Have you ever watched a basketball or soccer game where a player was close to scoring only to be surrounded by the opposing team? Suddenly, he spins, ducks, and side-steps to put the ball exactly where it needs to go, the goal. No one saw his reaction coming, and few realize what happened until it’s too late. How was one player able to dodge through several members of the defense to score? What gives the edge to players in every type of sport whether that is football, martial arts, or hockey? The answer is simple, it’s all about agility.
It’s a skill like any other sports skill that has to be learned through constant practice and repetition. Agility allows you to speed up, slow down, and suddenly change direction all while keeping balance and perfect control of your body. The importance of agility cannot be overstated. Agility can determine the outcome of a game in the same way knowing how to throw a perfect spiral into an end zone will.
Agility training hasn’t always been such a hot topic in the world of sports. It’s only been in the last few decades that sports have taken advantage of science and technology. What was once running across a field now involves perfectly-timed running drills, fitness technology that applies resistance to improve side sprints, and nutrition that amplifies recovery and results.
In other words, this is the best time in history to train yourself or your team to become more agile because we have the knowledge, technology, and supplementation to ensure maximum results.
Agility Training 101: What is Agility Training
Agility training is the cognitive and muscular ability to change direction in response to a stimulus with varying degrees of speeds. This distinction is critically important: agility involves an equal demand on your muscular system as well as your central nervous system. Your muscles, mind, nerves, and cells must all work together to master speed, turns, direction changes, and overall agility. (1, 2)
Agility can be divided among two different yet equally important components including perception, decision-making, and change of direction speed. Sounds simple on paper right? You just have to decide to turn here, move slower, or go there. But it’s easy to forget that these decisions must be made so quickly that it is actually an instinct; there’s no time for internal debate.
Agility training teaches your body how to react instantaneously when presented with a sudden change in stimulus, such as a charging linebacker who can easily hit you so hard you’re out for the game. (1)
Perception and decision-making abilities are learned, sport-specific tasks contingent on the skill level and practice of an athlete (5,6). Change of direction speed requires multi-level coordination of various skills that can be trained independently of agility specific tasks to crossover into improved agility. The motor skills gained during agility training are a complex association among the supra-spinal, spinal, and physiological level of the neuromuscular system. (1, 3, 7-9)
Training for agility must involve drills that train the various levels among change of direction speed. The training prescribed must involve an assessment of the athlete to ensure the program is effective for the sport and position of the athlete. Therefore, training for multi-directional speed with the use of quickness, reaction time, and straight sprint ability, should be the primary focus of the program. However, incorporating resistance, strength, stability, plyometric, and flexibility exercises would be advantageous for the overall performance of the athlete. (1, 10, 11)
So what type of athlete can benefit from agility training? Whether you’re a pro, amateur, or a weekend warrior, agility training can have a tremendously positive impact in your athletic performance as well as your day-to-day health.
Importance of Agility Training for the Athlete
Agility is relevant to nearly every sport because it involves a period of deceleration, change of direction, and acceleration. Changing direction in a sport is a reaction to an external stimulus such as avoiding a collision, evading another player, and remaining within the area of play (2).
Athletes train for agility because it is a key component for achievement in sport. An athlete’s ability to be the fastest on the field, court, or ice is only a small part of their success because other factors such as agility, strength, power, and decision making play a crucial role. Training for agility is a multifaceted approach because it includes physical, mechanical and cognitive adaptations to take place. (1, 3) Additionally, an athlete must train various skills such as strength, power, and speed to optimize their agility during sport.
Take soccer players for example: These players must run up and down an entire field while simultaneously guiding a ball with their feet and avoiding their opponents (who have no issue with kicking shins). Think you can simply run in a straight line from one end of the field to the next? Think again. Agility training for soccer players is a requirement as every player must know when to run, stop, pass, turn, side step, block, and shoot. This isn’t a sport where you’re good at one thing, you have to be the best at everything. This is why agility training is so important.
What Does the Science Say About Agility Training?
When you train to improve your agility, you will be placing a high-level demand on your body mechanics, neurological system, and muscular system. The foundation of agility training focuses on developing two primary skills: perception for decision making as well as change of direction speed. (12) In other words, you will learn to perceive a change in stimuli and in response, change direction while maintaining an appropriate speed.
Perception for decision making includes visual scanning, anticipation, pattern recognition, and sport specific knowledge of the situations. In contrast, change of direction speed includes foot placement, transfer of energy, and maintenance of body position. Let’s take a look at what the research says about each of these variables. (12)
Mechanical Facets of Agility Training
What does training adequate agility technique actually look like? We’ve broken down each major component of training agility, and what’s best to focus on.
Change of Direction Speed
The goal of optimizing an athlete’s technique to ensure proper foot positioning is to effectively train the position of the body to transfer energy or momentum in the proper direction and to enable the athlete to accelerate or decelerate to perform the movement. (3, 5) Foot positioning allows an athlete to properly apply impulse and force in the appropriate direction. To begin a movement, starting in a basic athletic position will enable an athlete to move various directions before increasing the complexity and difficulty of the movement for more sport specific activities. (10)
Continuing with the point above, agility training will require a high level of balance. If an athlete is moving at maximum speed and must suddenly change direction, he must be able to balance his body weight while decelerating. Studies show that the most effective agility training incorporates balance-based exercises including speed skaters (hoping from one foot the other) and tire-drills. The result is a dramatic improve in static postural sway and dynamic balance. Best of all, these benefits extend to both athletes and non-athletes. (17, 18)
The manner in which you walk can be described as your gait. This includes how your foot lifts off the ground, the way your arms swing, the area of the step you take, and your stride. Those suffering from poor ankle flexion often have an unhealthy gait; one that exposes them to a greater risk for injury. Naturally, as an athlete quickly changes direction, the health of the ankle and natural gait is essential. Studies point out that agility training must include movements that focus on natural gait patterns, specifically at the ankle joint. This will strengthen the connective tissue, improve change of direction, support balance, and reduce the risk for ankle-centered injury. (19)
Whether you’re running from side to side, or straight ahead (more on that below), you need to build up speed. This is where acceleration comes into play. Acceleration is the gradual increase in your running speed. It goes without saying that elite acceleration can have an athlete reaching maximum speed in the shortest amount of time. The best agility training should encompass acceleration along with speed and quickness. These types of programs are called SAQ training (speed, agility, and quickness). Studies show that SAQ training programs significantly increase the acceleration of the athlete, especially when combined with power training. (20)
Most people envision a weightlifter throwing around four times his body weight when they hear the word power. In reality, power refers to the ability to exert your maximum force in a running, throwing, or jumping action. This applies to acceleration, sprinting, and throwing objects such as weights, balls, or javelins. Power training is an integral part of agility training as it can improve all of the other variables. Studies show that when athletes incorporate power training into their agility training, they see incredible improvements that are typically measured by jump height or sprint speed. (21)
Straight Sprinting Speed
Running as fast as you can in a straight line is separate from agility training but also complements it. For sports such as soccer or football, a majority of the game will be relying on agility (moving side to side), while constantly changing direction and speed. With that said, straight sprinting speed is critical for those make-or-break moments; for example, when a football player catches a long pass and must go all out to get into the end zone. Research shows that training for agility is not the same as training for maximum straight sprinting speed, so the two should be handled differently. However, both are necessary for maximum athletic performance. (16)
Training may start with the body, but it ends with the cognitive changes athletes make. These changes involve the brain in order to make movements second nature.
Visual scanning is a complex organization of environment changes an athlete must observe during sport (13). These changes include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic changes in the environment (1). The speed at which an athlete reacts to the stimuli is considered the mental processing speed (4). Mental processing speed in a combination of three consecutive ideas including sensation, perception, and response selection. During the sensation phase, the clarity and intensity of the sensory changes will determine the speed at which the athlete perceives the situation. If an athlete sees the direction of a play, pass, or opponent clearly the processing speed to the stimulus will be understood more quickly. The changes in the perception influences the decision(s) of the athlete in regard to the direction they will move, force they will apply to their action, and/or speed at which they will accelerate or decelerate. This then leads onto the response selection, which is the phase in which the athlete responds to the external stimuli. The influence of anticipation, pattern recognition, and previous knowledge of the sport is the information being gathered during the visual scanning of an athlete during sport.
Anticipation is a perceptual motor skill learned over time by athletes that may be either explicit or implicit depending on sport and situation (14). Explicit motor skills are tasks athletes have formal instruction and guidance whereas implicit skills are tasks athletes have not been officially trained to perform (15). Evidence is not clear if anticipation or decision making are skills that can be trained or not. Therefore, an athletes ability to anticipate a situation comes from the following types of anticipation including effector, perceptual, spatial, and temporal (1,4). Effector type anticipation is an intrinsic anticipation factor where the athlete begins to understand their movement patterns. Perceptual anticipation, or the ability for an athlete to anticipate the movements of an opponent, may be influenced by compounding factors such pattern recognition and sport specific knowledge. Spatial anticipation is the ability for an athlete to perceive a specific event, play or action of the opponent. Lastly, temporal anticipation is the ability for an athlete to understand the opponent, situation, and conditions to anticipate a specific event (4).
Training your muscles is the easy part; we’ve got the right ideas when it comes to putting your athletes in the best shape possible to be agile.
Agility training, especially sprints, have been shown to promote lean muscle tissue growth. (25) Even short bouts of intense agility training can elicit a response in the muscular system that resembles an extended training session. Studies show that just two minutes of high intensity agility training have the same muscular and cardiovascular effect as 30 minutes of exercise. (27) High intensity agility training also acts as an effective way to burn more calories and burn excess fat. (28)
Due to the intense nature of agility training, drills should be assigned based on experience and ability in a progressive manner, and followed up with a comprehensive stretching routine. When done appropriately, athletes can avoid sensations of muscle stiffness with their balance unaffected. Otherwise, studies suggest irresponsible agility training which can negatively impact an athlete’s physical and balance performance. (26)
How to Train for Agility
To optimize training for agility, an athlete must perform both agility training and resistance training. Agility training incorporates many variables. A comprehensive agility training program will include the following:
- Speed training
- Balance / Coordination training
- Gait training
- Directional movement training
- Proprioception (perception / awareness) training
- Strength training
- Power training
Let’s discuss how agility training will vary based on age and experience, then provide you with a few agility workout programs you can start using today.
Age-Specific Agility Training
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, agility training can begin at the age of five. However, drills will be very different than when the child becomes a teenage and still different when the teen is an adult. Here’s a breakdown of age ranges and appropriate agility training techniques.
Ages 5 to 8
- Focus on basic movement patterns involving the full body
- Encourage playful yet careful jumping (something children do naturally)
- Use perception and spatial awareness drills (e.g. playing tag)
Ages 9 to 13
- Increase the difficulty of activity but keep it fun
- Set up homemade obstacle courses (e.g., cones) – Have sections where running is necessary – Think of “field day” in school
- Continue to encourage jumping
Age 13 to 16
- Move towards more sport-related drills
- Utilize more agility-focused tools (e.g., cones, speed ladders)
- Encourage stretching sessions as a part of training
Agility Training for Sport
Agility training is ideal for all athletes and encouraged for almost every sport. Here are a few ways to apply agility training in a sports setting.
Focus on agility training in a team setting. All players (even the goalie) must master the fundamentals of agility training. Agility with soccer players will include reaction times to ball turnover, goalie quickness, and overall stamina.
Aside from agility drills that focus on twists and turns, basketball players should incorporate straight sprint speed drills as they have a greater chance using this skill.
Drills focused on a sudden break at a perfect side angle should be heavily coached for football players. Just like basketball players, football players have a potential for a straight sprint so this should be the incorporated into weekly agility training.
Mixed martial arts rely heavily on perceiving and predicting your opponent’s next move. Agility training that emphasizes anticipation, pattern recognition, and shifting the transfer of energy should be the primary focus. In this way, a fighter will be able to anticipate a punch, move out of the way, and transfer the energy into a counterattack.
Strength and Power Training for Agility
When you think of resistance training in a weight room, you might have a difficult time imagining how lifting barbells can help improve your agility. Strength training has direct applications to your agility ability, and it can improve your agility training in a few ways.
Improve Explosive Power
Drills such as jump squats while holding weights can improve the explosive power of sprints and overall acceleration. Studies show that even older athletes can see improvements akin to that of younger athletes in regards to their power-focused ability. (24)
Increases Speed and Overall Agility
The neural demand of using more of your motor units together as well as a greater demand on muscle firing rate have been shown to dramatically improve speed and overall agility ability. (22)
Decreases Risk of Injury
A comprehensive weight training program can help to eliminate overcompensation issues between muscle groups. This will help to decrease your risk of injury from overuse. (23)
Sample Agility Training Programs
Here are a few agility workouts that you can use for any type of sport. All of the following workouts improve all of the areas we discussed above, making them practical inside and outside the gym.
Agility Workout #1
- Walking on Rollers: 30 seconds
- Split Squats: 10 repetitions
- Wall Ball Catch: 30 seconds
- Bilateral Ring Hop: 20 repetitions
- Z-Drill: 30 seconds
Agility Workout #2:
- Walking on Domes: 30 seconds
- Walking Lunges: 20 repetitions total (10 on each side)
- Wall Ball Catch: 30 seconds
- Unilateral Ring Hop: 20 repetitions
- X-Drill: 30 seconds
Agility Workout #3:
- Walking on Discs: 30 seconds
- Split Squats on Domes: 10 repetitions
- Wall Ball Catch: 30 seconds
- Unilateral Side Hop: 20 repetitions
- Zig-Zag Drill: 30 seconds
Agility training involves an equal demand on the mind and body as both must work together in order to accelerate, decelerate, change direction, and respond appropriately to any given stimulus. The proven benefits of agility training go outside the world of sports and also apply to the general public. Non-athletes can enjoy a greater level of fitness including more lean muscle tissue, less fat, more strength, and greater endurance. On a functional level, both athletes and non-athletes can establish an elite level of neuromuscular connections while significantly decreasing their risk for injury.
For athletes, agility training is a necessity. It is the training that can give you a clear advantage in your field. For nonathletes, one or two weekly sessions of agility training is recommended to enhance your results.