By Kimber Rozier CSCS, Pn1 – The New Zealand All Blacks are the most dominant team in the game and they regularly pull out their team speed ladder (or do reps on the marked off floor) to improve their speed, footwork, and timing and your club should too.
If that doesn’t want to make you get one, I don’t know what will. Oh wait, I do.
Let me explain.
Ladder drills are probably one of the most classic ways to develop footwork and timing as you prepare for training. Combined with some mobility and activation work, a ladder provides a well-rounded answer to an athlete’s warm up protocol. Moving quickly through the rungs raise the heart rate, moves you in multiple planes and stimulates the nervous system. In that vein – they’re also great for speed adaptations, specifically to enhance elasticity with plyos.
Basically any movement where you have to absorb energy, change direction and reproduce force as quickly as possible can be defined as plyometric. Jumping, landing and sprinting, hopping and other speed ladder drills fall into this category. Your muscles become coiled up like a spring, absorbing all of the energy from your initial momentum, and then bounce back to propel your body in a new direction.
Just like training your tackle technique or stacking your legs in the gym, you can train your reactive ability and neuromuscular coordination with a speed ladder. Practicing the motor neuron pathways of running or changing direction teaches the brain to fire the correct muscles. Repetitive training of exercise technique and timing allows an athlete’s movements to become more automatic… and therefore faster.
In addition to coordination, these drills train something called your stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) – the lengthening (stretch) of a muscle, switching gears and applying that force during a concentric (shortening) action. Think of a jump from height – you absorb your fall, catch yourself and then go again. It also happens every time we run. The person who can absorb their foot strike and get going again quickest is going to win the race. If the attacker can change direction faster than the defender can react, they blow past them. The more often you train your SSC, the more often you’ll win that battle.
SL dead leg skip
Work on single leg firing rate, speed off the floor and rapid coordination of your hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes. The leg outside the ladder will be the “dead” leg while the other is working to quickly pop between each hole.
- Establish a good posture and maintain it. Chest tall, core engaged and hips just underneath your ribcage.
- To begin, bring the inside knee up high with the ankle dorsiflexed, while the other leg stays straight outside of the ladder. Take care to not drop your chest towards your knee.
- Keeping the ankle dorsiflexed and heel below the knee, quickly fire your foot back into the ground through the first hole in the ladder. Time on the floor should be as fast as possible, mimicking running with one leg.
- Recover the heel under the glute, keep an acute shin angle, and rapidly re-strike into the next space.
- Start slower until you get the hang of it and gradually increase speed. Oh, and make sure to do both legs.
Back and forth
Something that happens a lot in the game, especially on defense, is launching hard off the line, backpedaling to get set, and then accelerating again. Use the back and forth ladder drill to help the body adapt to those demands.
- Start facing one side of the speed ladder with both feet outside and behind the first hole.
- Step your trail leg in the ladder first, followed by the lead leg OVER the ladder.
Both feet then travel outside of the ladder, quickly change direction, and the lead leg steps backwards through the next space.
- Finish with two feet on the starting side. One foot in, two feet over, one foot back and across.
- Start slow and use a 1-2-3 count in your head to get the rhythm.
- Immediately after returning to the starting side of the ladder, explode out of the blocks and go again.
Equally important is stopping your forward momentum, dropping the hips, bending the knees and transitioning into an effective backpedal. Your shoulders should always be slightly leaned forward – if it were a game, any backwards lean will see attackers running you over. Even though you’re traveling backwards, your center of mass is still over the midline of your hips.
Hops in to Sprint
Being able to drop into a sprint on a dime will separate you from the opposition before you even have to pick up speed. Starting this drill with pogos has the extra advantage of prepping your ankles to be stiff and elastic before asking them to power through a sprint.
Note – I recommend shortening the ladder so you only do 4-6 hops through the rungs before a sprint out. This way you can practice quick transition into a more natural running motion at velocity. However, if you’re really looking to focus on stride rate, finish the sprint through the rest of the ladder.
- Again with good posture (don’t hop around like a salmon, please), keep the legs relatively straight to hop on two feet through the first five spaces. It’s key to re-flex the toes after each bounce, almost as if you’re trying to clear a small hurdle.
- Transition your momentum after five hops and kick it into gear, either sprinting out 10 m or through each rung of the ladder with one foot in each space.
- Try not to land on one foot after the last hop, but rather both feet and then drive forward into a sprint from there. Remember fast feet through the gaps and accelerate through the sprint.
Happy speed ladder training!
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union and as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C. She is currently training with Harlequins in England.