If you grew up in the age of the Presidential Fitness Test, the simple words “agility training” might send shivers up your spine and give you flashbacks to the dreadful 30-foot shuttle run. During the assessment in the sweaty school gym, you had to sprint back and forth between two lines, picking up and setting down blocks while slipping on the slick floor, in order to measure just how agile you were as a tween.
Given how much the pressure the test created, it's understandable if that somewhat distressing event turned you off from agility exercises for the last few decades. But considering all the benefits this training style has to offer, you may want to reconsider your stance.
Here’s your comprehensive guide to agility training, including what it entails and its biggest health perks. Plus, fitness trainers share agility exercises worth mixing into your workout schedule for both mind and body benefits.
What Is Agility?
Simply put, agility is the ability to control your body’s position while quickly changing direction in response to a stimulus, and in order to do so effectively and safely, you’ll need to utilize your balance, coordination, power, and speed, according to the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development (JRRD). To get a better understanding of its use cases, think about sports: When a baseball is hit into the outfield, for example, a player needs to be able to suddenly change direction in order to chase after it. And a soccer goalie must be able to rapidly jump out to the side and catch the ball before it touches the net. Translation: Being agile is essential to perform well in any recreational or competitive sport.
But agility training isn’t reserved just for athletes. “Everyone benefits from speed and agility,” says Liz Fernandez, a certified personal trainer who specializes in strength and agility training at Dimensional Training in New York. Most people are used to moving in one direction — forward — but learning how to move your 360 degrees and react quickly to stimuli can be beneficial in your everyday life, she explains. Parents need to chase after and grab their toddler who’s wandering behind them, casual joggers have to swiftly maneuver around pedestrians, and hikers must quickly step around fallen rocks and large roots to avoid tripping.
The Benefits of Agility Training
Reduces Risk of Injury
By regularly incorporating agility exercises into your routine, you'll be able to react faster and move more efficiently in response to a stimulus, which, in turn, minimizes your risk of injury, says Fernandez. If someone walks onto the sidewalk in front of you while you're jogging, for instance, you'll be able to quickly move to the side and run around them — not body slam directly into them. "If you're constantly training your ability to move directions, your body knows how to recruit more muscles and respond quickly to something that may come at you," she explains. "…[So it helps you] avoid injury or decrease the severity of injury should you get injured."
What’s more, agility training requires you to move your body in different directions (think: laterally, diagonally, backward), rather than straight forward. As a result, the stress placed on your musculoskeletal system is more evenly distributed across the body, leading to a reduction in injury risk, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Improves Coordination and Balance
Aside from keeping you injury-free, performing agility drills may also improve coordination, says Fernandez. More specifically, agility training can increaseintramuscular coordination, or the ability to recruit all of the motor units within a specific muscle, according to the JRRD research. And being able to call on all of the available motor units (aka motor neurons and the skeletal muscle fibers that supply them with nerves) allows you to generate more force during your sport or activity, according to the American Council on Exercise. (P.S. Try this jump rope workout to improve your coordination.)
In practicing quick directional changes, agility exercises can also improve balance (re: your ability to stand upright and steady), says Fernandez. Case in point: A small study of school-aged children found that the participants who completed a six-week speed, agility, and quickness training program showed significant improvements in dynamic balance (the ability to stay upright and stable while performing movements or in motion), as well as hand-eye coordination.
Helps You Establish a Mind-Body Connection
Agility training isn’t just a workout with physical benefits — it also helps improve the connection between your body and mind, says Adrina McCreary, a certified personal trainer who specializes in strength and agility training at Dimensional Training. Since agility involves your controlling your body’s position and movement in response to a stimulus, it also calls upon your cognitive functions, including visual processing, timing, perception, and anticipation, according to research published in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health. By practicing agility drills, you’ll teach your brain how to properly and safely control the body when you encounter a stimulus IRL, whether it be a can falling out from a pantry, a crack in the sidewalk, or a softball thrown by your child, per the journal.
6 Agility Exercises to Include In Your Routine
Ready to start incorporating agility training into your fitness regimen? Consider testing out these agility exercises, as demonstrated by Fernandez. These agility drills can be performed with agility ladders and penalty boxes — accessible, compact pieces of equipment that are staples in agility training routines — and allow you to train your body in multiple directions, says McCreary. If you don't have access to ladders or penalty boxes, try using cones, hurdles, rope, or other household objects to DIY the agility drills. (
A. Stand facing forward at one end of the agility ladder with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides.
B. Quickly drive left knee up to waist, simultaneously bringing right arm up to chest, and move forward, making sure to keep hips square. Continue, alternating legs and running forward through the ladder.
A. Stand facing forward on the left side of the agility ladder with feet hip-width apart and arms resting at sides.
B. Quickly tap left foot inside the ladder, then press off the floor to bring it back to the outside of the ladder, all while moving forward and swinging arms. Make sure not to touch your foot on the ladder itself.
C. Continue tapping left foot inside the ladder and moving forward through the ladder. Switch sides and repeat.
In and Outs
A. Stand facing forward at the base of the agility ladder with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides.
B. Keeping hips low and arms moving sharply, quickly step right foot into the ladder, immediately followed by left foot. Step right foot out to the right side of the ladder, then immediately step left foot out to the left side of the ladder.
C. Continue bringing feet into and out to the sides of the ladder one at a time while moving forward.
Penalty Box Heisman
A. Stand on the left side of a row of penalty boxes with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides. Drive right knee up to waist and left arm up to chest.
B. Keeping hips squared forward, hop laterally over the first penalty box, then quickly drive left knee up to waist and right arm up to chest and move laterally over the next penalty box. Continue, alternating legs and running laterally through the penalty boxes.
C. At the end of the row of penalty boxes, pause, then repeat in the opposite direction.
Penalty Box Speed Skaters
A. Stand on the left side of a row of penalty boxes with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides. Shift weight into left leg and lift right leg off the floor, knees slightly bent.
B. Keeping chest upright, push off the floor through left foot and swing arms to the right to hop laterally to the right side of the penalty boxes, landing on right foot. Stabilize through right leg, sweep left leg behind body, and pause, holding right leg in the air. Repeat, alternating sides.