The Skill You Need to Stay Forever Young
Pros call on agility to win, but this misunderstood ability is the key to an easier, comfier, fitter life for all.
Remember playing freeze tig or hot potato at playtime? You didn't know it then, but that was agility training. Those games require the same skills that athletes channel when jumping into a passing lane on a basketball court, returning a speedy serve in a tennis match or diverting a deflected ball into the back of the goal.
Athlete or not, training your agility as an adult can help sharpen your physical and mental reaction skills, making you stronger in and out of the gym, says Greg Grosicki, PhD, the director of the exercise-physiology laboratory at Georgia Southern University.
OK, But What Exactly Is Agility?
Bear with us while we get a little nerdy. "Agility was defined in 2006 in a study published in the 'Journal of Sports Sciences' as 'a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity in response to a stimulus'", says Grosicki. To put it simply, according to Nike Master Trainer Brian Nunez, "Agility is what allows you to be able to go, stop, hold and quickly change position".
That last part is key, because it means being able to interpret and respond to environmental cues, like catching a medicine ball a workout buddy thrusts at you from 2 metres away, moving quickly out of the way when a cyclist suddenly swerves into your running path or catching yourself if you're slipping on ice, says Grosicki.
"Agility is what allows you to be able to go, stop, hold and quickly change position".
Nike Master Trainer
A lot of people think that speed and agility both essentially mean "quick feet". But while speed is certainly part of agility, there's more to it than that. "A tennis player might benefit from speed when accelerating to get to a ball, but agility is what helps them re-establish their position on the court to prepare for the next volley", says Grosicki. Speed is all about top-end velocity (in other words, how fast you can get from point A to point B), he adds. It doesn't account for the multi-directional nature and real-time decision-making processes that are so crucial to many sports—and life. That, friends, is agility.
Why Agility Matters
On a pitch or court, agility determines how well pre-planned manoeuvres go or how a player reacts to an opponent. This can be the difference between rising high to score with a header or being beaten to the ball. It could also be the difference between getting hurt or staying healthy. "In football, ACL injuries most often occur during sudden deceleration and change-of-direction manoeuvres—and agility-related training interventions can decrease the incidence of those", says Grosicki.
Being agile can also reduce your risk of injury when you're not exercising or playing. "Physical factors important to agility, such as muscle strength and power as well as stability, help you better perform activities of normal living", says Grosicki. Whether you're picking up laundry, getting in and out of a car or even just walking on uneven ground, life calls for a sense of spatial awareness and control over your body—and that comes with agility.
Agility doesn't just keep you physically sharp, though; it also engages your brain. "Agility requires a huge level of mental acuity and awareness", says Nunez. "When you're training in multiple directions, you can't zone out and go on autopilot. It forces you to be mindful in your movement, which is key to increasing body awareness in training and helps reduce the risk of injury even more".
How to Improve Your A Game
You don't have to spend hours on an obstacle course to see a difference in your multi-directional speed and reaction time, says Nunez. You can begin to boost your agility with these drills, which can be done daily or as part of any warm-up.
01. Start with deceleration.
Knowing how to properly absorb impact and stabilise your body is the basis of agility training, says Nunez. "You have to train the brakes before you work the accelerator", he explains. Here's a quick test to see whether you have the right foundation to build on: After a short warm-up, stand with your feet hip-width apart and, as quickly as you can, drop into a squat and hold it at the bottom. Do you wobble, or are you steady? "If you are rock solid, that means you have control of your posture in a dynamic movement. But if you're wobbling, adding more force or amplitude—by, for example, turning that squat into a squat jump—would be a recipe for disaster, because your body isn't ready to handle a dynamic load when you stop", says Nunez.
If you're wobbly, focus on improving your stability before taking your agility work to the next level. Nunez recommends starting in a standing position and quickly moving to balancing on one leg for 3–5 seconds, then switching legs and repeating for a few rounds. If you're still struggling to balance, incorporate more single-leg exercises into your workouts a couple of times per week.
02. Change direction.
Once you've got your stability down, you can start to work on agility. But keep in mind, "Life doesn't happen in a linear plane", says Nunez, meaning you don't move in just one direction. Training should happen in all three planes of motion: sagittal (forwards and backwards), transverse (rotating from left to right or right to left), and frontal (side to side, or lateral).
"Setting up an agility ladder or creating one with chalk or tape lets you do all kinds of triplanar movements", he adds, from forwards and crossover work to side shuffles. (Your goal is to hit your mark, whether that's the inside of the ladder or outside the edges, every time to refine your spatial awareness.) The more confident you get, the more you can push your speed in any direction with less risk of tripping or losing your position to a point where you can't re-establish it quickly, says Nunez. If you're not sure how to do ladder exercises, do a quick Google search and click only on links that feature a reputable, certified trainer.
03. Engage your reflexes.
Now that you're getting better at 360-degree movement with a lower chance of falling, you can hone in on the last step of agility training: fine-tuning your reflexes. Drills like throwing a tennis ball or medicine ball at the wall and catching it—or even just keeping a balloon off the ground—force you to move dynamically in response to the unpredictability of the object's motions, says Nunez. Again, "You're working in all of the planes of motion—squatting, twisting, side shuffling—and you're being forced to accelerate, decelerate and stop on demand, which maximises body control". Over time, this allows you to trust your movement patterns when going full speed, he explains.
If you want to take it a beat further, try throwing that ball or whacking that balloon towards a different spot each time, says Nunez. The more you train yourself to shift around without knowing exactly where you'll have to move next, the sharper your reflexes become.
The best part of agility work is that it feels a whole lot like a childhood game. Playtime? Training? Maybe it's all the same, anyway.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Ryan Johnson