An Interview with University of Minnesota Strength Coach Cal Dietz

Cal Dietz is one of the most respected strength coaches in the United States. He has been working with athletes at the University of Minnesota for over a decade, and has been with the men’s hockey team since 2000, where he has trained the likes of Thomas Vanek, Paul Martin, and Nick Bjugstad.

Our interview covered a wide scope of training/fitness topics with a focus on hockey. You can check out Cal’s work over at – a terrific training resource.


Angus: Hockey is one of many sports that you train at the University of Minnesota. What would be a few things specific to hockey, relative to training and/or recovery?

Dietz: Hockey players spend so much of their lives training lactate threshold. So people always ask me what I do for energy system training with my hockey players.

[Click this link for more information on lactate threshold training.]

What we have seen is many negative effects because of the focus on lactate training – especially in the older athletes I train. We are seeing cortisol issues and that can eventually shorten their careers.

So we have tried to avoid lactate training until right before season. And before that, during the offseason, we focus on training the creatine phosphate (CP) and aerobic energy systems.

Let’s say for example I was going to train lactate and train hard in the weight room with longer sets (20-30 seconds) and higher reps, what would transpire is if the athletes were tired? I would adjust the intensity (reduce it by 20 or 30%) – keep the same duration, but reduce the rest, and then it is an aerobic workout.

When I get these athletes in at the college or high school level, they have been in lactate training their entire lives with hockey.

And when we do all of the VO2 max testing and everything else we do, their ability to handle lactate is at such a high level compared to other athletes. My point is – I want to build their other energy systems up, because ultimately there is a ceiling on lactate.

Angus: You get to the point where hockey athletes are so efficient at that energy system that the improvements are so small.

And here’s the catch. In the 1960’s, the German rowers were doing a lot of lactate training. They were winning world championships, but they weren’t getting better. And then they realized that the aerobic base was so important to push the lactate higher, that they focused on building an aerobic base before focusing on lactate training. And because of this they could push their lactate ceiling higher.

Angus: I imagine a lot of hockey players neglect that aerobic base.

Yeah, and if you have a good aerobic base, you push lactate off more effectively, and you push that threshold further down.

Within my methods and programs, I like to use the example of a person training for a marathon and a power lifting meet, you are pulling that person in too many directions. The human body doesn’t really have enough energy adaptability to adapt, so you would get minimal results.

And everyone can agree on that.

So my question was – what is the other end of that spectrum? Make sure that your stress is very specific and all of the same. I specify the stress with duration.

Angus: With your hockey players, how do you structure the training? What would the major differences be between offseason and in-season training?

I use an auto regulatory system – I call it biometrics. It is really cybergenetic periodization that was developed by the Soviets. It is a system of regulation.

[You can read more about this, and Cal’s other training methodologies in his book Triphasic Training.]

I may have a freshman that can’t handle a lot of weight. He may do 185 pounds on his back squat, where a senior may have 365 pounds. Different work capacities.

[Here is a link to one of Cal’s programs, this one is for Canuck prospect and former Minnesota forward Taylor Matson.]

Usually by the third year in my program the athletes tend to make the most physical gains. We have had some unbelievable kids make great gains at the beginning, but ultimately many of them can’t handle the physical aspects to start.

That is why I like autoregulation – you train them as hard as their body can handle. The mentally tough kids want to do more, but the quality would suffer, so we shut them down. And that keeps them motivated.

Angus: So it is challenging to their own capacity compared to some set standard.

Yes, exactly.

Angus: Do you still train NHL guys that come back in the summer?

I have a private facility here in Minneapolos (1st Athlete). We have guys from Keith Ballard, Paul Martin, Thomas Vanek, Alex Goligoski, Kyle Okposo, Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Johnson – they train in my system. Those are just to name a few guys.

Paul Martin

In the minor leagues there are a lot as well. There was a total of about 50 pros in both places last summer.

Angus: Did a lot of them stick around during the lockout? How did you program around that?

It was hard because there was a plan in place to peak in September. So what we did was we went back and revisited the training phases but we shortened them up. We gave them some more rest than normal, because they really needed it. I actually think that most of them went back refreshed.

We got them in shape for September, and then when the season didn’t start, we were able to keep them up at a high fitness level, but not at a peak level. Because these guys can get there in about a week.

Angus: The rest and recovery is important. When else have a lot of these guys been able to spend that amount of time really focusing on training and resting their bodies?

There usually isn’t much time to train each summer, and their bodies are always beat up at the end of every season.

Angus: Martin is having a great season in Pittsburgh. Ballard is playing well with the Canucks. And obviously Vanek has gotten off to a great start in Buffalo. So connecting the dots, it looks like that added time helped them out.

Vanek took off when the season was supposed to start, and he ended up going over to Austria to play. He is a very special player and he was able to keep his hockey skills up over there.

As these guys get older – about 26 or 27 – I can’t get these pros much faster physiologically. They have already been through that developmental time, and rarely will they ever get faster. So we just adjust the other qualities – we make sure their aerobic level are high, for example.

Ultimately, as long as they stay in touch with me, and readdress those qualities, they don’t have to come back and train. Martin and Ballard don’t need much time to get back to where they were. Their motor patterns have been developed.

Hockey is hard, and there are so many dynamics that go into success beyond work in the weight room.

Angus: What has it been like working with Nick Bjugstad over the past three years? 

He works as hard as anybody in the weight room. I think he’ll play at 230 pounds once he is fully grown into his body. He will only become a better player with more hockey experience. He is physically a pro, he’s a great kid, works hard, and does what you tell him.

He takes it serious – and that is the hard part sometimes. You can’t just be a pro the four or five hours you are here. It is a 24 hour job.

Angus: And another guy you worked with – Jordan Schroeder. Anything from training him? 

When he came in, he was developed. He matured pretty early – he was really physically developed. We did some pretty awesome things with him.

He’s a tough kid with a low center of gravity. He plays hard.

Angus: Do you think isometric training is something that is neglected?

It isn’t very sport specific, but it is a great way to get strong. It is not the movement that is needed to get better, but it is a tool in the toolbox. And it is a process in the overall training process to get to where you want to go.

Angus: I went to the gym last week and tried out the one-legged isometric deadlift. Glutes are a little sore today.

That is a nasty lift. I made that thing up in the middle of the night. I woke up and couldn’t sleep, and I came into the gym at 3:30 in the morning.

Angus: I can see the carryover to the normal deadlift in terms of improving single leg strength and strength in the bottom position.

Oh it’s huge.

Thanks for the interview, Cal.

A tour of the Minnesota facilities:

Again, check Cal’s work out over at XLAthlete.

Other Hockey/Fitness Interviews and Posts: