Rethinking Agility Ladders: How to Actually Make Athletes More Agile

Since the dawn of the new era of sports performance and strength and conditioning, there is one tool that just about every athlete has used. Go into any sporting good store, go to any team’s offseason workout, even watch any show about NFL offseason training and you will see this tool being used. This tool is the speed ladder, and to be honest, it’s not actually doing what you think it is for your athletes. Most coaches use it for agility purposes claiming the speed ladder is going to get their athletes more agile, in turn allowing them to speed around their opponents. The one problem is this is not true at all. Now don’t get me wrong…the speed ladder is a great tool for athletes, but just not to improve their agility.

As an athlete, the speed ladder is a great tool to use as a warm-up or as a conditioning tool. For starters, it forces you to work at a maximal effort in a cardiovascular sense. While you’re using it, you will feel your heart rate start to elevate faster than you can recover and you will start sweating up a storm. Your legs will begin to grow tired, and it is an amazing tool for increasing your alactic capacity (your ability to continuously perform maximal contractions). Depending on how much rest you take in between each set, it can also improve your lactic capacity. As a warm-up tool it helps to get some blood flowing into your legs and to get your anaerobic and aerobic capacity going. There are, however, much better tools to use when working on agility.

What Is Agility

So what is agility anyway? Agility is the ability to start, decelerate, stop and explosively change direction while playing a sport. In other words, how fast can you stop and change direction during a game? It is easily one of the most important aspects in all sports, and it can mean the difference between winning and losing a contest.


The key to agility is the rate of force development. In order to be agile, your body needs to be able to decelerate at a very quick pace, come to a complete stop and then reaccelerate in a different direction. When looking at an elite athlete, such as a running back in the NFL or a point guard in the NBA, they both having incredible rate of force development. They are able to be sprinting full force, come to a complete stop and then accelerate again to fake out a defender and either change direction or keep sprinting.

The best way to see an increase in this performance is through improving strength in each of the three phases. These three phases are the eccentric phase (deceleration), coming to a complete stop (isometric) and the acceleration phase (concentric). Now does the speed ladder truly improve the strength in these three phases? The answer is no it does not.

The eccentric phase is the lengthening of the muscle, and it is the phase that shows how much force your body can absorb while decelerating. The Isometric phase is that one point in agility when your body comes to a complete stop, even for as little as a tenth of a second. And the concentric phase is when you must forcefully explode out and change direction. This is all defined as rate of force development.

Rate of force development is the speed at which your body can produce force as fast and as explosively as possible. Developing the three phases of muscle contraction is the key to increasing rate of force development. The more you develop these three muscle contractions, the faster and more agile you will become.

Now in my experience, the best way that I’ve seen to do this is through the use of bulgarian split squats. Here's a short list why:

  • 1.  Bulgarian split squats put a premium on core "stability" as your abs are having to oppose a lengthening quad on the back leg.
  • 2.  More shoulder friendly than back loaded positions with a barbell
  • 3.  They are loaded from the bottom so put less compressive forces on the spine.
  • 4. It's a single leg activity, and once you have the necessary strength base in a bilateral movement, it becomes very important to be able to transition that into a single leg world.  Because last time I checked....all sports that involve running and cutting are realistically played on one leg.


Now that we’ve gone over all the technical stuff, let's talk programming. As with everything else in strength and conditioning you need a base to build off of. The first step is to do a 5 rep max squat. We do 5 rep max because it is enough weight to be able to figure out a legitimate 1 rep max, without stressing the central nervous system too much. We want to save the central nervous system for actual competition itself.

Once you get your 5 rep max go here and plug in the weight you used and type “5” in the reps category then hit enter! This is the weight that we’re going to base all your lower body strength work off of. It is important to get exact numbers, because every athlete is different and we need to be constantly stressing the body through increased loading. By getting an exact max, this allows you to stress yourself through exact percentages and progress much faster.

With this program you will be doing legs 3 times a week. Yes, that’s right, 3 times. Before you start complaining saying “that’s too much”, hear me out. You’ll be using non-linear periodization so each day will be using different volumes and different intensities. We will be using the Cal Dietz “Triphasic Training” model (If you haven’t read the book, I highly suggest doing so it has a ton of awesome stuff!).


The first 3 weeks of training will be the accumulation phase, to get the body ready for higher forces later on. It will look like this:

Day 1 (Monday): Bulgarians 4x8

Day 2 (Wednesday): Bulgarians 3x6

Day 3 (Friday): Bulgarians 4x12

Day 1 is medium intensity with medium volume, day 2 is high intensity with low volume and day 3 is low intensity with high volume. As coach Dietz explains in his book, this is done so that your body can recover better from the volume. When doing high volume on a Friday, the body has 2 days off (the weekend) to recover from the training, so it will get back in working order. If you do the high volume day on another day during the week, your body won’t have enough time to recover from the session, which will affect your performance in other training sessions.


Once you’re done with the accumulation phase, the fun part begins. You get to do two weeks of eccentric loading, two weeks of isometric loading and end off with two weeks of dynamic effort. The periodization for both eccentric and isometric loading will be the same, because we’re training two different contractions for 2 weeks at a time. It will look a little something like this:

Day 1 (Monday) Eccentric Bulgarians 4x4 with 30% of your 1 rep max

Day 2 (Wednesday) Eccentric Bulgarians 4x3 with 35% of your 1 rep max

Day 3 (Friday) Eccentric Bulgarians 4x5 with 25% of your 1 rep max

**** to do bulgarian split squats you will use the percentages given above, and take the weight you find and split it between 2 dumbbells. For Example, if you get 90 pounds, you use a 45 pound dumbbell in each hand.

So as you can see, we’re doing the same amount of sets each day, but the rep count is different. Not only is the rep count different, but the intensities are different. Like I stated before, this is so your body doesn’t become overtrained.

When doing eccentrics, you’re going to count six seconds on the way down, and explode back up. It’s very important that you get the full six seconds, so that you are truly taxing the eccentric contraction to the best of your ability. Exploding back up is also very important, because this is what is going to get you faster and more explosive.

*this video only shows a 3 second eccentric, but you get the idea


Now for the isometric cycle, it’s going to be the exact same set up as the eccentric cycle. For those of you who don’t like to re-read directions (even though it’s literally only 2 paragraphs above this) it’s as follows:

Day 1 (Monday) Isometric Bulgarians 4x4 with 30% of your 1 rep max (3 second hold at bottom)

Day 2 (Wednesday) Isometric Bulgarians 4x3 with 35% of your 1 rep max (3 second hold at bottom)

Day 3 (Friday) Isometric Bulgarians 4x5 with 25% of your 1 rep max (3 second hold at bottom)


Last but certainly not least comes the dynamic effort portion of the cycle. I’m sure most of our readers know what this means, but for those just started out in this industry dynamic effort means you’re moving the weight as fast as you can. This means you need to be as fast as possible. This cycle is where you’re going to see your speed truly coming together and the light bulb will turn on in your head.

The numbers for the dynamic effort cycle are going to be a little different from the other two cycles. This is because you’re trying to work through the entire range of motion as fast as possible. You will not be slowing down at all during these lifts, so therefore you need to use a little lighter weight. The concept is still the same though for the periodization. The numbers are as follows:

Day 1 (Monday) Dynamic Effort Bulgarians 4x4 with 22.5% of your 1 rep max

Day 2 (Wednesday) Dynamic Effort Bulgarians 4x3 with 25% of your 1 rep max

Day 3 (Friday) Dynamic Effort Bulgarians 4x5 with 20% of your 1 rep max

Closing Thoughts

While I've gone out of my to simplify the concept of agility today, I hope this article gives you a better understanding of what your athletes actually need to be more agile.  Also, please understand that's there more than way to skin a cat.  Just because I focused on bulgarian split squats today using a triphasic approach doesn't mean that's the only way to get things done.  If you have any questions post them below, and feel free to chime in with what you've been getting results with.

about the author


Ed Miller is a former intern at Defrancos Training Systems in New Jersey and Syracuse University. At Defrancos he had the pleasure of working under Mike Guadango and Joe Defranco where he trained with some of the best athletes in the world from the NFL, MLB, NHL and various other sports. At Syracuse University he worked under Coach Corey Parker and Coach Veronica Tearney. He has a B.S. in Exercise Physiology from SUNY Brockport and is also the founder of “The Zone: Strength and Fitness” in White Plains, New York where he works under Anthony Renna owner of Five Iron Fitness. He is also the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Rye Neck High School in Mamaroneck, New York. Ed has prided himself on getting his athletes bigger, stronger and faster using the “less is more” mentality.