rate of force development

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.

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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.

Programming

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!).

Accumulation

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.

Eccentric

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

Isometric

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)

Dynamic

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

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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.

Barbells and Bone Health: A Review of What the Literature Says on Building Strong Bones

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People lift weights for varying reasons. Some want a big bench press, some want big biceps, and some just want to “look good naked” for that special someone.

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But I’ll bet ya that nobody in the gym thinks about how lifting weights affects their bones.

Osteoporosis is a common condition that occurs when we break down more bone than we build up. This causes our bones to become thinner, weaker, and more fragile. Osteoporosis is often called "the silent thief" as many people don't know they have it until they fracture something. While a fracture may not seem like much to you or I, for an elderly individual, the consequences of a fracture are dire and can include anxiety, depression, pain (1), and even death (2).

But thankfully, lifting weights can help to prevent these from happening. When we load our bones we provide a strain that causes bone cells to be stimulated. This leads to osteoclasts (bone absorbing cells) reabsorbing bones just like PacMan eats pacdots.

Photo Credit:  www.quickmeme.com
Photo Credit: www.quickmeme.com

Afterwards osteoblasts (bone building cells) differentiate and lay down new, stronger bone which is almost like new, softer cement which hardens over time (3).

What Kind Of Training Program Do I Need To Do To Strengthen My Bones?

Linear and undulating periodization are the two programming styles that have been studied and shown to increase bone formation and bone mineral density (BMD) (4-6).

*Side note: Before I get any hate messages in the comments - this isn’t to say that the other great training methods out there (e.g. 10/20/Life, Juggernaut, 5/3/1, Westside, Cube etc.) can’t strengthen your bones, it’s just that they’ve never been studied in this regard.

Linear periodization is a method of training where you gradually increase the weight and decrease the repetitions over a period of weeks and "peak" for an athletic event. Note that it only applies to your main or “opening” exercise in a workout. There are many ways to cycle and train assistance work, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Below is an example of a 17 week linear periodization model.

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In contrast to linear periodization, undulating periodization uses a repetition scheme that is varied from workout to workout.

Here's an example of an undulating periodization model which can be applied to almost all exercises in a workout:

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Progressive overload in a training program is critical for improving bone growth. Low intensity training doesn’t have the same effect on improving BMD (6, 11, 13). A 5 or 10 lb dumbbell is appropriate for someone new to the gym, but past that it’s only appropriate for prehab, as a doorstop, or as a paper weight. It’s not gonna improve your bone health. Both periodization styles have similar effects on BMD in women (7) and have approximately the same effectiveness in improving maximal strength in beginner to novice trainees (8-12).

Do Men’s And Women’s Bones Respond The Same Way To Lifting?

College, adult, and middle aged men have all shown increases in their lumbar spine and hip BMD through lifting weights (5, 11, 14).

By contrast, premenopausal women respond more variably to lifting. Some studies show no effect of weight training on BMD (7, 15-17) while others (including a review) show a positive effect of lifting on hip BMD and bone formation (6, 18). Weight training (4), even explosive weight training (19), has been consistently shown to maintain or increase BMD in postmenopausal women (13) – a population at high risk of osteoporosis.

In my biased opinion, when you look at the effect of lifting on overall health, women can’t go wrong with lifting some weights. Your body will thank you for it in the long run.

Strength Sports and Bone Health

Several studies have shown that Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters have a much higher BMD than people who are untrained or train at a lower intensity (11, 20-23). Competing as a high level strength athlete comes with its own health risks (24) but focusing on getting stronger can help your bones, your muscle mass, your athleticism, and your performance (wink).

In the strength and conditioning world you'll be hard pressed to find a strength coach that doesn't recommend a squat variation. But how do squats relate with bone health?

Some research hypothesizes that ground reaction force and rate of force development are linked with bone development (25). When you push into the ground, the ground sends an equal and opposite force into you, that's what a ground reaction force is. Rate of force development refers to the speed at which you can apply force.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that in comparison to traditional squats and powerlifting squats, box squats have slightly lower ground reaction force but conversely have three to four times the rate of force development (26). This suggests that box squats may be a better choice of squat variations for bone development assuming you’re not a competitive strength athlete who has to do back squats in your sport.

What About Plyometrics And Bone Health?

The relationship between jumping and BMD hasn’t been thoroughly researched in young adults. Several recent studies have shown a positive relationship between hip BMD, maximal vertical jump height (27), and maximal broad jump length (28). Low-repetition jump training has been shown to increase BMD in female college athletes (29) and higher-repetition jump training has been shown to increase lumbar spine BMD in pre-menopausal women (30).

Assuming you have no injury history and can land properly, adding in a few sets of jumps (e.g. 2-5 sets of 1-3 reps) once a week before a full body or a lower body workout can be a great way to improve your athleticism & explosiveness. As an added bonus jumps help to improve muscle power, something we lose with age.

Osteoporosis is a common condition that will change the face of the health care system as we age. But doing some periodized weight training & jumps can improve your physique, improve your athleticism, and keep your bones healthy for the long haul.

Practical Takeaways

1.  Both linear and undulating periodization programs have been shown to improve bone mineral density in young adults

2.  To maximize your bone development in a training program, progressive overload must occur while maintaining good form

3.  Assuming you can do them correctly and pain free, adding in a few sets of box squats and jumps into your training program may help to increase your BMD and keep your bones healthy for the long term

Disclaimer: Every training program must be fit to the individual and scientific research is ever-changing. Therefore, I encourage you to take what you read in this article with a grain of salt and shape it to your training needs and goals. I disclaim any liability for injuries or illnesses resulting from use or misuse of the information in this article.

About the Author

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Eric Bowman is a BSc in Honours Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He worked as a research assistant in the UW Bone Health laboratory where he studied exercise and osteoporosis. He is currently in the Physical Therapy program at Western University and is studying to become a CSCS. His areas of interest are orthopedic rehab, exercise for special populations, and strength & conditioning. Add him on Facebook or email him at bigericbowman@gmail.com

 

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