By Dr. Mercola
Agility refers to your ability to change positions quickly, using quick, controlled movements. If you're an athlete, this skill will clearly give you an advantage over your competitors, and it's commonly used in the military to improve combat performance and general fitness.
However even non-athletes and civilians can benefit from agility training. For starters, agility training is fun. Say goodbye to tedious treadmill workouts that have you counting down the minutes until you're done. Agility workouts are fast-paced and constantly changing. They keep actively engaged in both mind and body, providing an exciting workout you'll actually look forward to.
Further, agility training helps to improve your functional movements, which are those you need to get through the day. It improves the rate at which your muscles contract, which otherwise tends to decline as you age. It also improves your balance, including dynamic balance (or balance while you're in motion), and enhances your natural reflexes so you'll react with a renewed swiftness.1
If you've ever felt like a bit of a klutz, agility training can also be invaluable as it helps with coordination. As you get older, agility training helps you maintain your independence.
There are many different forms of agility training, but one of my favorites is the agility ladder. It provides a platform for virtually unlimited movements to work your entire body.
What Are the Benefits of Agility Ladder Training?
An agility ladder is an inexpensive piece of exercise equipment that you can roll out on any flat surface. You can also "draw" an agility ladder on your floor using tape. You then practice moving through the rungs in various ways.
If you're just starting out, you may simply walk through the ladder, but as you become more advanced you can progress through sideways shuffles, skipping rungs and much more.
Such movements help to strengthen your joints, ligaments, and tendons while improving coordination and focus. It also provides a workout for your heart. Will Elson, personal training manager at New York Health and Racquet Club in New York City told Reuters:2
"It boosts cardio with fast foot strikes and knee lifts, while incorporating balance and joint stability… It also has the benefits of working on coordination. And it's fun in a confined space."
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research even found that agility training is as effective or more effective than traditional military physical training at enhancing physical fitness. In addition, agility training had the added benefit of improving cognitive performance as well, including memory and vigilance.3 Elson continued:
"It's a great exercise to force someone to focus, to learn a movement pattern and be able to execute it without looking down… The body is learning something new."
30 Agility Ladder Drills
If you’re wondering where to start using an agility ladder, check out the video above, which demonstrates 30 agility ladder exercises designed to increase speed and body control. Aim to do such workouts one or two times a week, and land on the balls of your feet.
Ideally you should try not to look down. Instead, focus on a spot on the ground about one yard in front of your feet. One set of an exercise is generally moving down the ladder and back up again.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) also recommends agility ladder drills to boost quickness, foot speed, coordination, and body awareness. The following drill should be done using a 10-yard-long agility ladder (or one drawn on the ground with approximately 16" x 16" squares between each rung).4
- Two-footed Forward/Backward Jumps
"Stand alongside the agility ladder with your chest facing the squares. Quickly jump into the ladder, landing with each foot in its own square between the rungs. Then jump backwards out of the ladder at about a 45-degree angle to your right. Next, jump immediately back into the ladder again, progressing to the right one square at a time, down the ladder."
- Ali Shuffles with Base Rotation
"Stand alongside the agility ladder with your chest facing the squares. Place your right foot in the first square with your hips rotated slightly to the left. Then jump so that your left foot enters that square as your right foot exits back out off the square and to your right at about a 45-degree angle.
Next, jump so your right foot enters the next square down, followed immediately by the left, while your right exits out and to the right again. Continue that same pattern quickly down the ladder to your right. Never let both feet occupy the same square at one time."
- Ickey Shuffle
"Stand at the bottom, left corner of the ladder with your chest facing in the direction the ladder is running. Step into the first square with your right foot, then immediately bring your left foot into that same square.
As soon as your left foot touches down, the right foot will exit the square to the right while moving forward at a 45-degree angle so you can enter the next square down the ladder.
Next bring your left foot one square forward and immediately bring your right foot into that same square. As your right foot touches down, the left foot will exit the square while moving forward at a 45-degree angle."
4 Additional Exercises to Improve Your Agility
An agility ladder is just one form of agility training. There are many others as well, and it's a good idea to switch up your routine, not only to work different muscles but also to keep your workouts from becoming monotonous. The four agility exercises that follow, compiled by ACE certified personal trainer Jacqueline Crockford, MS, CSCS, involve minimal equipment and are easy to integrate into your workout plan.5
1. Hurdle Drills
"Using either 6- or 12-inch hurdles (these can be cones, yoga blocks or whatever you have on hand), set five to 10 hurdles up in a row, parallel to each other. Moving laterally, start by going over the first hurdle with a high step and pausing in a stork stance before moving back to the starting position.
Then move over the first two hurdles, pause and go back to the start. Continue this until all five to 10 hurdles have been traveled (1, 1 2, 1 2 3, 1 2 3 4, etc.). Count your hurdles out loud (both ascending and descending numbers) and remember to pause on one leg before moving back to the beginning. Also, don't forget to switch directions. When you become more advanced, speed up the hurdle steps and take out the pause."
2. Agility Balls
"Using small agility balls, bounce them either to a partner or against a wall if you're working out solo. Because the agility ball shape will send the bounce in varying directions, use a safe space where you won't run into anything or anyone.
Practice catching the ball with two hands, then with your dominant hand only, and lastly, progress to catching it with your non-dominant hand. Hand-eye coordination activities help increase mental stimulation and chasing this tiny tool around is great for the heart and legs."
3. Balloon Drills
"Using two different colored balloons, pick an order in which you will contact them (e.g., yellow then blue). Either alone or with a partner, hit the balloons in their selected order while keeping them in the air. For more of a challenge, perform one bodyweight squat in between each balloon contact, and then hit the next balloon.
If you're really feeling frisky, try doing a burpee in between each balloon contact. Remember, hit the balloons in the same order and don't let them touch the ground. This is a great drill to do with your children or grandchildren; for added fun, increase the number and color of balloons."
4. Medicine Ball Drills
"Using a moderately sized medicine ball (a weight that is appropriately sized for your fitness level), stand facing a concrete (or otherwise stable) wall about 2 to 5 feet away, depending on the length of your arms. Throw the medicine ball in a chest pass toward the wall as you move laterally 10 to 20 feet. Reverse directions and move laterally back to the starting position as you do the medicine ball chest passes against the wall.
Make sure to do one chest pass for each sideways step. For added difficulty, move quickly in a shuffle and squat down to an athletic stance. Quickly change direction at the end and return to the starting position. Keeping your feet from crossing each other as you concentrate on catching an object will increase your cognitive activity as well as improve your cardiovascular health."
More Benefits of Agility Training You Should Know…
If you're still not convinced that adding agility training to your workouts makes sense, consider this: when done intensely, agility training is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT, which is characterized by relatively short bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of rest, far outperforms conventional aerobic endurance type exercises. Not only does it beat conventional cardio as the most effective and efficient form of exercise, it also provides health benefits you simply cannot get from regular aerobics, such as a tremendous boost in human growth hormone (HGH), aka the "fitness hormone."
To make agility exercises an HIIT workout, perform them at the fastest rate of speed possible, followed by short periods of rest. Because you'll be working so intensely, and using more muscles than you would simply running in a straight line, for instance, you'll burn more calories in less time. According to ACE:
"The body uses approximately 5 calories of energy to consume one liter of oxygen. When more muscles are involved during exercise, the body requires more oxygen, which increases the amount of energy that is expended. Most, if not all, of the leg muscles are needed to overcome the forces of gravity and ground reaction to control the body's ability to make multiple changes of direction and frequent changes of speed (a hallmark of SARQ [speed, agility, reactivity and quickness] training), while running at a constant pace in a linear direction does not engage the leg muscles in the same ways."
In addition, when performing agility exercises as part of your HIIT workout, you can increase your excess post oxygen consumption (EPOC), sometimes known as the afterburn effect. This means that you'll continue burning calories after you're done working out. Finally, agility training can help to reduce your risk of injuries, not only during exercise but also anytime you're unexpectedly faced with a rapid change of speed or direction.
It improves the strength and resiliency of your connective tissue, improving its ability to length and shorten rapidly, thus reducing your risk of injuries.6 Not only is agility training great as part of a circuit workout or HIIT session, it also makes a good warm-up for all kinds of exercise. One you try it, you'll be hooked on this dynamic, fast and fun form of whole-body training.