This past year I turned 30 and become a father of two. I’m married and in bed by 8 pm. When I drink, I never have more than a couple and when I socialize I’m interested to hear about local housing markets and the quality of a town’s schools. Looking back on college or my first years working feels like looking in on the life of a different person. Upon reflection, it is startlingly self-evident that I’m getting older, fast. But, I don’t feel any older.
I still lift or go for a run six or seven days per week, bike to work each day, and feel as much energy and vitality as ever. Perhaps more. Yet, a few weeks ago, playing in the annual teacher versus student volleyball game, I noticed some deterioration. The fast-paced, 360-degree play was a bit dizzying at first. Jumping up and reaching for a spike, my entire right side clamped down.
Should have warmed up my lats better? And why was I so tired? It’s not like I was running up and down the court, playing full-court basketball. The next morning my body was sore all over. As much as I workout, it had been a long time since I called upon my body to meet the violence and agility required for three-dimensional human endeavors.
Even if you’ve never been an athlete, the human body is made to move athletically. We are made to apply movements in reaction to external stimuli and across all three planes. While there is wisdom in respecting your limits and living to train another day, this line of thinking can slip into excessive avoidance that invites decay.
Furthermore, for the many who train and consider themselves in great shape, it is shocking to see how insufficient training modalities are when divorced from the dynamic, chaotic, and reactive nature of sport.
For most of human history, these violent movements were an essential part of daily life, ensuring the ability to avoid danger and stalk prey. Perhaps that isn’t your reality, but wouldn’t it be nice to stay capable longer? Furthermore, wouldn’t it be fun to spice up your workout routine?
If you haven’t read my last piece on sprinting I recommend starting there because the same sprint preparation should precede agility and max effort jumping. Sprinting is just a series of single leg jumps. Agility is just rapid acceleration, rapid deceleration, and rapid reacceleration. Therefore, the same preparation phase used to be ready to sprint applies here. Most importantly, you’ll want to have a strong resistance training foundation.
Go Ahead and Jump
Jumping is a very natural, simple, and massively effective means to train power. Many programs have jumps in them, but they are often used as a form of HIIT or as a way to do a cardio workout in a limited space. Jumping requires a massive amount of energy so it can be a very effective way to jack the heart rate and metabolism.
Having said that, these methods don’t train power. They can’t because they quickly burn through the ATP and CP energy pathway and never allow these fuel sources to recover. When you use jumps to train power each rep should be done with the intensity and focus on mechanics that you would bring to a one rep max or heavy singles.
Before you fly you want to make sure you have the ability to safely land. The same applies to jumping. I recommend adding a few sets of elevation drops to your weight training. Simply stand on a box or bench and step off landing softly in an athletic position. Toes to heels—chest over knees over toes.
Think of it as a spectrum where Jell-O is at one end and a rigid board is at the other. You want to proportionally flow from Jell-O to rigid. If you were holding a full cup of water the idea would be not to spill any.
Every time you jump the muscles, tendons, ligaments and an internal defense mechanism known as the spindles are stretched and reflexively spring in the other direction. This is known as the stretch reflex.
In addition to learning to fire motor units more rapidly, jump training is simply training a faster, more efficient stretch reflex. Athletic jumping should work toward coupling jumps together.
The goal is to shorten the window between ground reaction and controlled powerful jumps. For more on jump training for athletes see my article: Young Athletes Must Hip Hinge. As for us, we’re ready to start.
Try incorporating these essential exercises:
- Broad jumps
- Skater hops
- Skater hop to vertical
- Two-step vertical
For best results, I recommend programming jumps near the beginning of a workout for sets of 5 or less.
Sport and life are not linear and neat. We have to quickly respond to external stimuli while remaining balanced. As Craig Marker’s brilliant article explains, strength, particularly eccentric strength, is the best indicator of agility.
If agility is rapid acceleration, rapid deceleration, and rapid reacceleration based on reactions to chaotic stimuli, then it stands to reason that starting strength and the ability to absorb force would be crucial to agility. Again, strength must come first.
More than just crossing over and sprinting in many directions, however, we have to be able to efficiently couple sprints, back-pedals, shuffles, and all manner of hybrids. This can get very complex and that is not what you need.
Here are the basics:
First, you must be able to decelerate. Focus on sinking your hips and buzzing your feet. Try not to lean back.
From there you can practice these combinations:
- Sprint to cone – decelerate – back-pedal
- Shuffle to cone – decelerate – cross-over and sprint (both sides)
- Open hips to sprint – cone 45 degrees behind – decelerate – sprint back (both sides)
Throw two sets of each of these at the beginning of your workout for a few weeks and you'll regain adaptability and confidence in your movement.
Technically, these exercises still aren’t agility training. Agility requires reaction to a chaotic environment. These pre-programmed drills just help our body practice the movements so they are safer and more fluid when actually called upon for agility.
While there are many drills you could do that mimic these needs, I say why? Just jump into sport and do the real thing. Some of the best athletes in the world forged their world class agility by chasing rabbits.
Agility is reaction timing and practice. It is best built into fun pursuits like racquetball, tennis, Frisbee football, volleyball, or tag. You are a human—forget these drills and go play.