It’s easy to assume speed and agility are one in the same. And, while they’re related, they’re separate measurements. You’ve probably heard of “SAQ” training or “speed, agility, and quickness.” Several types of athletes use this type of functional training to improve their performance. Plus, SAQ often incorporates working at a high heart rate, which burns calories fast. Speed is the ability to accelerate and reach maximal velocity, as in during sprints. Agility is a rapid, whole-body, change of direction or speed in response to a sports-specific stimulus, according to the NSCA Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. “Quickness” is arguably not a measurable thing so instead think of the “Q” as a “C” that stands for change of direction. Change of direction is the physical capacity to change direction while decelerating and then re-accelerating in a different direction.
For our purposes, we’re focusing on change of direction and agility, the latter of which includes reacting to something while you’re moving.
What do you need agility for?
Athletes and non-athletes use agility every day, whether it’s maneuvering around rocks during a trail run, changing direction during a soccer game, reaching towards the highest cabinet in your kitchen, carrying things upstairs, or walking on a busy street. Agility training can improve cognitive ability, power production, and ultimately sports performance. Let’s go through those three, one at a time.
A 2013 Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research study found that agility training improved scores on continuous memory, visual focus, and audio instructional tests in military personnel compared to just doing standard military training. The subjects did cone, ladder, and various change of direction drills for six weeks and saw improvements in cognition. It’s important that workouts include some type of “think fast” element to help with high-pressure situations that life might throw your way.
In terms of power, five weeks of agility training resulted in higher jumps in college students, including single-leg jumps, according to a 2010 Kinesiology study. When it comes to agility and change of direction, more changes in direction equals better speed and aerobic capacity, says a 2018 Kinesiology study. Female basketball players that did six weeks of high-intensity interval training that included change of direction drills improved their ability to perform “V cuts” or sharp turns. However, women that did drills with three changes of direction instead of one improved their 20-meter sprint times and did better during a Tabata-style interval workout.
These are just a few ways that agility training can boost your fitness game.
How agile are you?
There are several tests that measure agility and change of direction ability. Some of the most popular ones are the T-Test, 505 agility, pro agility, Illinois test, and L-run. Check out how to do three of them below.
Equipment needed: four cones, a tape measure that can measure five yards, and a stopwatch.
The setup: Place one cone on the ground (Cone 1). Walk forward ten yards and place another cone on the ground (Cone 2). Now, walk to your left for five yards and place another cone on the ground (Cone 3). Last, walk to the right ten yards and place another cone on the ground (Cone 4). This should form a “T” shape with the four cones.
How to do it:
- Stand at Cone 1. Start a timer or have a partner start a timer. Sprint forward towards Cone 2 and touch the base of the cone with the right hand.
- Stay facing forward and shuffle towards Cone 3. Touch the base of the cone with the left hand.
- Shuffle to the right towards Cone 4 (which will be a ten-yard shuffle) and touch the base of the cone with your right hand.
- Shuffle to the left back to Cone 2, touch the base of the cone, and backpedal for ten yards to Cone 1.
Aim for a time of nine to 15 seconds.
This test measures the ability to step in all directions in a short amount of time. It requires precision and ankle stability to perform well.
Equipment needed: adhesive tape, measuring tape or stick, stopwatch.
The setup: Create a hexagon (six-sided shape) on the floor using adhesive tape that has 24-inch sides.
How to do it:
- Stand in the middle of the hexagon. Start a timer or have a partner start a timer. Double leg hop from the center over the front side without having your feet touch the tape. Immediately hop back to the center.
- Jump over the next side that’s clockwise from the top side; then, jump back to center. Continue hopping over each side and back to center until all sides have been jumped over. This equals six jumps.
- Do three total revolutions around the hexagon this way for a total of 18 jumps. You should end in the center where you started.
Aim for 12-20 seconds to complete three revolutions around without touching the lines.
Pro Agility Test
This test requires change of direction and is useful for basketball, soccer, football, and other field sports.
Equipment needed: This drill is best done on a football field but can also be done in a ten yard area. If not using a football field, you’ll need adhesive tape. Either way, you’ll need a stopwatch.
The setup: If on a football field, you’ll stand in the center of a yard line. If using open space, create three vertical lines: Line 1 is the center line, Line 2 is the left line that’s spaced five yards to the left from Line 1, and Line 3 is the right line spaced five yards to the right from Line 1.
How to do it:
- Start the timer or have a partner start the timer. Sprint five yards to Line 2, touch the line with your left hand, change direction, then sprint ten yards to Line 3 and touch the line with your right hand.
- Immediately change direction again and sprint five yards through Line 1 (where you started).
Male and female college athletes score anywhere between 4.41 to 5.19 seconds.
Exercises for Agility
You can improve agility by performing the various aforementioned agility tests and by incorporating specific drills into your workouts. For example, cutting drilling using cones, agility ladder drills, and short circuit workouts with lateral movement are ways to become more athletic. Furthermore, a concept called small-sided games can be used by athletes looking to really work on decision making and quick movements. In small-sided games, you reduce the number of players and/or the size of the playing area to make things more intense for a short period of time. So, a small-sided soccer game would call for 3 vs. 3 in a 20 x 30-yard area instead of 11 vs. 11 using the entire field. Or, a basketball game would have 3 vs. 3 using only half the court instead of 5 vs. 5 on the full court.
In addition to the tests themselves, agility and change of direction drills can be done one to three times per week for 12 weeks for optimal improvement. These sessions only take ten to 15 minutes and should be done before strength training and cardio.
You can also search the term “agility” to find various Aaptiv workouts that focus on agility training. Here are two agility drills involving cones.
Circle and Accelerate
How to do it: Set up four cones, each five yards apart in a straight line. Run towards cone 1 and make a clockwise circle around it with your feet. Then, run towards cone 2 and repeat. After circling cone 4, turn around and repeat the drill using counterclockwise circles with your feet.
Zig Zag Cutting Drill
How to do it: Set up five cones, each five yards apart but in a zig-zag fashion. Cone 1 is the start, cone 2 is five yards apart at an angle, cone 3 is five yards apart on the other side and at an angle from cone 2, and so on. Cones 2-5 should look like the angles of a “Z” shape, only slanted since you want to make sharp cuts. Run towards cone 2, start braking down (decelerating) then change direction and cut towards cone 3. Now, decelerate, change direction and cut towards cone 4. Last, run through cone 5.
Now that you have the agility basics down, add agility training to your weekly workouts and watch your physical and mental performance improve overall.
Mark Barroso is an NSCA-CPT and Spartan SGX Coach.