Hockey players are made in the off-season.
The complacent and overconfident athlete can be found boozing it up and chasing skirt in dive bars or working on their tan, cooling off the effects of the sweltering summer sun with a cold Heineken in one hand and a strawberry ice cream in the other.
Meanwhile, the driven keep seeking ways that will help them take the next step towards increased performance on the ice.
Look no further, this one’s for you.
Here’s what every hockey player, whether young or seasoned, looking to elevate his game needs to do in the off-season
Due to the nature of the game, players are typically left with a wide array of postural and muscular problems that need to be fixed over the summer. Some of the most common problems among hockey players include:
– limited range of motion in the hips, ankles, shoulders and thoracic spine
– tight hip flexors combined with weak glutes and hamstrings that contribute to excessive anterior pelvic tilt
– strength imbalances between the hip adductors and abductors that increase the risk of groin strains
The answer to fixing these problems?
A comprehensive strength training program with smart exercise progression.
Especially in the early off-season, unilateral (single-limb) exercises should be used to build up the athletes and balance them out.
One of the best single-leg exercises we use is the rear-foot elevated split squat (also known as “Bulgarian split squat”) because it strengthens the adductors, groin, quads, glutes and stretches those chronically tight hip flexors.
In addition to a proper strength program, performing mobility exercises targeting the problem areas should be top priority. The simplest way to make sure they get done is to include them as part of a comprehensive dynamic warm-up prior to, or a cool-down routine after every off-ice training session.
On top of that, for strengthening the hip musculature, all sorts of pushing, dragging and crossover work with a sled should be included in the program.
One of our junior hockey players was experiencing hip pain triggered by sprints and movements where change of direction came into play early in the off-season. A few weeks later the pain vanished.
I asked him what he thought made the difference in getting his hips back to health.
“Must be all the mobility and single-leg strength exercises we’ve been doing.”
Which leads us directly to #2…
Many junior hockey players are pathetically weak.
That’s because they’re working out, chasing the burn – not training to get better.
Benching 3×10, sets of 15 on the leg press, 25 crunches…
Stop wasting your time.
You must progressively increase resistance in the lower rep ranges (1-8 reps per set on average) if you wish to maximize strength gains.
Here’s a short list of the basic strength exercises smart players will use:
– single-leg squats and deadlifts
– chin-ups and push-ups
– bench press and overhead press variations
Using light resistance when training for strength is only acceptable if someone’s new to training. As always, learning proper lifting form takes precedence over everything else.
But once they’ve got form down?
Load ’em up.
A beginner will see marked improvements in speed and power from simply getting stronger on the basic exercises such as the squat and deadlift.
However, maximal strength gains contribute less and less to power development as an athlete gets closer to his strength potential. Bringing a newbie lifter’s numbers steadily up on the basic barbell and dumbbell exercises over time – assuming the athlete possesses good skating technique – will translate to increased on-ice speed.
But the guy who can already squat 2-2.5x bodyweight probably won’t benefit too much from adding another 10 kilograms to his personal best.
That’s why exercises emphasizing acceleration and deceleration are crucial for getting faster and more powerful.
Thus, every healthy athlete should perform variations of the following:
– Olympic lifting
Unfortunately, the efficacy of these training methods has been largely butchered by many since they’re frequently used to make the athlete tired, not for developing speed and power – which can only take place when the nervous system is NOT in a fatigued state.
To give you an example, I’ve seen training programs that called for high-rep hang cleans combined with sets of 20 box jumps.
That’s the kiss of death for any power athlete.
Detailed guidelines on proven set and rep schemes for various exercises would require its own article but to give you a very simplified overview, here are some numbers to shoot for:
– jumping: 3-5 sets of 1-6 reps
– Olympic lifts and their variations: 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps
– med ball exercises: 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
Being strong and powerful is great… but only if you’ve got the conditioning to back it up.
Conditioning is nothing more than increasing work capacity for YOUR sport.
The problem is that what many hockey players are doing off the ice rarely helps them optimally prepare for the demands of the game.
Hockey is an alactic-aerobic sport, meaning that short high-intensity, high power output bursts are followed by low-intensity intervals.
Whether stopping and turning on a dime to elude a defenceman in the corner, releasing a hard slap shot beating the goalie high glove side, body checking an opponent on open ice, or quickly transitioning from backchecking to an offensive 3-on-2 rush after a won puck battle between the bluelines, almost every action in hockey involves an explosive/high power output movement.
Understanding this, we realize that repeat sprinting ability is the KEY to excelling in the rink from an energy systems development standpoint.
But if you follow the summer practices of many teams, coaches will have their athletes do lots of slow, long-distance jogging or they run intervals until the players can no longer move their legs due to the huge amount of lactic acid build-up they’ve been exposed to via running at a high intensity over a long distance coupled with short rest periods.
There’s a better way to go about conditioning for hockey.
We’re talking about things like:
– tempo runs (great for recovery and developing the aerobic system)
– sprinting (done with adequate rest between repeated efforts)
– shuttle runs (lots of direction changes similar to on-ice demands, and minimizes hamstring pulls)
– sled work (builds mental toughness and strengthens the muscles around the hip)
– strongman training (ditto)
A strong and fast player will always perform at a higher level on the ice than a weaker, slower version of himself.
But the fast, strong athlete who can recover quickly to express his speed and explosiveness over the entire 60 minutes (and overtime, if needed)?
He will dominate the opposition.
This ties directly back to the first point in this article.
The off-season is called the OFF-season for a reason… that’s when the smart players switch OFF and stay OFF the ice.
Summer is the only time during the year to get out of that rounded over, hips flexed posture players spend so much time in on the ice – which becomes even more pronounced when they’re sitting in the same position on the bench between shifts and in the locker room before and after practice or games!
Taking time off from the game also provides the perfect opportunity to nurse any nagging injuries accumulated during the long in-season back to health.
Not only that, taking a couple months off from skating will help restore mental balance as well. Pro hockey players spend their summers engaging in completely unrelated activities such as tennis, golf or fishing. Doing that takes their mind off the game and allows them to relax.
As a result, when the athlete does go back on the ice in the pre-season, he’ll feel rejuvenated, motivated and better prepared for what will hopefully be the best season of his career yet.
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Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.
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