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UFC Gym Training: All the Rung Moves

The agility ladder is moving from a sports performance tool into a mainstream fitness device


When it comes to fitness, what is old will invariably become new again. Most modern MMA gyms have a pile of kettlebells and a huge tire that gets whomped with a sledge hammer. Russian athletes have been lifting kettlebells since the 1700s while American boxers have been getting in shape by chopping wood and swinging a hammer since the beginning of the 20th century. Similarly, the agility ladder is the latest fitness device to be rejuvenated for MMA training.   

Composed of nylon straps and flat plastic rungs, the agility ladder has traditionally been used to develop foot speed and lower body coordination in football players. Due to its versatility and the entertaining challenge it presents to both coordination and conditioning, the ladder has been popping up not only in MMA facilities, but all over the general fitness landscape. It is even included in the latest edition of the blockbuster “Insanity” home workout DVDs. There are two simple reasons for its recent boom in popularity:  it’s fun and it’s flexible

“The progressions are endless,” says Andy Hennebelle, NASM-CPT, CSCS, USAW, a strength coach at the UFC Gym in Corona, Calif. who uses the ladder twice a week with his clients. “There are 1000s of movements you can do on it. You can go forward, backward, laterally. You can do upper body and lower-body exercises on it.”

UFC middleweight stand-out Chris Weidman performs a drill his trainer calls the “Dizzy Ladder.” The 185-pound contender will spin in a circle before zig-zagging in and out of the ladder in order develop agility even while his equilibrium has been affected.

Doug Balzarini, strength coach for the Alliance MMA Fight Team in Chula Vista, California, and trainer to the likes of UFC light heavyweight Brandon Vera and current UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, likes to use the ladder as a warm-up for his fighters because of how quickly it prepares the body for training

“In just a few minutes it increases heartrate and raises body temperature, preparing the athlete for what is to come in terms of the workout,” he says.

The ladder presents a challenge to even the most hardcore fighters. Even UFC light heavyweight contender Phil “Mr. Wonderful” Davis, who is set to meet Wagner Prado at UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro, has struggled to master the smooth and easy movement the ladder demands.

“Phil is pretty good on it but he is all about being explosive and powerful and the ladder is about being light with more emphasis on footwork,” says Balzarini, who trained Davis for his high-profile match against Rashad Evans earlier this year. “Phil is one of the craziest athletes I have ever worked with in terms of being explosive but on the ladder he is not as lightning quick as say Dominic Cruz, who is all about footwork and being fast”

The motto at the UFC Gym is “train differently” says Hennebelle, and whether he is working with an average Jane Doe or putting  Strikeforce’s Ricky Legere Jr. through the paces, he means it. That includes flipping the script on the agility ladder.

“We will put fighters in a push-up position and utilize the same principles in which we create the fast-twitch movement with the feet, but this time with the hands,” says Hennebelle. “The in-and-outs, the lateral movement, the forward and backward movements, can all help create strength in the shoulders and flexibility in the wrists.”

Hennebelle starts out his athletes with a simple numerical progression on the agility ladder. The first drill is a two-count, where both feet make contact one time in each square. Then comes a three count, in which the left and right foot touch the square and then one comes out in an alternating zig-zag sequence. Next, both feet come in and out of each square in a four-count pattern. It is a workout for both the mind and body as the brain struggles to make the muscles obey what seems like simple commands.

When training on the ladder, be sure to keep the weight on the balls of your feet and your head up, advises Balzarini, who will often hold up numbers that must be called out or throw his clients tennis balls to catch while they are on the ladder to ensure that they are not staring at their feet the whole time.

“The value of the agility ladder is in the variety,” says Balzarini. “It is a great plateau-breaker, a way to change things up. If you do the same routine over and over, things are going to get stale.”

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