Are we placing an unnecessary plateau on athletic speed and agility training by limiting high-speed speed and agility drills to bodyweight only?
For years, sports performance movement training has followed this general formula: build strength and power predominantly in the weight room, work on technique and repetition with predominantly bodyweight on the field or court. If you do it right, the lifting in the gym and repetition on the field should come together to allow the athlete to be the fastest and most agile that he or she can be.
But why did strength and conditioning for speed and agility logically evolve in this manner? Why did the notion of progressively overloading athletes in the gym, to produce the power needed to move quickly, stop in the gym and not get carried over into speed and agility on the field?
Note: We are not talking here about, for example, weighted sled drags or resistance bungee drills, which are designed to produce power, understanding that the drill itself is not being performed at or near full speed. We are talking about resistance applied to high-speed movement.
Is the issue that there is something inherently detrimental or not useful about progressively overloading athletes during speed and agility drills? Or, is it that attempting to overload the athlete with traditional resistance equipment during speed and agility drills is detrimental or not useful to athletes?
If the notion is that overloading athletes during speed and agility drills, regardless of what type of resistance is applied, and how it is applied, has a net negative training effect, then we can stop here. If it does not benefit the athlete, or harms the athlete, then today’s “weights in the weight room, bodyweight on the field” approach is best.
But, do today’s training practices and science support that notion? Or is it, in fact, a result of current speed and agility training concepts having evolved based on the use of traditional resistance equipment being applied in traditional ways? And if non-traditional resistance could be applied in new ways, which overcame the deleterious effects of traditional equipment for speed and agility training, would there be value in its application?
Why don’t S&C conditioning coaches like applying resistance to “high-speed” speed and agility work?
Some possible reasons:
Traditional resistance tools are weighted, so they either slow the athlete down, or if worn (like a weighted vest), also disrupt an athlete’s center of gravity and produce added impact.
- Speed and agility requires the development and sequential firing of fast-twitch muscles. Weighted speed and agility drills inhibit the development and firing of fast twitch muscles.
- Speed and agility require a consistent center of gravity. Weight, which is worn or pulled, disrupts an athlete’s center of gravity during movement.
- Speed and agility require that an athlete’s body move fluidly and naturally at or near full-speed. Weighted resistance inhibits fluid, natural movements, disrupting the full-speed coordination needed to move fast or be agile.
It is fair to say that given the shortcomings that traditional resistance equipment has for training speed and agility, it makes total sense that S&C coaches would mostly steer clear of it for full or near-full-speed speed and agility drills. Better to leave these drills to bodyweight-only, and work on technique and repetition vs. any kind of progressive overloading.
But does that mean that resistance, no matter what type or how it is applied, cannot be and is not beneficial when applied to at or near-full-speed speed and agility training? Can the proper application of progressive resistance during at or near full-speed movement result in positive adaptations, which allow the athlete to move faster and quicker than he or she otherwise would by relying only on bodyweight for speed and agility drills?
To answer that, it is helpful to look at how athletes train to improve speed and agility.
How do athletes improve speed and agility?
Living on a planet with gravity, all training [and the adaptations that flow from it], is resistance training. Our muscles and neuromuscular system respond to the stimuli placed upon it, and that stimuli is the weight generated from gravitational resistance. For bodyweight training, that resistance is from our bodyweight, or some fraction of it. In the simplest terms, during high-speed movement, our brains and our bodies work together to receive the stimuli placed upon them from the resistance applied, and then make the necessary reactions and adjustments to take us where we want to go! With repetition, our neuromuscular ability to process the stimuli quickens, resulting in more coordinated, better, faster movement.
But if the stimuli we are applying remains mostly constant (bodyweight), then our ability to improve is limited by the inability to increase the stimuli. It is no different than if we tried to get stronger in the weight room while limiting ourselves to only bodyweight exercises. We can improve up to a point, and hone our exercise technique to be as efficient as we can be, but we will, inevitably, plateau, and plateau beneath what we are ultimately capable of.
So, the question becomes not could progressively overloading at or near full-speed movement improve the speed of those movements, but what type of resistance do we need and how does it need to be applied?
First, the resistance needs to weigh very little, especially as a percentage of the bodyweight of the athlete. We do not want the weight of the resistance to slow the athlete down and inhibit the development and sequential firing of fast twitch muscles.
Second, the resistance should be applied in a way that does not disrupt the athlete’s center of gravity, which is so important to coordinated, efficient bodyweight movement.
Third, the resistance should be significant enough to amplify the resistive stimulus to the muscles and neuromuscular system, but without materially altering the athlete’s natural movement patterns.
If possible, what would this resistance look like, and how would it be applied?
The simplest form of near weightless resistance is the resistance band. It weighs very little, but comes in varying strengths. It also applies variable resistance; the amount of resistance increases the farther the band is stretched. This has various advantages, not the least of which is it prevents the athlete from accidentally being overloaded, and adds no additional impact as the athlete moves.
But, if the resistance band applies resistance, for example, horizontally (sheer resistance) attached at or near the waist, the athlete’s center of gravity is materially disrupted, and the farther the band is stretched, the more the athlete is slowed down, something we want to avoid. Furthermore, sheer resistance cannot be applied multi-directionally during full-speed movement. In other words, agility drills (or change of direction drills) involve almost instant direction changes. Sheer resistance cannot change direction as fast as the athlete moves. Finally, sheer resistance is not gravitational resistance, which the athlete, like all of us, actually experiences. So, in essence, sheer resistance systems elicit athlete adaptations to a force the athlete will never experience in a game or when the resistance is removed.
The question then becomes, how can you apply resistance band resistance in a way more closely resembling gravitational resistance, while also enabling it to change directions as fast as the athlete does?
The answer is to connect the resistance band from the waist to the foot.
As the band stretches, it is essentially pulling the athlete towards the ground…like more gravity without more weight. As the athlete stands erect and moves, extra resistive stimulation is applied, amplifying the stimulus to the muscles and neuromuscular system. As the bands, in this configuration, have essentially become an extension of the athlete’s body, they move as the athlete moves. The direction of the resistance is always “against” the direction the athlete is moving, resistance is not only applied “through” the ground as the athlete pushes off (as also occurs with sheer resistance), but resistance is also applied vertically down, generating important additional force into the ground. Finally, the resistance vector being applied continuously and always duplicates the force vector the athlete is generating into the ground.
Force production into as well as through ground in any direction.
Now we have a system, which can apply progressive overload during at or near full-speed movement, has virtually no weight, allows for fast-twitch muscle activation, does not disrupt center of gravity, and is capable of adjusting the direction and vector of resistance as fast as the athlete can. The neuromuscular system can now receive additional stimuli, allowing the athlete, much like he or she does in the weight room, to go past the limitations of bodyweight resistance, and reach his or her fullest speed and agility potential.
This development of a way to apply progressive overload to at or near full-speed movement in no way invalidates or discredits current thinking on building power in the weight room with weights and developing speed and agility technique with bodyweight and repetition, which continue to be an essential ingredient in athletic development. This type and application of resistance is simply another tool in the tool box, which allows coaches to help their athletes maximize their athletic potential, and to avoid unnecessary speed and agility plateauing.
Resistance simultaneously changes direction with the athlete.