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Break the Speed Limit: Speed and Agility Training!

Break the Speed Limit: Speed and agility training lets you offer something unusual—and amazingly useful.

By Selene Yeager

What if you could offer a type of training that’s beneficial to clients young and old, newcomers and experienced athletes alike? That’s the magic of speed and agility training. Beyond being fun, it can help older clients avoid falls, boost confidence in school-age kids, and help all of your clients lose weight, enhance coordination, and reduce injury risk.

“Speed means getting from point A to point B quickly; agility is the ability to change your direction of movement efficiently while maintaining your balance, posture, and center of gravity,” explains Ian Montel, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, content development coordinator for NASM. “That’s something everyone needs regardless of age, ability, or even disability.”

Here’s what you need to know to build a successful speed and agility program—including how to introduce clients to it and tools to help you integrate it into what you offer.

Beyond stick and ball

Speed and agility training tends to conjure images of sports with frequent, abrupt direction changes (like tennis and soccer). But it’s beneficial for groups beyond that too. For example:

  • Runners and Cyclists. In these groups (and others that primarily focus on forward motion), it can train under­used lateral stability muscles, says Diane Vives, MS, NASM-PES, owner, Fit4Austin/Vives Training Systems in Austin, Texas. “It’s huge for overall balance, stability, performance gains, and avoiding injury,” she says, “because all your muscles are active and ready for whatever you’re going to throw at them.”
  • Unconditioned Clients. It can get new clients up to speed (pun intended) more quickly, says Vives. “Agility builds the movement spectrum. As you improve support and balance and rotational stability and progress from linear to lateral agility, your clients can do more in less time and recover more quickly, which leads to better fitness, performance, injury prevention, and weight loss.” This group can also include seniors, explains Montel. “My grandmother doesn’t need to sprint, but she needs a bit of agility to perform basic movements like stepping over the dog in her kitchen.”
  • With the increasing popularity of youth sports at every age, the demise of regular physical education, and the rise of childhood obesity, youths are an under­served market for this training, says Anthony Incollingo, MS, NASM-PES, owner of Speed Pursuit in Tullytown, Pa. “We run a program for middle school athletic development that tailors speed and agility to kids who are interested in being on a sports team, as well as a Kidfit program that tailors to kids who are not athletes at all.”

Incollingo says that, on the field, these kids are faster to the ball or the puck and are far less injury-prone. Off the field, they’re happier and more confident. “Physically and socially, it’s all very positive,” he says.

Introduce It Right

Rule number one when offering speed and agility training: Don’t assume too much. “You need to start with the basics for everyone,” says Vives. “Don’t worry about getting too creative or sexy.” Vives knows from experience: She once interned with a trainer who worked with many pro athletes, and she and the other trainers started at too high a level because they assumed the pro athletes were more advanced than they actually were. The lesson: “Always start with fundamentals like skipping, shuffling, and ladder drills,” Vives says. You can make two progression jumps in one session if need be.

The good news for NASM trainers, Montel says, is that speed and agility fits with every phase of the Optimum Performance Training™ (OPT™) model. “It begins with technique, which is related to stabilization. If you don’t have the correct lean or you aren’t getting your heel all the way up or aren’t performing the correct pull-through with your legs, you’re not going to increase your speed,” he says. “It’s also related to power. The more force you put into the ground, the further you can propel yourself forward.”

Where you put the speed and agility training in each session depends on where you are in the periodization of the program, says Vives. “But I put it in every session. I can start with it to see—safely—where their limits are, or we can close with it. Because even if they’re fatigued (and we’ll adjust based on that fatigue level), agility training heightens the central nervous system and leaves you feeling good.”

No Limits

Once you start working on speed and agility, your imagination is the only limit to what you can do with it. “We work on arm movement, deceleration, and rotation in all the planes,” says Vives, who also sharpens her clients’ quickness with auditory and visual cues. “We’ll go through ladder and cone drills and I’ll call out a color or raise an arm and they have to cut to that cone.”

There are even fun drills you can use for recovery days to spice up the session, she says. “I like to do ball drops, where I drop one of those crazy balls and they have to try to catch it on the first bounce. It works hand quickness and reflexes, but it’s more mentally fatiguing than physically fatiguing.”

As you gain experience, you can match the drills to the special populations you work with. And Vives, who co-authored the books Training for Speed, Agility, and Quickness and Developing Speed, says specializations like PES are great ways to get that experience. They can open doors and help you reach new heights—and speeds.

Try This: Ladder Drills

Ladder drills improve performance and control of the lower body. “Get your client to look up—not at their feet—while going through the drills,” advises Montel. Good posture and body control are key; steps should be quick, light, and bouncy. Correct foot placement is the first goal. Once this happens, increase speed. Here, a selection of drills worth trying.

  • 1 in: One foot landing in each square, fast
  • 2 in: Two feet landing in each square, fast
  • 2 in 2 out: Standing sideways to the ladder, move laterally, taking two steps in each square and two out (backwards) as you move down the ladder.
  • Lateral Shuffle: Standing sideways to the ladder, shuffle step laterally; each foot hits each square once.
  • Icky Shuffle: Start with two feet in the first square. Then step right foot out, slightly forward. Move left foot into the second square, followed by right. Then left foot out, slightly forward, up the ladder.
  • Ali Shuffle: Stand sideways to the ladder, with left foot in the first square. Skip laterally down the ladder, switching feet in and out to the back as you go so both feet hit each hole.

Speed Gear: Tools and Toys

Classic speed and agility training means using tires and cones and everyday items like balls, boxes, and bands to create performance-enhancing activities. But for ladders and hurdles, having a few well-made, safe, and sturdy training tools is the way to go. Consider adding these to your training kit.

  • BC Agility Ladder: 10 yards long, 16 inches wide, and made from sturdy flat plastic rungs that form 19 squares.
  • Quick cone Hurdle set (12 cones, adjustable 3 to 7 inches/ 6 crossbars): Made from soft plastic that collapses if you step on it. Quickly turns into hurdles for high step drills.
  • Agility Dots (12 dots): Nonslip PVC dots are excellent targets for training sport-specific movements and technical footwork patterns.


Meet the Experts

Ian Montel, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, enjoys helping people improve movement mechanics for better function and less risk of injury.

Diane Vives, MS, NASM-PES, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT, FMS, owns Fit4Austin/Vives Training Systems in Austin, Texas, and is the co-author of two speed and agility books.

Anthony Incollingo, MS, NASM-PES, is the owner of Speed Pursuit in Tullytown, Pa. His passion is empowering kids to reach their fullest potential.



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National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

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  1. November 24, 2014 at 8:53 pm — Reply

    Thanks for the info. How much improvement would a basketball player get from this type of training?

  2. December 28, 2014 at 12:49 am — Reply

    Thanks for the great speed training article. This type of training can give an athlete a competitive edge over their competition, especially the ladder drills.

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