Training to improve agility

When most of us think of agility, we think back to our primary school fitness tests, during which we had the absolute pleasure of undertaking the beep test, the sit and reach flexibility test, and of course, the Illinois Agility Run.

Now while I would be the first to admit that the Illinois agility test was far from the worst fitness assessment we had to undertake (taking a few seconds to run around some cones was much more enjoyable than say the beep test…), it is important to highlight the fact that it is actually very poorly named.

You see this test doesn’t actually assess agility in any capacity. Rather, the Illinois agility test provides an assessment on our change of direction speed.

Agility is a terribly misunderstood concept, which is often mistaken for change of direction speed.

In reality, the ability to changed direction rapidly (while still incredibly important) is only one of the two components that make up agility.

The second of which is reaction time.

Agility describes the cognitive capacity to assess a situation and make a decision, and then physically react to that situation. For example, if a rugby athlete was running downfield with the ball, and a defender came in for a tackle, they need to react to the defender, make a decision on which direction they are going to take to try and avoid that defender, and then physically move in that direction.


That is agility.

As a result, improving agility can be done through two key modalities of training.


Improving Change of Direction Speed

Now, it makes sense that to improve agility, we need to improve the physical qualities that underpin agility. This ultimately means improving our physical ability to change directions rapidly.

This can be accomplished by improving our ability to accelerate (which I have written about extensively HERE), while also placing a primary focus on lateral movement. Most of us spend the majority of our training in the sagittal plane of movement (think front to back), using squats and deadlifts (and their single leg variations) to develop strength and power.

BUT, while this is important, it is also important to note that changing direction rapidly often requires lateral movement. As such, we also need to prioritise movements that occur in the frontal plane of movement (think side to side).

This means developing strength in the frontal plane using exercises such as lateral lunges, cossack squats, and lateral sled drags. This strength should also be complemented power based exercise that are also performed in the frontal plane, such as lateral jumps and bounds, explosive side steps, and rapid change of direction drills.

For those who would like to find a bit more information about developing strength and power in the frontal plane, read THIS article (it’s a good one, even if I do say so myself)

In addition to developing the physical qualities that underpin agility, we also need to develop the cognitive qualities.


Improving reaction time

Reaction time ultimately describes the speed at which we physically react to a given stimulus.

Training to improve reaction time does pose a few issues that are not associated with more traditional methods of strength and power training, but do not let that deter you- for most of us, improving the speed at which we react to a given stimulus can cause vast improvement in our performance.

To improve reaction time, we ultimately need to integrate more traditional change of direction drills with a decision making component.

A very simple example of this would be a simple lateral change of direction drill, where three cones are set up similar to the example below.


In this example, the individual would sprint from cone A into the midpoint between cone B and C. Once they arrive at the mid-point, they would be required to respond to either a verbal cue (shouting cone B or C) or a physical cue (pointing to cone B or C), directing them to either cone B or C, which they would then sprint too.

This provides a very simple example of how a reaction time can be changed in combination with lateral change of direction. It is worth mentioning that these drills should be completed at the start of either a gym session or a skills session, while the athlete is still fresh – similar to power based training, it is quality over quantity.  As such, training under fatigue will limit the training effects associated with this type of training.


It is also important to note that without a good foundation of both strength and power (and subsequently, change of direction speed), improvements in reaction time may have limited carryover to improvements in agility.



Agility is comprised of both the physical capacity to change direction, and the cognitive capacity to react to a stimulus. As a result, both of these qualities need to be trained to improve agility.

Contact us today to become a better, more agile athlete.

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