Not long ago, two baseball players who are verbally committed to Division I universities came in to my facility for their workouts. My first question was, "What did you do at your school workout?" Their responses nearly had me rolling on the ground with laughter. These kids attend different high schools, but they both replied, "ladder drills." Let me be more specific: nearly an hour of speed/agility ladder drills.
Former athletes and companies, using hashtags like "speedtraining," "ladderdrills," "quickfeet," "goldfeet," and "newspeed," rack up followers by the thousands selling, essentially, snake oil. They're pushing training methods and tools for money that more often than not would be better spent on more effective means of athletic development.
For instance, adidas is bombarding athletes with #NewSpeed promos featuring Dwayne Frampton performing a variety of agility ladder and "quick feet" drills. The problem is that at his 2012 NFL Pro Day, the 5-foot-7, 172-pound Frampton ran his hand-timed 40-Yard Dash in the 4.7-second range, which, converted to laser-timing, put him closer to 4.85 or 4.9. His Pro Agility time was 4.61 and his 3-Cone Drill time was 7.35.
Those numbers are more suited to defensive tackles or athletic offensive lineman than wide receivers. I am not attacking Mr. Frampton's ability or character, simply implying that he would've been better served by devoting all those hours to developing his absolute and relative strength and refining his sprint technique and change-of-direction skills instead of tap-dancing through a speed agility ladder.
The Speed Argument
The equation for speed is simple: stride length x stride frequency. Research has shown that athletes with elite speed are not faster because they take more strides. On the contrary, they are faster because they cover more ground with each stride. Limb-length advantages aside, they do this by putting more force into the ground. Olympic silver medalist and biomechanics expert Ralph Mann found that elite-level sprinters produce over 360 pounds of force per leg when moving at top speed. Toe-tapping your way through ladder drills won't come near to those numbers.
Another issue has to do with constraints of the ladder itself. Because of the close proximity of the boxes, athletes are encouraged to under-stride. This can lead to poor running mechanics—minimal hip flexion and poor arm-swing are most common—and also possibly cause future injury.
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Instead of wasting precious time on ladder drills, I suggest focusing more on strength and power development in both bilateral and unilateral fashion. Examples include:
- Bilateral strength - Squat and Deadlift variations.
- Bilateral power - Olympic lifts and plyometrics such as Box Jumps.
- Unilateral strength - Bulgarian Squats, Lunge variations and Step-Ups.
- Unilateral power - Single-leg Olympic lift variations, Split Jumps and Single-Leg Box Jumps.
The Agility Argument
Like we covered in the speed argument, the amount of force required to look quick and fast for your YouTube or Instagram post isn't enough, or in the proper direction, to actually simulate a cutting movement like the one you need to make on the field.
Another issue with the agility argument is that when it comes to on-field performance, the athletes who look best going through ladder drills are the ones who spend the most time doing them. After corresponding with NFL consultant and movement specialist Shawn Myszka, I expanded on this in a recent tweet, stressing all the hours and effort spent learning pre-programmed movement patterns and the lack of outside stimulus. (Watch where this person's eyes are the entire time in this viral video.)
When athletes are required to respond in a chaotic environment like a game, their own "muscle memory" works against them. They are better off just practicing or playing their sport. The ladder will never juke one way or the other or try to cross you over. It may sound simple, but "kids games" like tag, sharks-and-minnows and steal-the-bacon can have more influence on athletic development than the typical ladder drill.
Instead of ladder drills, our athletes (which include a half-dozen Pro Agility times in the 3.9-second range or better) use exercises such as:
- Lateral Lunges
- Skater Jump variations
- Shuttle variations like the 5/10/5 (a.k.a. the Pro Agility)
- Weighted or Resisted Shuffles
But So-and-So Does Them!
Typically, the "last resort" argument in favor of athletes spending inordinate amounts of time performing ladder drills is, "but I see [insert name of random professional athlete] doing them." My answer is usually, "you aren't them." You aren't that strong, that fast or that skilled, and seeing a player who is a finished product doesn't tell the whole story of how that player got there. Besides, being a professional athlete doesn't automatically qualify you to be a member of Mensa.
It may seem like I find the ladder lacking in any practical use or benefit, but that's not totally true. Underdeveloped and injured athletes who need to master controlled movement patterns as part of their return-to-play criteria can actually benefit from ladder drills.
Healthy and more developed athletes benefit more from training that improves their strength, ground reaction-force, force absorption ability and deceleration. All of these can effectively be improved through traditional weight training and plyometrics.
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