Does the agility ladder really work?

I love talking about ladder training because the ladder is such an effective, versatile, easy to manage, compact, broad-spectrum, and phenomenal invention. But wait– there’s more… The ladder is one of those inventions that makes me mad that I didn’t invent it first, but at least someone did! 

I was in a group of strength and conditioning coaches at a conference one time and one of the guys made the comment that doing the ladder makes you good at doing the ladder.  Keep in mind that in the world of athletic development, they preface footwork training by saying something along the lines of,  the distance from the ear to the brain to the feet is enormous.

The ladder can shrink that distance. In a more technical sense, there are things like Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) and the neural plasticity that occur during sports performance training that can improve learning.

To help us, here are some common questions about the agility ladder.

Q: "Will I Get Fast from doing the Ladder?"

The short answer = Yes. But how? 

Doing ladder drills does several positive things and the two primary reasons are that the ladder helps an athlete’s athletic I.Q. by teaching them multiple foot patterns with technical foundations and developing fast footwork that they can execute in any athletic venue. Foot speed comes from a very short contact time with the ground. And foot speed is what ladder training is all about, a touch-and-go experience.

Q: "How do ladders help footwork?"

First, by learning the different patterns offered with ladder training the brain foot connection improves, so when it becomes necessary to make a move you haven’t practiced, you can do what coaches love to say, “make an athletic play.” 

Second, most ladder drills start out in some sort of rhythmic pattern such as 1-2-1-2 or 1-2-3-1-2-3. To keep that type of training from plateauing your development, coaches have created a series of drills that are arrhythmic, designed to mess you up so that you are forced to make an athletic move. In our training session, you will hear me say, “If you make a mistake, recover: that’s athletic.”

So often when an athlete messes up they naturally want to stop and start over to correct their mistake, but since they disrupted their progress, they make the same mistake again. Keep moving and let the feet learn how to recover on their own, and keep moving instead of interrupting your progress. Once there has been mastery of certain components, we add resistance and assistance to keep improving.

Q: "How long before I notice a difference?"

This might be the most often asked question and my most common answers are either “I don’t know” or “it depends.” What I have seen over the years amounts to C-R-C, Conversion-Reversion-Conversion. This means when someone comes to me for speed training and has a glaring mistake or a small form tweak, it is not unusual that on the first workout I can convert the bad habits to good habits. But then they leave, go home, go to sleep, wake up and revert back to the old habits. This is most common in younger players. This goes on until one day a light bulb goes on and they convert to proper form permanently. It’s not that long, but I would say it takes 2 workouts all the way up to 2 weeks.

Q: “Is it possible to do too much ladder?”

Yes, the ladder, like all training methods, must be done in moderation. More is not better, and without consistent challenge, the athlete will notice less improvement. At some point, your body can adapt well enough that you become lazy and bored with the repetition and need a break to freshen up. We also will add variations to the ladder like adding a medicine ball or a resistance cable. 


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