Why & How to Improve Agility

By Gabrielle Kassel | 23 October, 2019


Ah yes, agility: That magical thing that allows Mudders to evade zingers in Electroshock Therapy, sashay through Swamp Stomp, and leap over Lumberjacked. 

Merriam-Webster defines agility as the quality or state of being agile, nimble, or dexterous. No shade to the dictionary, but that definition is pretty weak. That’s why we asked physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement training program designed to help athletes like obstacle course racers improve their ranges of motion to increase performance and decrease injury.

Ready for Wickham’s definition? “Agility is the ability to move quickly, in multiple directions, with purpose, control, and intent,” he says. “It’s really valuable in any sport or activity where you have to change directions, move with speed, or keep your balance.” Basically, agility is essential for crushing it on course. 

Don’t worry, unlike things like height or early-onset baldness—no hate, a naked head looks great in a finisher headband—agility isn’t determined by our DNA. “Working on things like absolute strength, core strength, coordination, and speed can help anyone improve their agility,” Wickham says. 

Plus, it’s something even non-competitive Mudders can benefit from improving. “Agility doesn’t just help you move faster in different directions, it also increases strength, which comes with a whole host of health benefits,” Wickham says, “and it helps protect you against falling and injury.” And, hey, obstacles aren’t the only time you have to switch directions quickly (side eye at dog owners who don’t pick up their doggy’s dung in the middle of the sidewalk). 

Bonus: “Most people find it fun because it's so different than how we normally exercise,” Wickham adds.

So, whether you’re gunning to be the next Hunter McIntyre, are training for World's Toughest Mudder, or are just a klutz trying to injury-proof your bod, you can reap the rewards of agility training. 

5 Best Moves to Improve Agility

Wickham shares these exercises to increase your agility. 

T-Drill Runs

There’s a reason this drill is well-loved (or at least well-used) by football and rugby players: “The T drill keeps your body strong and resilient as you move straight, backwards, side to side, and diagonally,” Wickham says.

How to do it: Set up three cones in a line about five yards apart. Place a fourth cone five yards down-stream from the middle cone so that the cones make a T-shape. Stand with your feet at the stand-alone cone. When you’re ready, explode straight ahead to the middle cone. Then, laterally shuffle five yards to the left, bending down to touch the cone with your outside hand. Next, laterally shuffle 10 yards to the right. Return to the middle cone by shuffling left. Sprint backwards five yards to return to start. That’s one round! Rest three minutes, and then repeat four more times. 

As you complete this drill, Mudders, remember that your arms aren’t dangling Electroshock wires. “Your upper body should play an active role in helping you keep your balance, switch directions, and move with speed,” Wickham explains. 

Karaoke Sprints

“Most people have used karaoke sprints as part of a dynamic warm-up, but done with speed and intensity they can help build body awareness and strength,” Wickham says; specifically, they improve strength in your groin, hip flexors, core, calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes. #Gains!

How to do it: Make sure you have 25 yards to move in one direction. Stand sideways to the left of where you’ll be travelling. Start by crossing your left foot over and in front of your right, with your arms out to your sides. Step to the side with your right foot, then immediately cross your left foot behind your right foot. Step to the side with your right foot, and repeat the sequence with speed for 25 yards. Rest for 45 seconds to one minute. Then, facing the same direction, return to the start position using your right foot as the lead foot. 

To reap the benefits of the move, adequate rest is essential, Wickham says, so don’t skimp on it.

Lateral Jump Lunge

The love-child of lateral hops and jumping lunges, this agility-booster will work your glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, and core. That means in addition to making you agile AF, these jumps will give you the strength you need to conquer leg-demanding obstacles like Hero Carry and Everest. 

How to do it: Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Jump into a lunge with your right foot forward, left foot back, so that both knees are at a 90 degree angle. Next, keeping your chest upright, jump up and to the right, switching legs mid-air so that you can land with your left leg in front. Continue for 12 total reps, six lunges per side. Rest for 45 seconds to one minute. Then facing the same direction, return to starting position and repeat. 

Don’t have the space (or coordination) to move laterally? Stick to jumping lunges. “Beginners and folks with limited space can stay in place,” Wickham says. Trust, this move is spicy and agility-boosting enough with or without the lateral travel. 

Quick Feet

If you’ve ever played a field sport, you’ll recognize these baddies. There’s a reason quick feet are so effing popular among coaches, Wickham says: “They’re great for improving coordination because they require that you move with speed, purposely.” Bonus: a few rounds of these will give you bulging calf muscles just like Coach! 

How to do it: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, butt back in a half-squat position. Engage your core, keep your chest up, and bend your elbows back into a runner's position. Push through the balls of your feet, running as fast as you can in position. Work for 10 seconds, then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat for eight total minutes of work. 

Barbell Back Squat

Wondering why we’re listing this classic barbell move? According to Wickham, “Doing quick feet and sprint drills will help. But so will any lower-body strengthening move.” That includes back-squats, deadlifts, single-leg squats, and lunges, he says. 

Here’s some proof: a 2017 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, surveyed 667 distance runners and found that the fastest runners were more likely to report doing strength and plyometric exercises in addition to running. In essence, strength training = speeds. And the faster you run? Well, the faster you get to that finisher beer. 

How to do it: Unrack the barbell so that it’s resting along your traps, or rear deltoids. Take a few steps back, then readjust your feet so that they are about hip-width apart. Next, pull into the bar to engage the lats, brace your core, and sit back while keeping your chest tall. Continue lowering, bending at the knees until thighs are below parallel. Return to standing by driving through heels, squeezing glutes at the top. That’s one rep. Start with three sets of eight to 12 reps at a light to moderate weight. 

Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based fitness and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 trainer. When she's not lifting heavy sh*t, playing rugby, or getting downright dirty, she can be found reading memoirs and guzzling cold brew.