The evolution of strength training over the years can be seen by what the average coach does, but are we heading in the right direction? With so many variables and so many leading authorities using different approaches, how do we make the right choices for our athletes - especially when it comes to leg training?
Science is important, but many coaches have made surprising decisions to use the research differently based on their experience. In this article, both the science and logical, empirical experience are outlined in a straightforward way. It doesn’t matter if you are a new coach at small college or an elite coach at a national training center, a lot of brilliant minds are sharing great points on training.
Logic and Reasoning: The Pillars Holding Up Sport Science
Leg training is arguably the most important focal point of a strength coach, as most of the injuries and performance gains will come from the lower extremities. Sport science has proven what many shrewd coaches already know, but without the research, what exactly is true would have been a never-ending argument.
Here are the key known benefits of strength training the legs:
- Reduction in incidence and severity of non-contact and contact injuries
- Improvement of performance in sport athletes and tactical athletes
- Career extension and quality of life after the game has ended
Those three benefits, ranging from getting an athlete better for a game and after a game, are why nearly everyone employs strength training to the legs.
Most programs use a variety of methods and means to get results, and how we make those decisions is highly influenced by authorities and experts, specifically other coaches and sport scientists.
While it’s good to learn from others, being dependent on someone else will eventually limit you. So focus on principles and logic, not who is the most visible or most convincing. Instead of looking to coaches, it makes sense to look at the athletes you work with and learn from their changes, rather than hoping others are not making mistakes on your continuing education dollar.
An even split of science, experience, and education from leading authorities is a safe bet for education and developing your own process.
Teaching and Training: How to Select Exercises
Most coaches will recommend learning about the macro or big picture first, then focus on exercises later. While this is true, it most likely makes sense to focus on exercises because of safety being a priority - and the need to teach athletes.
The NSCA and UKSCA are great resources and starting points, as well as USAW. Most of the coaches in strength and conditioning are at the high school level - be it a team coach or a full-time strength coach. While writing workouts and pushing an athlete are important, the ability to instruct an athlete and have them follow direction are the biggest priorities. It sets up everything else in a program.
Selecting exercises based on experience and ability to teach the athlete is the first step in coaching. The following four points should be thought of every time you write a leg workout:
- Know which exercises have the most value in training and know which have less impact in training
- Use barbells, body weight, dumbbells, medicine balls, and even machines without emotional attachment
- Have a balance of single leg, double leg, explosive, strength, and elastic exercises
- Be aware of what you are good at teaching and demonstrating and get feedback from other coaches
A good example of selecting exercises comes from my own background as a former athlete not being exposed to plyometrics and Olympic weightlifting. Knowing I wasn’t exposed to heavy barbell training and jump training, I had to learn in college quickly from others who seemed competent based on my limited experience. Over time, I was able to catch up simply by doing the exercises myself and learning to teach them. In all honesty, my two biggest challenges in demonstration are jerks and bounding.
The popular saying is: if you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time for a change in scenery; but I prefer to find better coaches.
For me, I have learned that Brendon Ziegler, Matt DeLancey, and Shane Davenport are better in the weight room, and I needed to be aware of the standard they perform at. For elastic training I have found coaches in the jump events have done a great job with plyometrics, so Boo Schexnayder, Randy Huntington, and Rana Reider have all helped me. Younger coaches like Nick Newman and others have challenged me.
Planning, Programming, and Periodization
Writing better workouts for the day and for the entire year takes a little trial and error...and simply looking at other coaches' workouts. Learning how other people think and reflecting on your own thought process takes years. No matter how much coaching education you have, time is the ultimate teacher because iteration of training seasons is the best way to see cause and effect.
When designing training, focusing on reverse planning is the most popular way to achieve a result. Where someone ends up obviously is dictated on how they start, but working backwards provides better coaching goals. Where you need to be is just as important as assessing where your athletes are.
When programming legs and worrying about teaching and safety, the most important variable is going to be time. Balancing the future benefits of teaching and the current demand of getting stronger is:
- Why some coaches either keep it too restricted and fail to progress and develop an athlete
- Why the opposite is true; the athlete isn’t progressing early when they need it most because they are focusing too far out
Modalities and Transfer: Getting the Weight Room to Work
Functional training, sport specific, and other terminology can cloud the purpose of the weight room. The goal of the weight room is to improve outcomes in injury resilience and performance, and direct testing discovers what is working and what may not be as effective.
Research and your own periodic testing is the only way to really know if a type of exercise (modality) or phase of training as a whole is working. Transfer, or how well a concept improves an athlete in a specific ability, is the most precious need of an athlete.
A good train of thought is how a specific part of the program improves a quality that is of value. For example, hamstring strength and eccentric lengthening is very effective in reducing injury, but implementation is usually difficult. Coaches have found that using the Nordic Hamstring Exercise is not comfortable or easy to progress, and creativity and problem solving with elastic bands for assistance improved the results.
Another good example of transfer is hurdle jumps helping developing athletes run faster because they allow beginner trainees faster elastic responses. Hops and bounds being single leg could be more sport specific on paper because they are one leg, but, due to their demand, could be inappropriate for athletes who are not strong enough to perform them. Advanced athletes may use double leg training in the weight room because of time constraints, not because they are more skilled in squatting or pulling. An athlete may not have a good grip, so heavy dumbbells may be a hindrance - thus why some coaches still use barbells with youth athletes.
The only real rule in coaching is do no harm, but even some situations what is intuitive may be wrong biomechanically and orthopaedically, so keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to other valid points in training.
Wrapping Up Leg Training
When you make choices based on addressing factors that are for the wellbeing of the athlete, usually the training falls into place. Focusing on extrinsic factors, ego, or other goals outside of performance and injury resilience are usually the downfall of a program.
Keeping an open mind, while being slightly skeptical, is a balanced way to learn from many of the different coaches and medical professionals that provide coaching education.