Monday, 12 September 2011

Agility Ladders-A few pro's and con's

I get a lot of questions and comments regarding the use of agility ladders for training purposes.  Many physio therapists and strength and conditioning coaches believe that ladders actually de-train the athletes and serve no purpose in developing agility and speed, while others feel the complete opposite and can't live without them.  I will try to break down the use of the agility ladder so that you can see both sides and make an informed decision for yourselves.
As a strength and conditioning coach I get a lot of questions regarding the efficacy of agility ladders as a tool for increasing foot speed, agility and reaction.  Before I go further I want to reiterate that there is no “magic” piece of equipment that will make our athletes faster and more agile, but there are movements and patterns that will help in conjunction with a structured strength and conditioning program.   One must not consider the ladder as the only tool to increase agility (the ability to stop and start in unpredictable situations) and speed.  I have written some pros and cons below along with some detail as to other functions for the ladders.
·         Although there are many different patterns that can be used while training with an agility ladder, the foot/hand placement patterns are all very similar.   After the athlete has used the ladder a few times, we are no longer really working on agility as much as change of direction (see above description).   
·         If the athlete’s body position is poor during movements in the ladder, we are reinforcing negative patterns and bad body position (this is the same for any movement).
·         Does not rely heavily on any reactive type components to fit the definition of “agility”. If you are mildly creative, you can add a reactive component to every drill.
  • They are easy to use for large groups or beginners.  One ladder can serve a fairly large group at a time when space and time are limited.    If I am on a field and have access to a large amount of cones and space, I may opt to do more reactive type agilities instead.   Considering a large amount of my training hours are confined to a gym space, this becomes tough.
  • Safety!  The agility ladders are an easy low level quick foot drill that can be used by all ages and abilities.  This does not mean there is no chance of injury, but the chance is reduced due to the amount of space traveled by the athlete vs. using cones or agility poles/markers.
  •  From a warm up standpoint the ladders allow us to raise the athlete’s heart rate fairly quickly and increase proprioception of the ankle, knee and hip joints or the wrist, shoulder and elbow if doing upper body movements.
  • Can be used by all populations.  Ladders are great for gym classes, boot camps and injury rehabilitation.  Although the goals of the athlete vs. non athlete may differ, the benefit for the non-athlete population is still high even though the pace is usually greatly reduced.   I use the ladders with many of my older clients as well for balance and body awareness and have had great success.
  • The ladders act as a progression and foundation to more advanced and unpredictable movements.   Most athletes will be able to master all movements in the ladder in a short period of time and then we can progress to more reactive type drills.  
  • Competitions!  When in a group setting it is a great tool to use for sparking a competitive edge within your athletes.  Our athletes need to compete on a regular basis and these types of drills give us a safe and practical outlet for this.  Most ladders will come in two parts that can be separated easily and lined up side by side. 
My final thoughts:
The agility ladders may serve as a useful tool other than increasing agility.  It is easy to be sceptical with any movement or device in any strength and conditioning setting, but as teachers and coaches we need to look at the bigger picture.  Sure, for an elite athlete the ladders may not be the best tool for increasing agility, but there is still benefit to using them (as mentioned above).   There is no device or movement that is the be all to end all for any population with regards to strength and conditioning, however,  a  little variation and balance can go a long way.   Be creative when using the ladders, there are no set patterns that need to be followed and the options are endless.  It is also important to keep in mind, the majority of us in this field are not training 8 hours a day with elite athletes.  Check your ego before you rip on ladders and remember; if your client/athletes can’t do the basics well, the ladders are the least of your worries.  Try a few of the following techniques next time you use them:
  • Have the athletes do some of the same patterns they would do running in a bear crawl position.  This is a great warm up for building upper body strength and stability as well as promoting “fast” hand/arm movements. 
  • Incorporate a ball.  This can be the ball used in their sport, or use tennis balls to incorporate hand eye coordination into the movement.
  • Give audible cues to stop, start or change direction.  Acceleration and deceleration are the foundations of speed movement and agility.  Have the athlete run through the set pattern and tell them to stop mid way though without losing their foot pattern or change direction and go back the way they came.
  • Incorporate backward and lateral movements.  Most movements done forward can be done backward.  

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me at
Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum

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