Suppose you were to poke your head into any number of sports performance facilities across the world. In that case, chances are that you will find an agility ladder littered across the floor with athletes skipping, crossing, stepping, and shuffling their way through it. These agility or speed ladders are an extremely popular tool that coaches use to increase "speed, agility, or quickness" in their athletes. Unfortunately, the juice is not worth the squeeze. There are more effective ways to train athletes for eliciting greater speed, agility, and quickness.
Why Coaches Use Agility Ladders
It wouldn't be fair to assume that every coach carries the same intention when using a ladder in their program. Still, more often than not, they are aiming to increase the speed, change of direction, and overall athleticism of their athletes. Coaches will often prescribe a series of pre-determined, repetitive drills such as the Ickey Shuffle, In and Out, or Scissor drill, hoping that the athlete executes said drills quicker. More efficiently, then they will ultimately be able to transfer these abilities into their respective sport. There are major fallacies with this thought process; however, more on that below.
Why Agility Ladders Are A Waste Of Time
Any coach worth their salt understands that competitive sports are extremely chaotic and unpredictable. In most instances, one must frequently cut, change direction, and evade or track down their opponents in the blink of an eye. These movements require immense skill and repetition to become proficient, particularly in a chaotic environment (aka practice).
Agility Ladders Are Terrible For Change of Direction (COD)
The main issue with ladder drills about COD or agility is that they are highly predictable and lack the reactionary element one would encounter when performing drills more akin to their actual sport. There is no doubt that athletes should drill fundamental movement patterns and master the mechanics of crossing over, decelerating, and changing direction. Still, once these tools are sharpened, they must then put them to use and move their bodies through space in a way that is as variable as the sport they compete in. By doing this, athletes will find themselves practicing in body positions and scenarios they are much more likely to see on the field or court versus reenacting something that looks more like a salsa dance on a strip of 8x8 squares
This study area is a highly dense subject that requires an understanding of how the brain and body work together in the skill acquisition process. Therefore it is recommended that coaches do their research before throwing random drills at their athletes. An excellent resource for learning more about this topic is the book titled Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction, by Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Ian Renshaw. For the young athlete who is reading this and looking for some practical advice, don't waste your time on agility ladders for a change of direction. Get with a friend and go compete against each other. I promise you will yield far better results and save yourself some time along the way.
Agility Ladders Are Even Worse For Speed
We know that speed is defined by how fast something can get from point A to point B and is a critical component for most sports. Whether chasing down a loose ball or flying down the sideline for a touchdown. Therefore, speed and acceleration require the skill of sprinting, which can only be improved by increasing one's general strength/power and, more importantly, their sprinting mechanics.
Proper foot striking patterns, knee drive, and arm swing mechanics are something that takes a tremendous amount of time to master and cannot be replicated on the space a ladder provides. The development of speed and acceleration is highly dependent on neuromuscular adaptation, which is best trained by sprinting drills, not the hopscotch ladder drill you saw on Youtube. Young athletes sprint fast, sprint often, and recover properly. That's how you get faster in a nutshell.
Final Thoughts On Agility Ladders Are
While it may seem like I am an eternal hater of the speed ladder, it is because I am. Is there a time and place for it? Perhaps. One could use it in a rehabilitation setting or general fitness class to get people moving simply for the sake of doing so. Still, when a specific training target is sought out like agility and or speed, it is certainly not to the tool of the trade. My advice to athletes and coaches is to implement drills that require athletes to move, react, explode, and change direction in ways the correlate more closely with their sport.
Having one's eyes fixed on their pair of cleats shuffling in and out of a speed ladder does little to create a better athlete. Time is limited, particularly in one's athletic journey, so use it wisely and choose to train in a way that will produce results!
- The Pros and Cons of Speed Ladder Training
- Don't Trash Your Speed Ladder: How to Get the Most Out of This Much-Maligned Training Tool