The most polarising topic in sports speed. The ladder.
It is very easy to jump straight onto the bandwagon and state ladders are BS. Which, well, they are. But as with many of these polarising topics such as ladders and flashing lights for agility, the frequency of a tools use will make our opinion more extreme. What I mean is, if you search “speed and agility” you will see more ladder videos than anything else. So even though they aren’t completely useless, a stronger opinion of ‘they are BS’ is where people gravitate to. As a moderate answer will be less impactful in changing things or convincing people. I am going to try and be a little more moderate here.
But to be clear on my views early, if you are using ladders as ‘agility training’ (or speed training for that matter) and they are in your session outside the warmup, please re-think it. You are probably wasting time, and also fuelling the fire of other coaches with less critical thinking skills (especially if positing it on the internet). And unfortunately, it looks to me like there are a lot of people getting ripped off by trainers. I certainly don’t envy being a teen in the US wanting to train for american football. What a minefield.
What do they do and how might they be useful?
Not much and they aren’t, moving on.
They are usually rationalised by ‘quick feet’. Or more specifically, foot speed, BOS adjustment and step frequency. All of which a range of sports require.
In football (soccer) there are uses with ball control, footwork for injury risk (avoiding contact) and general multi-directional adaptability.
In higher velocity cutting sports such as rugby and american football there are uses for BOS control and step frequency during deceleration. If athletes decelerate with more frequent steps there is likely better control of the COM and a little more adaptability. If decelerating with hard heavy steps (which they also need to be able to do) the COM movement is much more abrupt and harder to control. So we need to prepare athletes for both situations.
In very general situations, stimulating the nervous system by some frequency overload during warm-ups, rehab situations or in young or very unathletic groups has some uses too.
But there are some counter arguments:
How influential is each of these skills on performance?
In short, they are small. Not unimportant, but low on the priority list. Especially when an athlete may lack strength, power, stiffness and any bigger rock on our list. If you are doing ladders as a main component of a training session when an athlete can’t squat their body weight or isn’t asked to regularly sprint maximally over 10-20m, stop charging people money.
Can you develop these skills another way?
One of our first questions as S&C coaches should be what do the athletes already get in their sports training? In football/soccer, pretty much all technical-tactical training exposes athletes to an overload on foot speed. It is not necessarily the same in all sports, but you can flip that argument and say that because they aren’t exposed to it often in their sport training and it isn’t a ‘big rock’ such as force production or sprinting speed, then it isn’t very important.
Even if you decide these skills are important and you don’t think that athletes are exposed to them. Is a ladder drill the best way to develop them? This is the biggest component for me. It isn’t that what athlete’s develop using a ladder has no use. It is that the ladder is an awful way of trying to develop those things.
You can develop the same skills in a movement which is more sport specific and doesn’t come with as many negative consequences (COM not moving anywhere, looking down etc). For example, set up a sports specific defensive task which requires lots of position adjustment or warm up with a lateral and a backwards carioca etc. At a minimum, get them to stand in place over a line and perform a foot movement there. I just don’t see why a ladder is ever needed.
There is a systematic review which has looked at ladder training which highlights a few interesting points.
This study compared the impact of video game dance training to ladder training over 6-weeks on the illinois agility test. Both groups got better, but the video game dance training was more effective. *chuckle*.
This study compared the effects of 8-weeks of plyometric training or ladder training on 35m sprint, vertical jump and the illinois agility test. Plyometric training was more effective for improving sprinting and jumping. But being fair the old ladders, the ladder group had a significantly greater improvement in agility test performance. But as always, this isn’t always supported. There is also a lot to be critical about with these studies, but I am just challenging my own biases and trying not to discount things too quickly.
So want to improve the illinois agility test? First try and play Dance Dance Revolution, then do some ladders, then some plyometrics.
But more seriously. This does support the importance of BOS control and speed. But the question remains, is a ladder drill the best way to do this? And the answer is no.
We are all short on time and need to try and be strategic, for me a ladder is very low impact. We should be trying to develop these BOS skills in much more efficient and specific ways in most populations. And certainly not above our need to develop our big athleticism components.
Rich is the founder of Strength Coach Curriculums and an S&C coach who specialised in multi-directional speed. He runs the S&C provision for Bristol Flyers Basketball and consults with clubs across the globe while also leading the MSc programme at the University of South Wales
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