How to Make Your Training More “Hockey Specific”

You may not score 60 goals in the NHL any time soon, but you can learn a lot from how Steven Stamkos trains.

Professional athletes have to be incredibly fit and healthy to succeed, but the definition of “fit” depends entirely on their sport. Sumo wrestlers and power lifters need to have fat on their body for mass, whereas distance runners need to minimize the fat they are carrying. Basketball players need to be able to jump and land effectively and efficiently, and football players need to be powerful and agile.

With regards to hockey players, their physical demands are quite unique. No other sport on earth challenges so many things at one time – strength, power, endurance, coordination, speed, hand-eye coordination, balance, and agility, just to name a few. Players in the NHL work hard off the ice to shore up their weaknesses, improve on their strengths, and combat against the wear and tear that is typical of the sport.

Even if you don’t play in the NHL (i.e. most of my readers), you can still learn a lot by training like the professionals.

I have touched on the “hockey-specific” term with a few of my trainer interviews, including Kevin Neeld (of Endeavor Fitness) and Kirk Olson (the Minnesota Wild strength coach).

Neeld on training with a hockey focus:

  • Injury prevention strategies
  • The end focus of our conditioning progressions
  • The end focus of our power work
  • 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.

All very good points – training specifically for a sport is great, as long as it is implemented properly. Nothing can bring more success than a foundation of strength and power combined with a solid diet. Once the basics are in place, there are definitely some measures to be taken to ensure your work in the gym will translate over to the ice.

Olson on hockey’s unique demands:

The bottom line, when it comes down to it, is hockey players need to be hockey strong. Whereas in football, looking at offensive linemen, they are moving 300+ pound objects on every single play. So they, ultimately, have to be incredibly strong from the upper body to the lower body.

If you look at hockey, I would say that it is the hardest sport in the world. You have to stickhandle, you have see the ice. You have to pass the puck. You have to catch the puck. All with two little thin blades underneath your feet.

There is a lot going on, it is a real multi-tasking sport. So you have to train them to be able to do all of those things. I want my guys strong, but I don’t care if they squat 400 pounds, actually, I’d be a little bit ticked off if they did unless it was just a freak of nature, because it would mean they have been spending way too much time squatting and probably not enough time working on their foot speed, quickness, and acceleration.

Hockey-Specific Demands

Relative strength

Being able to sustain maximal effort for up to one minute is much different than stop and start sports like football/baseball (yes, there is running in baseball). Hockey players need to have muscle to withstand and deliver physical contact, and they need to be strong in order to protect the puck and separate opposing players from it, but they need to maintain an effective strength/size-to-body weight ratio. It happens often – speedy hockey players are told to get bigger, and suddenly they lose a step or two, and they end up worse off than before they started training.

An example of this – instead of loading up the barbell bench press with 250 pounds and banging out a few reps every few minutes, grab some dumbbells, increase the reps (while still challenging your muscles), and cut your rest time down to 30-45 seconds. It is quite customizable and depends on how fit you are – as you get used to this type of training, you will be able to decrease your recovery times even further.

Hip flexors

Thanks to the repetitive nature of the skating stride, hockey players have incredibly strong hip flexors relative to hip extensors. Learning to stretch the hip flexors is important. Even people to don’t play hockey and sit at their desks need to be stretching their hip flexors regularly.

Here is a fantastic hip flexor mobility drill from Eric Cressey. Do this every day if you can, or at least before/after training.

Overly strong hip flexors often leads to injuries – it is a reason why many hockey players suffer groin strains, hip labrum tears, sports hernias, and hip impingement.

From an injury standpoint, hockey players are plagued by adductor and hip flexor strains and an increased number of players are also suffering from labral tears secondary to FAI (femoracetabular impingement) and electing to get sports hernia surgeries. In almost every case, these injuries and surgeries could be avoided with early recognition of structural “abnormalities” and by taking specific precautions to restore balance in stiffness and strength across the hips. In returning to the idea of “hockey-specific training”, many of the strategies we use to both help players return to play after suffering and injury and to prevent these injuries altogether could be appropriately described as “anti-hockey-specific training.”

Femoroacetabular impingement is quite common in hockey players of all ages and at all levels.

The article I linked to above, written by Kevin Neeld, discusses ways to identify and train with hip impingement. Range of motion is very individual specific, and these athletes need to be taught how to move within their own structural limitations.

Here is a good hip flexor stretch to add to your program. Focus on your pelvic tilt – so many times people will just lean forward and grind into the front of their hip without really stretching the muscles – think of “tucking your pelvis in” before leaning into the stretch.The first picture on the right is a good example of what not to do. Have your back leg more like the second picture.

In Conclusion

If you are really serious about improving your on ice performance through training, I’d recommend finding a fitness coach in your area who trains hockey players. Getting a program specific to you is much more important than getting a program specific to hockey. I’d wager that less than 5% of the hockey-playing population has the proper base of stability/mobility and strength in place to benefit from “hockey-specific” balance/agility work.

If you want to make your current training more “hockey specific,” here are my recommendations:

1) Work on hip mobility before and after each session. Don’t spend more than 10 total minutes on this, but mobilizing the hip flexors, the quads, the hamstrings, the glutes, and the adductors is very important, especially for hockey players.

2) With your weight training, focus on minimal recovery time. The less time in between sets means that your body doesn’t have a chance to recover (and your heart rate remains elevated). This improves your ability to train and exert effort in difficult situations (i.e. the end of a long shift). It also improves your cardiovascular performance. It isn’t something many people do though, because it makes training sessions much more difficult.

3) Work within your limitations. If you can’t squat all the way to the ground without your butt tucking under (which puts a ton of pressure/stress on your low back), don’t do it. It may be “ideal,” but it isn’t “ideal” for you.

Ideally, learn to fix this “tuck under.” Here’s a great read on how to do that from Tony Gentilcore.

4) For core training, focus on rotational power and stability. Ditch the sit-ups and crunches. Work on explosive power with med ball work (if your gym allows it), or use the cables. Learn how to plank and side plank properly – they are very beneficial exercises but most people don’t do them correctly. And don’t forget that your “core” is always working when you are exercising, especially with free weights, body weight, and cables. Ditch the pressing/pulling machines if you can  – zero translation over into hockey.

Here is what a good plank should look like:

5) Improve your thoracic mobility. 99.999% of humans who sit for any extended period of time need to heed this advice. One of many drills to try out:

Hopefully you find this advice useful – work on your mobility, functional core strength, and conditioning, and you should see a positive effect on your on-ice performance.

Other Hockey Training Posts: