By Carl Valle
Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due, and looking back, it’s only fair to give thanks to those who have shaped your thinking. After careful introspection, I must admit that Ian King, a strength coach who has helped educate countless professionals, is a major influence in the way I design leg training workouts.
In this article, I will look at the very important reasons that Ian King has made a big impact on more sport professionals than just me—he has made a colossal difference for coaches all over the world. Even if you are not familiar with King, you will likely come away from this nodding in agreement that he is a legend. If you already know of him, this review will show why he is a pioneer and true expert in sports performance.
Who Is Coach Ian King?
I could write a vanilla biography or just be lazy and link to the About page on his website, but King deserves some time and effort spent explaining the amount of change he spearheaded that got us where we are today. In no way am I saying he is the godfather of strength and conditioning, or that he single-handedly changed preparation training, but he certainly deserves credit for making the profession better. To put it in perspective, here are his own words about his origins:
“My role in coach education began in the early 1980s when I was asked to teach undergraduates and teaching staff about strength training at the local university. In the mid-1980s, I wrote and presented Australia’s first state-accredited strength course for the fitness industry. By the late 1980s, I took on the role of State Director and then Executive Director for the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) of Australasia, an offshoot of the US NSCA, and guided the formation of the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association (ASCA). In this role, I wrote the course curriculum for the level’s causes, much of which is still in place today. I served in this position through to the late 1990s.”
In the 1990s, King started to accelerate his recognition to the point he became known internationally, and you can find his work in the early printed form of Testosterone magazine. I was first exposed to his educational work at the NSCA conference while in college, and his methods of training really added value for me since I simply didn’t know how to write a strength program beyond modifying bodybuilding workouts.King’s teachings are still relevant today, perhaps more than ever before. Click To Tweet
Years later, I attended one of his workshops outside the country, and this helped me build on what I had already learned. King’s education is still relevant today, perhaps more than ever before, because of the dilution of good information and the misinterpretation of other pioneers in the profession. Overall, his work has passed the test of time, and I love his writing and straightforward teaching style.
Rethink and Think Deeper About Programming Leg Training
I have seen a lot of great information presented over the years, and have had several training design sources influence me to make changes that I felt uncomfortable with. When I make a change, it’s to improve what we do, not to enhance the marketing of the program or the profit of the training. College and high school environments have shaped how I work with athletes, but the private sector has also taught me that results matter even more, as athletes have more options and vote with their feet and their wallet.
This list of lessons is for leg training, but it can also serve as a great outline for all training, and the lessons are nearly laws of training for me.
- I do sometimes use machines, but for the most part, dumbbells and barbells reign supreme.
- Both bilateral and unilateral exercises have value; some more than others depending on context.
- Each athlete responds to different training and different exercises uniquely, but not that differently.
- A wide variety of exercises expands the toolbox, but craftsmanship is about refinement.
- Joint stability is about strength and coordination, not unstable surfaces and odd exercises.
This list is more of a teaser than a summary of what King has shared over the last 30 years, and other great coaches have similar wisdom. Plenty of other coaches came to the same or similar conclusions before or after their education, but if you do your homework, most of what you are searching for was provided in the ’80s and ’90s.
Unilateral Foundations and Purpose
King was not the first to propose single leg training, but he added some necessary support to the value and credibility of the movements with his article for Testosterone magazine 20 years ago. Most athletes were only exposed to weightlifting or powerlifting movements, and he made single leg training respectable. True, you can find single leg activities done by elites earlier, but they were always seen as medical or alternative movements, rather than something “dangerously hardcore.”Ian King made single leg training respectable. Click To Tweet
King’s current four-part series on unilateral leg training on BreakingMuscle.com is a masterpiece, and I highly recommend printing it out and placing it in a binder. Out of about 100 articles, I think I may have suggested printing out anything once, at most.
What I like most about these articles was that they tackle the notion that specificity and functional are closely related, but limited when an entire program fits together. Arguing that a single exercise is superior to another form is silly because you must view the nature of the entire training input before you can reach any logical conclusion. Single leg training has run crazy, not from the leading coaches, but due to the interpretation of the masses, especially in commercial settings.
If I could give one lesson to coaches when selecting exercises, it’s that it’s better to see how the movement fits into a training program than to see how the exercise transfers to performance in isolation. True, if you had only one exercise to assign, specificity and transfer are likely paramount, but even athletes with limited time and energy do more than one exercise. In fact, if you are pressed for time, specificity actually hampers progress, because you likely need training to balance or complement the overdose of singular modes of training inputs from the redundancy issue of practicing and competing too much.
I know some coaches think pattern overload and overuse syndromes are poor terms, but unless the research really demonstrates a holistic program is proven to reduce injuries, they are viable starting points to address the allocation of training resources. As Boo Schexnayder has said, it’s better to complement training than to pile on more.
Joint Stability as a Product of Balanced Training, Not Balance Exercises
To me, Ian King made a big difference by making leg training well-rounded with his understanding of how exercise contributes to true joint function and how practices interact with the loading. My issue with most training programs is that they look wonderful in the weight room in isolation, but don’t jive together when outside work is combined. Disassembling sporting actions into weight room exercises has some merit, but taking it too far is dangerous. When many coaches went to unstable surfaces, King didn’t budge and become the balance guru—he kept on being vanilla and leaned on his wisdom and reasoning.Disassembling sporting actions into weight room exercises has some merit, but don’t take it too far. Click To Tweet
A stable joint is a strong joint, and his general exercises (including plyometrics) supported athletes better than “rehearsing” what they already do well. In the past, I viewed stabilizer muscles as a way of improving joint integrity, but I was wrong. Many of the specific lower load exercises could wake up a muscle, but an aggressive exercise is far more effective than a light activation movement.
For example, I spent years and money doing lower level exercises with boards and foot weights for the ankle, but turned to LSU modules and the results were stellar. Not only did we get more muscular development from properly implemented strength and power training, but the coordination was far faster than unstable training because the contractions were fast and not delayed.
Finally came the corrective exercise wave of the early 2000s, and much of it had to do with the early convergence of sports medicine and sports performance. While they have always been connected in the past, we saw a rise of sports medicine professionals getting certified as strength coaches to take on dual roles for budgeting reasons or employment opportunities. At the same time, a lot of trainers and coaches started hoarding the exercise libraries of sports therapists to add their spin to rehabilitation, and that was problematic as well.
Many exercises are useful solutions, as eventually an intervention is needed, but a process and approach are far more powerful. Now everyone seems to be seeing the light that corrective training is the real deal, and they’re going back to program design to fix issues rather than inserting a special exercise to do everything magically. General preparation phases are cut out of most programs like physical education classes at schools, and this is where joint integrity comes from. I hope that we see a focus on well-rounded leg training for joint integrity versus overreaction to motion capture and screens that just rehash what we all know to be true: Most athletes need more time preparing outside the court or field.
Make Exercises Better with Coaching and Be Careful of Dumbing It Down
Teaching an athlete to move better is important, but many coaches are now starting to voice their concerns about overcoaching. Motor development is about the athlete learning, not the coach teaching. The right amount of support and challenge is necessary for the athlete to blossom.
We could really use Ian King for hands-on workshops now, as I think we have gone so far into ivory tower science that we have forgotten strength training is a craft in itself. No matter how much science we know, we still need to apply it in exercise and program design. It’s not that we need to shy away from research—we just need equal effort on the hands-on side of things in the weight room.Progress is not the same as progression. Click To Tweet
Progressions can be sequential exercises with greater demand and complexity, but progress is not the same as progression. Usually, coaches think that progressions are strict phases or stages of development, but it’s really far more fluid.
I have witnessed some amazing coaching that could not be scaled to interns or even other coaches. What separates master coaches is that they want to see advancements, not replication of a step-by-step approach to development. Kids are not IKEA furniture, and while some overall pipelines of development do have stages and sequences, getting caught up in recipe-style training is likely great for fast food but not for human beings.
Regression is either a bad choice forced into a reaction or the inability to coach up the athlete. There’s nothing wrong with carving meat for someone, but eventually they need to cut the rest of the serving for themselves. Athletes don’t need motor skill baby food—they need to make the challenge bite-sized for themselves. Too much problem-solving for the athlete just keeps them from being task-ready and makes them drones to instruction.
I do think teaching is an exchange, but if I had to learn things over, I would look to coaches who prescribe challenges to the athlete and give parameters rather than coaches who build clones of one model. Perhaps King really opened my eyes to the correct portions of support and the right dose of challenge when training athletes. Our goal is to create a challenge that the athlete can reach with just a little prodding, not by dragging them or holding their hands the entire way.
<h2>Function Is About Outcomes, Not Visible Appearance</h2>
I don’t like most machines, but I am far more open-minded than years ago. You will not find much opinion from Ian King about machine equipment, and that is one reason I like his positioning. Demonizing machines was one of my faults when I was young, as I grasped the extreme view of the “barbells or bust” mantra way too tightly.
I still do most of my training with traditional equipment, but have lately realized that there is nothing wrong with a good machine provided it is just part of a program and not the bulk of it. Pat Davidson was one of the guys that opened my eyes to machines not being such a bad idea, and now instead of 5% of my program, they make up about 15-20% of what I do. With the rise of biokinetic machines for strength and rehabilitation, we need to embrace that it’s okay not to only stay with free weights.Function is about results, not what the exercise looks like. Click To Tweet
I give credit to Tony Shield and others for defining what function really is, as it’s about results and not what the exercise looks like. This goes for all exercises, as coaches commonly view specificity and replication as interchangeable concepts. How this connects with machine training is simple: The overreaction to stability training, thanks to Swiss balls and unstable surface training, led to arguments for training programs that failed to translate into results. Not having to balance doesn’t mean that the exercise will not transfer, it just means it’s likely to focus on prime movers instead of stabilizers.
Take core training, for example. While I am still a proponent of addressing core to balance a program, I no longer see it as a way to enhance performance. There is a relationship between swinging a bat and throwing a medicine ball, but extrapolating a throw doesn’t mean home run hitters will have a better rotational throw than lesser hitters. Function is not about the equipment or how close the exercise looks to the sporting movement; it’s the results you get with the exercise based on the intentions you have.
Assessment Is About Training and Beyond Injury Risk Factors
Tailoring training with individualized training is a topic I went into detail earlier, but if I had to write the piece over, I would have mentioned why we need to screen more for exercise technique than for injury risk. In the past, structural balance was all the rage, and while it was far from perfect, I do think training design needs to come back to ways to harmonize stress and strength expression. I don’t know if King looked at research or created his own, but when I started using his programs, athletes became more resilient without even trying to target specific injury patterns. Global preparation trumps specific intervention, but having both integrated is better than one or the other.
What I think King was wise about with all loading was his focus on not chasing numbers but staying patient with the program. You have to be patient now, as it’s harder and harder to make progress when there is no available time, due to schedules and extended playing calendars. King was aware of this and, while his training may have appeared strange with some of his intense loading, he was really making sure that the athletes were getting what they needed by seeing all of the training, rather than just implementing his own training.
Dan Pfaff made a very profound statement about how watching practice is very similar to movement screening, and I agree with him. My only concern is that great coaches are usually experienced with decades of practice, so what about the rest of us who are younger and perhaps less gifted?Assessing leg development is a daily process, and you should do intermittent periods of testing. Click To Tweet
I think a combination of stricter assessment with more day-to-day follow-up is a good compromise. Assessing leg development is a daily process, but it should have intermittent periods of testing to see if the program is working. King wasn’t against testing or overzealous about it; he just focused on the training as a whole and it seemed to work for us.
Final Disclaimer and Recommended Reading
I don’t think I can fully explain the value of what Ian King did for me, but I must give credit to him as it’s only the right thing to do. Without even thinking about it, I have used his concepts in training countless times and took for granted what he has done for the community. I am sure I have made some omissions somewhere or forgotten to point out a great concept that he taught me, but at least the world knows King deserves praise for his contributions in this field of human performance.
I recommend that you invest time and money in his information. To get started, he has a lot of freely available information on his website and on Breaking Muscle, T-Nation, and other online sites. If you can attend a workshop or invest in his educational resources, I am sure you will be happy, as I always pick up a few tips and ideas every time I read or view his work.