In defense of speed ladders

As politics has become more polarized around the world, that mindset has spilled over into the training world. Mention abortion, immigration, or affirmative action and you’ll have to dig your heals in for an intense debate with no middle ground. In the training world, for some reason, topics like speed ladders have become similar hot button issues.

I’ll be honest: I don’t use ladders very much in training. But when I see these debates rage on I feel the need to come to the aid of a defenseless scapegoat. As we said on the podcast recently, too many people take that opinion that if it’s bad for one thing, it’s bad for everything, or vice versa. Ladders may not be the secret path to sub-10 speed, but they also aren’t going to destroy your athletes. They can be a helpful training tool to develop coordination, balance, and footwork when used in the right way.

» Related content: HMMR Plus members have access to stream the classic speed and agility ladders DVD from Vern Gamebtta and Steve Myrland.

Understanding the role

When I watch the debates from afar I see two reasons for so much hate against speed ladders: a misunderstanding how to use them, and a low quality of execution. It’s as if we deemed squats a failed exercise after noticing they don’t improve sprinting mechanics and watch endless social media videos of poor squatting technique. Squats can make you faster if you understand how to use them and execute them properly. The same goes for speed ladders.

Let’s start with the first point: the role of ladders. When you ask most people the goal of speed ladders they’ll say fast feet. But when I asked that question to Steve Myrland, one of the father’s of the speed ladder who literally holds a patent on them, he says it’s good feet. It’s about things like ankle stiffness, ground contact time, and understanding how the hips and center of mass align with the feet. In other words, used correctly, ladders can help develop reactive strength and coordination.

The problem comes when people mistake fast feet with good feet. Fast feet means a high quantity of touches. You can increase the number of touches by making movements more artificial and resembling Riverdance more than athletic performance. Good feet means high quality of touches.

Take this example below from Myrland’s 1996 ladder training video with Vern Gambetta. The feet are not moving at warp speed, but you see high quality touches in a sport specific manner. The hips are over the feet, which might slow down ground contact but increase the forces and allows better displacement of the body (rather than just the feet):

Quality control

This brings us to the second point: execution. As Myrland put it to me:

One general observation I would make is: I have RARELY seen agility ladders taught and used well. Little creativity and almost no quality-control.

Watch a typical ladder drill and you’ll see the head looking straight down at the feet, same-arm/same-foot movements (or a complete lack of upper body movement), and poor ground contact. A warmup is a great place to use ladder movements, but too many coaches just explain the drill and look away rather than coach it. Even if you understand the proper role for ladders to play in training, coaches need to coach it.

Unlocking success

Once you properly understand the benefits of ladders and the importance of quality, you can start to move on to the next level and unlock the real benefits of ladders.

A few tips from Myrland:

  • To learn them quickly, practice them slowly. Learning the steps or footwork doesn’t mean you can dance.
  • Don’t confuse rhythm with tempo. Feel the rhythm, then push the tempo.
  • Ladders are an amplifier. Use it to build off of and amplify the movements you’re already using rather than creating new movements to impress. Start to amplify and integrate reaction, acceleration, deceleration, directional changes, and more. That is where the real magic is.

Take the example below. It starts with a common movement found in a number of sports: lateral cutting or bounding. Using the ladder helps amplify the three-dimensional elements: how much lateral and forward displacement there is. The rhythm comes naturally with the ladder, then as you feel comfortable you can push the tempo/amplitude.

Final thoughts

These are just a few examples. Myrland and Gambetta’s video demonstrates more than 40 more. When I watch the examples I continue to see how misunderstood the ladder is. Yes, it can be a pointless piece of equipment in many settings. But by simply focusing on the points above it can just as easily be a helpful portable tool for coaches to keep in their arsenal.