positions, and he fires back another question: "Why have a linebacker or defensive back start in an upright track stance if he doesn't do that on the field? Maybe a receiver can do that, because it's similar to how he starts on the field, but no one else. Allowing a linebacker to start upright teaches him to generate first-step force from that stance. This works against him when he gets on the field, because he ends up taking false steps ."

Ask Arnold why he emphasizes reaction training for football players, and you get another question-in-reply-to-a-question: "Every play on the football field is started by reaction, so why shouldn't you train that way? We always start our sprints with reaction, either a coach's command or something else that prevents the player from anticipating when to move his feet."

Take all of Arnold's comments, toss them together in a perfect recipe and you get the ultimate football drill the Plex Cone Drill.

Danny on Track Training
One of the biggest mistakes made in today's speed and performance programs is moving away from the sport at hand to imitate track training. I come from a track background, so it's not like I'm preaching against track. I ran track for four years in college and coached it for a couple years at Texas Southern University. Some techniques I taught track athletes—like elbow drive, relaxation and high knee lift—I never want to teach to a football player. Why would I teach football players to get their elbows back, relax their jaws or pinpoint where to look when they sprint? I need to teach a football player to keep sprinting when the coach is running by him and slapping his hand or arm, and to not mess up his running stride or mess up when he is going to plant and take a break. Or, when a lineman does his shuffle drills and I'm behind him pushing and pulling on his back, I have to make sure he maintains balance. Based just on those little examples, why would I teach a football player track-oriented workouts instead of football-oriented workouts?

Danny on the 40
At the Combine, everything's about the 40. And the funny thing is, I knock it more than anything else. I mean, when I go to the Combine and get interviewed about the players we have here in town, I never talk about 40s. I always talk about how a player has good explosion or how, after the fourth or fifth step, he can shut it down or whatever. I'm really trying to promote the football ability these players have rather than numbers that in reality have nothing to do with the game.

Danny on Reaction
Don't think you have to be born with good reaction. I can teach reaction, and you can learn it and get a lot better at it. I use reaction with all speed drills—whether a guy behind you taps you on the hip and you take off, or a guy in front of you gives a random signal and you burst—but not standard anticipated commands like 'ready, set go!' All we're doing is duplicating what happens on the football field. Even the center doesn't have the luxury of not reacting. So why not employ reaction in all your drills? It will only make you better. We add reaction to everything.

Danny on Upright Track Stance
If a player gets on the line in an upright track stance—a narrow stance with one foot back—he's learning that that's the way to explode—especially with the number of repetitions we do in the spring. So now, when he gets in his football stance in the summer and fall, and he's asked to explode, how do you expect him to generate power?

Danny on False Steps
Say you've got a good lineman, but every time he pulls, the linebacker beats him around the end. Rather than thinking, 'Well, this happens because the lineman only runs a 5.5 in his 40' (which is the stupidest measurement for football players), look at what happened on the field. A lot of times you'll see that the lineman took two or three false steps. It wasn't that he was slow. In fact, speed is rarely a factor within such a short distance. His false steps are what allowed the linebacker to beat him.

Planning Your Specific Plex Cone Drill

To design the perfect cone drill for your position, get one of your game films, review several series of plays and compute the following numbers:

1. The average distance covered (not including trick plays). Multiply by 1.25 to get the length of your drill.

2. The average number of direction changes. Multiply by 1.25 to get the number of cones you will use.

3. The average time. Multiply by 1.25 to get the maximum amount of time for running the drill.

You now have a blueprint for your specific Plex Cone Drill.

Danny on Creating Multidirectional Pattern
Let's say we use five cones to set up the drill. I put the first one down, take two steps at an angle and put the second one down, go another nine yards and place the third, then another 16 yards at an angle for the fourth, and finally five yards at another angle for the fifth—so the whole path totals 32 yards. It will be a weird-looking pattern. It's not exactly a zigzag or a line, and it doesn't create a circle or square or anything like that—it's just a multidirectional pattern. Then I'll have an athlete run through it for the given reps. After he completes the set, he'll start to get the hang of the pattern, which is when I change it to catch him off guard.

Danny on Catching People Off Guard
One of the major, major things we do here is catch people off guard. It's almost more important than actually creating the drills. Catching people off guard recruits different muscles and forces an athlete to go faster, because he doesn't know when to stop. Every single play on the football field is different, so the athletes use different muscles during a game. We try to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible during a workout to train for game situations.

Here's an example of a position-specific drill for a linebacker:

1. Average distance covered: 25 yards

2. Average number of direction changes: 3

3. Average time per play: 4 seconds

Multiply each number by 1.25. Results:

1. Total sprint length: 32 yards

2. Total number of cones: 4

3. Maximum drill time: 5 seconds

Plex Cone Drill

Set up multiple cones in multidirectional pattern

• Place one cone for each direction change

• Place each cone at a different angle and distance from previous cone

•Total distance among cones should equal total sprint length

• Sprint from cone to cone

• Cut and change direction around each cone

• Repeat pattern for prescribed repetitions

• Change cone pattern after each set

Reps and Sets

Reps are based on the abilities of the athlete. (All change cones between sets.)

Advanced athlete: 6 sets x 5 sprints

Good athlete: 4 sets x 4 sprints

Average athlete: 4 sets x 3 sprints

Beginning athlete: 4 sets x 2 sprints


1-2 weeks before season: 30 seconds between sprints, 2 minutes between sets

3-4 weeks before season: 45 seconds between sprints, 2 minutes between sets

More than a month before season: 60 seconds between sprints, 2 minutes between sets

During season: average time between plays minus 10 seconds between sprints, 2 minutes between sets


If training five days a week, perform this drill on three of those days. If training less than five days, perform the drill at least two days a week.

Advantages According to Arnold

It's football!

It's for your position!

It's challenging!

It gets results!

And the forbidden word, it's FUN!

The Plex Cone Drill focuses on direction changes and reaction. Cones placed in a random pattern over a prescribed distance mark cuts and direction changes. The number of cuts is based on the average number of direction changes per play for your position. The length of the drill is based on the average distance you run per play on the field.

After completing each set, rearrange the cones. Change the distances between them but keep the same total distance. Varying the distance between the cones teaches you to react, speed up, slow down and change direction based on different circumstances.

Incorporate shuffling and backpedaling at the beginning of the drill to mimic what you do in a game when you read and react to a developing play. The remaining movements throughout the drill should involve sprinting and cutting like you are running down a ball carrier or evading a defender.

When running this drill, receivers should coast between some of the cones, since they typically go through fewer direction changes than other position players. Accelerating and decelerating are crucial to an offensive player's game, and working on these fundamental skills will pay off on the field.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock