How to Use an Agility Ladder

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Young woman exercising on sports field with agility ladder
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Also Known As: Ladder, workout ladder

Targets: Lower body/integrated

Equipment Needed: Agility ladder

Level: Intermediate to Advanced

The agility ladder isn't a specific exercise. It is a piece of equipment that can be used to perform a wide number of agility drills. These quick movements raise your heart rate, challenge your balance and coordination, and can improve speed and athletic performance.

Benefits

Agility ladder drills are often a component of specific types of fitness training, including SARQ training and HIFT training. Each type of training provides substantial benefits.

SARQ Training

SARQ stands for speed, agility, reactivity, and quickness. SARQ workouts were traditionally performed by the military and professional athletes. But in recent years, SARQ workouts have become very popular in gyms across the country. The classes draw a range of participants at different fitness levels. The benefits of SARQ training are wide-ranging.

Boosts engagement: SARQ-type programs boost engagement (with equipment and/or with other participants) during the workout, helping to banish boredom and make the workout go faster. Most people who have tried these workouts will also tell you that time flies by when engaging with fellow teammates. In fact, studies have shown that this type of workout encourages adherence to an exercise program.

Improves athletic performance: Athletes in many different sports and at different levels benefit from agility training exercises. Agility exercises are commonly included in programs for athletes in sports such as volleyball, soccer, and football to boost performance. The quick movements mimic the skills required during competition.

Improved ADL: You don't have to be an athlete to gain benefits. In an article for the American Council on Exercise, fitness expert Pete McCall notes that SARQ exercises improve coordination and body awareness for exercisers at all levels. As a result, activities of daily living (ADL) can become safer and easier to perform.

In fact, studies have documented the benefits of agility training in older adults, finding that it may help reduce the risk of falling. As part of a research study conducted in a community living environment, older adults performed exercises including drills with an agility ladder. Other exercises included low and high hurdle activities, cone agility drills, swiss ball, wobble disc, and foam roller exercises.

Researchers noted significant gains in fitness, mobility, and power following a 12-week training program. Study authors also concluded that the agility training helped participant process visual information better in order to perform more effectively on obstacle course challenges.

Increased cognitive functioning: Agility ladder drills require quick thinking and responsive behavior, a practice called neuromuscular training. Performing these exercises regularly may improve mental performance.

In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers evaluated agility training drills on members of the military. Their research study compared 41 individuals who underwent either agility training or traditional training protocols for a period of six weeks. At the end of the trial, researchers evaluated several measures of physical and cognitive functioning. They found that not only did the agility training improve physical fitness but it also improved visual vigilance, listening skills, and working memory.

The American Council on Exercise also promotes the benefits of neuromuscular training for improved performance. They include agility ladder exercises in their list of top cognitive awareness drills.

HIFT Training

Ladder drills are often included in high-intensity functional training (HIFT) workouts. HIFT emphasizes functional, multi-joint movements and employs both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises. For example, an agility ladder exercise might be combined with movements like the bear crawl or the medicine ball slam.

HIFT training can be modified to any fitness level and elicits greater muscle recruitment than repetitive aerobic exercises, thereby improving cardiovascular endurance, strength, and flexibility.

According to study authors, "high-intensity functional training is an exercise modality that emphasizes functional, multi-joint movements that can be modified to any fitness level and elicit greater muscle recruitment than more traditional exercise."

Other benefits of HIFT include improvements in maximal oxygen consumption, decreases in body fat, improvements in bone mineral content, improved cardiovascular endurance, and improved sports performance (including agility, speed, power, and strength).

Step-By-Step Instructions

Before you try this or any exercise, you should be in good health. Always seek the guidance of your healthcare provider if you are new to exercise or if you are coming back to exercise after an injury. You can also work with a qualified fitness trainer to get form tips and exercise advice.

There are many different exercises that you can perform using an agility ladder. It is important to learn the most basic single-foot ladder drill first before moving on to more advanced drills.

Single-Foot Agility Drill

To prepare for the exercise, start at the base of the device with the agility ladder laid on the floor in front of you. Practice the movement slowly and carefully before increasing speed and intensity. Start with good posture with knees slightly bent and shoulders relaxed. Let your arms drop at your sides and move naturally throughout the drill.

  1. Step into the first square with your right foot, quickly place the foot down and shift your weight onto that foot.
  2. Step into the second square with the left foot. Quickly place the foot down and shift your weight onto that foot.
  3. Repeat the movement in #1 stepping into the third square of the agility ladder.
  4. Repeat the movement in #2 stepping into the fourth square of the agility ladder.
  5. Continue the sequence advancing forward in the agility ladder until the end.

When you get faster with your agility drills, your feet will be moving very quickly as if you are running on hot coals.

As you get comfortable with this drill, try lifting the knees with each step into a new square. Then try the two-foot agility drill which requires more quick thinking and coordination.

Two-Foot Agility Drill

To prepare for the exercise, start at the base of the agility ladder. Practice the movement slowly and carefully before increasing speed.

The two-foot drill is similar to the single-foot drill except that both feet now move into each square before advancing to the next square.

  1. Shift your weight into the left foot and place the right foot into the first square of the ladder. Put the toes down then shift your weight onto that (right) foot.
  2. Place the left foot into the same (first) square of the ladder. Put the toes down first then shift your weight onto that (left) foot.
  3. Repeat the movement in #1 stepping into the second square of the agility ladder.
  4. Repeat the movement in #2 stepping into the second square of the agility ladder.
  5. Continue the sequence advancing forward in the agility ladder, moving into the third square, the fourth square, and so on.

Keep in mind that throughout all agility drills your arms stay soft at your sides and your hips and knees stay slightly bent. This relaxed posture allows you to remain quick and responsive.

Common Mistakes

There are a few common blunders to watch for when using the agility ladder.

Heavy Feet

When you are first learning an agility ladder drill, it's reasonable to put the whole foot down when moving in and out of ladder squares. It may make it easier to learn the movement pattern and coordinate your feet.

But as you get faster, you don't want to put the whole foot down. Usually, the heel does not come in contact with the floor. This simulates movements that athletes often have to make when changing directions or responding to another player on the field.

Sloppy Feet

It's tempting to start very quickly and step close to the target area, but not exactly in the target area. You might notice that your feet are stepping onto the ladder instead of inside or outside of the ladder squares.

Precision is part of the challenge when using an agility ladder. Start slowly so that you can learn where your feet should land. If you start to get sloppy, slow down and review the sequence. You can also start each drill slowly and challenge yourself to increase speed at the end.

Too Much Upper Body Movement

The upper body should stay relaxed but relatively still during all agility ladder drills. That means you shouldn't be leaning forward as your body moves forward. The shoulders stay over the hips so that your weight is centered over the midline of your body.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

The easiest way to make this exercise easier is to do it slowly. However, if you slow the movement down and still find it hard to coordinate your feet, consider using an agility ladder with bigger squares.

It is not likely that you will find a bigger ladder at a sports or athletic store, but you can make your own. Simply use chalk to draw squares on an outdoor surface or use masking tape to draw a grid on an indoor space.

Up for a Challenge?

There are countless drills that can challenge your agility with a ladder. Here are a few of the more popular options:

Side Hustle

Instead of moving forward, move laterally on the ladder. Begin the same way you would begin for the two-foot agility drill but start with the ladder to your right side. Step laterally into the first square with your right foot, then the left and proceed to move laterally until you get to the end of the ladder. When you are at the end, stay facing the same direction (the ladder is now on your left side). Step into the first square with your left foot then your right and continue to move down the ladder until you are at your starting spot.

Multidirectional Ladder

In this agility drill, you move both forward and to the side. Begin like you are about to start the two-foot drill. Step with your right foot into the first square, then the left. Now, instead of advancing forward, step outside the first square with the right foot, then the left. Now both feet are outside the ladder. Proceed to step into the second square with the right foot, then the left. Then step outside the second square with the right foot then the left. Continue with this in-in-out-out pattern until the end. Turn around and repeat the drill starting with the left foot.

Ladder Jumps

Begin with the ladder in front of you. Jump with both feet into square one, then square two, square three, and so on.

Single Foot Hops

Begin with the ladder in front of you. Hop with the right foot into square one, then square two, square three, and so on. You'll continue hopping only on the right foot until the end. Then turn around and repeat the sequence hopping on the left foot.

Hop Scotch

This exercise combines the jump and hop drills. If you played hopscotch as a child, it will feel familiar. Start with the agility ladder in front of you. Hop with the right foot into square one. Then jump both feet outside square one. Hop with the left foot into square two. Then jump with both feet outside of square two. Hop with the right foot into square three. Then jump with both feet outside of square three. Continue the hopscotch pattern until the end.

Cross Country Ski

This drill challenges both lateral and vertical footwork. Start at the base of the ladder, but with square one in front of you and the rest of the ladder laid out horizontally to your right. Jump up and place the right foot in square one and the left foot outside and behind square one. Then jump again and switch legs as you move into square two. Now the left foot in front (placed in square two) and the right foot is behind square two. Jump up and scissor the legs again as you move into square three with the right foot in front and left foot behind. Continue the pattern until the end of the ladder.

Safety and Precautions

You should have healthy knees and feet to use an agility drill ladder. Some physical therapists use an agility ladder as part of their treatment protocols for hip and other lower body injuries, but you should work with a qualified professional if you use the device for rehab.

Try It Out

Incorporate agility ladder drills into any of these workouts. Add it between other total-body movements, or use the agility ladder (slowly at first) as your warm-up.

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Article Sources
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