CEU Corner: SAQ for Adult Clients

This issue’s CEU Corner and quiz feature is: SAQ for Adult Clients High-intensity Drills for Nonathletes

by Charlie Hoolihan


To earn 2 AFAA/0.2 NASM CEUs, purchase the CEU quiz ($35) and successfully complete it online at www.afaa.com.

© 2018 Athletics and fitness association of America


Speed, Agility and Quickness for Adult Clients

I misjudged the curb and twisted my ankle.
My back went out when I turned real fast to keep my child from running into the street.
I pulled my hamstring chasing after my dog.
My balance just isn’t what it used to be.
I had to run up two flights of stairs and was gasping for air.

We hear these things from our adult clients every day—complaints arising from unexpected physical demands and their painful consequences. How can we ease these strains and improve clients’ overall health in the bargain? One answer lies in pre-emptive training in SAQ: Speed, Agility and Quickness.

The principle of specificity, or the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands), applies directly to SAQ. Forcing neuromuscular systems to apply speed, agility and quickness in distinct areas helps the body develop in ways that are critical to maintaining physical resilience and capacity.

Figuring out how to adapt SAQ to adult exercisers isn’t easy. Research typically covers either endurance athletes or aging, sedentary people, with the latter working to regain small amounts of lost physical capacity (Friel 2015). Most of our adult personal training clients don’t fall into these categories.

Fortunately, we can draw educated and intuitive assumptions about SAQ training’s efficacy from two general findings about active adults:

>> Research indicates that intensive resistance training can maintain 70%–80% of peak strength and performance up to at least age 70.

>> Data from national and international masters track-and-field championships (competitors aged 35–100-plus) show similar maintenance of speed preservation in sprint times (Korhonen, Haverinen & Degens 2014).

Exercises that optimize speed, agility and quickness emerged to serve the needs of elite and professional athletes, but these movements can improve neuromuscular function in adult exercisers at many fitness levels. We’ll start by reviewing the benefits of SAQ training, get specific about what SAQ means and then wrap up with guidelines on program design.


SAQ has three principal benefits: greater nervous-system capacity, better muscle contractibility and activation, and improved metabolism. These benefits add up to better overall health and well-being for adult clients.


Repeatedly practicing new and complex motor skills through SAQ training preserves and expands crucial nervous-system functions and components:

>> Proprioception—the nervous system’s innate awareness of body position, posture and limb movement (NASM 2018; Ribeiro & Oliveira 2007).

>> Motor units—the motor neurons and muscle fibers that are located at neuromuscular junctions and that cause muscle contractions. Data suggest that high levels of diverse activities protect motor units (Drey et al. 2014).

>> Myelin—a nervous-system insulation that protects active neural pathways. SAQ increases myelination, producing faster nerve-to-muscle signaling (McKenzie et al. 2014). SAQ also helps to maintain and improve brain and neural functions (Raichlen & Alexander 2017).


>> Eccentric contractions, which occur during deceleration, when muscles lengthen against an external force—for example, a foot landing on the ground during running or an arm lowering a weight during resistance training (NASM 2019).

>> Isometric contractions, which occur when muscles are movement stabilizers rather than producers. Adductors, abductors and muscles surrounding the trunk typically contract to stabilize the body and limit side-to-side motion during running. Isometric contractions also keep the posture upright while we’re landing a jump (NASM 2019).

>> Concentric contractions, which provide acceleration when we lift a weight or when we spring off the ground during takeoff (NASM 2019).

SAQ can also increase cooperation of agonists, the muscles in charge of a specific movement, and the antagonists, the muscles opposite the agonists in the movement pattern (NASM 2018). The two typically alternate contractions in fluid dynamic movements. Aging and inactive muscles tend to coactivate, degrading the timing of these contractions. Explosive strength training and plyometrics can reduce coactivation (Fragala, Kenney & Kuchel 2015).

SAQ training can preserve type 2 muscle fibers, required for power, speed and strength. Type 2 fibers seem to be more vulnerable to sarcopenia (muscle fiber deterioration). Type 1 muscle fibers, by contrast, help more with endurance and are used on a daily basis (NASM 2018; Fragala, Kenney & Kuchel 2015).

SAQ in the form of plyometrics and explosive strength training (like sprinting) requires a larger range of motion. These movements, in turn, can increase flexibility in the hip, knee and ankle joints (Korhonen, Haverinen & Degens 2014)


It’s unclear how our metabolism changes with age, but evidence points toward changes in muscle composition as the main driver in decreased basal metabolic rate. Diverse training in aerobic and anaerobic systems can affect different aspects of how our metabolism functions.

Since metabolism is the system by which we utilize fats, carbohydrates and proteins for fuel and physiological maintenance and repair, stimulating both the aerobic and anaerobic pathways may improve fuel utilization efficiency (Eberle 2014). In response to SAQ, muscle fibers change, mitochondria numbers increase, and the quantity of enzymes available for hundreds of metabolic processes also changes.

Within the context of SAQ training, the specific energy demands that come immediately from the phosphagen and glycolytic systems can increase the number of type 2 fibers and improve utilization of fat and oxygen. SAQ training uses all three of the body’s energy systems, potentially improving overall capacity through more efficient use of fuel for movement:

The phosphagen system fuels fast, explosive movement sequences lasting 5–15 seconds.

The glycolytic system sustains high-intensity efforts lasting 15 seconds to 2 minutes (Brown & Ferrigno 2015).

The oxidative system fuels activities of daily living plus the long-distance, low-effort, long-duration exercises that most exercisers prefer (Friel 2015).


Now, let’s look at the practical meaning and application of speed, agility and quickness.


Speed typically falls into two categories: linear, moving in a straight line as quickly as possible, and multidirectional, which produces the most varied stimulus to the neuromuscular system (Brown & Ferrigno 2015; NASM 2019).

Though there are many speedy movements in the fitness world (punching, kicking, swinging, etc.), speed for SAQ-training purposes generally means sprinting. Though adults who aren’t training for 100- to 400-meter runs typically don’t need to develop maximal linear speed, they can draw three benefits from sprint training:

  1. Sprinting is usually more effective than endurance training for people with fast-twitch-fiber athletic backgrounds.
  2. Because of the maximum force production required in speed training, improvements result in the neuromuscular system and, hence, in overall physical capacity.
  3. Sprinting can increase functional range of motion, because running with longer stride lengths creates triple extension at the hip, knee and ankle joints.

Given its intensity, however, speed training requires significant technical attention. Teaching good technique to create mindful joint and muscle awareness reduces the chances that faulty mechanics will lead to injury from biomechanical stressors on muscles and joints (Brown & Ferrigno 2015).

Two key techniques should be emphasized. First, foot strike should be mid- to forefoot, with the shin at an 80- to 90-degree angle to the ground to create optimal force production as speed increases. Second, a slight 80- to 85-degree forward lean in the posture helps runners take advantage of forward momentum. Both techniques can decelerate landings by using muscles to absorb shock during ground contact (Anderson 2018).

Once the body moves almost or completely above the foot, the muscle action comes from the posterior lower-body muscles—feet, calves, hamstrings and glutes—working in sequence to optimize propulsive power (Anderson 2018).

Leg recovery occurs quickly, and the foot follows a path straight up toward the glutes as the knee rises in front. The foot swings forward and, when the knee angle reaches 90 degrees, heads toward the ground (Anderson 2018).

Developing proper sprinting form takes time and drill repetition, even for elite athletes. The good news is that active adults can use these technique drills as a good warmup and a demanding part of the workout prior to sprinting.


Agility is defined loosely as the ability to make explosive changes in direction and speed by rapidly processing internal and external cues. It is a critical component of multidirectional speed, enabling a return to top speed after a change of direction (NASM 2019).

Agility takes shape through distinct forms of motor function requiring speed to accelerate, change direction, decelerate and reaccelerate in multiple directions, all while maintaining body control. Often these explosive and dynamic movements must be initiated from a variety of body alignments.

This last characteristic is highly relevant to traditional fitness clients and adult athletes alike because it’s central to injury prevention. All exercisers should be able to initiate movements from a variety of body alignments while maintaining control.


Quickness can be characterized as the ability to perform agility moves in a short time period, best thought of as reaction time. It’s how fast we can react to unanticipated stimuli by processing information and making the best choice among several options (NSCA 2012).


The goals of improving speed, agility and quickness apply to both elite athletes and everyday adult exercisers:

>> acceleration from a standstill

>> body control and awareness

>> recognition and reaction to external stimuli

>> starting, stopping and changing direction

>> aligning the body as linearly as possible in multidirectional movements (NASM 2019)

Consider the parent mentioned at the top of this story who had a back issue from turning quickly to prevent a child from running into the street. The parent had to recognize the threat and react quickly with body control and awareness.

The parent started in one direction, then shifted quickly as the child darted in the opposite direction. These rapid changes required the parent to have an unconscious proprioceptive awareness while trying to maintain linear alignment.

Now that we have the basics of SAQ covered, let’s move to designing exercise programs


Adding SAQ to training programs can be a nice diversion that works with individuals and groups—if you use appropriate progressions. Ideally, participants should have basic movement screenings, cardiovascular sessions and strength training before starting SAQ drills.


When choosing SAQ drills, select exercises that suit clients’ individual goals and the requirements of any sports the clients compete or participate in (Brown & Ferrigno 2015).

Take time to discuss the physiological benefits of including SAQ sessions. This helps develop enthusiasm for the programming, especially with clients eager to maintain a high level of activity.


Before program initiation, get a basic understanding of clients’ movement patterns and needs. A combination of static and movement-based screenings can provide starting points. Static movement patterns like stabilization in a one-leg standing position can progress to short multidirectional hops.

This type of progression will provide further information to help you not only select exercises to assist with kinesthetic awareness but also develop cues to help clients become more mindful of their movements and needs.

Training design for active adults should have four levels or speeds of training, regardless of drill or workout—walk, jog, run and sprint. Clients should master each stage before advancing to the next (Brown & Ferrigno 2015).

The goals, purposes and assessments will help you differentiate each program to suit people’s individual needs.


Before any SAQ training session, it’s vital to include a warmup. This is when you (as coach or trainer) prepare clients for movement and introduce patterning through a deliberate and progressive multiplanar plan. It’s a chance to demonstrate the importance of specific alignments and necessary reactions to stimuli in the day’s training.

Posture, muscle and joint sequencing, reaction drills, and movement techniques can be part of warmup sequences comprising deliberate, mindful movements and appropriate instructional cues.

Posture, muscle and joint sequencing, reaction drills, and movement techniques can be part of warmup sequences comprising deliberate, mindful movements and appropriate instructional cues.

Tethered resistance can be added to the latter to help with muscle awareness, followed by progressive runs to approximately 80% of top velocity.

Throughout these sessions, you need to give relevant cues. For example, “Use the foot and ankle complex as a spring” and “Focus on the push from the posterior muscle groups.” You can even set up cues in previous strength sessions when clients are doing calf raises, deadlifts, hip thrusts, glute-ham hip extensions and their respective unilateral versions.

The key to successful sprinting is to make sure velocity doesn’t exceed technique and intrinsic biomechanical feedback. Warmup sequences can provide the proprioception needed to preserve sound movement patterns.

Agility and quickness warmups would follow similar patterning to linear-speed sessions but include lateral, rotational, front-to-back and low-velocity change-of-direction drills. Because upper-body movement control is important in maintaining optimal alignment during direction changes, multiplanar torso movements—as in walking lateral lunges with overhead lateral arm reaches—should be added as well.

Once again, the ground-contact positioning of the foot and ankle complex is critical to stimulating a proper reaction up the kinetic chain. Take time to train clients’ ability to plant the foot and control the shifting ground-reaction forces that accompany changes of direction.


According to studies on young, athletic populations, a recovery period of 48–72 hours is needed between high-intensity workouts like SAQ. There is some research comparing young athletes and masters athletes, but these studies have primarily dealt with endurance athletes (Borges et al. 2016; Friel 2015).

Programming SAQ for an adult population involves increasingly more variables for each decade over age 45. It may be safer to start with a 72-hour recovery window and add 12–24 hours for each decade of age (Borges et al. 2016). Obviously, athletic history, previous injuries and lifestyle patterns will play important roles in determining clients’ individual recovery needs.

Another important variable to consider is the higher number of eccentric contractions involved in powerful foot strikes during sprinting and change-of-direction drills. Improving eccentric contractile capacity in active adults is important, but it can increase the chance of injury. Animal studies have found that eccentric contractile capacity diminishes in aging muscle, leading to more injuries and slow recovery rates (Choi 2016).

This reinforces the need to have developed foundational strength before SAQ sessions are introduced and to add SAQ exercises gradually through dynamic warmup techniques and lower-volume skill development drills.


Because of its unique stimulus to the neuromuscular system, SAQ training may be just as important to an adult’s fitness regimen as strength, flexibility and cardiovascular conditioning. Including SAQ drills three or four times per month or during a specific training block may be beneficial to your adult clients.


Anderson, O. 2018. Running Form: How to Run Faster and Prevent Injury. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Borges, N., et al. 2016. Age-related changes in performance and recovery kinetics in masters athletes: A narrative review. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 24 (1), 149–57.

Brown, L., & Ferrigno, V. 2015. Training for Speed, Agility and Quickness. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Choi, S-J. 2016. Age-related functional changes and susceptibility to eccentric contraction-induced damage in skeletal muscle cell. Integrative Medicine Research, 5 (3), 171–75.

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NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association). 2012. Developing Agility and Quickness. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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Ribeiro, F., & Oliveira, J. 2007. Aging effects on joint proprioception: The role of physical activity in proprioception preservation. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, 4 (2), 71–76.

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Tumminello, N. 2012. Sprinting: How we minimize hamstring injury risk. Accessed Apr. 10, 2018: nicktumminello.com/2012/12/sprinting-how-we-minimize-hamstring-injuries/.


Archer, E., et al. 2013. Physical activity and the science of successful aging. Kinesiology Review, 2 (1), 29–38.

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Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Hoolihan Charlie Hoolihan, is a NASM-certified personal trainer with more than 40 years’ experience training athletes at all distances of competition, from swimming and track sprints to Ironman triathlons. Contact him at charlie@thepac.com.

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