Where The Problem Lies
I feel one of the biggest qualms with the ladder is a 2-piece puzzle. The first piece is the name(s) it is often given – speed ladder, agility ladder, or quickness ladder.
Now let’s be clear – the ladder directly, is neither a speed or agility tool, so re-defining the name may help with dogma. Piggy backing this is how many trainers or companies use things like “speed training”, “foot speed”, “foot work”, or “agility” when they define the ladder. One can’t help but see an apparent direct correlation between those who promote the ladder as the best tool for speed and agility enhancement and an how they also seem to have an extreme lack of physiology and biomechanics.
Despite all of this, let’s not throw away the baby with the bath water. There can be benefit from the ladder, but let’s be clear – it is not a world saver as many ladder gurus promote.
Does the ladder actually directly enhance speed or agility? No, but the agility ladder can improve certain qualities and create context that can lead to improved athletic movement. Just as wall drills don’t directly improve acceleration speed, instead they create context and understanding for the athlete.
The ladder can most definitely be effective at improving foot/lower leg stiffness, proper foot contact, rhythm, coordination, conceptual framework, CNS activation, and body control, and all of these things can transfer to more effective movement.
That being said, as with anything, the effectiveness comes down to the user not necessarily the tool. In many cases, the ladder is overused or incorrectly used by the coach. Are there some ladders drills or uses that are inappropriate – yes; but there are also ladder drills that can be effective and beneficial towards athletic performance.
All in all, the goal with using the ladder should be on developing an awareness and framework of how the foot contacts the ground, shin angles, rhythm, body positioning, and foot stiffness. Also, if you use accessories (like a band) ladder drills can also help develop force production/absorption, body control, and body awareness. No coach can say, that enhancing these physical qualities will not help an athlete when they progress to more specific movement work.
Break Up The Monotony
All in all, are there better ways to train some of the qualities mentioned rather than the ladder? Yes, but two things I've come to realize as a coach when it comes to the ladder.
- Athletes really like the ladder – Over time, athletes can get locked into their sport specific movements and start to get bored or lose intent and focus on the drills and skills at hand. Athletes can start to lose the freedom, authenticity, and creativeness of their unique, individual movement signature. Throwing in some ladder drills to add some fun, challenging patterns to break up the monotony of regular movement training can be beneficial
- If used more appropriately, the ladder can be a decent tool to use every once in a while. Using it every 3-weeks to throw in the mix to add something different and fun to the athlete isn't the end of the movement world.
How The Maximize The Ladder
Reactiveness – One big complaint with the ladder is it’s pre-programmed patterning, and athletes just become better at memorizing specific patterns. Well, you can turn any ladder pattern into an open reactive drill with some creativeness.
Ladder with Bands – Adding a band when performing the ladder adds forces to the athlete in which they must overcome or control. If you watch the band variations below, you’ll see how where the band is placed changes the shin angles, body angles, and intent behind the drill.
Lower Leg Stiffness – Using the ladder as a teaching tool as to proper foot contact can help enhance lower leg stiffness and elasticity.
Force Absorption/Framework – I feel the ladder can be a good tool to develop framework to certain movement skills. Learning how to rotate/dissociate the hips, crossover step, absorb and load force, etc. This can be effective for athletes to conceptualize these concepts.
GPP – Circuit Style – The ladder can be a good tool to use during GPP periods of general movement or for conditioning. I use them specifically as part of a “circuit” as a way to add in some movement variety or a conditioning aspect for the athlete. So we might do hurdle hops with emphasis on landing, then to ladder drills, and finally to some sort of med ball toss, and repeating that cycle with different hop, ladder, and med ball variations.
Wrapping It All Up
If used correctly, the ladder can be a useful tool. You aren’t going to see any world records broken in speed or agility, but we can stop with the bashing of every coach that sparingly uses the ladder.