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Agility Training Is Vital To People of All Ages & This Is Why

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 20 January 2021
Hits: 837

When most people think of agility training the first image that pops into their head is some sporting athletes jumping over hurdles and running in speed ladders. While agility is a great training method for sports, it is so much more than that and a very under-valued training method that can provide incredible skills to our body. Far too many people avoid using agility exercises for they lack coordination and have never been great at sports. Their fear of looking silly and making a mess of the exercise makes them avoid using this method which is unfortunate for they miss out on the amazing benefits they provide. What you will find out in this article is how valuable this type of training can be to people of all ages and abilities for improving how they move.

What Is Agility Training?

While agility training is certainly great for sporting athletes and often involves complex drills with speed ladders and hurdles to enhance sporting performance by making them move faster. People assume there is no value in using some of these exercises to enhance this ability for the rest of the population whose goal is not sporting performance but general strength, fitness, or even a weight loss type program. It certainly is not even considered with an older adult in their mid to late 70's who just wants a program to prevent falls and sarcopenia.

How wrong all of those assumptions are! Let me explain.

It is wise to examine exactly what the definition of agility is to see why I rate agility training so highly.

A simple definition of Agility is - "The ability to perform a series of explosive power movements in rapid succession in opposing directions."

While this sounds like it is only something we use in sports, it is the same ability an older adult will require to correct a slip or a fall. And the old saying, "use it or lose it" applies here. But it is not just with older adults preventing falls, parents playing with their kids at the local park, or walking with the dog will require certain skills of agility. The more agile you are the better you move and the less stress you will place on joints. The earlier you learn it the easier it is to keep it too which is why agility training is essential for kids! More on this later.

The good news is if that is exactly what you have been thinking you are now about to find out that there is a ton of exciting and challenging exercises you can add to your workouts that will give you a real boost mentally as much as physically.

I know for myself how inspired I am to get into my workout when I add something different to my training. Sometimes it is something I did a while ago and forgot about it, and other times it is experimenting with some new exercises while working on programs for clients that ended up improving my training.

Over the past few years, the one thing I regularly say to clients is this,

"I never find it hard teaching people to move slowly, but I find it very difficult teaching people to move fast, even when they need to!"

I used to think movement problems were all to do with a lack of strength, but this did not explain how people with incredible strength with isolated exercises moved so poorly. I came to realize that the people who moved the best and developed strength very easily could move very quickly with great control. It was nothing to do with the muscular strength that made them move so well, it was all to do with their TIMING.

You can read more about the importance of timing in this article – Stability training what is it really?

I have always found ball sports easy to master and I have played many at a high level. In my youth and right up until my mid-30's, I played several sports like tennis, basketball, football, and cricket all at the same time. The movement skills needed to excel in these sports came easy to me and I picked up new moves very quickly.

I remember trying to teach my team-mates in basketball some drills I used to improve my evasive skills and found it frustrating trying to explain how I did it. I couldn't understand why they couldn't get it. When I became a trainer I found I regularly had this same frustration as people were not able to master exercises I found easy to do.

When I first started as a trainer like most people I did not see the need to teach people who did not play sports agility, speed, or power training as I saw this as risky and irrelevant to their goals. In some ways it is, but what I came to learn was that not only are certain exercises valuable to the skill development they are critical for later years.

Let's take a closer look at the various populations you did not think need agility training.

Agility for the Older Adult

In my article about power training, I discussed in great detail just how important it is to maintain our ability to move fast and preserve our fast-twitch muscle fibres. Research shows that our ability to move fast using fast-twitch fibres declines 2-3 times faster than our muscular strength! The only way to stop this rapid slide is to use exercises and programs that continue to excite this ability. Power training is one way to do this and the focus is very much on acceleration.

However, it is not the only way and agility training is another method that achieves this same result. Unlike power training where the focus is on acceleration, the main focus with agility training is deceleration otherwise known as braking!

And it is during deceleration where most injuries occur in sports, where falls with older adults happen, and where hidden weaknesses and instability are easily exposed. It is for this reason that the value of using this type of training is invaluable and why I believe EVERYONE should be using agility exercises at least one or two times per week in their training.

Below is a great video example of a simple agility exercise we use with older adults.

This exercise we regularly use with elite athletes in sports like basketball and football!

The reason for using this drill, and the benefits the older adult receives from the exercise is vastly different to the basketball player but, the WAY THEY LEARN TO MOVE to execute this efficiently is EXACTLY THE SAME!

Both people will learn that to execute this perfectly they must have 3 fundamentals mastered.

  1. Know how to set the Core – Core Activation is the key to creating leverage and stability, throughout the body. Ideally, this will be a reflexive preparation before any movement will occur.
  2. Athletic Position – Neutral Spine, knees flexed, weight on heels, and muscles and joints ready to move quickly in any direction.
  3. Postural Position and Stability - Postural control must be established and maintained from neck, shoulder and, thoracic stability down through the lumbar spine and pelvis into the tracking of the knees and ankles. Dysfunction at any point in the chain can lead to potential injury.

Later on, these skills progress to a more complex skill set where we look at foot plant position and shoulder position, but this is the very fundamentals you need to to learn in the very beginning. See the article – Learning to change direction for more detail on this.

If you still do not believe me that agility training is essential to older adults consider this.

In a study completed by Maki and McIlroy in 2006 on the importance of rapid limb movement to balance recovery, they noted - "Every time we move volitionally we throw off our balance."

Every movement we make is a change in body position that we must control, in other words, every movement is an adventure in agility. The older we get the greater the adventure.

Another study by Zhen-Bo Cao on evaluating the success of a falls prevention program found whole-body reaction time improved by nearly 7% with older adults who completed agility training exercises.

People often assume it is mainly due to a lack of balance that leads to a fall. While balance is a factor by training in slow speeds that are very controlled does very little to change the skill needed to correct a slip or a trip.

When you are in your 30's or 40's and you slip or trip there is a very rapid response from the brain and nervous system so can adjust your centre of gravity, step forward, grab a stationary object, turn or tuck your body into a safer position for impact with the ground. This all happens in the blink of an eye.

This is a skill that can be trained and needs constant exposure to maintain its fast response. A very slow response is what you see with an older person who has not spent time developing skills of balance, agility, and power. The chance of an injury from a fall is very likely. The danger of falls to older adults cannot be overstated as seen in the statistics below.

It is not just older adults who benefit from agility, it is also extremely critical for the age group at the other extreme - KIDS!

Agility for Kids

There are many sports coaches and people involved in sporting clubs that feel it is unnecessary to do any significant agility work outside the practice of the actual sport. The thought process is that it is a waste of time and better just to play the game more!

And when they finally do put some agility training in place they use a random approach of throwing various drills together hoping it makes the players move faster. Just placing a stack of cones, hurdles, and, speed ladders and performing heaps of drills may look impressive, but what is the real benefit if the person does not understand the key concepts for using the drill and more importantly HOW TO DO IT RIGHT!

There have been countless studies put together to track the rate of injuries with kids in sports, with one study in 2003 showing that 3.5 million children under the age of 15 accounted for sports-related injuries. (Reference: "The ACL Solution" by Rober G Marx.  And when it comes to ACL injuries many surgeons often report they perform most surgeries on females aged between 12 and 18 years of age.

See the article why females are more at risk with ACL injury for more on this.

But why?

As with most things, it is not one factor, but several. We encourage kids to take up sports knowing they is not yet fully developed and this is a good thing. Children are still learning what risks are good to take and what are not, how to effectively train and compete, plus they will experience many rapid growth changes when they hit puberty. Just playing sports, whether you are an adult or a kid instantly places you at risk of injury as there is always the chance of collisions and the "wrong place at the wrong time" situation.

But when it comes to ACL injuries, statistics show that 70% of these injuries are from non-contact situations. Meaning they were caused by a poor cutting move or pivot or landing poorly from a jump. This is not bad luck but something that could have been avoided if a correct training program was employed early enough that addressed the bio-mechanical warnings of this upcoming injury.

Understand that an ACL injury will require 9-12 months of rehabilitation and 90% of people are never the same after this injury. Many will suffer from arthritis and instability later in life as a result. We can help kids avoid this injury by teaching them how to move correctly and placing as much importance on the AGILITY training as we do with the specific sports skills.

You can read more about training for kids in this article - Why it is so important for kids to learn change of direction skills

Agility for People in Their 40's and 50's

That covers older adults and kids, what about people in their 40's and 50's? This is a good question for years ago I would have told you it is not necessary and I would mainly focus on improving other things like mobility, stability, and strength. I did not see the relevance of teaching a 50-year-old office worker how to move fast with some agility exercises.

However, in more recent years I have come to change my mind and this is why.

If we know that we lose fast-twitch muscle fibres and our ability to move fast 2-3 times faster than we lose muscular strength and a loss of this is attributed to falls in older adults, when is it easier to teach someone how to move with fast reactions and the ability to correct a slip or fall?

When they are in their mid 70's and have significant muscle loss, lack of mobility, and poor coordination? Or when they are in the late 40's when they still have good muscular strength, mobility, and coordination?

I know what my answer is. This age group is where things can very quickly deteriorate if you are not paying attention.

We all age differently, and it changes dramatically from the age of 40 if you are not aware of the potential danger that loss of muscle mass can bring. Look at the picture below to see the potential change in aging. This picture shows the aging process of two people of the same age and how dramatic the difference is by remaining active versus inactivity.

 

  • The person represented by the blue line is someone who exercises and adopts things like agility and strength training that maintains functional movement skills for their entire life.
  • The person represented by the orange line shows a person who does not exercise and the steep decline in muscle mass and function is much more rapid where they eventually reach a point where they reach what is known as the disability threshold.

I can tell you it is so much easier to teach someone in their 40's and 50's than later on. And the best part is once your brain has seen these skills enough times and you have mastered them, you never really lose the skill. You need to keep working on it, but it remains stored in your body's nervous system as an automatic reflex response.

If people were to adopt some simple agility exercises in these years their body would thrive on the ability to move freely and with great speed. I can tell you first hand, being 46 years old myself, that my body loves it when I practice these exercises. At first, when I am a bit rusty I am a bit awkward but once I get into it my body loves the feeling of moving fast with little effort. It is so hard to explain but you can really feel the difference it makes to how you do things during the day.

You can read more about training for this age group in the article - Secrets to staying in great shape in when you are 40

That covers all the age groups so what are the fundamentals you need before we start getting into the multitude of drills and exercises?

The Fundamentals You Need To Know

When people look to get in shape they believe that moving well will just happen. All they have to do is get out there and get it done and the body will fix itself. Unfortunately, it won’t. And movement problems will only get worse when compounded by frequency and volume of training.

I provided some of the very basic skills earlier but there are a few more you will need to know. The real essence of agility work comes down to single leg stability and single leg strength and the ability to decelerate and brake.

Very rarely do we jump or land on two feet so it makes perfect sense to address any weakness with single-leg stability first. You will find a great article about this here - How to use the single leg squat as an assessment to pinpoint weakness

The most basic concept of agility is that to move to the left you must push off with the right foot. This means you need to have a degree of strength in single-leg and split stance positions and the ability to transfer your weight very quickly.

"If you cannot decelerate you will not be able to change direction and accelerate." - Mike Boyle

The goal with agility drills should be efficient, effortless, flowing movement that transfers directly to the functional task you are trying to improve.

Training deceleration is essential to providing the person with the tools to execute stops, instantaneous changes of direction, and explosive first step quickness. In the article I wrote a few years ago - The Secret to getting faster is learning to brake I provide a stack of examples of how to train deceleration using a clever acronym invented by Twist Conditioning called BRAKES.

BRAKES means:

  • Balance (Performance Balance)
  • Reaction
  • Agility
  • K(q)uickness
  • Explosive Speed AND Eccentric Strength

This article gives you specific exercises for each of these components that you can check out and in part two I will refer to several of these in more detail, but to give you some really basic skills to start with the following exercises are what I suggest.

1: Athletic Ready Position

I know this sounds pretty simple but it is amazing how many people start in a terrible position. If you start in a poor position you will continue and end up in a poor position. The video above shows you six fundamentals starting with how to set up the athletic ready position.

You must achieve this position with a neutral spine, knees flexed, hips low, chest up, and core set. You need to be well balanced with muscles and joints ready to move. This ready position puts the body in the optimal position for first step quickness in any direction.

Key Points

  • Feet shoulder-width apart
  • Weight evenly distributed on the balls of your feet
  • Neutral spine
  • Knees slightly flexed
  • Hips low
  • Chest up
  • Core set

2: Lateral Bound

The Lateral Bounds introduce the first time you need to move in a lateral direction. This is a great way to test the ability to absorb the landing and maintain perfect posture and alignment while decelerating and stopping to a controlled landing position.

The main thing you are looking for in this drill is the ability to stop and control balance while maintaining perfect alignment between the foot, knee, and hip.

Key Points

  • Perfect alignment with the foot, knee, and hip
  • Foot plant perfectly parallel
  • Arms lead legs and come across the body
  • Neutral spine
  • Triple extension with ankle, knee, and hip
  • Chest up
  • Core set

These two simple drills set the foundations for learning the much more difficult change of direction skills to come. Before that the need to perfect single-leg stance exercises, lunges, basic squats, and deadlifts cannot be over-stated. If you spend the time to do this it will pay off in buckets when you move to the more challenging stuff in part two.

3. Setting The Core

This is a massive topic in its own right and I cannot do it justice to explain all the details surrounding this so I encourage you to read the detailed articles about this subject below.

To help you out right now you can watch the two videos below where I show the fundamentals of bracing with floor based exercises on the left and how to incorporate that into integrated movement in the video on the right.

  

Special Reports With Additional Information

Below are some great reports you can download with tons of information specific to older adults and also with ACL injuries as mentioned in this article. In both of these reports is detailed assessments and step by step instructions for implementing functional movement patterns and agility drills.

   

Summary

Okay so that brings us to the end of part one with agility and part two is going to include a ton of drills and exercises using speed ladders, hurdles, cones, slingshot tubing, and move.

The main point I wanted to emphasize in this newsletter is the value of using agility exercises in your training to improve how you move. As I said at the very beginning I never have trouble teaching people to move slowly but I have many difficulties teaching people to move fast. The people who can move quickly and control their body position will be able to move effortlessly in life, and will easily be able to add a whole new dimension to their training.

These exercises can be awkward at first, but if you spend the time to learn them you will find they are so much fun and extremely rewarding. But most important of all you will move well.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can organise a consultation or Zoom online program if you live overseas.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Bending the Aging Curve - By Joseph Signorile
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions for the Hip & Shoulder - by Evan Osar
  • The Psoas Solution - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek