In sport, speed and agility embody athleticism. It is the agile athlete that outruns opponents, cuts on a dime, and jumps out of the roof. Imagine Usain Bolt crossing the finish line with a smile on his face, or Russell Westbrook throwing down a fastbreak dunk. These moments begin and end with speed and agility. If these traits are so easily recognizable, the question becomes, how do we develop them?
The first step to being able to develop is being able to understand. Agility, simply stated, is the power of moving quickly and easily, which seems to go hand in hand with speed. On the one hand, from a biomechanics standpoint, agility is the ability to absorb and redirect force. Simultaneously absorbing great amounts of force and redirecting it in a different direction takes considerable amounts of joint stability and muscular strength. On the other hand, speed is produced by the amount of force an athlete puts into the ground, know as Ground Reaction Force (GRF), which means that, in reality, these abilities are simply flip sides of the same coin.
Commonly, agility drills are associated with cones and foot or “speed” ladders. Actually a misnomer, speed ladder drills have no correlation to running speed. These drills are helpful for young athletes to learn proprioception—the process of becoming conscious of one’s body parts, including their relative positioning and associated movements. Yet past this point, ladders have more carryover to dancing than sport. Mainly, ladders fail to force athletes into hip extension, which is integral for both speed and agility. Known specifically as triple extension, the body produces the most force through the locking out of the hip, knee, and ankle joints. This action is necessary to propel the body during sprinting or jumping, and since it is missing in foot ladder drills, so too is the development of true speed or agility.
In reality, the key to increasing agility and speed is to increase strength. First, we need to create stability in the hip and knee (and trunk, for that matter.) Doing so prevents force leaks, while providing support to the overall structure. With stability in place, strength allows an athlete to put more force into the ground, while increasing the ability to absorb force safely. Analysis shows an average runner strikes the ground with 500-600 pounds of force, whereas elite sprinters produce over 1000 pounds. Take an 180lb athlete with a 200lb back squat, compared to the same athlete with a 400lb back squat, which athlete will create more force from the ground to propel the body forward? The answer should be straightforward.
Of the methods to develop a basic level of stability, eccentric plyometrics are one of the best. Rather than regular plyometrics, which are assocaiated with jumping and explosiveness, eccentric plyos, focus on landing mechanics and teaching athletes how to safely absorb force. Eccentric simply refers to the lowering movement of an exercise, such as descending into the bottom of a squat. The elevated rates of force when falling from the air provide a great stimulus for strength and stability increases.
Entry-level exercises for young athletes are as simple as stepping off a box and landing in a strong, athletic position. Another great exercise, lateral skater jumps, can be regressed to focus on stability rather than explosiveness. The goal is to hop sideways onto one leg, becoming fully balanced and stabilized before proceeding to jump back to the other leg. 3 sets of 4 repetitions can be done multiple times a week to increase an athlete’s stability and strength. Once an athlete has a solid foundation, a more traditional weight-training program will greatly increase speed and agility.
So, the next time you throw a foot ladder on the ground, ask yourself what it is you are working on. If you are looking to increase your speed, agility, and explosiveness, your time might be better spent in the weight room than on the field. Unless of course you are fishing for more Instagram likes, then keep toe touching figure 8’s around those cones.