When successful hockey players step in the weight room, they’re getting the sports performance equivalent of a balanced meal. By that I mean that they’re getting all of the nutrients (IE, training stimuli) they need to improve their performance on the ice. When unsuccessful or inexperienced hockey players step in the weight room, they’re spending most of their time “eating dessert.” They go in without a plan and spend most of their time doing things that they’ve seen on TV or the internet or that they think look cool. Ask yourself a quick question, do you think players like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin walk into the weight room without a plan? Do you think they just walk in and say, “well I don’t know what to do, so I guess I could just do some curls and sit-ups ‘cuz I saw that on TV.” Players who use the weight room to meaningfully improve their performance go in with a real plan (IE, a plan that was actually written down before they stepped into the weight room) that is based on some key principles.
Obviously, those players I mentioned above have highly qualified strength and conditioning/performance coaches to help them. This article can’t replace a qualified coach. It certainly can’t cover all facets of sports performance training for hockey players. My hope is to introduce some key ideas about what makes a training program effective or ineffective so that you can plan your own training more effectively or better evaluate the training that you’re getting from your coach. The truth is, if you’re a relative beginner, what you need to know is not all that complicated. A good way to start is to think of planning training like planning a balanced meal.
What would you put on the table if you were sitting down to a balanced and nutritious meal? You’d probably have a meat or protein, a starch like potatoes/rice/pasta, some vegetables, maybe a side of fruit and, if you had been active during the day and gotten all your other nutrients, you could probably have some guilt-free dessert. Which part of the meal would you prioritize and eat first? Probably your protein source. Dessert should, of course, come last. Do you have to eat every kind of meat at every meal? Obviously not. But you probably should get a wider range than just chicken over the course of the week. Let’s think of our sample training program like that.
If you want to just skim this article and not read the whole thing in depth, here’s the bare bones of how you can implement it in your training:
- Pick 1-2 “meat and potatoes” exercises per training session and try to get all forms of “meat and potatoes” training over the course of the week.
- Pick 3-6 “vegetable” exercises per training session and try to get a wide variety over the course of the week.
- Pick 1 “fruit” exercise per week and do it while not-fatigued and in a way that is very high-intensity. If you want to do plyometrics more often, be sure you pair them with a relevant strength movement (IE, box jumps with squats).
- Save your “dessert” for last and only do it if you are (1) feeling healthy, energetic and rested and (2) you have gotten all your other “nutrients” for the day and week
Meat and Potatoes (Pick 1-2 per training session and try to get all over the course of the week)
This is your number one priority. It’s what you do before anything else. At this point in the “meal” we are focusing on primary multi-joint strength and power movements. They are usually bilateral (using both feet or both hands at the same time) and sagittal (IE, movement is parallel to an imaginary plane which splits the body into left and right halves). A simple way to categorize “meat and potato” strength exercises is to separate them into either squat (knee dominant lower body), hinge (hip dominant lower body), push or pull. A few examples of these movements are below (obviously, none of the lists in this article are meant to be comprehensive). Each is listed with variations to progress it for more advanced athletes or regress it for beginner athletes.
- Cable or Band Pull Through
- Kettlebell/Dumbbell Deadlift
- Hex Bar Deadlift
- Barbell Deadlift
- Barbell or Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Push (Horizontal and Overhead)
Pull (Horizontal and Overhead)
The Olympic Lifts & Other Power Movements
The Olympic lifts (the snatch and the clean & jerk) are used for both “Weightlifting” the Olympic sport and for sports performance training. While they are more technically complex than squats or bench presses, they are not all that difficult for otherwise athletic individuals to learn. Their reputation among some coaches as “too technical, too time-consuming to learn and too risky” is undeserved. True, I wouldn’t start a hockey player who is brand new to the weight room on these movements (first, demonstrate that you can do a quality squat under load). However, they have huge potential to improve athletic performance by developing power (the second pull of the clean is the most powerful movement, as measured in watts, in all of sports), velocity, proprioception, force absorption (during the catch phase), mobility and even courage (I certainly wouldn’t use the Olympic lifts recklessly to develop this quality, but it takes some courage to throw a heavy weight over your head and that’s a good thing). In my opinion, the Olympic lifts and their regressions should play a role in most high-intermediate to advanced hockey training programs. Because they are highly demanding, if they are in your program, they should be the first strength movements that you do in any training session and you should keep the reps low (2-5) and the rest periods between sets long (3-5 minutes).
Not all hockey players need to do all of these progressions in order to use the Olympic lifts to improve their performance (IE, the ability to do a power clean may be enough; a full depth squat clean may not be necessary or advisable). They are just provided for educational purposes to help you understand how to progress an athlete from not even knowing what a clean is, to doing a reasonably competent power clean or hang clean.
- Clean Progressions
- Front Squat
- Clean-Grip Lift-Off
- Clean pull, starting from the “power position”
- Clean high pull, starting from the “power position”
- Power clean, starting from the “power position”
- Hang Clean Pull
- Clean Pull from the Floor
- Power Clean from the Floor
- Power Clean from the Floor + Front Squat
- Full Squat Clean
- Snatch Progressions
- Overhead Squat
- Snatch-Grip Lift-Off
- Snatch pull, starting from the “power position”
- Snatch high pull, starting from the “power position”
- Power snatch, starting from the “power position”
- Hang Snatch Pull
- Snatch Pull from the Floor
- Hang Power Snatch
- Power Snatch from the Floor
- Power Snatch from the Floor + Overhead Squat
- Full Squat Snatch
- Jerk Progressions
For youth and beginner athletes, I would also include other ballistic/power movements such as med ball throws and slams in the “meat and potatoes” category. However, as athletes become more advanced, they will need to be progressed to heavier and more technically demanding movements than a medicine ball can provide. For advanced athletes, I would put med ball slams/throws/etc. in the plyometric “fruit” category below.
Vegetables (Pick 3-6 exercises per training session and try to get a wide variety over the course of the week)
This is the part of the meal where you’re going to focus on accessory strength movements, targeted mobility work and injury prevention. This is the point where you can start getting into unilateral (single leg) training and start working in the frontal and transverse planes (frontal plane movements are parallel to an imaginary line that separates the body into front and back halves, a lateral lunge is a frontal plane movement; transverse plane movements are usually rotational, like a med ball rotational throw). I don’t include frontal/transverse plane movements in the “meat and potatoes” category because they can’t be loaded as heavily as bilateral + sagittal movements and, therefore, present less opportunity for development of strength and power. Just as you should have vegetables with most meals, but they aren’t a full meal in and of themselves, these movements are important, but they should come second.
Accessory Strength Movements
- Lower Body
- Upper Body
Targeted Mobility Work
First of all, a worrisome trend that I see in sports performance training is athletes spending tons and tons of time rolling around on the floor doing unfocused “mobility work.” When I say “targeted,” I mean focus on a specific deficit that may be holding you back, do a mobility exercise for it and then LOAD that movement (IE, do a resistance training exercise right after the mobility exercise). Mobility work shouldn’t take all day. Remember a few key points: (1) mobility is about the ability to move in and out of the positions you need to be in for your sport (hockey players don’t need to be circus performers) (2) the ability to move in and out of those positions has to do with strength as well as flexibility (proper strength training can and does make players more mobile) and (3) changing the body’s structure is very difficult, the most efficient mobility work is about changing how the nervous system perceives a given position, that’s why most mobility exercises should be followed by a strength exercise to load that new range of motion (teaching the central nervous system that this is, in fact, a safe position for the body to be in).
In my opinion, the most important mobility work for hockey players takes place at the ankle (especially improving dorsiflexion). If you have ever broken a bone and spent time in a cast, you know how stiff that can make you. Well, hockey players’ feet and ankles spend time in a cast nearly every day…it’s called a hockey skate.
- Dorsiflexion and Ankle Mobility
I don’t like separating this into its own category, because a well-designed strength program is an injury prevention strategy all on its own. Many of the adaptations we are looking for in the exercises below are dealt with, to some extent, by our “meat and potatoes” exercises above. However, there is room for some targeted injury prevention exercises in any program as well.
For hockey players, I would focus on two major areas, strengthening the adductors (groin muscles) which is a key deficit in this population and strengthening the shoulder-girdle/traps/neck muscles to prevent concussion and neck injury. For head/neck injury prevention, remember that many of the muscles of the upper back attach at the skull (EG, the origin of the trapezius is the external occipital protuberance of the skull) so training these muscles below the neck can help with force regulation at the head and neck during impact. For more on concussion prevention through neck training, check out this excellent article: http://vandykestrength.com/pages/neck_training
- Adductor Strengthening
- Concussion/Neck Injury Prevention
Fruit (Pick 1 per week or pair with a relevant “meat and potatoes” exercise)
I’m going to put things like plyometrics, agility and speed work in this category. Like fruit, it’s probably more appealing to an athlete than the “veggies” of mobility work and injury prevention exercises, but it’s also going to give you less “bang for your buck” in terms of effectiveness.
You don’t have to have fruit at every single meal, but having a wide variety of fruits over the course of the week is beneficial in getting all of your nutrients. Similarly, you don’t need to spend most of your time in the weight room doing these drills, but they can be useful from time to time when implemented in a purposeful way. When I say “purposeful” I mean (1) that you are doing these drills with enough rest so that you can do them at high-intensity (otherwise you’re just piling on more conditioning) and (2) you are pairing them with strength movements that make sense (IE, pairing a plyometric box jump with a squat or a med ball chest throw with a bench press).
Here’s a quick side note on why I’m not a huge fan of off-ice speed and agility training for hockey players. Agility in a real hockey game has a huge perceptual element. Players who are agile in games are able to perceive their environment and choose the right action quicker than other players. It is NOT just about acceleration/deceleration (which, by the way, you are already training with your “meat and potatoes” strength moves). Doing a “pro-agility” drill off the ice provides you with none of the perceptual stimuli you will have to deal with in a real game so it’s transfer is limited, in my opinion.
Let’s talk about off-ice “speed work” too. First of all, the biomechanics of skating and sprinting are very VERY different. The push phase of a skating stride has much longer “ground contact time” (how long the blade is actually touching the ice) than occurs in sprinting. Furthermore, the skating stride involves a great deal more abduction/adduction and external/internal rotation of the hip than sprinting. Hockey skating also involves a much greater forward lean of the trunk than sprinting. These completely different biomechanics make me suspicious just how much off-ice “speed training” will actually transfer to the ice. In addition, hockey speed is more about acceleration than top speed given that the ice surface is bounded by boards on all sides. Hockey players spend very little time at true “top speed” in a game.
If you really want to work on your speed and agility, consider this advice. Rather than doing lots of mindless agility drills off the ice, play more games like keep-away on the ice. If you really want to improve your speed, focus on short (~10 yard) sprints as these more closely replicate the biomechanics (ground contact times, forward trunk lean, etc.) and game tactics (short races to space rather than the unrealistic top speed laps you see in the NHL All Star Game Fastest Skater Competition) of real-game hockey skating.
Oh, and by the way, throw that so-called “agility” ladder straight in the garbage. That thing does not train agility, speed or coordination. You are never moving fast enough to accelerate/decelerate in a way that meaningfully impacts agility in sports. Tapping your feet on the ground really fast DOES NOT make you faster in terms of displacing your body from Point A to Point B (which is what we actually care about). Here’s a simple experiment, put a ladder on the goal line of a football field, have two athletes race from the goal line to the 10 yard line. One has to go through the ladder and one just sprints. Who do you think wins? The guy NOT using the ladder. Yeah, that’s the guy who’s actually working on speed.
Dessert (Only get to have if everything else is taken care of)
First of all, aesthetic results aren’t the point of sports performance training, but they may be a nice side-effect. If you do all of the training above, you’ll probably be pretty happy with how you look. But if you still want to do some “beach-body” exercises or other things that you think are fun to do in the gym, this is the time to do them. In moderation, they’re not going to hurt your performance. But they CANNOT take the place of the real performance training mentioned above. If your health/recovery and your sports performance training are all taken care of, feel free to have a little dessert.
Here’s a side note for everyone out there who loves to do curls: slow down the eccentric (downward) phase and decrease the weight if you can’t do them under control. Most people do curls because they want to increase the size of the biceps. Not exactly first on our list of priorities for improving hockey performance, but okay if that’s what you want. Here’s the thing, much of the damage that occurs to the muscle fibers (necessary damage that stimulates hypertrophy or muscle growth) happens during this eccentric phase. If you pick a weight that is too heavy, and you’re flinging it around with no control, you are completely missing the eccentric phase and missing opportunities for hypertrophy. If chasing bigger biceps is the reason why you’re doing curls (and, let’s be honest, that is why most people do them), you’re not going to get this adaptation by skipping or de-emphasizing the eccentric phase.
This is also the point in the program where I would put most of your “core” work. First of all, you don’t want to fatigue the stabilizing muscles of the trunk early in a workout. This may impair your ability to do a squat, clean or row. Second of all, those “meat and potatoes” strength movements are going to challenge your core’s stabilizing abilities anyway. Third, just as some bicep curls aren’t going to kill you, a few crunches aren’t the best thing for your performance, but they’re not going to put a healthy, young athlete in the hospital either. However, if you want to do core work, I would focus on training the core as an “anti” mover rather than as a prime mover. This means training the core to resist movement (think of a plank) rather than initiate movement (a typical crunch). The core is a major “energy transfer” center for moving force from the upper body to the lower body or vice versa (think of absorbing a check with your left shoulder and transferring that force into the ice through your right foot; think of pushing off with your back foot and flexing your stick with your upper body during a slap shot). If you can’t resist movement at the core, you are constantly leaking power.
You can separate “anti-movement” core exercises into four major categories. If you’re going to train the core at the end of a session, try to pick one from the list below and get all four over the course of the week:
- Band-Resisted Extension
- Place a band around shoulders, have partner try to pull you into a crunch while you resist
- This video actually shows band-resisted flexion. Position the partner on the opposite side to make this an anti-flexion exercise.
- Band-Resisted Extension
- Anti-Lateral Flexion
As a final note, I would encourage you to remember that a healthy diet is not just about what you have at a single meal. It’s about what you are consuming all day and over time and how this relates to your activities and lifestyle. Similarly, a balanced meal in the weight room should take into account what else is going on in your life.
First of all, think of training adaptations as buckets. We want to fill all of them, but some of them may be getting filled at practice and in games. For instance, if you’re playing a lot of games and your on-ice coach knows how to design a practice with appropriate work:rest ratios, you are probably getting your conditioning bucket filled on the ice. Same goes for agility. A well-designed on-ice practice that incorporates elements of keep-away and puck possession will provide players with a great deal of game-realistic agility training. What is often missing for most athletes is a focus on strength, power and injury prevention. Those are the buckets that are hard to fill on the ice.
Second, training is stress. Properly applied, it is good stress that will improve your performance in the long run. But it’s stress all the same. If you are stressed out at school, fatigued from practice, hungry because you haven’t eaten a real meal all day (a REAL meal, not the figurative training meal we’ve been talking about in this article) and not feeling great because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, piling on more stress at training is probably not the answer. If you want to maximize your hockey performance, maybe you should focus on recovering from these life stresses first.
Sports performance training and strength & conditioning are deep rabbit holes. I’m working on a master’s degree in the field right now. If you want to get more complicated, you can, and there is plenty of room to go beyond what I’ve presented in this article (especially if we’re talking about advanced athletes). However, for most youth athletes, the basics explained in this article can take you a long, long way and, really, aren’t that difficult to understand and implement.