Why Your Speed Ladder isn't Making You any Faster

Speed ladders, also known as agility ladders, are as prevalent in the industry as they were the day they were introduced fifty years ago. NFL superstars that run sub 4.3 forties, and that can cut on a dime use that multicolored, 15 foot, “speed device” to post admittedly impressive drills on social media (probably with a #fastfeet or speed kills cliché).  They use the speed ladder to showcase their talents and to get “likes” and followers, but not as their primary training tool, if at all. Looking at any elite athlete’s training regimen (be they NFL running back or otherwise), and assuming that speed ladders are their main tool to improve speed or agility is ridiculous.  The following are the three reasons that speed ladders do not work in the ways that they are commonly used and how we implement them at The Spot Athletics. 

Reason 1: Posture. If you use an agility ladder for an extended period of time, day in and day out, your body will become predisposed to being in that position. Not unlike the postural issues we see from people who spend their days sitting at a desk (people who work a 9-5 and sit with their shoulders rounded forward and neck craned out like a giraffe at their desk often have reduced spinal mobility, etc.). The same thing happens to your lower body when running in a speed ladder for extended periods of time. Athletes who use it for actual training sessions become predisposed to that position where they aren’t using full hip flexion or bringing the knee to the belly button. They’re more concerned with moving their feet to the next rung than they are with using a full range of motion. Hip flexion is crucial in sprint mechanics. If you lack that range of motion you end up altering where your midfoot strikes the ground. If it strikes in front of your center of mass, it ends up being a brake instead of an accelerator.  See how this could be counterproductive when developing speed?

Hip flexion is crucial in sprint mechanics. If you lack that range of motion you end up altering where your midfoot strikes the ground. If it strikes in front of your center of mass, it ends up being a brake instead of an accelerator.

Reason 2: Agility is the ability of an athlete to slow down, change direction, and then rapidly accelerate based off the movement of other athletes. Agility is comprised of two things: a cognitive component, the ability to think and react: a change of directional speed, or the ability to go where other athletes are not. 

First, there is no cognitive component to a speed ladder. It is a pattern: predetermined, immobile rungs, which don’t work on an athlete’s lag time, the time it takes an athlete to react to what is happening on the field and to initiate the movement to avoid being tackled or get into a better position to score. Second, one of the main mechanisms of the ability to change direction is the ability to plant your leg outside your center of gravity. Even if you could somehow emulate that in a speed ladder as I know some do, it wouldn’t be at the same speed that cuts happen in a game. Producing no carry over to an actual game situation, which makes them functionally ineffective. 

Reason 3: The last one is the most important. There is a fallacy that by using the speed ladder, you get “fast feet,” which is an interesting statement and I’ll get to that more after a mini- physics lesson. Speed is a function of power. Power is defined as (force x distance) / time. The more force we can put into the ground, the less time we’re on the floor. Think of it like throwing a bouncy ball at the ground: the harder you throw it at the ground the faster it comes up (a little caveat to this is that you might be able to generate a lot of force, but if you can’t effectively transmit it into the ground, it is more useless than ejection seats on a helicopter). In the world of sprinting, the ankles play a huge role in force transfer. They bridge the gap between the force we produce with our hips and arms and the ground. If the ankle is not able to maintain rigidity during ground contact, we lose energy at the ankle joint: energy that otherwise would have propelled you forward.  When you use a speed ladder, you’re not trying to hit the ground with the intent of moving forward, you’re trying to hit the ground just hard enough to be under control into the next rung. This doesn’t make any sense and has no transfer to actual sprinting. Back to the aforementioned “fast feet” fallacy. Have you ever seen an athlete run and their legs are moving up and down fast (stride frequency), but they’re not going anywhere? You can have the fastest feet in the world but, if your athlete isn’t strong enough to produce force into the ground, it doesn’t matter how fast the turnover is because you are not actually going anywhere (stride length). The product of stride length times stride frequency is the speed of the athlete. This formula is a very basic representation of quality of work your athlete is performing. This formula is all dependent on how much mass specific force the athlete can put into the ground. More force put into the ground equates to more distance covered and less steps to the finish line or end zone. In elite level sprinting the difference between winning and losing will be having less steps because the margin for error is so minuscule that races usually come down to a half step. 

More force put into the ground equates to more distance covered and less steps to the finish line or end zone. In elite level sprinting the difference between winning and losing will be having less steps because the margin for error is so minuscule that races usually come down to a half step. 

So you must be thinking to yourself, do they have speed ladders at The Spot? Well funny story: we do. It is not what you think, I’ll explain: Speed ladders do not make you faster, but are still a good tool to use as a multi-planar dynamic warm- up, especially if you lack space on the turf.  Not only does it dynamically warm our athletes up, but it provides youth athletes that are just learning how to use their bodies feedback. They start to build the brain- to- muscle connection. Body control is a huge aspect of development in young athletes. The brain to muscle connection known as proprioception, the brain’s ability to sense where the limbs are in space, is the reason you know where your feet are relative to the rest of your body in space without having to have your eyes open. Just like lines on a map represent roads, body maps are parts of the brain that are organized in such a way to represent the different body parts. The more you move the more detailed your maps become.   The use of speed ladders gives immediate feedback and allows the brain to map out exactly what happens when younger athletes (or anyone, really) move a certain way. The brain uses the maps to make decisions about how to move. The more detailed the map, the better and more precise movement is. And contrary to that the map could be fuzzy and navigation of the movements could be more difficult and less efficient.

To summarize, the speed ladder does very little if anything all to improve running speed or agility. It alters posture of running mechanics not allowing athletes to get into necessary running positions to maximize force output.  The ladder’s structure doesn’t allow for cognitive reactivity because the rungs are immobile.  It has very little carryover to any change of direction mechanics.  Changing direction at submaximal speeds is very easy, but asking an athlete to do that at full speed when they’ve only trained slow will have little carryover in game situations and only increases their chance of getting hurt. And last, but certainty not least is the lack of force output you get when training in a ladder. It is all about getting off the ground as fast as possible to move to the next rung. Which is great and what we want but the intent should be to drive through the ground not tap and go. Sprinting is a skill and should be taught as one with drills that have transferability. Any less than that and you’re putting your athlete at risk for injury. If you don’t teach the force transfer correctly via applicable drills and running mechanics you’re losing speed, putting your athletes at risk for injury and not reaching the athlete’s true potential. Speed ladders just like anything else are to be used as a tool, but in the correct application. In this case, they should be named ‘warm-up ladders’. They are great for young athletes and even our adult groups use them to warm-up. It is a fun change of pace for our athletes and adds some variety in their warm- up and aids in their quest of being able to control their body in space.