An Interview With Hockey Trainer Kevin Neeld (Part II)

I spoke with trainer Kevin Neeld last week about what goes in to training hockey players, how to best eat for hockey, and what supplements to take, among other things.

Click here to read Part I of our interview.

Read on for Part II, where we discuss the front vs. back squat debate, how to prepare in the offseason, what “hockey-specific” really means, and more.

Angus: Generally, how would you program a pro hockey player’s summer? Assuming he has four months before camp.

Kevin: Programming really depends on the needs of the player, but with 4 months, the general structure of an off-season program for a higher level player would look something like:

Phase 1 (3-weeks): Focus on “corrective work” geared toward reestablishing optimal alignment, structural balance, functional strength, and aerobic conditioning. Hypetrophy work for the players that need it.

Phase 2 (3-weeks): Continued emphasis on corrective work and aerobic work, but greater emphasis placed on improving strength and hypertrophy (for the players that need it), and the introduction of power work.

Phase 3 (3-weeks): Decreased emphasis on corrective, hypertrophy, and aerobic work; increased emphasis on maximal strength, secondary emphasis on high load power, and conditioning transitions into mostly alactic power work.

Phase 4 (3-weeks): Transition to strength maintenance with an increased focus on high- and low-load power, speed, and alactic capacity conditioning. We also start to introduce more “hockey-specific” patterns in this phase to begin transferring the development of certain qualities into more on-ice relevant patterns, and to begin to prepare the hips for more on-ice skating work.

Phase 5 (3-weeks): Maintained attention to speed and power work, with the introduction of transitional speed training, and more advanced power training progressions. Strength work is at very low volumes and is largely maintenance oriented. Conditioning work progresses to a combination of lactic and aerobic work, on different days.

Kris Letang training:

As I mentioned, this is just a template. We make adjustments regularly in exercise selection, training intensity, volume, and overall program direction based on the needs of a player on any given day.

Where do you see the industry going in the next five years?

It’s tough to really say, but a few trends I’m noticing among some of the industry leaders: 

  1. Greater recognition of the benefits of manual therapy. You see more and more “strength coaches” pursuing massage therapy certifications in order to provide various soft-tissue modalities to their athletes (ART, fascial work, trigger point therapy, Swedish massage, PRI manual techniques, etc.). This is the path I’ve gone as well, realizing how many of our players need or at least would greatly benefit from this type of work, but simply don’t have access to (or trust) quality practitioners.
  2. Increased focus on recovery and management of training, dietary, environmental, and lifestyle stressors. This largely hinges on technology developments that make things like heart rate variability (see: BioForce HRV) and sleep quality (see: ZEO Sleep Manager) easier and less expensive to monitor, and advancements that bring new recovery or “restoration” techniques to light (see: Earthing.com).
  3. A shift toward greater individualization in program design. In the last few years, this shift has taken place with regard to identifying movement limitations and taking an individualized approach toward restoring fundamental movement patterns through the use of different corrective exercises and changes to exercise selection within the program. I think the next step, one that many are already starting to make, is to take the same approach toward identifying an individual’s physiological strengths/weaknesses and programming energy system work (which is really the entire program) based on the individual’s profile. This is an area I’ve learned a lot about from guys like Patrick Ward, Joel Jamieson and Dave Tenney. This form of programming is as much an art as it is a science, but you need to know the science to perfect the art!

When people say exercises need to be “hockey-specific” – how do you interpret that? 

In general, I think most of these people have a specific on-ice attribute that they’d like to see improved and want off-ice work to reflect that goal. There are still people that have the misguided notion that off-ice training should look like hockey, especially with regard to shooting motions, but I don’t hear as much of this from parents as I used to. It’s interesting when people watch what we do and describe it as very hockey-specific; I simply don’t view it that way. A huge proportion of what we do would be common to almost any sport. A few exceptions include:

  1. Injury prevention strategies
  2. The end focus of our conditioning progressions
  3. The end focus of our power work
  4. The way I explain the rationale for each component of our program

Of these, the last point is probably the most powerful. The truth is that I could take a “hockey-specific” program and use it to train soccer, lacrosse, or baseball players and just explain why we’re doing things differently, and the athletes would leave feeling like the training was specific to their sport. There are certainly hockey-specific considerations, as we discussed above, but the idea that hockey players have COMPLETELY unique needs compared to other athletes is simply not accurate.

Within hockey, you see the same thing with goalies. Last year I presented to 200 U-14 hockey players at a USA Hockey camp and again at a Level 4 Coaching Clinic for USA Hockey. In both presentations I explained the strategies we use to improve mobility, speed, power, strength, and conditioning. After going through that, I pose the questions:

1) “Do I want my hips and shoulders to be more mobile?”

2) “Would being faster, stronger, and more explosive be beneficial?”

3) “Would these qualities also be beneficial for forwards and defensemen?”

4) “How do I develop these qualities?

This usually sparks an “a-ha” moment. Just because the athlete plays goalie, doesn’t mean he or she needs entirely unique strategies to develop qualities that are also beneficial to forwards and defenseman. Goalies that spend all their off-ice time stretching, shuffling sideways between two cones, and catching tennis balls while standing on stability balls are drastically limiting their potential.

What is your stance on the front or back squat debate? Do both have a place in training? 

My stance is that there shouldn’t be a debate at all. There simply needs to be a recognition of the stresses these exercises place on the athlete, the range of motion that can be considered “full” for any given athlete, and why one or both of these exercises may be appropriate for the athlete. To dig a little deeper here, in both exercises the bar essentially stays centered just in front of the athlete’s ankle joint. Simply, because the bar is on their back during a back squat, the movement will require a greater degree of forward bend of the torso to keep the bar centered in this position. This will put more shearing forces across the spine, under a significantly compressive load (from the weight itself and the contraction of the muscles crossing the spine). This isn’t inherently bad in all cases, but it warrants recognition if an athlete has recently suffered or is prone to almost any spine injury.

It’s worth noting that compressive loads tend to accentuate the spinal curve, so if an athlete is hyperlordotic through their lumbar spine (common) the compressive load is likely to stress them further into extension, which can cause extension-based problems (e.g. spondylolisthesis). Athletes that have long femurs relative to their torso length (regardless of their height!) are going to back squat using a motion that looks more like a good morning (chest down), which also warrants consideration. Finally, the research is mounting that most high level hockey players have some sort of femoroacetabular impingement, whether they’re aware of it or not. Because this type of lesion limits hip flexion ROM, squatting to a depth considered “full” traditionally (e.g. femur parallel to the ground) will drive most players past their end range, resulting in a number of potential problems, such as lumbar disc issues secondary to compensatory lumbar flexion, and significant stress to the anterior superior labrum (the most commonly torn labral area).

Returning to front squats, because the bar is racked in front of the shoulders, the player can descend into a squat while keeping the bar centered just in front of the ankles with a more upright torso. This will also make the athlete appear “deeper” for any given level of hip flexion, since most of the hip flexion is the femur moving within a slightly angled pelvis, opposed to a femur flexing inside of a pelvis that is angling further forward (as in the back squat).

To get to the heart of your question, we use both exercises in the programs of our athletes. It’s not a matter of an exercise being “good” or “bad”; it’s about understanding when it’s appropriate to use it. This is true of ALL exercises, not just these two squat variations.

What about bilateral and unliateral training? Do both have a place for hockey players?

This speaks to the same issue as the previous question. Both have a place, but it’s important to recognize which exercises are appropriate for which athletes and for what purpose. We use A LOT of single-leg exercises with our athletes because it’s an effective way or maximizing internal loading while minimizing external loading, allows us to quickly recognize and correct side-to-side differences or bilaterally hip stability issues, and capitalizes on the neuronal networks inherent in all human beings. Traditionally, people have viewed bilateral lower body lifts as primary exercises and single-leg work as “supplementary”; I tend to program with the opposite in mind. That said, there are always exceptions, and we still do heavy bilateral lifts when appropriate.

Thanks again for taking the time to do this, Kevin.

Kevin Neeld is the Director of Athletic Development at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ, a Strength and Conditioning Coach with the USA Women’s National Team, author of Ultimate Hockey Training, and co-owner of Hockey Strength & Conditioning. 

To get a FREE copy of Kevin’s hockey speed training manual “Breakaway Hockey Speed”, visit KevinNeeld.com.