Do You REALLY Need Speed and Agility Work?

Posted: January 14, 2014 in Speed, Training
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

As I’ve written about before,  I don’t often include traditional speed and agility work such as ladder and cone drills in my athletes’ programs. There are two main reasons for this:

1) More often than not, strength is the more pressing issue.

2) Many athletes will improve their running speed and agility just by increasing strength.

Why You Should Prioritize Strength First

Strength is the most basic building block of athleticism, and for the most part, stronger athletes tend to be better athletes.

Renowned strength coach Mark Rippetoe wrote an excellent article on T-Nation recently about the importance of strength development for athletes, which included the following passage:

All other aspects of performance depend on strength – this is why athletes take steroids. There are no “balance steroids” and no “agility steroids” and no “endurance steroids” and no “core steroids.”

If you think about it, Rippetoe’s point makes a lot of sense. Athletes who take steroids get faster and more powerful because they’re STRONGER. For example, Winstrol is an anabolic steroid that is often used by sprinters, who then become faster after having taken it. Presumably, the steroid does not work by improving their running mechanics. Rather, the strength and power they gain from taking steroids is what makes them run faster.

Ben Johnson: Winstrol poster boy/cheater.

Ben Johnson: Winstrol poster boy and noted cheater

Another thing to think about is the fact that by improving strength, we improve the potential for development in all aspects of fitness. Speed, power, and agility can all be improved by developing strength, whereas speed and agility training will not improve strength. So building strength is kind of a two-birds-one-stone deal, where we can develop an athlete fully instead of focusing on just one thing at a time.

The Effects of Strength Training on Speed and Agility

Since I talk about this a lot, but haven’t ever actually sat down and crunched the numbers to see just how much of an effect strength training has on speed and agility, I decided to do just that for the purposes of this article.

I randomly selected 13 athletes who I currently train and took a look at their 20 yard dash and 5-10-5 agility test times at their Initial Evaluation (IE),  6 Week Evaluation (6W) and 12 Week Evaluation (12W). Basically I just grabbed some folders off the top of the pile on the way home from work, and used them in my (un)scientific study.

Is it considered "scientific" if I used a clipboard? I think it should be.

Is it considered “scientific” if I used a clipboard? I think it should be.

These athletes did not perform any speed work (running) outside of occasionally running 20-30 yd sprints before strength training sessions, and they performed no agility drills. Here’s how they fared:

20 Yard Dash

For these 13 athletes, the average improvement in 20-yard dash time from IE to 6W was .141 seconds, with a range of .227 to .017. The athletes who started on the slower side tended to improve more than the athletes who were already reasonably fast, probably since the slower athletes simply had more room for improvement.

From 6W to 12W, the average improvement was .159 seconds, with a range of .270 to .063.

From IE to 12W, the average improvement was .238 seconds, with a range of .437 to .08. Every athlete got faster, and again, the athletes who started on the slower side improved more than the athletes who were already reasonably fast.

5-10-5 Agility Test

The average improvement in the 5-10-5 test from IE to 6W was .145 seconds, with a range of .433 to -.003.

From 6W to 12 W, the average improvement was .256 seconds, with a range of .503 to .070.

From IE to 12 W, the average improvement was .320 seconds, with a range of .523 to .163.

So What?

This data (though from a small sample size), shows that significant gains in speed and agility can be obtained just by improving strength. As I said before, these athletes did not do ANY agility drills, and they would only occasionally run 20-30 yard sprints before their strength training. No cone drills, no ladders, just lifting weights.

And not only did all these athletes improve their running speed and agility, they greatly improved their strength and power as well. So they have all become much better athletes overall.

However, just because MOST athletes gain speed and agility just by weight training, that does not mean that speed and agility work don’t have their place.

When To Add Speed and Agility Work

Whether or not I include traditional speed and agility work in an athlete’s program usually depends on three things:

1) The athlete’s relative strength level – Weak guys should work to develop strength first, but guys who are already relatively strong may need to develop speed and quickness through other methods. High school and youth athletes especially tend to fall on the weak end of the spectrum.

2) Their response to strength training – If the athlete’s goal is to get faster but strength training isn’t doing the trick, then changes have to be made.

3) Whether they look like they need it – If  an athlete wants to get faster, but his running style looks more like Phoebe Buffay than Usain Bolt, then perhaps learning to run properly may be a better use of his time.

So I’m by no means saying that nobody should do speed and agility drills, or that they don’t have their place in strength and conditioning programs. For example, one of the college baseball players I train is very strong. He can deadlift 500 pounds, and squats nearly 400.

He’s gained speed as a result of strength training since I began working with him last year, but his speed gains from strength training have started to plateau, and he has a history of being “stompy” when he runs. So we added a few agility drills, speed drills, and light plyometrics to his training program to address these issues, and his running form has become more fluid and powerful as a result, which has led to further improvements in his running speed. So speed and agility work certainly have their place, but the key is knowing when to implement them.

How To Know If You Need Specific Speed and Agility Work

The key to knowing what type of training you need is to really just be honest with yourself. Are you really strong enough that you CAN’T benefit from getting stronger? Is your running form bad enough that you WILL get better results from improving sprint mechanics than from strength training? Are you actually keeping track of your speed and agility to see if they’re improving or not?

If you can honestly answer “Yes” to those questions, then maybe you do need to add some specific speed and agility drills to your training program. But remember, whenever you add something to a program you have to take something out. You can’t just keep adding more and more exercises until you’re working out for 4 hours a day. If you’re going to be switching out a strength exercise for an agility drill, make sure that it’s really going to help you more than just getting stronger would. Otherwise, just stick with getting stronger.

If you REALLY need these, go nuts. Just don't made the centerpiece of your program.

If you REALLY need these, go nuts. Just don’t make them the centerpiece of your program

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