Sunday, March 15, 2015

Agility Ladder Training

I think I promised this post back in October. Well, I'm on Spring Break right now, so I've got time to catch up on things.

 Principles of Agility Ladder Training

Agility ladder drills serve three basic purposes:
  • Conditioning
  • Elastic response
  • Agility & Quickness
From a conditioning standpoint the ladder serves the same basic role as a jump rope, it gets you moving in a basic bouncy activity. As such there's a good reason to keep your ladder drills going for a few minutes. Ladder drills are easier to learn than jump rope for many folks, plus they are more interesting. The basic pattern of a group ladder drill is alternating between waiting your turn and moving quickly through the ladder, which is the kind of energy usage we want to be training.

The conditioning aspect can also serve as a nice warm-up. 

Any kind of bouncy exercise will help develop the elastic properties of our musculature. This is the principle underlying big plyometric exercises like box jumps, hurdles, and depth jumps. However, the ladder drills are much lower intensity. This lower intensity means that they are suitable for just about everyone. This will also benefit quickness in the various smaller reactive actions involved in swordplay.

Agility is primarily change of direction and is determined by the ability to put force into the ground. Ladder drills have a limited ability to improve agility because they do not often use the large, intense actions that are the defining aspect of difficult changes of direction.

Instead agility ladder drills can be thought of as increasing quickness in the sense of reacting to the environment and performing many small changes of direction. The environment is fixed not random but there is tactile feedback from stepping on the ladder.

Overall, the ladder is not the best tool for any single component but serves as a multipurpose tool in the movement prep part of a training session. The body is made more ready for the various kinds of training by doing lower intensity exercises first.

I also like to use the ladder to instill and reinforce the idea of mindful practice. You can always mess up a ladder drill - step on the rungs, kick it out of position and so on. But I demand that my athletes pay attention and do the drill right. This brings me to one of the most common instructions I give in training, both basic physical training and fencing training:

"Correct is more important that fast or number of repetitions"

Alternately, you can call this quality over quantity.

What it Does Not Do

The agility ladder does not improve speed, though they are sometimes called speed ladders. Speed is distance divided by time. Putting a ladder in the way of your feet won't help with that. Only dedicated speed, strength and power training will. However, raw running speed is not directly related to swordfighting (unless you're losing), so it doesn't matter.

Also, ladder drills do not improve your dexterity. Coordination is not a general purpose trait that can be trained. The body and brain's ability to produce smooth, coordinated action requires specific practice, there is no way around this.

Permutational Analysis

One of the ways I conceptualize the value of ladder drills is with the idea of permutational analysis. This is an idea I got from Scott Brown a few years ago, which he applies to handwork drills. The basic idea is that if I get into a new situation I cannot produce a useful action in the moment - whatever I do will be uncoordinated and slow because it is untrained. As such it is useful to dedicate a part of training to a wide variety of arbitrary variations, specifically to make it less likely that your feet will end up in a truly novel position. This is also the reason to switch up the drills every few months.

Categories of Exercises

I will not attempt an exhaustive list of exercises here, nor even much in the way of specifics. Instead I want to look at broad categories to guide decisions about what to include and how to organize the workout.


Intensity levels are roughly as follows:
  1. Stepping - one leg moves at a time and one leg is on the ground. This starts with simple exercises like Quickfeet and moves up through a wide variety of exercises like In-In-Out-Out. More complex patterns include Ickey Shuffle and Carioca. Also includes the fencing actions of Advance and Retreat, as well as Doubles etc.
  2. Double-leg actions - both legs move at the same time. The prime example is Scissors. Hopscotch can be roughly put in this category as well.
  3. Double-leg hop - basic is both feet in the same box. Alternatives can include Skiers and variations on direction of movement etc.
  4. Single-leg hop - one leg bouncing from square to square, same leg throughout
Skipping squares - in general, exercises can be made more intense by skipping squares of the ladder. This is most useful for double-leg hops but can be applied to a wide variety of exercises. It would be a bit much for single-leg hops for all but the highest level athletes.

Direction of Movement

Ladder drills can also be characterized by direction of movement.
  1. Linear - forwards and backwards. The amount of linear you need depends on the type fencing you train.
  2. Lateral - side to side
  3. Medial - this distinction only matter for single leg actions, lateral is to the outside of the leg but medial is towards the inside. That is, if I am standing on my right leg then medial is a jump to my left.
  4. Diagonal - a mix of linear and lateral while facing down the ladder. For a lot of fencing training this is more relevant than lateral.
  5. Rotational - changing the direction you face from one action to the next. Easiest is 90°, 180°+ can be done as well.
  6. Crossover - one foot crosses over the other. Most often part of drills that are otherwise diagonal
  7. Backwards - any of the above categories can also be done backwards; presenting a higher coordination requirement.
Some exercises don't fit well into any of these categories, so this is only a rough guide to get you started. For instance the Shuffle Wide and Stick goes: two feet in the box, one foot out - leaping as far as you can, stick that landing and leap back to two feet in the next box.

Designing the Workout

Start at low intensity and work up progressively. With athletes new to the drills do not incorporate the most intense drills to start with. In particular single-leg hops are very intense for anyone unused to such actions. Even double-leg hops may not be a good starting exercise depending on the population you are working with or what the rest of the day's training will be like.

Include all directions of movement in a given routine, with an emphasis on those most relevant to the style. This goes back to the permutational analysis idea from earlier.

The number of exercises to include will depend in part on the objective of the workout. As a quick warm-up before fighting, maybe just four exercises. As part of a conditioning routine, do 8 or 10. For general movement prep before a class I usually do 6.


1Quickfeet*Double-leg Hop*Single-leg Hop* (incl. Medial)
2Double Advance-Retreat**same with SwordCommand drill
4Front Crossoversame with ReverseRear Crossover
5ScissorsSkiersSkiers with Rotation
6Snakesame with ReverseSnake Skipping boxes
* Forward, Backward and Lateral
** Each leg leading

Progression in Agility Ladder Training

There are two basic modes of progression in agility ladder training. First is intensity and the other is complexity.

Intensity is easy, and the intensity guide above directs that type of progression. Increases can also be made in the number of drills or the speed demands of the drills.

Complexity increases are part of making this more directly applicable to fencing training. First, insist that the athletes not look down. When they start they have to look just to avoid stepping on the ladder but they should be pushed to keep their eyes up early and often.

Another method of increasing complexity is to hold your sword while doing the drills, and specifically to hold the sword in a well-formed guard.

Additional complexity can also come in the form of actions after or in-between the ladders.
  • Set-up two ladders in a row about 5m apart. Sprint from one ladder to the next with a smooth transition from the run into the ladder drill. 
  • Set-up two ladders side-by-side at least 3m apart. Side shuffle from one ladder to the next while facing the same way and then do the next ladder backwards.
  • Have a coach stand at the end of the ladder with a focus mitt or target and execute an attack at the end of the ladder.
The variations are endless - just make sure you understand how the exercise you design helps the people you are training.


Ladder drills are fun and serve a variety of purposes from warm-up to movement prep to footwork quickness. They are also cheap and easy to use. You can use them to reinforce mindful practice and hone proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.

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