The topic of whether or not "speed ladders" have a place in any athlete's training repertoire or program is currently a hot debate topic, with several notable coaches promoting a complete abolishment of the classic and time-honored training tool, while others vouch for just how effective the tool is for enhancing the running speed and other athletic training qualities.
So who is right? Like most things training related, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I think the speed ladder fanatics give it far too much credit for its efficacy in developing better athletes, while the ladder haters have overreacted unfairly, to say the least.
Let's start by looking at the common arguments raised by the anti-speed ladder camp and assess their concerns objectively.
The three biggest critiques are:
- Lack of specificity
- Zero transfer in running technique
- Overemphasis of its abilities
You have probably witnessed these arguments being blasted across various social media platforms by those in obvious opposition to the speed ladder. Although at first glance, these arguments may seem completely fair and logical, I believe these stances are a bit of an overreaction and don't tell the whole story.
But first, a disclaimer: I personally believe the speed ladder should be utilized at very select times in a training program in very low but intense volumes to reap the most potential reward. Anything beyond this is a complete waste of time, as other methods are indeed more effective in developing an athlete's athletic ability. In the grand scheme of program design, you should spend upwards of 1-2 minutes per training session focusing on ladders with your athletes. That's it. So that's probably 1 percent or less of total training time practicing ladder drills. I just want to hammer this home in case anyone thinks I'm some sort of speed ladder fanatic, which I definitely am not. I'm just trying to play middle man here and be fair at the benefit of the athlete, coach, or parent.
Now, let's look at the first anti-ladder argument...
"Lack of Specificity." Let's quickly generalize this concept into any athletic-based movement pattern that could happen on the field or court. So we have jumped, bounding, hopping, cutting, braking-stuttering, crossover-hip turns, squatting, throwing, hitting, rowing/extending, sprinting, jogging, running, and skipping that I can think of off the top of my head. So yes, absolutely, the ladder is VERY non-specific to several athletic based movement patterns that have been performed for decades. No question. However, you can incorporate stuttering, hip turns and bounds pretty well with a ladder. I will have a couple of videos that demonstrate these movements at the end. But yes, overall, the ladder fails to deliver on improving gross movement patterns in every athlete. Real quick, as a side note, I just want to mention that the stutter tactic is a rapid deceleration strategy elected by an athlete's brain and central nervous system in response to the environment to help survive at that particular moment. The slowing of the body will allow proper re-positioning of the body and its limbs for the next counter-movement and re-acceleration process. This response is both innate and unique, and without it, there would be prolonged delays in the muscles and joints for many and "severe" eccentric overload, which is obviously a precursor to injury, especially in the transverse plane (rotational movements....).
Logically, the stutter would seem to be a movement reaction that serves as a natural defense mechanism in an honest attempt to keep us healthy and survive in competition.
Where I think the ladder could apply more specifically would be in the context of "high frequency" training that seeks to neurally charge or amp up the body's nervous system prior to competition. I recall Joe Defranco implementing "high frequency" drills years ago, along with my mentor Kelly Baggett who first coined the category as far as I know, and introduced them to me. These are drills like ladders, quick pogo jumps, and ankling exercises, among others. And the technique definitely seems to work as a potent CNS activator, and it helps prevent laziness and improve the tempo of training, which is a common problem for coaches and athletes in training if nothing else. CNS processes like Tetanus, rate coding, calcium delivery, and motor neuron excitability will be achieved to help feed faster muscle contraction speeds important for movement. Lastly, there was research recently that showed leg swing speed does, in fact, help influence sprinting speed, whereas for a long time, leg swing speed was thought to be fixed, and it was mainly the stance leg that was responsible for greater impulse and power. The new evidence makes sense because the hip flexors and glutes work together as a force couple in sprinting, and one feeds and promotes more action of the other. This is one of many reasons why I think Psoas and direct Hip Flexor Training is completely underrated, but that's another article in itself.
The last argument that I completely agree with in the Anti-Ladder camp is overemphasizing the ladder. Because its overall carryover to athleticism is severely limited, this should be reflected in your prescription to athletes.
If you are doing too much ladder training, you either don't know what you are doing, you are perhaps bored and using the tool as an "Active Recovery" method, or you are caught up in all of its flash and hype. Unfortunately, either way, you are doing your athletes a complete disservice, and you should be focusing most of your efforts elsewhere on the things that really help development.
Next, is the Pro-Ladder camp arguments:
- Pro-Ladder Arguments:
- Improves Running Speed
- Improves Footwork
- Improves Coordination Types
Running speed is a product of Stride Rate x Stride Length. Ratios vary according to research, and I give you more than enough on this in my book. The reality is that you will need a healthy dose of each factor in the appropriate directions at the right time in order to enable faster running speeds. I suppose someone could make a clever argument that ladder drills could potentially improve the stride rate function of sprinting and running since limb speed reactions are pretty high, and the exercise attempts to improve significant neuromuscular functions, which I already discussed earlier. However, there is so much more to the puzzle, and the carryover is going to be vastly limited if at all when it comes to sprinting. First, our mass body speed is not nearly as high with ladder drills due to the natural design of the training tool and close proximity of each and every box. There is simply too much frequency in this scenario, which won't allow any true acceleration to occur. Impacts are also very small in a ladder setting which is never the case in sprinting, especially with increased running speeds. And impacts, ladies and gentlemen, are critical to the muscles SSC (Stretch-Shortening Cycle) and in creating stiffness and greater speed. It can't be replicated outside of sprinting.
Last but not least, there are too many technical elements excluded from ladder training that the athlete needs to be able to practice in order to get better regularly. Lack of hip hyperextension, horizontal force production, joint stiffness, front and backside mechanics, and much more are omitted when training in the ladder.
Footwork is another coveted ability that athletes are desperately trying to acquire in training. To be fair, there could be some slight carryover to footwork development with ladder training since stutter motion is practiced regularly along with repeated foot re-positioning tactics, which is what footwork really is when you look at it. Elite performing athletes are highly instinctual, experienced, reactive, and ultra-explosive when it comes to extraordinary footwork display. And if you were to pick one of these skills I just listed, the best demonstrate the most power and speed-strength compared to else. Think about it for a moment. You could be highly skilled and technical, but if you lack true power, your body is aligned right but never gets a strong enough message to move, and you are simply left behind when traveling from point a to point b. It's that simple, folks. Power can also allow a larger window of error and recovery time since you always have that power reserve to tap into at any given moment in the competition. This means that you can make up for lost ground quicker or separate from a less powerful athlete much easier in a one on one situation.
The last argument that the Pro-Camp makes is a valid one, the speed ladder as a means of improving coordination. The reality is that if you have ever tried to coach or teach an athlete how to perform intermediate to advanced ladder drills, it was more than likely a struggle initially, and then you both became better at cueing the exercise and performing it, respectively. Coordination is the ability of a single muscle or muscle groups/synergies to be able to respond at the right time, in the right direction, with the right movement, and the right amount of effort to complete a task properly in a matter of milliseconds. The ladder is one of many exercises you can select to improve the different types of muscular coordination and may even transfer into learning more technical and athletic-based movement. I'm not entirely sure.
Hopefully, this article helped make some sense of what, where, and how much ladder training can and should be performed in an athlete's overall program. Keep in mind that in no way, shape or form should ladder training be viewed as a primary method for maximizing any athletic-based skill (speed, power, agility, quickness, strength, coordination, etc.). Before I leave you, I want to provide you with 3 of my favorite ladder drills along with some brief explanations of why we use them with all of our athletes at some point in training.
Ladder Drill #1-In-In-Out-Out
In-In-Out-Out is a 4 step drill that is very easy to teach and learn as a coach or athlete. It combines linear movement and a high-frequency approach to guide the nervous system into faster responses. It also helps teach the athletes how to direct and move their legs under the body to move better. A forgotten or underrated skill that you will need to be quicker and more agile.
Ladder Drill #2-Cross in front
Cross in front is great for any athlete who may lack internal hip rotation (i.e., golfer). It's a preventative drill to remove any extra rotation from the back in rotational movements, its very sport specific as nearly every athlete will have to crossover, turn their hips, and accelerate to an angle or spot at some point, among other things.
Ladder Drill #3-Shuffle Wide and Stick
Shuffle Wide, and Stick is a great drill for developing lateral power, bounding, and landing skill. Think about a basketball player trying to create as much distance and position themselves in front of an oncoming offensive player and taking charge or forcing them to pass the ball, etc. Too many benefits to name with this drill, quite honestly and are one of my personal favorites.