One of the most widely used – and misunderstood – athletic training tools is the agility ladder. For years, we have seen athletes of every sport attack the ladder every day in a vain attempt to get faster and more agile. Problem is, that’s not really what the ladder does. Performing ladder drills won’t improve your speed or agility in the most traditional sense. But, does that mean it’s useless? Of course not. Let’s take a quick look at what the agility ladder actually is, and how it can help athletes.
The problem lies primarily in the name. “Agility Ladder” is a complete misnomer. Agility is an athlete’s ability to stop and start, the culmination of acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction or movement. Now, imagine the average ladder drill – speed and direction are both constant. Worse, we often see athletes approaching ladder routines like a tap dancer – super high hip level, minimal knee bend, and rapid foot movement only. It can look impressive at times, but clearly this has little effect on speed and agility in a way that is relevant to athletics.
That being said, if used correctly, the ladder can still be a useful tool in athletic development. The focus, instead of agility, is really on proprioception – or body control & coordination. Your awareness of your body in space and the ability to control your limbs with precision is not purely a god-given talent. It is a result of neurological connections made between your brain and the muscles in your body over time through practice. For example, a soccer player doesn’t just wake up one day with the ability to juggle a soccer ball, it takes thousands of hits and misses recorded by the brain to establish a firm, confident connection that allows for complete control.
By working through progressively difficult foot patterns on the ladder, increasing speed as you go, you cement those neurological connections between the brain and your feet. Every great rep, as well as every mistake, brings you closer to supreme control. When you can control EXACTLY where your foot will land, with how much force, for how long and in what direction it will move next, you have drastically improved your potential for economy of movement.
Economy of movement means a lack of wasted energy and motion. The less time you take to complete a task, the “faster” you are at it. In this sense, you can absolutely use the ladder to improve your competitive speed and quickness, by becoming smoother and more economical in all of your movement. So, how can you actually develop that speed and agility? By working in the gym! Read our previous article on that here.