The Need for Speed: Ladders Not Included

Speed, everyone wants it, few people have it and those who need it, are willing to spend money to get it.  As in any capitalistic endeavor, if a need goes unmet, someone is there to fill the void and make a profit doing so.  However, no one could have predicted the level at which parents would flock to these “speed merchants.”  How else could you explain the overnight financial success of the mega-warehouse speed schools that littered practically every strip mall in the US?  A parent’s desire to turn their child to the next Usain Bolt, is understandable, as speed is a vital component of athletic ability.  You’d be hard  pressed to find a sport in which speed isn’t a determining factor separating the winner from the loser.  Even marathon runners require speed, as the goal is to run the 26.2 mile race in the fastest time possible, not the slowest.  Problems arose however, when the vague and non-legally binding claims of the speed merchants turned out to be hyperbole.  It seems the speed merchants’ business model was one based on luck, rather than valid exercise science.  Luck, not being a replicable business model, explains why the majority of these speed schools disappeared fast than a French Crueller at a Weight Watchers meeting.  However, the techniques employed by these mega-warehouse speed schools still linger and are being utilized by people now branding themselves as “speed consultants.”

Speed Ladders

Walk into virtually any fitness center and you’ll find groups of all ages, performing endless sets of foot drills on speed ladders, grunting, huffing, puffing and in some cases, moving at speeds so slow that only 90-year-old blue-haired arthritic women can appreciate.  The drills are endless: Hop Scotch, Double Hop Scotch, Ickey Shuffle, and my personal favorite, I Gotta Take A Leak But I Can’t Find A Toilet Drill.

Proponents of speed ladder training claim their use will increase running speed, due to the following:

1. Speed ladders teach the concept of fast feet, thereby increasing stride rate

2. Speed ladders reinforce proper sprinting mechanics

Let’s see what physics and common sense have to say about this.

Myth #1 Fast feet lead to an increased stride rate, which leads to faster run times.

This concept was first utilized by the long distance running community, when researchers determined the majority of elite distance runners had a stride rate of approximately 180 strides per minute.  Once this information was published, countless weekend warriors spent their weekend with a clipboard and a stop watch, calculating their stride rate, trying to match that of elite distance runners.  Numerous hamstring injuries later, the masses realized their cardiovascular system couldn’t maintain 180 strides per minute beyond their drive way, and quickly abandoned the idea.  Unfortunately, the concept of increasing stride rate to increase running speed, was then endorsed by the strength and conditioning community, to be exploited for financial gain.  This allowed anyone with a $40 speed ladder, a $24.95 speed ladder drills DVD, and stopwatch, to brand themselves as “speed consultants.”  Thus began the practice of coaches instructing their athletes to “imagine you’re running on a giant hot pan and make quick contact with the ground.”

Here’s the science:

1.  Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  So what you say?  This means that the greater the FORCE you apply to the ground with your feet, the greater the force that will propel you towards the end zone, or the million dollar signing bonus.  It’s the forces which you exert against the ground with each foot contact, that propels your body forward.  By instructing clients to focus their efforts on a high stride rate at the cost of applying force to the ground, you’re minimizing the effect of one of the fundamental laws of physics, an equal and opposite reaction.

2.  Additionally, as we don’t live in a vacuum, there are gravitational and inertial forces to overcome, which require significant concentric and eccentric strength levels to counteract these forces as you accelerate your body.  Keep in mind, when sprinting, you’re experiencing up to five times body weight with each foot contact with the ground.  In any running event, regardless of duration, the individual who possesses the strength levels to consistently and repeatedly overcome the downward force of gravity and inertia, is ideally suited to meet the demands of fast running and usually wins the race.

Here’s the common sense:

If “fast feet” was crucial to the development of speed, then why doesn’t Michael Flatley, of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance fame, possess multiple Olympic gold medals and world records in the 100m?

In 1998, Michael was recognized by Guinness Book of World Records for having a tap dancing speed of 35 taps per second!  And while he best exemplifies the concept of fast feet, how do you think he would fare against Usain Bolt?  If “fast feet” were required for speed, then tap dancers would be a dominate force in any sport requiring speed.  How many tap dancers have played on Monday Night Football?

Myth #2 Speed ladders reinforce proper sprinting mechanics.

The breakdown of proper sprinting mechanics is a function of fatigue and inadequate strength levels on the part of the athlete, not due to an inadequate volume of movement mechanics practice.  For example, once you reach your top running speed, your erector spinae muscles contract isometrically, keeping your upper body upright, allowing you flex your knees up towards your torso, allowing for a long stride.  However, once your erector spinae muscles fatigue, you lean forward at the waist, thereby shortening the length of your strides and the ground covered.  Watch any 100m race and the weakest athletes are the ones who, near the finish line, adopt a forward leaning posture, with their upper body in front of their lower body.

The Training Program

The following three-phase program is based on valid exercise science, but more importantly, encapsulates the practical experience which comes from having written hundreds of training programs for national level athletes.  Change anything in the program and you not only reduce its efficacy, but you waste your time.

Phase One 

A1) Petersen Step-ups, Dumbbells  4 x 20, 15, 12, 10  Tempo: 1-0-1-0  90 seconds rest

A2) Lying leg curl, unilateral, foot turned inward, Poliquin style  4 x 6-8  Tempo: 4-0-X-0  90 seconds rest

B1) Split Squats Front Foot Elevated, Low Pulley  4 x 20, 15, 12, 10  Tempo: 4-0-2-0  75 seconds rest

B2) 45 degree back extension, snatch grip barbell  4 x 6-8  Tempo: 2-0-1-6  75 seconds rest

C1) Seated Calf Raises, Unilateral, Foot Turned Outward  3 x 10-12  Tempo: 2-1-1-1 60 seconds rest

C2) Hanging Garhammer Raises  3 x 10-12  Tempo: 2-0-1-0 60 seconds rest

Total workout time: 41 minutes 18 seconds – 44 minutes 52 seconds

Highlights:

• Petersen step ups strengthen the VMO at terminal knee extension, which reduces the stance phase, minimizing the point at which both feet touch the ground while running

• Unilateral leg curls correct strength imbalances between the two legs, significantly reducing the risk of hamstring injuries

• Poliquin style leg curls: feet are dorsiflexed on the concentric and plantar-flexed on the eccentric

• The six second isometric hold at the top of the back extension, strengthens the erector spinae muscles in a manner needed to maintain a vertical running position while at your top speed

• Garhammer raises strengthen the abdominals, reducing excessive hip rotation and helps transfer forces generated by arm drive to the lower body

Phase One Workout Sheet

Phase Two

A) Bent-knee Deadlifts and Shrugs, Pins set below the Knee, Snatch Grip  6 x 4,4,6,6,8,8  Tempo: 2-2-X-0  180 seconds rest

B1) Split Squats Back Foot Elevated, Dumbbell  4 x 6-8  Tempo: 5-0-X-0  100 seconds rest

B2) Kneeling Leg Curl, 3 Postions Dorsiflexed  4 x 4-6  Tempo: 5-0-X-0  100 seconds rest

C) Standing Calf Raise Machine, Feet Neutral, Mid Stance  3 x 10/10/10  Tempo: 2-0-X-0  90 seconds rest

Total workout time: 41 minutes 22 seconds – 45 minutes 22 seconds

Highlights:

• Partial range of motion deadlifts allow for a significantly greater loading of the posterior chain, preparing hip extension for the high eccentric loads experienced at top speed running

• Rear foot elevated split squats place greater demands on the VMO at the bottom position, while helping to improve hip flexion flexibility

• Performing leg curls with various foot positions minimize strength imbalances between the three different hamstring muscles, further reducing the risk of injury

• On the leg curls, change your foot position every set: out, neutral, in, out.

• Standing calf raises are performed as drop sets, perform 10 reps, reduce weight and rest ten seconds, perform ten more reps, reduce weight and rest ten seconds, perform last ten reps and rest 90 seconds.

Phase Two Workout Sheet

Phase Three

A1) Squat Jump 6 x 4-6  Tempo: 1-0-X-0  10 seconds rest

A2) Snatch Pulls Above Knee, from Hang Position  6 x 4-6  Tempo: 1-0-X-0  120 seconds rest

B1) Front Squats  4 x 4-6 Tempo: 4-0-X-0  120 seconds rest

B2) Kneeling Leg Curl, Foot Neutral and Dorsiflexed  4 x 4-6  Tempo: 2-0-X-0  120 seconds rest

Total workout time: 31 minutes 32 seconds – 32 minutes 48 seconds

Highlights:

• This phase is designed to target the CNS, teaching your body to recruit a greater number of muscle fibers

• Squat jumps reduce the time spent between switching from an eccentric to concentric contraction, while further strengthening the VMO at terminal knee extension

• The shorter workout time, ensures only high quality, explosive repetitions are executed.  Performing explosive exercises when excessively fatigued leads to the development of faulty movement patterns and injury

Phase Three Workout Sheet

Conclusion

Everyone recognizes the significance of speed in sport, however few people realize the improvements a properly designed and executed resistance training program can have on an athlete’s speed potential.  Strength training will not only improve your ability to overcome inertia, but will minimize your risk of injury.  And while there might be some truth to the adage that “sprinters are born and not made,” anyone can utilize resistance training to reach their genetic potential.

Be Someone Special.

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10 thoughts on “The Need for Speed: Ladders Not Included

  1. I’ve read this blog over and over again and there is very little that I can agree with. While we don’t spend a whole lot of time on ladders but disregarding them as part of speed protocol is not in my equation but people will debate that and thats fine. But this writer either doesn’t know or is misinformed about the science of speed training. When he talks about speed training he only references lineal speed when the focus should be on first step and COD. I regards to his weight training protocol, I totally and 100% disagree with using leg curls as part of an athletes protocol and turning feet in, out or keeping them straight makes no difference what so ever, again, the focus should be kept on total posterior chain strength and development. Athletes as well as the general public function
    on multi-joint movements not isolation that like saying preacher curls work the “lower bicep” it just isn’t factual especially looking at it from a physiological view.

    I just also need to add, unless you train sprinters who always run in a lineal motion this article might have some merit, but since almost all sports are COD, especially football and baseball the article is flawed. I train numerous athletes in both football and baseball but in football the 40 time is becoming irrelevant in combines and most coaches are looking for the 10 yard split.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write a lengthy reply. We always appreciate and welcome a healthy dialogue when it comes to training. Here are a few issues:
      Ultilizing different foot positions for leg curls allows you to preferentially recruit different protions of the hamstrings. Keep in mind the hamstrings are comprised of three independent muscles: semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris (long and short head). And by changing the positions of the feet, you give priority to one of the three because of their line of pull. By changing the foot position, one muscle group will have a more favorable line of pull (due to their orgin/insertion) and will be performing the majority of the work. Yes, the other two hamstring muscles will contribute, but they’re limited by their line of pull (tendons).

      Additonally, in some instances, hamstring pulls are caused by one of the hamstring muscles over powering the other two. This strengh imbalance between the hamstring muscles is often overlooked, because most “coaches” haven’t reviewed their anatomy text books since leaving college. The muscle with the most favorable line of pull, is going to do the work.

      When at a full sprint, you’re absorbing forces up to 5 times your body weight, this also applies when changing direction. Actually, greater forces are encountered because you have to plant your foot, thereby generating a high level of eccentric forces, and you then must immediately neutralize/absorb those forces and alter your course of direction, as fast as possible. The stronger you are, in relation to your body weight, the less steps you’ll need to accomplish this, but usually occurs within 2-3 steps. When coaches utilize speed ladders for change of direction drills, they have their athletes practice changing their direction over the entire length of the ladder, which is completely unrealistic because:
      1. In a real game situation, you’re not going to have the luxury of taking 20+ steps to change direction.
      2. Practing changing direction on a ladder drill does not generate the high level of forces seen in the field. If it did, there is no way the athlete could maintain the high velocity for that many steps…at least, not without an ACL/meniscus injury.

      Have you ever watched Devin Hester, of the Chicago Bears play a game? He’s a return specialists, leading the NFL with the most kickoff return touchdowns: 14. Watch him play and keep the following in mind: When changing direction, does he take 2-3 steps, or does he take 20-30 steps, as if doing a ladder drill?

      So, regardless of whether running in a linear direction or changing direction every other step, a high level of lower body strength is needed to overcome the forces involved.
      And for the record, we totally agree…the 40 is irrevelant.

      Cheers.

  2. Thank you for answering my reply, I do appreciate it. But one of the things that I still find interesting in your reply is in fact it still seems you’re in favor of still training using a single joint exercise. For hypertrophy I can understand (we believed that 25-30 years ago with bodybuilding-type training) but for overall function as it pertains to posterior chain strength and knee health is still a primitive method of training for the athlete. In our practice we prefer exercises such as GH raise, reverse hyper, RDL, unilateral RDL, DL, etc. Using a leg curl, no matter how your feet is turned is simply an inferior method and runs the risk of having one chain in that posterior chain link off balance thus causing possible injury on the field.

    As for the ladder. I agree with you about the amount of force it takes in not only a full sprint but in first step as well. But unless a RB or receiver breaks through that line he’s not going to use that full power of FORCED APPLICATION but rather he will usually be running a COD. Most ACL injuries as you probably know occur from either lateral hits or coming off the inside leg when cutting instead of loading the opposing hip. We use the ladders to help reinforce not only the forced application (power) it takes to produce speed but also to help teach breakdown steps (or chop steps) when going into a hard cut as well as deceleration. I’m just not the type of coach that believes that running will make you faster, please don’t get me wrong on that, I am a firm believer that speed starts in the weight room but just because an athletes can squat 500lbs and DL 550 doesn’t mean he can run 4.3 40 or have a 1.5 10 split or move his feet fast enough to get out of the way. it’s also a combination of on field mechanics and technique that helps make the athlete complete. Stride length x stride frequency still equals speed but again, for the purpose of our athletes stride frequency is still it as well as injury prevention. Please do not take these replies the wrong way, I mean no disrespect. I am just as passionate about our training as you are about yours.

    • We do use GHR and every variation of RDL, DL, and reverse hypers. The hamstrings have both hip extension and leg flexor functions, so we train both, to ensure optimal strength ratios between both functions.
      Also, there’s the additional concept of “time investment.” Athletes only have a certain amount of time in which to prehab/rehab injuries and prepare for the coming season. When presented with the option of investing an athlete’s time either with strength training or ladder drills, strength training wins every time. It’s the retun on investment that concerns me.
      We appreciate your time and comments and are in no way offended. Numerous people are reading these comments and learning from them.

  3. Xavier says:

    This article applies to those who think that speed ladder training will help with linear straight forward all out sprint. However, in case readers get misinformed, there is another type of speed: agility. I’m sure we all know that linear speed is just one component in an athlete’s performance on the field. What separates the great players from the good are a combination of top speed and agility, strength and technique aside. While trying to improve your linear speed through speed later training is not the way to go, it is a good tool as part of agility training: the ability to change directions quickly without losing speed nor control. Besides that, it teaches proper feet coordination to athletes with poor coordination and also improves other areas such as body balance while moving quickly in different directions.

    In general, the training program looks very good. However, in phase 3 of your program, which I believe is a ‘power/strength’ phase, shouldn’t there be an Olympic lift or variation? Power clean, power snatch or their full versions. Certainly they are a better choice than squat jump and snatch pull above knee.

    Perhaps the title of this article should be renamed to The Need for Linear Speed in case readers get the wrong message(such as young aspiring athletes). That is unless it is just targeted at sprinters or other athletes who only run in one direction.

    • Xavier, you should check the literature to see how much one can acutally improve agility beyond the 12-14 years old. And if you do happen to train athletes in that age range, the following issues arise:
      How many sports requires the athletes to move their feet in prearranged patterns?
      Which provides a greater and realistic training effect: developng strength to displace their body/overcome inertia or practicing prearranged foot patterns that fail to simulate the true forces encounterd on the field?
      The issue of time, which provides greatest bang for the buck?

      Instead of thinking of ot as an “agility” issue, think of it as a “change of direction” issue. In which case, brings us back to the issue of how much forces are generated/encounted by an athlete when trying to change direction during a full sprint?

  4. GregH says:

    I know I’m a little late to this party but I’ll weigh in anyway. I am someone who uses the ladder frequently. Usually 3 times per week for myself but not more than 10 minutes a session. I believe there are benefits from using the ladder but I agree increasing speed is not one of them. The biggest benefits to me are balance, coordination, stabilization, and proprioception. This is especially true when an athlete is raw. I would suspect that if EMG testing was done on the muscles supporting the knee and ankle joints during ladder work it would show higher activity in those areas than in most other activities. MIchael Flatley may not win any races but I bet he is less likely to suffer a non contact ankle sprain or knee injury than the average person. It’s like you said if the spinal erectors are weak and fatigue too soon the runner’s posture changes causing deceleration. The same concept applies with the supporting structures of the lower leg. Knee stabilizers fatiguing too soon could cause changes in the runner’s gait as well. The ladder is a quality tool in a holistic approach to athletic enhancement and injury prevention. It’s also a pretty good warm up.

    How many sports requires the athletes to move their feet in prearranged patterns?

    How many sports require athletes to isolate their semitendinosis? There may be a muscle imbalance and terms like “line of pull” sound good but lets look at that. Why would you need to put the foot in a position that it is never in while running? Shouldn’t the muscle with the line of pull most utilized while running be the strongest?

    • Agree with you, for the most part. Performing leg curls with the feet in different positoons, allows you to preferentially recruit one hamstring muscle over the others. Since you’re only as strong as the weakest link, by working the hamstrings independently, you increase their overall strength. If you performed leg curls with the foot in neutral position only, the medial/lateral hamstrings would not be as strong and would limit your performance on the field.

      If you enjoy ladder drills, them by all means, keep doing them. But understand, that while your form might be ideal while performing ladder drills, it’ll most likely break down once you increase the forces your transferring into the ground.

      As for Michael Flatlet suffering less non-contact ACL injuries, who knows? I have never seen him run/sprint/change direction at high speeds, and since his talents lie in moving his feet at high speeds, not generating high levels of force, it would probably take him an hour to run the 40.

      Thanks for the coment.

  5. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you
    writing this write-up plus the rest of the website is also really good.

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