Posted March 20, 2014

The Speed Ladder Fallacy

Agility ladders.

Speed ladders.

Quick feet ladders.

“The $#$&@ ladder” as called by many clients.

They’re venerated amongt trainers looking to add athleticism to their clients, believed to result in more speed, agility, and faster feet. They’re available for sale in any fitness equipment retailer, with dozens of books of drills, games and patterns you can use to get the best benefit from them.

 

But do they do what we think they do?

 

PS Pro Agility Ladder

Ladder training typically involves following a set pattern through a ladder that lays flat (or relatively flat) on the floor. By moving your feet inside and outside of the rungs of the ladder, the goal is to increase speed while still maintaining the pattern. American football typically uses tires or hurdles to encourage getting the knees up, but the mechanism is somewhat similar.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the article, I know I’ll probably get some hate mail from those who just skim through this and don’t read the entire context, so let me make a couple of statements to start.

  1. When it comes to beginners, youth, and deconditioned, everything works to improve their strength, endurance, power, etc. EVERYTHING. I don’t doubt there are coaches who use ladder drills with their 12 year olds and see fantastic results, as there are also trainers who use them with their elderly and see balance and gait improvements, but it could be said that just doing body weight squats for an hour once a week would also produce the same or similar benefits, especially if their relative training age is low. The ladder is meant for the upper end of athletic performance in the definition of speed and agility, so let’s focus here.
  2. Speed involves covering more ground in a shorter time frame. The basic formula is increasing stride frequency and stride length to increase speed. If you can run a 40 yard dash in less time, then you increased your speed
  3. Agility is the ability to change direction rapidly through applying more horizontal force into the ground at an angle different than your current momentum. In order to do this effectively, your legs have to be well outside of the vertical position of your centre of mass. If your centre of mass doesn’t move, you haven’t changed direction, you’ve just moved your legs and not fallen over.
  4. Everything done in the gym is merely general physical preparation for sports not performed in the gym. As a result, attempting to correlate athletic performance to any drill is futile due to the lack of specificity to the activities and chaotic nature of sports, as well as the processing of multiple variables in any instant of gameplay.
  5. Speed and agility are products of the rate of force application, which means if you go slowly through the ladder, you’re not improving anything other than conditioning. If your rest periods are less than a 1:10 work to rest ratio (and in most instances more like a 1:30), you will not be maxing out power production, you will be working on cardio (GASP!!!)
  6. For any training modality to work, it has to replicate or produce fundamentally similar benefits as the end goal. This means the given exercise or tool should closely replicate the  speed, force quantity, force direction, rate of force application, and metabolic & neural demands of the activity. If it doesn’t, then it will not produce the desired benefits. This is a universal concept known as Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. It will rear its’ head throughout this article.

Now that that’s out of the way and the people who barely read the article will comment like they read the article, let’s discuss the specifics.

Speed

Speed is a function of power, and the basic formula for power is (force x distance) / time. You apply a greater amount of force into the ground at a more horizontal angle in a smaller time, you run faster. As mentioned earlier, for running speed the basic formula is stride rate x stride frequency. You take more steps that are longer for each step and you outrun your opponent. An example of this is how in the last Olympics Usain Bolt completed the 100 m sprint with a stride count of 42 while everyone else did it in closer to 46-48 strides. His stride length was much higher and his stride frequency was roughly the same.

For a speed ladder to produce speed benefits, the individual doing it has to be moving at maximum possible speed, hitting the floor with maximum force, and at an angle that produces the best horizontal force as possible. If you hit the ground with a vertical force, you get a vertical force back.

London_2012_Yohan_Blake_200m_Q-300x199

 

To develop speed, especially horizontal run speed, a ladder may not be sufficient. Foot speed (the ability to move your feet) and linear speed (the ability to haul ass) are two different and quantitatively different things. To increase speed, you could do like this Keith Williams does and just run like you’re being chased by a grizzly.

[embedplusvideo height=”365″ width=”600″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1g4I3to” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/SEB1SHLQv1A?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=SEB1SHLQv1A&width=600&height=365&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep1097″ /]

True speed training requires a much longer recovery period than most other types of training as it’s highly demanding of the nervous system as well as requires much more utilization of creatine phosphate, both of which take a while to recover. As a result, true max speed training requires an all out effort for 1-10 seconds, followed by recovery for at least 5 minutes in many instances. This means a work to rest ratio of 1:30 up to 1:300, and possibly longer. If you do an all out sprint and then only recover for a minute, you’re only working with a 1:5 or 6 ratio, and won’t be able to put out the same resultant efforts.

Speed training is something that does tend to beat someone up with volume though, so most speed phases in training should be relatively small with more work done at lower intensities and only cycling up to max once in a while. For most elite guys, they can work at max for only a very short period due to their crazy high power output, but for more novice and intermediate athletes, they can use slightly longer cycles to work on technique and the development of neural efficiency as long as they’re not getting injured. It’s not an all-the-time thing.

Ladder drills could be very effective to work as a warm up for true speed training. The repetitive action of loading and unloading the legs can be a great warm up for the muscles, tendon elasticity, and also the cardio component of sprinting. However technique is very important, and focus has to be paid to speed above all else. Most people tend to go too slowly while also trying to make it too fancy.

This is what you think you look like when doing the ladder:

[embedplusvideo height=”365″ width=”600″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1g4CU4z” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/QnYc3MVd1aY?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=QnYc3MVd1aY&width=600&height=365&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep5628″ /]

This is what you probably look like when doing the ladder:

[embedplusvideo height=”365″ width=”600″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1kLPSoe” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/KyAV9izTtEs?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=KyAV9izTtEs&width=600&height=365&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep9356″ /]

Agility

Agility training involves a rapid change of direction from the initial direction of momentum. Essentially, if you’re running straight forward and someone jumps out of the bushes, you want to turn either away and run or turn towards them and drop the hammer. The most effective way to change direction involves having the legs move well outside of the vertical alignment of the centre of mass, and driving into the ground at as horizontal of an angle as possible to create a strong impulse against the pull of momentum. Momentum could also be inertia if the person isn’t moving, and a rapid change from no movement to movement could be considered their “first step,” which isn’t classically speed training.

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To train agility effectively, there has to be a large change of direction impulse, where the body has to absorb momentum and press out against it in an altered direction.

[embedplusvideo height=”365″ width=”600″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1g4LujP” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/5-2IsbtTBKA?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=5-2IsbtTBKA&width=600&height=365&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep4411″ /]

[embedplusvideo height=”477″ width=”600″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1g4MhB7″ standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/sLs6CxMGV0A?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=sLs6CxMGV0A&width=600&height=477&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep1630″ /]

While ladder drills involve a rapid change of direction force from one position to the next, the direction of application is more vertical in nature compared to horizontal, and the extension out from under the centre of mass is usually pretty small compared to more conventional agility training.

Ladder drills would work well as a warm up for the same reasons as for speed, but in terms of developing higher levels of agility, it may not be as beneficial. It could be incorporated more in lower threshold workouts to involve some change of direction with low loads, much like when doing deadlifts or olympic lifts with less than maximal weight to work on technique and stay sharp.

Reaction Time

Improving reaction time involves decreasing the amount of time it takes to process a stimulus and create a decision and action to respond. Essentially, think if someone was to throw a ball at your head when you weren’t ready. The time it would take for you to recognize you’re going to get beaned and either move or make a spectacular catch would be the difference between getting onto the ESPN highlight reel or winding up on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

With any set pattern devoid of external forces acting on the body or randomness, there is nothing to react to. Therefore, typical ladder drills are more repetitive in nature in a set pattern and don’t involve reaction time. One way to work on reaction time with ladders is have blind signals to produce a change in the pattern. For instance, have the person go forward in the ladder and when you clap, they have to turn and sprint back the way they came or sprint forward. Another way is to have them go through a pattern then yell out either LEFT or RIGHT and they have to process the direction and make an action.

[embedplusvideo height=”365″ width=”600″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1gWWn3b” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/sykIZ-yhbLY?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=sykIZ-yhbLY&width=600&height=365&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep9286″ /]

Now given the previous information, I probably came across as hating on the ladder. I don’t, and routinely use it in training my clients. It’s very beneficial for developing coordination, general conditioning, and also as a warm up for speed and agility training. I also use it as a precursor for agility and reaction drills, as mentioned previously, and I’ve found it’s very good for rehabbing ankle, knee and hip injuries for people looking to get back into running and chaotic movement sports like football and soccer. The lower force application and elastic recoil effect from the foot hitting the floor and responding back helps to improve the tendon response and also build up conditioning to impact-based activities.

Every device is a tool to use in the gym, and it has a specific application to provide the specific results you want. The ladder is a great tool when used appropriately, but much like a screw driver isn’t a hammer, it doesn’t help to build top end speed, agility or quickness compared to conventional training, and relying on it could potentially make athletes slower. It’s very beneficial for conditioning, rehabbing lower body injuries, and as a warm up for higher level demands, but on its’ own it’s not going to help build a better athlete.

Let me know what you think. Drop a comment below and let me know if you agree with me, think I’m full of shit, or have something to contribute to the discussion.

  • ronellsmith

    Dean,

    Your blog took my right back to my gym last Saturday. “Trainer” had an obese client doing the agility ladder. I just wanted to say, “Please stop, son.” It looks cool and attracts attention, but goes against the needs of the client. I know I always say this, but I’m continually amazed at how EVERYONE wants to do everything but what they need to do. It’s not that complicated.

    But what do I know. I just study smaht folks like Dean Somerset.

    RS

    • deansomerset

      For that person, I would say it’s a good option as it’s working on conditioning. If it gets someone moving and works towards their goals, it’s a good option. If she was looking to get a better first step, I’d doubt it.

  • Kevin

    Hi Dean,

    Great article. I like your style of writing, it flows and it’s easy to read. I use the ladder as warm-ups for clients and sometimes during circuit training. I work mostly with the de-conditioned population and they always smile when I make them do drills on the ladder, both hands and feet. It’s fun for them and a nice break from lifting weights and doing burpees all the time.

    Personally, I use it as a muay thai warm-up for general footwork and switch kicks. But I agree, it does not teach true agility, speed etc…

    Just out of interest, who’s going around saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread?

    • deansomerset

      I re-tweeted a pic and had a bunch of people jump on me about it, so there’s obviously people out there who think it will do everything and anything.

  • Shane Mclean

    Hit the nail on the head, Dean. any post with Funniest Home Video mentioned is a winner in my book.

  • You’re full of shit.

    …Yet I’ve never bothered with this crap to produce winners from gymnastics to powerlifting.

    Go figure 😉

    Still full of shit. Ladders all day err day!

    • NCAAFCoach

      Thats right coach! I couldn’t agree more with you.

      Ladders are key! Balance, quick feet, and confidence. YOU FORGOT CONFIDENCE!

      LADDERS 4 LIFE

      -anonymous ncaa coach

  • I hope the guy below is some acquaintance otherwise he sounds like a fool

    • deansomerset

      Yes, he’s cool. Also, his name is Fit Jerk so that should give you an idea of his trolling powers.

  • Great post Dean. I thought you backed up your points perfectly.

  • Bryan

    I watched a trainer deluge a young girl with repeated random ladder drills for practically 5 straight minutes. She was completely gassed and kept stepping on the ladder and he kept shouting quick feet and when she messed up that it was terrible and punished her by making her do the drill again. It made me throw up in my mouth. Thanks for writing this post!

    • deansomerset

      If the purpose of the exercise was as a conditioning drill, then it was the right modality, but just poor application. I’ve seen the same thing happen with any exercise, it just comes down to trainers being invested in getting their clients better instead of just working harder.

  • We use the ladder in the way you suggest and have used it for the purpose of low level conditioning of the lower limb or as part of the warm up for our sprint sessions. Would you say that it does or doesn’t produce enough of a stimulus to excite the nervous system in order to have a potentiating or priming effect for sprinting?

    • deansomerset

      Yep, it could be used as a primer for sprinting, but anectdotally I’ve seen better results in sprint performance and times with the implementation of a heavier sled push for 10-20 yards prior to a sprint.It’s something I picked up from Joe DeFranco, and it seems to be effective

      • Thanks for the reply. I completely agree. I have used sled pushes and sled pulls and they both seem to work brilliantly well as a primer for sprinting. They almost always run faster post the sled push/pull but unfortunately the large number of athletes make it hard to make use of it as often as we would like. Another benefit of ladders are they are extremely convenient with large numbers.

  • Kyle Norman CSCS, MS

    Thanks for this very thorough rundown of speed ladders. I’ve suspected for a while that speed ladder training probably isn’t quite specific enough to most sporting movements to actually improve those movements. I like to use the speed ladder though for other reasons and–please anyone tell me if I’m wrong on any of this.
    1) I’m a distance runner so I spend a good bit of time running in a straight line. I use the speed ladder to condition my feet/ankles to move in other directions. I use the ladder to offer a bit of “same but different” stimulation to my workouts.
    2) I use the ladder w/clients who don’t consider themselves “athletes” because they plain ol’ like it and have fun. It’s not boring treadmill/elliptical/recumbent bike work. This is an example of the speed ladder as general conditioning.
    3) It seems speed ladder drills may be good brain training/problem solving activities. These drills force mental engagement. A lot of speed l patterns aren’t always easy to figure out. My clients seem to like to struggle just a bit and and solve the problem of how to move through the ladder and complete the drill(s) successfully. Again, it seems to be fun to them.

    Alright, nothing revolutionary here, just a few thoughts. Thx again for the article!

    • deansomerset

      1. Sure, I’ve used it with distance runners as well, and it’s beneficial to switch things up. It doesn’t improve their times or conditioning, but it gives some good switch up to their engrained patterns.
      2. If used for conditioning, it’s great. Again, it won’t improve speed or agility, but with deconditioned or beginners, anything will work, and if they enjoy it, it’s beneficial.
      3. The patterns are always tricky for a couple steps, but then people will get the hang of it and make it automatic. One question I would have is if the pattern is difficult to master, what is it actually trying to work (other than brain training) and also is it necessary? I’m big on keeping things simple and fundamental, so if it’s complex and troubling to the person, I usually ditch it.

      When in doubt, just deadlift something heavy 😉

      • Domen Bremec

        I think you could go overboard with the pattern complicatuons, yes. But at the same time you could use it to respond to a signal like you nentioned in an article, be it visual, audible, etc. Also what could be done is add like faints for team sports (team handball, basketball, maybe soccer) and use the patterns, add a stimuli ina form of apass so the lower body works separately from the upper body, eyes are looking up not down on the floor. But research is lacking and question remains – is it beneficial or it makes sense/could it be improved with just doing something more specific (actually train the feints).. But of they are younger and/or you only get to see some arhletes for 1-2 weeks than its hard to implement some progressive overload or do powermetrics and so on.

        Also, I mostly see the use of single space ladders. Are you familiar with multispace (so 4-5 spaces in width dimension and then the whole ladder is 30m long for example, thats the one I know, think it makes sense to actually use, do some basic running drills – from akippings, straight lega, grabs, etc.). Is this one familar to you/US?

        Answer much appreciated, liked the article. Theres no cheating of the physiology with the ladders obviously.

  • Ricky Norton

    Amen. Growing up, that’s what the professional trainers I was paying had me do to get faster and supplemented it with hardly anything else. I gained the most speed as I began lifting heavier weights in just a couple months than all the years I spent committed to the ladder combined. I was springy but lacked the strength. Where the athlete is on the static-spring continuum is a big determining factor on when and how to use the ladder.

  • Laurent

    Nice article. Regarding using a sled push before sprinting, how heavy do you go? and how long do you wait before sprinting? I tend to load the sled with 30-50% of 1 RM back squat and sprint after 10 s to 2 min. I have had pretty good results so far. Any thoughts someone? Thanks

  • apostolos hatzigiannidis

    Hi. I’m about a year late but I’ve been using a speed ladder as a lacrosse Player. I’m 32 in an adult league and was a goalie in high school/college and not the quickest guy on the field. The past few years though I’ve been in the field and I was always under the Impression that the speed ladder would help me improve my dodges much like a basketball player would try to beat a defender. Often times while attempting a dodge players use small changes of direction and speed ladder drills seem like the perfect way to make my feet a little quicker. Is that not true or are there better agilitly or cone drills my team and I should doing? Thanks.

    • deansomerset

      Hi there. One of the aspects of dodging a player is reaction to very fast stimuli, like an opponent making a jab step towards you. There’s no reaction to changing stimuli with a ladder in a repetitive pattern, so it would help you increase turnover of your feet, but not help you react any faster to an opponent coming at you.

  • scottlloyd

    I know I am late to the party, great article, I had to comment because I was lauging so hard, not sure why, but this cracked me up, love it: “if you’re running straight forward and someone jumps out of the bushes, you want to turn either away and run or turn towards them and drop the hammer” – See more at: http://deansomerset.com/speed-ladder-fallacy/#sthash.hnB5MgiX.dpuf