When you're working hard in the gym, shooting extra pucks, and doing anything you can to get better - there's nothing more frustrating than an injury that slows you down from performing your best, or even worse, takes you out of the game.
While some injuries are simply unavoidable, there are things that hockey players can be doing off-ice to prepare their body for the high impact nature of hockey and ultimately reduce their risk of injury.
Much like our previous article on how hockey players can create bulletproof knees, the goal of this article is to provide practical insights and exercises that hockey players can use to keep their shoulders healthy and injury-free so that they can continue to perform their best on ice.
So let's dive in.
Focus #1: Start Doing More Pulls than Pushes
Shoulder health is often synonymous with posture.
Postures are the body positions you hold throughout daily activities, and this includes positions during hockey and training. While poor daily postures can result in chronic tightness or limitations, often times the body positions associated with hockey can actually amplify poor postures and make things worse.
With the amount of screen time built into today's culture, health professionals have coined the term "text neck" to describe the chronically forward neck and shoulder positions. Unfortunately the forward-leaning on-ice postures of hockey players typically exaggerate this and often act as a catalyst to create further chronically tight and restricted shoulders, neck, and upper back.
This can be further exaggerated by a classic "bro workout" routine that a lot of players default into during the hockey season, with excessive bench press and chest work. Focusing on too many push-based exercises will inevitably lead to muscles in the front of the body, such as the pecs, becoming overly tight and pulling the shoulders into a further forward position.
To combat this, hockey players should be focusing on increasing the amount of "pull" exercises they include in their workout with a minimum ratio of 1:1 (pull:push) within every workout. This means that for every set of bench presses there needs to be a set of rows, band pull apart, pull-ups, face pulls, or other posterior shoulder/back exercise. These exercises work to strengthen the opposing muscles that help return the shoulder into its original position.
The Split Stance Lat Pulldown is a great example of a pull based exercise that can restore balance to the upper back and shoulders.
Focus #2: Shoulder Mobilization
While utilizing a balanced training approach is essential to maintaining healthy shoulders and upper back, merely strengthening won't help mobilize the overly tight muscles that are causing that forward rounded position.
Utilizing mobility-based exercises to increase range of motion is essential for hockey players, and will allow them to have better postures, eliminate chronic tightness, and ultimately stay injury-free.
The pectoral muscles are a culprit that often contributes to tight shoulders and pulling them into that forward rounded position. One of our most recommended stretches for this is the laying-T Pec Stretch. This is incredibly easy to do at home or after practice and allows you to open up the chest and ultimately stretch those pec muscles.
The second area to focus on is the lats.
These muscles are the workhorse of "pulling" movements that are often chronically tight in hockey players, resulting in movement restrictions across and the back and shoulders.
For this, we typically recommend the banded lat stretch, which allows for a release through the entire side from the armpits to the lower back. Hanging out in this position, or in a similar position where we're pulling down the side of the body can cause a noticeable release across the back instantly.
Many hockey players have a shrugged shoulder posture which can be problematic as it can compromise shoulder blade function. Loosening the upper trapezius muscle can instantly alleviate some tension in the shoulder and can be done effectively with the stretch below. We often our recommend our players use this anytime they're seated too long at school or in front of a computer.
While these stretches are easy to mix into any warm-up routine, most hockey players should spend time deliberately trying to mobilize their shoulders and upper back 3-4 times per week through some sort of mobility routine.
Focus #3: Shoulder Stabilization
In order for the shoulder joint to be stable there must be control of both the scapula and the head of the humerus within the shoulder socket. This stability is created through the synergy of multiple muscles (both big and smaller stabilizer muscles) acting together.
While even basic exercises such as push-ups can get these muscles stronger, utilizing exercises that specifically challenge those stabilizer muscles to help increase shoulder stability.
These exercises often rely on stabilizing a load in a challenging body position (such as a waiters walk), stabilizing an awkward load (such as a bottoms-up kettlebell), or simply controlling various body positions (such as a high plank shoulder touch).
The "Waiters Walk" requires a hockey player to stabilize a weight at the shoulder as if they were carrying it like a waiter.
The "Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press" utilizes the uneven design of the kettlebell to challenge upper body control and ultimately strength the shoulder stabilizer muscles.
Bear crawls can also be effective for teaching a hockey player to stabilize their shoulder as this pattern leads to single arm stability at a different joint angle.
With the crawl, the body shifts over top of the fully extended arm while the other reaches ahead to prepare for the next step. This not only forces scapular movement, but also helps to help “re-center” the head of the humerus within the socket of the shoulder.
Bulletproof Shoulder Focus #4: Internal and External Rotation
Since the shoulder is a ball and socket joint, it's important to consider its ability to move through rotation not just pushes and pulls.
While shoulder rotation in hockey players is less of a concern than structural balance, mobility, or stabilization - it's still relevant for shoulder health in general. Players should incorporate some variations of banded internal/external rotation exercises to keep rotator cuffs healthy against the stress of contact of hockey.
If shoulder rotation is an issue for you, Mobility Expert Kelly Starrett also has a minute video on multiple ways to enhance enhancing internal rotation in the shoulders.
Naturally, the high impact nature of hockey puts players at risk for shoulder injuries.
While some of these simply can't be avoided, our goal is to prepare the body for contact and create a healthy shoulder that decreases the risk of potential injury.
While these exercises shouldn't replace the support of a health care professional if you have a shoulder injury, many of these exercises can be considered "prehab" in an effort to reduce the risk of potential injuries and enhance the overall health of the joint.
Incorporating some of these exercises into a structured workout will help you feel better, find better positions, and keep you performing your best on and off the ice!
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.