Speed is king. If you want to ascend the ranks of the sport, one thing is a given: You must be faster. Higher levels of sports equal faster gameplay. Turning a corner in the NFL with a lineman that runs a sub 5-second 40-yard dash is as likely as escaping Alcatraz.
Many athletes build their off-season training programs around strength, rather than athleticism. For young athletes, the limiting factor is strength.
But what is athleticism? Everyone knows it when they see it. It’s the explosiveness that causes a defender to cross their feet or acceleration so fierce everyone else appears frozen in time. My belief is that some strength coaches, myself included, have trained the athleticism out of athletes. This article lays out strategies for recapturing ankle braking quickness inside of the weight room.
Athletic development is nuanced and complex. There are many potential limiting factors. To identify the limiting factor, use the following hierarchy:
Can the athlete achieve the positions required?
Does the athlete have the force production capabilities to execute the movement?
Does the athlete have the speed and skill to execute the movement?
Does the athlete have the capacity to repeat that movement?
In a complex system, like athletic development, the limiting factor changes over time. When an athlete has enough force (strength) for lateral speed, it is no longer the limiting factor. Yet, I find many coaches and athletes cling to strength as a gateway to performance.
When Does Enhancing Strength Begin To Detract From Speed?
Consider that an athlete must optimize several systems: cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal, neural, and many others. Each system interacts with the others. Now, imagine scattered pool balls on a table. You are at the end of the table ready to throw the cue ball. Collisions are inevitable. You might guess which ball gets hit first, but those balls will hit other balls, will hit other balls, and so on. Everything affects everything. This is how training stress affects an athlete.
To maximize athleticism, identify the limiting factor. The limiting factor is the highest leverage point. Again, this changes over time—a point I can’t emphasize enough.
Young athletes must increase their strength. They have the horsepower of a Prius. This is ineffective for maximizing speed and hypertrophy. You don’t rely on a tailwind for an edge in speed.
Once you enhance the engine to, let’s say a Mustang, it’s time to optimize force production. Prioritizing strength may not be as beneficial. Several trained athletes are at this crossroads. They have great baseline strength, but aren’t sure how to wield its power.
The body adapts to the type of training you expose it to. Lifters get good at lifting. Taken to the extreme, it will impede athleticism.
It is not safe for your body to have a high degree of freedom of movement when you are lifting heavy weights. It will create adaptations that limit degrees of freedom. These changes impact how an athlete loads and exits a cut. Rather than an authentically loading the hips, they may use several sub-optimal strategies.
Furthermore, heavy weights are not constrained by time. As weights get heavier, they move slower. As athletes move faster, they must produce forces in shorter windows of time.
This does not make strength training bad. Instead, consider that an inflection point exists in the development of an athlete. Speed and power become the show while maintaining strength.
Strength training is essential for breakaway speed and ankle breaking quickness. Big squats and deadlifts are seductive. But training like a powerlifter makes athletes move like powerlifters.
You do not want fail to shift and miss this developmental window.
Whether you’re a weight room newb or a savage, this template builds ankle breaking quickness. You will recapture and retain the ability to load and explode out of cuts.
The KPIs of Lateral Speed
1) Load to explode!
For rapid change of direction, your center of gravity must lower. And, the faster you cut, the lower you must be able to drop it. If you want to stall, stay tall. Upright cuts increase deceleration time. They create more vertical forces that “pop” and athlete up as the exit the cut. Staying low increases horizontal forces that decrease cutting time and increase speed. For some young athletes, there is an element of skill acquisition to cutting. For jacked athletes, there may be limitations in the hip that impede loading of the hips.
Faster change of direction means faster ground contact times. Faster athletes ramp up stiffness and express higher elasticity than their slower counterparts. Once you achieve that ability to load cuts, choose activities that speed the loading and unloading of a cut (more later).
Faster ground contact times are not a byproduct of fast feet training. Speed ladders do not replicate the forces nor the angles during change of direction. If this were the case, we’d teach tap dancers to dribble basketballs and call them point guards.
3) Core control
Have you ever taken a drink between drills and heard water sloshing in your stomach? Whether you feel it or not, the guts are sloshing like this in your trunk. Core control is about controlling this pressure and shifting volume as you move. A stiff abdominal w all breaks the “wave” action of the guts. The timing of this tension matters too because too much tension creates rigidity.
Slower athletes with insufficient core control bend or flex the spine more. This links to point #1 above. If there is a deficit in hip rotation, an athlete must find an alternative braking strategy. What should be a rapid loading and unloading of the hips becomes a trunk folded over at the waist. This shoulder sway increasing the braking time, decreases forces, and slows the cut. Furthermore, when they do begin to propel out of the cut they must get their trunk up before the hips can exit. Faster athletes have access to their hip and keep a more upright position (read: not vertical).
Integrating These KPIs Into A Workout
These KPIs are rarely violated in isolation. Below, I’ll outline how to integrate these strategies into a workout for improving agility.
Lateral Lunge with Reach
The lateral lunge with reach is simple, but super effective. You get a shift into the plant leg and the reach rotates the trunk in that direction. By adding in the reach, you further enhance the rotation in the trunk that occurs during a cut. Using weight increases loading on the stepping side — a tool that might benefit athletes who struggle to lower their center of mass.
Toe Touch to Squat
Athletes often create posterior tension. Accelerations, attacking, and lifting reinforces the “push” forward. This push leads to anteriorly oriented hips that often come with a loss of some measure of hip rotation. The Toe Touch to Squat loosens stiffness on the back side of the body that contributes to this forward push. This exercise increases the success of training interventions.
Reverse Skip with Cross-Connect
Reverse moving drills help shift athletes backward. Upright posture occurs with minimal cueing. This allows an athlete to reorganize—in other words, stack their ribcage and hips. The cross-connect influences rotation and compresses the front side of the body. Together, this opens up the backside. The ground contact times are also short and prepare an athlete for plyometric drills.
Skips for distance
Skips for distance target similar objectives. First, they hold athletes back just a bit. The foot contact on a skip for distance is such that the shin (tibia) is behind the foot as it lands. This encourages them to move through the whole excursion of motion from the foot up. The longer ground contact time allows athletes to produce massive horizontally directed forces.
Rotational Med Ball Throw w/ Hip Shift
This is the first of the drills listed where you’ll feel the most lateral action on the hips. Begin by elevating one knee. From the side view, you or your athletes should have their hips under their heads. This slight tuck of the hips will stack the hips, heart, and head in a vertical alignment. Next, you’ll want to put more weight into one leg, shifting little by little, until you feel the inner thigh and glute of the knee on the pad.
Now, bend forward and push your hip back (not outward). The best way to think of it is to bring he ball to the pocket, and the pocket to the wall. From there fire away!
Hip turn med ball punch
This gem develops the ability to stay low in an athletic stance while dissociating the hips and the thorax and producing horizontal forces for exiting cuts. The thorax stays oriented toward the play while reorienting the lower extremity for lateral movement. From there, the thorax follows through and pushes the ground to create horizontal directed forces. This models shuffling in small spaces/low speeds or transitions into a lateral run step for larger spaces/speeds.
The strike of the ground is rapid to create rapid overcoming forces through the lower extremity that get an athlete out of a cut.
Catch & Fire
The ball adds momentum and mass to the loading of the back hip and challenges the athlete’s ability to redirect forces. This throw is a representation of cutting mechanics. It is a wave like motion from the ground up and everything whips.
If an athlete lacks the proper timing and stiffness of the core they’ll side bend over the cutting leg and “rear up” coming out of the cut. This, again, is a compensatory strategy to absorb force for change of direction maneuvers.
The anti-rotation shuffle is an integrated core/cutting exercise. I load this with “just enough” resistance so that the athlete doesn’t get buried in the cut and create too long of ground contact times. Get low, stay straight, and attack the cut. Progress NOT by adding more band tension, but with higher speeds.
Front Foot Elevate Split Squat with Rotation
Set up in a split squat with your front foot elevated 4-6”. Next, stack your body so your hips, heart, and head are in a straight line. Turn the zipper of your pants towards the inner thigh of your lead leg with shifting to the side. Hold this position through the split squat.
You will feel more and more inner thigh as you descend. This slows the loading strategy required for cuts. Coaches can see where the breakdown occurs, and the athlete might attempt to compensate. At higher speeds, you’ll lower more. If an athlete breaks down early, they may have altered mechanics at high speeds. This could be a means to recapture that.
Camporini “Campo” Deadlift
This is a retro step variation of a single leg RDL. It is unique because it basis the foot toward mid stance where the foot is in a pronated position. This is the same foot position that imitates the push out of a cut. By using the retro stance you’re able to bias the weight back into the hip —that is, the bottom of a cut. There can be a rotary progression that loads the hip further.
There are infinite ways to recapture the abilities to move athletically. The most important thing to appreciate is that the young athlete needs a foundation of strength to have the ability to load and exit a cut. As an athlete develops, the dependency on strength for speed has diminishing returns. The limiting factor changes with time. Keep the goal of the goal and build athletes, not weightlifters.
For many athletes, I’d suggest maintaining–not detraining–strength, while enhancing the KPIs for multidirectional game speed. The exercises above are not exhaustive. It’s a starting point to help you dig into your coaching toolbox.