January 12, 2024
Off-ice training has gained a ton of traction and popularity over the past two decades. With that, comes a wide range of programming styles, philosophies, and “training systems.” As you can imagine, or perhaps have already experienced, it can be challenging to know which methods are best and which trainers to trust. The reality is there isn’t one “best way” of preparing the body for a sport like hockey. It’s a versatile activity and you never play the same game twice. The sport requires speed, strength, agility, skill, power, endurance, and a high hockey IQ…Not to mention the skating stride isn’t exactly a primal human movement.
Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to hockey training off ice, I’d like to offer some insights and suggestions that will help you and/or your young athlete(s) make the most of your efforts. I’ve had the luxury of working with elite level hockey players for over a decade, ranging from pro to minor hockey. Over the years I’ve worked in a wide variety of gyms, from NHL training facilities to home gyms to open fields. The reality is, they all work, so don’t stress too much about the fancy gadgets.
Let’s dive into the training. As a hockey player, parent, or fan, you’ve noticed that there isn’t one uniform size or shape to the players on the ice, unlike other sports where there is an “ideal” body archetype. With that in mind, we mentioned earlier about the variety of attributes a hockey player must possess in order to be successful. I’m a big believer in focusing on your weaknesses while maintaining your strengths, and then re-evaluate your priorities every few months and adjust the training accordingly. Most of the time, for young athletes (under the age of 18), general stability and strength is commonly a good starting point. Athletes don’t always have to do “sport specific” training in order to improve, building a solid foundation is key.
Stability. Often when we hear the word stability, we immediately think “balance.” That’s definitely an aspect of it, but there’s more to it. Athletes, especially young athletes are often exactly that, athletic. They can react to the stimulus in front of them without thinking too much, and we don’t want to change that. We simply want to give them the tools to allow them to express those athletic abilities while making their movements as effective as possible. This is why we start with stability when it comes to hockey off ice workouts. Being “hockey strong” requires athletes to be able to stop and start effectively, protect the puck, win corner battles, protect themselves, and transfer force from the ground through the stick. If you’re new to training, starting with bilateral movement (both feet or hands securely on the ground - think squat, deadlift, plank, push-up) is a great way to begin. Learning how to “ground” your feet or hands like tree roots while doing any movement will set you up for success. If you’re weak on your feet, then you’re definitely going to be weak throughout the rest of your body. Isometric holds in various positions will help improve overall stability and body awareness. For example, instead of just doing a regular squat, try pausing at different points. Ask yourself, do I feel strong here? If someone were to bump me, could I still maintain my position? Start with bodyweight movements, then slowly add implements to challenge this concept safely. Using high-quality dumbbells, med balls, bands, and kettlebells are great tools to use and there isn’t only one way to use them, as long as it’s safe but challenging. Whatever the movement is, it’s important to keep your “core” strong throughout. That term gets tossed around, but a simple way to think of it is imagine the lower half of your upper body like a cylinder. Your diaphragm is the top and pelvic floor is the bottom of the cylinder and all of the muscles that wrap around make up the rest. You’ll want to try and keep this cylinder intact, especially during loaded exercises. Creating a stable core will allow you to keep your back safe and avoid “energy leaks” when transferring force throughout the body.
Strength. Generally strength is expressed in many ways but for the sake of this article, let’s consider strength as the ability to control the body and implements (weights, slam balls, etc) while in motion. The first thing to consider, especially when working with weights, is safety. If you’re new to training, either hire a trainer to go through the basic principles of movement or simply take video of yourself doing exercises and use online videos to compare. Assuming you’ve developed proper movement mechanics, you can start building general strength. Common exercises you’re likely familiar with are squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull ups, etc. These are all great. If you already have experience with traditional strength movements, becoming strong on a single leg is imperative to hockey. Except for a few instances, the game is played on one leg at a time and in a low sit position. Typically, we aren’t comfortable sitting low on a single leg for very long since our legs start to burn rather quickly. But for hockey players, building that tolerance is imperative. Lunges, step ups/downs, single leg squats are examples of basic single leg exercises that should definitely be incorporated into your training program. There are an infinite number of ways you can vary these movements to build strength in different angles, don’t be shy when it comes to the variety.
Volume. How much is the right amount? This is where the art of good programming comes into play. The main take-away is you need to consider what time of year it is, and what the priorities are. For example, when approaching the end of the season and entering playoffs, it may not be wise to do 5 long, heavy workouts throughout the week as the goal is to be fresh on the ice. But early in the off season is a great time to spend some time in the gym and make big jumps in overall gains. That being said, I encourage some strength work throughout the season in order to maintain the strength built in the off season and to work on the areas that aren’t typically used on the ice to keep the body balanced (ex. Posterior chain - back, glutes, hamstrings). Personally, I like in-season workouts to have a 10-15 warm-up with some dynamic mobility and muscle activation, followed by 8-20 sets of deliberate strength work. In the off season, a strength coach or a solid online program will likely dictate the appropriate volume throughout the summer. As a general guide, if the goal is muscle building, ie Hypertrophy, you’ll want to work in the rep range of 8-15 with the goal of getting a good “burn” in the muscles being worked at some point in that range. For strength, 3-6 reps is typically the target range.
Equipment. If you’re looking to build out a home gym, keep in mind that the various pieces of equipment are tools or elicit a desired response or challenge. Dumbbells, bands, rubber flooring, gym mats, and exercise balls are a great place to start as you can do a wide variety of movements with them and they take up relatively little space. Every piece of equipment has its purpose, I always recommend picking things that will give you the best “bang for your buck” when it comes to how much space they require and how many different movements you can accomplish with them.
There isn’t one magical program that is guaranteed to make any hockey player better, if there were, myself and all the strength coaches out there wouldn’t have a job. What’s important though is to understand where you’re at from a developmental standpoint and focus on 2-3 principles at a time when taking part in hockey off-ice workouts. Too many people want to do fancy sport-specific exercises they see on social media but forget a foundation needs to be built first, and that takes time. Be patient with your progress and stay consistent in your efforts. Each workout might not seem like much, but they compound over time. For those that are new to training, keep it simple. For the more experienced athletes, feel free to explore different programs or hire a coach to guide you through plateaus in your development. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the process, and always be safe in your training.
Jason is a High Performance coach for professional athletes. His current portfolio includes the off-season management of 20+ professional hockey players two of whom won the Stanley Cup in 2022. During the winter months, he serves as the player development Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins and trains a long-time MLB all-star & potential future hall-of-famer.
Although Jason works predominantly with professional athletes, he still has a soft spot for the everyday athlete who just wants to optimize their body and mind so they can perform at their very best day in and day out. His wife is a world class CrossFit competitor and Jason continues to play sports competitively so needless to say he manages a healthy household. With the experience and elite network that Jason has access to, he has a passion for helping those who are frustrated with the never ending sea of information available online and wants to bring clarity and a simplified plan to a select few looking to get out of their own way and just focus on the things important to them.