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The Truth About “Quick Feet” and Agility Ladder Drills

Written on November 2, 2010 at 6:19 am, by Eric Cressey

Michael Boyle published this Q&A newsletter about quick feet and agility ladder drills last week, and I enjoyed it so much that I asked him if I could repost it here.  Suffice it to say that I am not a fan of “agility ladder” drills, and while Mike does use them in moderation, he makes a great case for why we don’t want to go overboard – or expect too much of them.

Q: A couple of threads on the Strength Coach forum got me thinking about the question of foot speed and athletes. I can’t tell you how often I hear a parent or a coach ask, “How can I improve my son’s/daughter’s/athlete’s foot speed or agility?”

A: It seems everyone always wants the shortcut and the quick fix.

The better question might be “Do you think you can improve foot speed?” or maybe even the larger question, “Does foot speed even matter?”

That begs the larger question, “Does foot speed have anything to do with agility?” I know coaches or parents reading this are asking, “Is this guy crazy?” How many times have we heard that “speed kills?” I think the problem is that coaches and parents equate fast feet with fast and quick feet with agile. However, fast feet don’t equal fast any more than quick feet equal agile. In some cases, fast feet might actually make an athlete slow–often I see fast feet as a detriment to speed. In fact, some of our quick turnover guys, those who would be described as having fast feet, are very slow off the start.

The problem is fast feet don’t use the ground well to produce force. Fast feet might be good on hot coals, but not on hard ground. Think of the ground as the well from which we draw speed. It is not how fast the feet move, but rather how much force goes into the ground. This is basic action-reaction physics. Force into the ground equals forward motion. This is why the athletes with the best vertical jumps are most often the fastest. It comes down to force production. Often coaches will argue the vertical vs. horizontal argument and say the vertical jump doesn’t correspond to horizontal speed, but years of data from the NFL Combine begs to differ. Force into the ground is force into the ground. In spite of what Brett Contreras may say, vectors don’t seem to matter here. The truth is parents should be asking about vertical jump improvement, not about fast feet. My standard line is “Michael Flatley has fast feet, but he doesn’t really go anywhere. If you move your feet fast and don’t go anywhere, does it matter? It’s the old “tree falling in the woods” thing.

The best solution to slow feet is to get stronger legs. Feet don’t matter. Legs matter. Think about it this way: If you stand at the starting line and take a quick first step but fail to push with the back leg, you don’t go anywhere. The reality is that a quick first step is actually the result of a powerful first push. We should change the buzzwords and start to say “that kid has a great first push.” Lower body strength is the real cure for slow feet and the real key to speed and to agility. The essence of developing quick feet lies in single-leg strength and single-leg stability work… landing skills. If you cannot decelerate, you cannot accelerate – at least not more than once.

One of the things I love is the magic drill idea. This is the theory that developing foot speed and agility is not a process of gaining strength and power, but rather the lack of a specific drill. I tell everyone I know that if I believed there was a magic drill we would do it every day. The reality is it comes down to horsepower and the nervous system, two areas that change slowly over time.

How do we develop speed, quickness and agility?

Unfortunately, we need to do it the slow, old-fashioned way. You can play with ladders and bungee cords all you want, but that is like putting mag wheels on an Escort. The key is to increase the horsepower, the brakes, and the accelerator. I think the answer for me is always the same. I wrote an article last year called “Is ACL Prevention Just Good Training?” In much the same way, development of speed, agility and quickness simply comes down to good training. We need to work on lower body strength and lower body power – and we need to do it on one leg.

I also love “agility” ladder drills. They provide excellent multi-planar dynamic warm-up. They develop brain-to-muscle connection and are excellent for eccentric strength and stability. We do less than five minutes of ladder drills, one or two times a week. I don’t believe for a minute that the ladder is a magic tool that will make anyone faster or more agile, however I do believe it is a piece of the puzzle from the neural perspective. People waste more than five minutes on biceps curls, but we have long debates about ladder drills.

These are also a great tool to show to coaches who want “foot speed.” Sometime it’s easier to “yes” them than to argue with them. Give a guy with “bad feet” a jump rope and you get a guy with bad feet and patella tendonitis.

For more information on Michael Boyle, check out StrengthCoach.com or the Functional Strength Coach 3.0 DVD set.

26 Responses to “The Truth About “Quick Feet” and Agility Ladder Drills”

  1. Greg R. Says:

    Give a guy with “bad feet” a jump rope and you get a guy with bad feet and patella tendonitis.

    I like that, Coach Boyle, Never Outspoken

    What would get you better results faster, building strength or hammering running form?

  2. Brian Dunlap Says:

    I like how you acknowledge the neural benefits of the “agility” ladder (not sure what else to call it. Some people call it a speed ladder, but that’s inaccurate too). I feel that too often we are quick to throw something out or completely revamp our program.
    I’m in complete agreement that speed comes down to horse-power and stride length as opposed to leg turn-over and fast feet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAf61OW5B7M&feature=related). As you point out, a guy who has fast feet but can’t produce force into the ground is going nowhere. But what’s wrong with someone who has a lot of horse-power AND fast feet? Maybe my definition of quick feet is different from other people, but to me, a strong and powerful athlete (or someone on the absolute-strength/strength-speed end of the continuum) that spends time on an agility ladder to improve that brain-to-muscle (or feet)connection will only benefit from that combination.

  3. Brian Dunlap Says:

    I like how you acknowledge the neural benefits of the “agility” ladder (not sure what else to call it. Some people call it a speed ladder, but that’s inaccurate too). I feel that too often we are quick to throw something out or completely revamp our program.
    I’m in complete agreement with you that speed comes down to horse-power and stride length as opposed to leg turn-over and fast feet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAf61OW5B7M&feature=related). As you point out, a guy who has fast feet but can’t produce force into the ground is going nowhere. But what’s wrong with someone who has a lot of horse-power AND fast feet? Maybe my definition of quick feet is different from other people, but to me, a strong and powerful athlete (or someone on the absolute-strength/strength-speed end of the continuum) that spends time on an agility ladder to improve that brain-to-muscle (or feet)connection will only benefit from that combination.

  4. Fredrik Gyllensten Says:

    Great post, Michael. :)

  5. Daniel Roose Says:

    Great read this morning. The agility ladder is great for dynamic warm-up variation. It is not however the answer to footwork and agility issues that plague many athletes. Acceleration and especially deceleration are an overlooked factor in this topic.

  6. ben Says:

    Great discussion there! Perhaps some semantics issue too – starting speed, explosiveness, etc. Some might start slow, but are able to accelerate towards the mid to end range of a movement.

    In my opinion, Lionel Messi has great agility – fast and able to change directions… i think he spends more time doing soccer-specific drills than weights!

  7. ben Says:

    Great discussion there! Perhaps some semantics issue too – starting speed, explosiveness, etc. Some might start slow, but are able to accelerate towards the mid to end range of a movement.

    In my opinion, Lionel Messi has great agility – fast and able to change directions… i think he spends more time doing soccer-specific drills than weights! Perhaps as strength n conditioning coaches, we need to collaborate with other skill-specific coaches (eg, soccer) before jumping to conclusions.

  8. Cardinalsfan Says:

    Nice article but I think everyone missed the most important factor. Feet transfer the power from the legs into the ground. If you have bad feet, then that power does not transfer efficiently. You can have a race car for an engine in your car, but if you have flat tires for feet, your not going anywhere. For example if an athlete excessively suppinates/pronates, lack of dorsiflexion, excessive heel strikes, weak balance upon foot strike, etc. all the power in the legs will absolutley not transfer. Now whether agility ladders, jump rope, etc. are used by coaches to focus on that….I question as well. But good feet are absolutley essential to running fast. In fact, I would go so far as to say, that most runners do not use their feet as effectively as they should. Food for thought….

  9. Steve Lee Says:

    I agree with many of the comments made here – but you also have to realize what speed you are looking for – sprinters who want straight line speed need the right technique – but for other athletes – soccer, football, basketball, rugby etc it is not just straight line speed that is important but the ability to change direction, to accelerate and decelerate – this was highlighted with some testing done between Christiano Ronaldo and the Spanish 100m sprint champion – the difference between stride length, knee lift, centre of gravity etc so the question becomes more conviluted again in terms of what kind of speed are you looking for.

  10. Eric Cressey Says:

    Steve,

    Those changes will come simply from playing one’s sport. The point of the article is that we probably don’t need these implements to “complement” what we already get on the field.

  11. Jeff Lewis Says:

    I coach soccer.
    I never thought ‘speed and agility’ training aids were for straight line speed.
    I also use small size balls where they toe tap, tap between feet, rotate round tip tapping the ball.
    That’s for ‘speed & agility’ too.

    Dont expect Usain Bolt to be doing it any time soon.

  12. Rory Says:

    You’re saying people with fast feet are slower? What about Cristiano Ronaldo? He has exremely fast feet a great vertical and his acceleration and especially sprint speed is great.
    This is a serious question not an insult to this article.
    Thanks

  13. Eric Cressey Says:

    Rory,

    Who says you can’t have both?  Some people are athletic freaks!  We’re talking about developing athletes, not simply observing the ones who are already great.

  14. H2G Says:

    You should qualify you response. Your response may be totally accurate for track. However, for basketball you need both quick feet when defending and power when running and jumping. In basketball we train for both. Speed and Power!

  15. gemma Says:

    is the agility ladder good for squash players

  16. Barr Says:

    I am looking to increase my sons foot speed for faster hockey skating. I am interested in ways to increase his vertical and to increase foot speed. Looking for recommendations and work out drills. I value proper functional movement and dryland training to increase speed. Looking for info and advice. I need a program for him for this year. Thanks, Barry

  17. Eric Cressey Says:

    Barry,

    How old is your son?  It’ll dictate which program I recommend.  Thanks!

  18. Rico Meuller Says:

    hey Eric,

    I am really intrested in the sulotion you have for Barry aswell? My son is 15yrs old.

    Thnx

  19. Brayden Barrett Says:

    So basically your a bad athlete if you don’t have a great broad jump or you cant run real fast. And the speed ladder doesn’t show agility at all.

  20. Steve Says:

    Hey Eric,

    Great article and I agree with you. However, having looked on pubmed and sports discus, there are numerous studies which suggest that SAQ training is effective. Why do you believe this is?

    Cheers,

    Steve

  21. Eric Cressey Says:

    Steve,

    Are you speaking with respect to agility ladders and quick feet drills, or entire programs that attack agility work, etc?

  22. Manh Tri Says:

    Hi,

    I’m a high school soccer player. I was just looking for quick-step exercises when i came across your article. I think lots of things you said here make sense, but i have a few questions regarding this whole matter:
    1. You said power matters the most. I suppose this power comes from the muscles. Doesn’t you achieve quick feet through the improvement of muscles too? So in a sense, quicker feet = stronger muscles = higher speed?
    2. If quick feet has less to do with muscles, what do they have to do with?
    3. So in your viewpoint, ladder and other common quick-feet exercises are only good from a neural perspective? How else can they be beneficial for me in soccer?
    4. So am i recommended to start on quick-feet workouts, considering that im looking to make my: turning faster, faster acceleration, quicker feints, better body balance and COG shift? If not which exercises, particularly should i work on?
    Thank you very much for spending your time on this inquiry. Hope to see an early response.

    Tri,

  23. jon kane Says:

    just got into boxing and remembered you wrote this article. strength must come before speed!

  24. David Says:

    Eric,

    Thanks so much for the scientific approach to strength and power development! I have a young high school wrestler who needs more “horsepower” and explosion with his shots and with standing from the bottom position. He lifts often using multi joint compound exercises along with rope and chin work. What would you recommend for his primary lifts and Plyo work to help him increase his horsepower?. At present, he performs parallel squats, some trap bar work, cleans, push presses, hip thrusts, and bounding work. Thank you for your expertise and time.

    David

  25. luke Says:

    During a football match, players cover about 10 km in total, which includes a sprint every 90 seconds (11% of overall activity) with each action lasting on average of 2 to 4 seconds and covering an average distance of 15m (Stolen et al. 2005).

    Over that short distance a player that can generate a large amount of force but with slow foot movements is going to be left behind with those players with quick feet and average amounts of force production we see this every week on the TV from players like Hazard, Tello, Janujaz. Look at wingers in football, very rarely will you see these types of players built like a brick wall, because they are required to move the ball past an opponent and create a chance for their team mates, low centre of gravity, quick changes in direction, light on their feet, I work with a lot of footballers looking at the players I coach, my wingers leg strength (upper and lower) isn’t nearly as strong as my other players, however, over a short distance you won’t see my wingers get beat in a foot race for the ball. I think Michael’s arguement is okay, however, I think you need to consider a lot more that just strength, factors such as playing position, centre of gravity, natural ability, before putting together training programs for players, most importantly though, doing the right drill on foot speed (plenty out there) can improve strength, having to large a focus on increasing strength potentially limits flexibility, limited flexibility equals slower feet, equals slower players. I know what id rather focus on.

  26. Rob Says:

    Eric,

    I have two sons ages 10 and 15, both play football, RB and WR. What foundational type training should I be focused on:
    Strength routine that focus on leg muscle development and skill and development drills that focus on quick acceleration and deceleration and explosiveness? By the way great subject matter for discussion…thanks

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