The ability to move laterally and change direction is essential in many sports. Although a lot of attention is paid to 40-yard-dash times, the simple fact is that in football (or any other sport for that matter) rarely does an athlete run straight ahead for more than a few yards. Most coaches and athletes recognize the importance of lateral speed, but where they may go wrong is in using gimmicks to try to improve it.
One such gimmick is a slideboard, which many strength coaches have embraced as a superior method to improve lateral speed. A standard slideboard is eight feet long by two feet wide, and has a “stopper” at each end to push off from and break the momentum at the end of the slide. So the user can slide smoothly, the surface of the slideboard is slick, and a light coat of wax is often applied to make it even slicker, and the user wears wool socks or special booties to slide more easily.
The slideboard was made popular by Eric Heiden, a US speedskater who won an unprecedented five gold medals in the 1980 Olympics. Heiden attributed much of his record-breaking success to the slideboard, but the truth is that slideboard training is not biomechanically specific to skating, as shown by EMG-supported research that was presented at the International Skating Union. Further, slideboard training creates excessive shearing force across the knee when the body is stopped by the stoppers – in effect, the knee is experiencing forces that are literally trying to pry it apart.
Another gimmick is using elastic tubing for lateral movement exercises, an idea that has made a lot of money for companies that make large rubber bands. One popular lateral movement drill involves attaching one end of the tubing around the waist and either having a training partner hold the other end or attaching it to an immovable object, and then jumping sideways, back and forth. The issue here is that the resistance curve is backwards because tubing only provides resistance when it is stretched.
To move quickly laterally the athlete needs to be able to apply force into the ground at the start of the movement, not at the finish when the tubing is stretched. Further, when initiating the movement back to the start, the athlete is assisted by the tubing, and this means they are applying even less force into the ground. As for the idea of tying tubing between the ankles and performing shuffling movements, this exercise also places high shearing forces on the knee.
That’s enough about gimmicks – let’s look at a sensible approach to improving lateral speed, starting with structural balance.
Structural imbalances between the limbs are especially common with sports in which one side of the body is dominant, such as speedskating, or in which an implement is held, such as tennis, golf and fencing. These imbalances increase the risk of injury but can also lead to improper motor patterns that will affect lateral speed.
One of the keys to improving lateral speed is single-leg strength. When an athlete moves laterally or changes direction, they have to be able to control the forces their body is exposed to while supporting themselves on one leg. And because they will be moving quickly, those forces required to brake their movement can be quite high. If an athlete doesn’t have the optimal amount of eccentric strength to handle these disruptive forces, it will take them longer to stabilize their body before they can change direction – thus decreasing lateral movement speed. With all the cutting that takes place in athletics, especially in sports such as soccer and basketball, those fractions of a second can make the difference between winning and losing or even making the team.
It’s important to perform single-leg (aka unilateral) training to strengthen muscles around the hip and knee. Exercises to promote structural knee balance are indicated for individuals who suffer from occasional or chronic knee pain and for competitive athletes who need to prevent injury. Further, knee dysfunction is often due to a weakness of one of the quadriceps muscles, usually the vastus medialis oblique (VMO).
The VMO is involved in helping the kneecap track properly, so VMO strength is critical for enabling the athlete to maintain good biomechanics when moving. Every year an estimated 20,000 high school girls in the US suffer serious knee injuries, most involving the ACL, and I believe one reason is that girls’ athletic programs fail to adequately strengthen the VMO. Effective exercises for improving VMO structural balance are Poliquin step-ups, Petersen step-ups and backward sled dragging.
In addition to strengthening the VMO, strength coaches will want to use sideways sled dragging exercises as the fastest way to improve lateral speed. Lateral speed is almost always expressed in a situation where inertia has to be overcome; hence the need for load. The sled is the only practical tool that can overload hip adduction and abduction patterns in a positive, functional way. Further, sled work or tire pulls provides a precise way to measure or increase resistance in controlled increments. One reality that must face is that the surface the implements are dragged often have varied friction coefficients, hence will vary day to day.
There will always be another gimmick coming along that promises to improve an athlete’s lateral speed, but most do not deliver on their promises and can increase the risk of injury. The reality is this: lateral speed is necessary for extremely short distance, as in defending the net in volleyball…or dodging opponents in sports like rugby and American football. So applying more force with correct joint mechanics, and the ability to overcome inertia are the key elements in developing that physical quality.
Don’t be fooled – get on the fast track to athletic success with proven strength training methods.