No, you will not become an Olympic sprinter by using an agility ladder. It is however a versatile tool that can effectively teach some fundamental skills to athletes.
Five ways to get the most out of your agility ladder
1. Warmup - This is a great tool to raise your core body temperature, activate core musculature, and excite your nervous system for a greater workload.
Takeaways - Keep your ladder session short and sweet. 5-10 minutes is all you need to ensure your body is warm and the neuromuscular system is firing and communicating efficiently.
2. Rhythm and Tempo - When performing patterns on an agility ladder your body is forced to develop a rhythm in order to successfully execute the skills. If your foot stays in one spot too long it will throw off the next step. This type of coordination of musculature in an explosive fashion is in essence neuromuscular adaptation, a response all athletes are in search of. As competency increases the tempo of the patterns increases, therefore leading to improvement in the speed of your neuromuscular system. What can really improve the function of agility ladder drills is cueing athletes verbally or visually what speed to perform the pattern at while engaged in a particular pattern. Learning how to slow down a movement on the fly is teaching deceleration. While I am not saying that an agility ladder will prepare an athlete to have incredible acceleration or deceleration, it will speed up the information pathway that is essential towards that development. (VIDEO)
Takeaways - Always start your patterns slow and simple and build up complexity and speed. Only once the athlete has shown mastery of a particular exercise should you add in visual or auditory cues on speed. You can have three speeds for the athlete to perform the skills at and ensure that they understand exactly what they should look and feel like before progressing to this step.
3. Teaching an athlete how to control their center of mass while performing footwork patterns - This more is the most overlooked and arguably the most important skill you can develop with an agility ladder. This can be seen in nearly every sport from basketball, catching the ball in a triple threat with the ability to jab or cut in any direction, a boxer setting up a right hand behind a lead left, or a football player accelerating off of a cut. The key here is that you need to be balanced in order to generate force whether it is your body or the right hand.
Takeaways - You want to make sure that your center of mass is traveling in a straight line, while your feet are performing the prescribed patterns.
4. Upper and lower body disassociation - This is an excellent way to begin to expose athletes to consciously move their upper and lower body in different ways. Whether it is the caraoca or other patterns, learning how to move their upper and lower body in different directions and at a fast pace is a skill that translates to nearly every sport. This is valuable beyond the skill as with time that athlete will begin to understand the concept of rotating hips and the alignment necessary for rapid change of direction.
Takeaways - The coaching cues with this one are hips and torso. As with most patterns you want to maintain your torso going forward while the hips rotate to execute the pattern. Expect a bit of a learning curve with this one.
5. Neuromuscular control - A hill can really ramp up the difficulty and motor learning while performing the same patterns you have already mastered. Using the ladder on a hill going up, down, left or right will greatly increase the sensory feedback necessary to execute the drill properly. Most noticeably, the rhythm on flat ground will be thrown out the window and have to be relearned.
Takeaways - First and foremost ensure that you are adequately warmed up (ankles especially) before progressing to this stage. Start with a very small gradient and a slow and controlled pace.