You will witness a massive array of agility and change of direction based exercises being heavily promoted left and right in the mainstream social media and information outlets. Many of these drills sound great on paper, which naturally grabs people's attention initially. But do the majority of these exercises really do any solid justice in increasing one's ability to become quicker and more agile on the field or court, or what have you? If so, why do they work? And if not, or not near as much as one might think, then what does, in fact, do the trick in unlocking an athlete's true potential and allow them to become quicker in competition?
Agility is Power
I'm going to spare you "a lot" of effort and wasted time and just tell you right now flat out that if you or your athlete is dead set on doing whatever it takes to build agility and quickness, then cut all of the fluff, and start doing what really matters today. And that is built more power! "In Reality, agility is power. Without high levels of power, no one would ever be agile or quick. Agility, therefore, is the ability to accelerate quickly (which is concentric strength); to decelerate or perform the cuts so important in many sports, especially in team and racquet sports." The quotation I just provided is, without a doubt, one of the most direct, simplistic, and highly practical bits of athletic training advice I've ever read in the context of agility and quickness development. Too many coaches, athletes, and parents make the fatal error of attempting to put the "cart in front of the horse" and emphasize and practice technically based drills in hopes of somehow adjusting a limb or body position to magically unlock more power and greater speed in any direction or movement. Sorry folks, this will never happen. Sure there are some nuances and subtle changes that can make a minor increase in force and power display, but it's not very common, and power is the real power player in becoming quicker and making yourself a better athlete. If you want to set yourself apart, I can assure you that if you start developing power first, agility will naturally follow. So the question then becomes, how does one build more power efficiently and safely?
To simplify everything I just said, you need to integrate a proven model that reflects the definition of power and includes all methods over the course of the long-term to impact changes in the body that lead to greater power. And I really want to emphasize the word "long-term." Adaptations or changes that create more power in the human body or generally harder to come by and take longer to manifest than, say, conditioning and cardiovascular changes that occur much more rapidly in a matter of days or weeks. This will require strong commitment and dedication to the process, along with temporary plateaus and potential setbacks that you have to accept and workout through. But keep in mind that progress will be incremental and steady if everything you are doing is in order and you stay consistent with your training. With that being said, here is a sample diagram from my book that you can apply immediately in this article with a detailed breakdown of what it all means
Once the foundation of power development has been addressed and is being regularly practiced with you or your athletes, now is the time to integrate specific agility techniques and tactics to capitalize on the power you are gaining and transforming it into usable speed and agility that you can showcase on the field or court. Moreover, actual types of agility training (closed loop and open loop drills) will serve as another avenue in developing more power as well.
It seems that most of the athletic training population is doing a pretty good job in satisfying the different types of agility training, but as I said previously, it's power that seems to be the missing link!
What physical ability do you notice that makes an explosive athlete be able to cut (foot replacement or repositioning to instant acceleration) so remarkable? Ultimately, it's his innate or acquired ability to recognize and process the external environment he is in (defender's position and speed, boundaries, surface, etc.) and then make a motor decision quickly. Once this recognition phase is complete, it's then just a matter of how fast then the brain can send signals to the lower body and recruit as much muscle as possible, as fast as possible, as many times as possible to create the highest degree of effort or force! Furthermore, let's breakdown the amount, rate, and frequency components into three specific training terms and categories that you can focus on in training that reflects everything I've told you up until now to make you or athlete's much better.
Skill Training Categories:
- Motor Unit Recruitment
- Rate of Motor Unit Recruitment
- Frequency of Motor Unit Recruitment-Rate Coding
You can make all of this as technical and nerdy as you would like or just simplify, which is what I want to do for you. Motor Unit Recruitment can occur throughout a lot of approaches, but Max Effort heavy lifting above at or above 85% of your 1RM or volitional failure training with higher volumes and relatively lighter intensities do a fantastic job in recruiting more of the High Threshold Motor Units in your body that can generate more force and more force faster.
Next is the rate of recruitment. This approach is achieved with the standard power-based movements that you've seen in the diagram that I've applied you with, but to re-iterate Olympic lifts, jumps squat variations, contrast (bands and chains) with fundamental movements like squats and deadlifts, and more get the job done here.
Lastly is the training concept of Rate Coding. This function is also referred to as "Temporal Recruitment." The bottom line is that our body's control center, the brain has two routes to regulating force production in the body. It can either recruit more motor units and all of the muscle fibers they control or increase how often these motor units are activated during a motor task. Fortunately for us, we can train in such a manner that demands the body and teaches it to recruit the same amount of muscle mass more often during the same activity leading to a greater power! I want to quickly note that adrenaline seems to be a big player from the research I've done on the topic, so incorporating some caffeine and getting your mind right can pay huge dividends to improve rate coding. There is a wide spectrum of training methods you can use to improve rate coding—dynamic, explosive work such as medicine ball training and jump training work great. So does complex or contrast training, and your traditional heavy strength training is a few examples. Overall, practicing a comprehensive program will cover all of your bases and steadily improve all three power training categories.
#1-Bompa, T. Periodization Training For Sports. Human Kinetics, 2005.