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When it comes to speed, agility, and quickness training (SAQ for short), misunderstandings abound. “Some people think it’s just ladders and cones,” says speed coach Lester Spellman, owner of Spellman Performance in San Diego, who’s trained more than 50 Olympic athletes and 49 current NFL players.

In reality, this type of training is a matter of force development, not fast feet. “It’s about producing more strength in a shorter amount of time,” Spellman explains.

And that strength can be applied in any direction: while accelerating, decelerating, or changing directions, both linearly and multidirectionally.

“Essentially, you’re taking the physical capabilities you build in the gym — including stronger hip extensors, quads, and glutes from movements like squats — and applying that to various skills and specific patterns.” The result is greater agility, a fuller range of motion, and better proprioception — your body’s perception of how it moves in space.

“Training like this stimulates your fast-twitch muscle fibers. For most people, this tends to be an underdeveloped quality. Doing things fast adds a whole different element to your training.” (For more on muscle fibers, see “The Fast and Slow of It“.)

“It’s also high-intensity work,” adds Spellman. “Much more so than walking, jogging, or other low-level cardio. It will fry your muscles like max-strength work.”

It ramps up your heart rate, too, helping you get more out of your subsequent strength session. “Your body is primed and ready to go,” he adds, which helps prevent injury.

Agility training produces both physiological and neurological changes: The brain gets better at both recruiting more muscle fibers and synchronizing the firing of those fibers, further streamlining those actions.

“You build from posture first, then add patterns. From there, you can resist or assist those by adding more speed or load,” says Spellman. “You teach your brain and body that this is how you want to move.”

The Workout

With this routine, designer Lester Spellman advises patience and consistency, starting slow and building speed and dynamism over time. “Make it a regular practice and implement this work every single time you train,” he says. “Think slow and skillful, especially in the beginning.”

Do the following four moves at the start of your workout while your body and mind are still sharp — as part of your warm-up, for instance — rather than doing a lot of challenging SAQ work all at once and sporadically.

“It doesn’t matter how much you learn or do in one day — it’s how much you learn over time,” he says.

And as with any skill, becoming more athletic just takes smart progressions and some practice: “We see athletes go from recreational to Olympic level within 18 months, but you can see changes within a couple of weeks.”

Wall Switches

4 x 10 reps

illustration of wall switches
  • Stand facing a wall, palms flat against it and arms straight, just far enough back that your body is angled about 30 degrees forward.
  • Keeping your body straight from head to heel, lift one knee, pulling your toe up and keeping your heel back under your hamstrings so that your lower leg mimics the angle of your body.
  • From there, moving as crisply as possible and moving both legs simultaneously while still maintaining your angle and position, switch which leg is up, holding for a beat at the top. Repeat.
  • If you’d like to progress the exercise, move in rapid doubles and triplets instead of pausing between single reps.

Kneeling Lateral 5-Year Sprint

4 x 5 yards each direction

illustration of kneeling lateral sprint
  • Kneel with one leg forward, both legs bent to 90 degrees, torso upright.
  • Whichever leg is forward, begin with that same-side arm back, opposite arm forward, both bent (as they would be when you’re running).
  • Initiate the movement by driving sideways off of your forward leg, opening up by turning your torso and leaning in the direction you’re moving.
  • Sprint through 5 yards, then coast to a stop.
  • Another option is to perform this exercise moving forward rather than sideways.

Lateral double Cross-Over Run

4 x 5 yards each direction

illustration of lateral double crossover run
  • Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, knees bent slightly and torso angled slightly forward.
  • Shift your weight into one leg and bring your opposite leg across in front of your body while still facing forward.
  • As that foot lands, follow with your other behind you to again assume a shoulder-width-stance position, still without turning your upper body.
  • Immediately reverse direction, bringing the opposite foot across the front of you this time and bringing the other behind you.
  • Again immediately reverse direction, performing the original motion, only this time continue to sprint through 5 yards. Repeat.

5-10-5

4 reps each direction

illustration of person performing 5-10-5
  • Set up three cones 5 yards apart, or about five exaggerated steps.
  • Stand just behind the middle cone, feet about shoulder width apart, and crouch down into a squat position, with one hand reaching toward or even touching the ground, and keeping your spine neutral.
  • Mimicking the last crossover step from the previous drill, drive out of that position and turn toward whichever cone is in the direction of your arm that is down, staying low and keeping your torso angled forward.
  • As you approach that cone, take shorter, choppier steps and gradually lower your body and turn sideways to the direction you began, reaching toward or touching the ground once more.
  • Perform another crossover step, this time sprinting past the middle cone to the far one, again lowering yourself and facing the direction you began.
  • Perform another crossover step and sprint through to the middle cone. Repeat.

This article originally appeared as “Change of Direction” in the June 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Illustrations by: Kveta
Jen
Jen Sinkler

Jen Sinkler, PCC, RKC-II, is a fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis. Her website is www.jensinkler.com.

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