Training for Speed, Agility and Quickness
Associate Professor, California State University, Fullerton
Division of Kinesiology and Health Promotion
Speed, agility and quickness (SAQ) training has become a popular way to train athletes. Any athlete from school children on a soccer field to professionals can benefit from SAQ training. This method has been around for several years, but is not used by all athletes primarily due to a lack of education regarding the drills. SAQ training may be used to increase speed/strength, or the ability to exert maximal force during high-speed movements. It manipulates and capitalizes on the stretch-shortening cycle while bridging the gap between traditional resistance training and functional specific movements. Some benefits of SAQ training include increases in muscular power in linear, lateral, horizontal, and multi-planar movements; brain signal efficiency; kinesthetic or body spatial awareness; motor skills; and reaction force and time.
SAQ training is not for beginners. It is an advanced form of training that should be introduced after a base of training has been established. Each athlete comes into a training program at somewhat different fitness levels, thus each athlete must train at different intensity levels. This form of training is best described as moderate exercise and should only be implemented after a solid foundation of strength training and conditioning has been developed.
As mentioned earlier, elastic muscle torque is the stretch-shortening cycle and is described as the combination of eccentric (muscle lengthening) and concentric (muscle shortening) actions. An eccentric muscle action is performed when an athlete lowers a weight such as the down portion of the movement in a biceps curl or a squat exercise. A concentric muscle action is the upward motion or opposite movement during the above exercises. When an eccentric action precedes a concentric action, the resulting force output of the concentric action is increased. It works similar to a rubber band that is stretched and then snaps back together. This is the essence of the stretch-shortening cycle and SAQ training. Examples in sports are a baseball or golf swing where an individual precedes the intended motion with a wind-up or pre-stretch. Without the eccentric action, or if there is a pause between the two actions, the increased force output of the concentric phase of the exercise will not occur. The stretch-shortening cycle takes place during every day activities such as walking and running yet is intensified greatly during SAQ training.
An appropriate warm-up session should precede every exercise session. Warm-up routines should begin with a general whole body activity such as cycling, walking or jogging at a low intensity. This will increase heat and blood flow to the muscles and tendons thereby preparing them for higher intensity workouts. This general warm-up should be followed by a specific warm-up that would consist of performing some of the session’s exercises at a low intensity.
It is a common experience that when an athlete attempts a new exercise there may be an occurrence of muscle soreness. This soreness, or more specifically “delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS),” usually peaks between 24 and 72 hours after the exercise session. The eccentric or lengthening portion of the exercise as described earlier primarily causes DOMS. Currently, the prevailing explanation for DOMS is micro muscle tears. The best-known way to reduce the development of DOMS is to “adapt” to the exercise stress. This requires repeated bouts over several weeks with sufficient rest between sessions. Since intense SAQ training involves eccentric exercise utilizing the stretch-shortening cycle, it is recommended that no more than two sessions per week separated by two or three days be employed with novice athletes.
A proper SAQ needs analysis involves two types of evaluation: the athlete’s functional strength, and the specific metabolic demands of competition. The metabolic demands of competition must be addressed in training and testing. The specific conditioning needed to execute technical assignments at competitive effort levels is referred to as special endurance. It is a variation on the speed-endurance concept which originated in racing events: the ability to maintain running speed after one to two seconds at maximal velocity, or to achieve maximum acceleration or speed during repetitive sprints. The underlying strategy is to develop reciprocal physical and technical qualities needed to achieve a pre-determined effort distribution, or a target pace or series of paces, in competition. The training implications for sports other than race events are relatively straightforward, but infrequently applied.
In short, before an athlete begins with an intense SAQ training program they should be tested to determine any deficits in performance. Also, the exercise time and duration should match the sport activity in which the athlete is to be engaged.
Sport speed (for our intended purposes) refers to the ability to run at maximum or near maximum speed. This phenomenon will only last four-and-a-half to six seconds, even for world-class athletes. Most sports outside of track sprinting do not offer the platform to showcase maximum running speed, however sprint training does underlie the foundation of numerous sports activities. Just think of how many critical game situations in various sports are won or lost by the ability or lack thereof to shift into a “higher gear” when needed. Increasing maximum running speed has a direct correlation with increasing one’s power output. The fastest runners are those athletes who spend less time on the ground, which is greatly determined by the athlete’s strength and power in relation to their body composition.
SAQ training will prepare the athlete to run faster through drills designed to work the specific muscles involved in fast locomotion. There is a myriad of drills available to athletes and coaches. Choose the drills which best mimic the activity or sport in which the individual is undertaking. Drills for speed will involve arm mechanics and stepping velocity as well as hill running and over speed running with the use of rubber bands.
Agility is the ability to decelerate, accelerate and change direction quickly while maintaining good body control without decreasing speed. Agility is closely aligned with balance by requiring athletes to regulate shifts in the body’s center of gravity while being subjected to postural deviation. Sports movements are generally not straight ahead, but require changes of direction in which lateral movements are used in the several planes of movement simultaneously. Sports are often played in short bursts of 30 feet or less before a change of direction is required. Because movements are often initiated from various body positions, athletes need to be able to react with strength, explosiveness and quickness from these different positions.
Drills for agility will involve change of direction movements and foot placement maneuvers that require the body to change planes of motion with a minimal loss of speed. Agility drills will also include stepping over obstacles and moving in and out of obstacles in and effort to teach the neuromuscular system to function as a unit for fast changes in direction.
Speed, rapidity and instancy are all words that have been used in defining quickness. One common theme to all of these descriptions is “rate” or the measure of something to a fixed unit. In this case, that fixed unit is time. When an athlete performs a task or movement in a relatively brief period of time, he/she can be described as being quick. Quickness, in and of itself, seems simple. An athlete is neither born quick nor slow. Although it is true that genetic potential plays an important role in an athlete’s physical abilities, many bio-motor skills that depend on quickness may be improved.
Quickness drills involve foot-striking maneuvers using a ladder or painted blocks on the ground. They also include partner reaction drills that train each individual to move at top speed as a consequence of some action by another athlete. Agility drills may also use resistance devices such as medicine balls to overload the system during training.
The needs analysis information described above is key when designing a program specifically for each athlete. Once the major and minor emphases of the training session have been identified, then the individual training sessions should reflect the building blocks for achievement of these goals. It is important to note that SAQ training is just one segment of the overall training plan that includes strength, balance, flexibility and core training. Each one of these may be an emphasis depending on where the athlete is in their training cycle.