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Is “Agility” Training as Productive as We Think?

by Meaghan posted May 13, 2015

To cut straight to the chase, my answer is NO – at least not the way we typically perform it.

Before you get all excited, hear me out. Let’s start by looking at some of the most common “agility” drills that we do with our athletes and clients.

First, we have side shuffles, purported to improve agility in athletes like basketball players:

But what is agility really? Agility is defined as the ability to start, stop, slow down, speed up or change direction. And I would add that in order to actually improve agility, we’d have to do these things in response to an unpredictable cue, as this is how things work in sport and in life.

Yet, we don’t always do these things when training the side shuffle. We often just instruct people to move quickly from side to side (e.g., in the frontal plane) for a designated distance or time, perhaps as a warm-up, and then have them do the same thing in the opposite direction. We rarely cue them to change direction, or even speed up or slow down. So while the standard side shuffle exercise may be a great way to warm up or work in some frontal plane conditioning (which I LOVE, by the way, as an alternative to the majority of conditioning that we do in the sagittal plane), it doesn’t really train agility unless we incorporate a spontaneous change of direction, acceleration and/or deceleration component into how we coach it.

Moreover, we really don’t move this way in life or in sport. We may take a couple of steps to the side as we decelerate our bodies in the frontal plane and then push through the ground to change direction in order to then sprint forward in the sagittal plane (so we can get down court or to the ball as fast as possible, or keep our kid or dog from running in front of a car…), but we certainly don’t shuffle. Shuffling is simply not efficient for covering a distance quickly.

Granted, in addition to frontal plane conditioning, I do think teaching maintenance of hip, knee and ankle alignment while moving in the frontal plane has merit for things like ACL tear prevention, and this gives reason to use similar drills;  BUT, side pushing or side stepping immediately followed by a cut and turn to transition into a sagittal plane sprint is a far more effective way to train true agility, reduce injuries and improve performance, as this is what actually happens on the field.

And then we have the ever-popular agility ladder:

PS-Pro-Agility-Ladder

The problem here? The nervous system learns whatever pattern you feed it during the drill. But the patterns on the field and in the game of life are mostly unpredictable. Much like with the side shuffle, the key element we really want to improve – reaction – is largely missing from our training with the agility ladder. We could certainly progress agility ladder drills to include a reaction component by adding a stimulus – a verbal or visual cue to change the pattern on-the-fly, for example – but we usually don’t. Rather, we just change the pattern after a designated number of repetitions through it. And sure, these drills help improve conditioning and definitely neuromuscular coordination. Heck, they’re GREAT for client engagement because they can be a lot of fun. But they don’t really do much for agility.

Bottom line: Good “agility” involves the ability to decelerate force quickly and then apply it through the ground in another direction, and in response to a largely unpredictable event. To do this, we must be strong – eccentrically and concentrically – to produce and reduce force in multiple planes of  movement, as well as able to react quickly and fire motor units fast. Last time I checked, we get stronger in training with progressive overload. We improve reaction time in training by utilizing audio and visual cues at random. We get better at recruiting and firing motor units fast in training with power-based exercise like plyometrics and Olympic lifting variations. If you’re doing all of these things, you’re improving agility. If you aren’t doing these things, and you’re not incorporating power or unpredictable changes in direction with your side shuffles and agility ladder drills, you’re not training agility.

Filed under: exercise Q&A, fitness commentary, sports, tips for trainers, workout tips

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One response to “Is “Agility” Training as Productive as We Think?”

  1. Keila Dabadia says:

    Thanks Miss. Meaghan really good to learn from a Professionl like you.

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