Off-Ice Exercises for Hockey Players to Improve On-Ice Balance & Stability
How do I get more stable on the ice?
Balance and stability isn’t just a topic for beginners.
While we typically think of the “ankle bender” who’s falling all over the ice – the truth is that we routinely have this conversation with pro players who are looking to improve their on-ice stability so that they can get shots off while out of balance, not get knocked off loose pucks, and get more aggressive with their skating transitions.
The reality is – hockey player’s at all levels should be focusing on improving their balance and stability.
While challenging different movement patterns on the ice is valuable, we can also improve this stability off the ice with specific and intentional exercises that you can do at home or in the gym.
In this article we’re going to break down stability vs balance, look at “balance training aid” tools or training on unstable surfaces is valuable, and latestly give you the exact exercises we’re using in our hockey training workout programs to improve players stability.
So let’s dive in!
The Difference Between Balance and Stability
This is a good place to start.
We often hear players talk about “improving their balance” when they actually mean stability.
While balance and stability are often used interchangeably – there is an important difference. So let’s define them:
- Balance can be considered the ability to maintain your center of gravity of its base of support.
- Stability can be considered the ability to return to a desired position or trajectory during a disturbance from an outside force.
While these are the definitions that a sport scientist would use, they can still be tough to understand from an athlete’s perspective – so let’s try and use hockey examples.
A hockey player uses balance to just stand on their skates. This quickly becomes not a challenge, so it’s easy to think of this as standing on just one skate. You need to reposition your center of gravity to maintain balance over a new base of support (one skate) to stay upright.
Sure, this is applicable at a base level – but becomes less relevant fairly quickly.
Meanwhile, hockey players use stability literally every shift. This could be stabilizing when a player is trying to knock you off the puck, or stabilizing your body to get a shot off in an awkward position, or even just making an aggressive cut or stop.
Simply put, stability is one of the most essential attributes for hockey players.
So while hockey players all want to develop that “rock solid” feel on the ice – this primarily comes from their ability to stabilize themselves, not from balance.
One last consideration – on-ice stability is often a byproduct of both strength and core strength. While we’re going to spend the rest of the article focusing on more full-body balance/stability exercises, the #1 thing most hockey players can do to get more solid on the ice is to improve their core stability. Getting off shots, fighting off contact, not getting knocked off the puck – it largely comes down to your ability to brace your core.
We’ll share resources for developing this core strength at the end of this article .
Does Training on an Unstable Surfaces Improve Hockey Balance?: Balance Boards, Stability Balls, And Bosu Balls
Ever seen some athlete squatting on a ball or stick handling and on a balance board? Of course you have.
The internet is littered with clips of players, and even trainers, doing drills that look insanely challenging and what most people would think translates to better balance on the ice.
But does training on unstable surfaces like this actually help hockey players with skating at all?
This is a complicated topic.
There’s been entire research studies on just this topic and it’s a topic that’s often debated by strength coaches. Let’s look quickly at the two sides:
- For: Unstable surfaces improve balance, coordination, and stability for hockey players. This group uses studies that have shown that unstable surfaces increase core activation, increase activation in stabilization muscles, and have a proprioceptive and kinesthetic value for athletes.
- Against: Unstable surfaces have some application in therapy, but generally aren’t worth the time for hockey players. This group uses studies that show that exercises on unstable surfaces reduce strength and power output, thus making exercises less valuable. They also suggest that this work can be done with more strength & power demands such as single leg exercises.
So what side is right? The challenging thing is they’re both right.
This isn’t to advocate for silly exercises where players are jumping through an obstacle course or squatting on a stability ball – but some of this work has use for athletes.
This is especially true for athletes who are recovering from an injury or youth athletes who are learning body coordination – both nervous system based work.
That being said, the other side is likely more correct.
Hockey players don’t need to just balance, they need to stabilize against contact, restabilize when they’ve found themselves off balance, and ultimately need strength to do this. In most cases, single leg stability exercises will be more valuable to hockey players trying to improve their balance and stability on the ice.
TLDR – Some training on an unstable surface could be valuable for youth hockey players or players recovering from injury, but likely not as valuable for older or more elite hockey players.
Balance & Stability Exercises for Hockey Players
Alright, so let’s get into the reason you’re actually here – what exercises can you do to improve your on-ice stability?
We’ve decided to cut away the fluff and give you the exact exercises we use with hockey players to improve their stability.
You won’t find any balance board exercises or squatting on a ball here. These are all exercises that require no training aids and that you can do in the gym or at home to strength your stabilizer muscles and develop the strength and stability that actually translates to the ice.
Let’s dive in.
#1: 5 Second Single Leg Hold
Let’s start with a sleeper pick.
This exercise looks insanely easy, you’re essentially just balancing on a single leg – right?
But we’ve seen NHL players struggle to truly own their movements here.
For this, we want to get into a low athletic position so that we’re intentionally activated in our lower body. From here we just want to hold for a minimum of 5 seconds. Typically we’ll see players start to collapse inwards with their foot, then ankle, and then potentially even their knee.
Our goal is to avoid all of this. We’re aiming to stop all movement in our body. This includes wiggling, shaking, or compensating with our body by leaning in one direction. Stillness is the goal here.
We really love this exercise barefoot because it allows players to engage the stabilizers through the foot and ankle.
#2: Single Leg RDL to Reach
This is an exercise that should be in all hockey player’s training from Peewee to Pro.
While the previous exercise focused on stability while staying completely still, this challenges players to create this same stability while hinging at the hip. This movement really challenges the stabilizers through the ankle to create stability against a shifting center of gravity.
Slow as possible is the goal here – while completely owning your movements.
#3: Lawn Bowlers
While the Single Leg RDL is in a lot of athletes programs, this is one you likely haven’t seen.
We like to say that lawn bowlers, when properly, are like Single Leg RDLs on steroids.
Here, we’re trying to create as much reach as possible across our body. This forces us to aggressively change our center of gravity and try to brace as we get as low and out stretched as possible.
If you don’t believe a bodyweight exercise can be valuable for hockey players, or challenge balance/stability more than a balance board – you have to try this one.
It’s important that you’re intentionally pushing the edge of your comfort zone here. You should continuously feel like you’re about to fall – but bracing yourself to fight against it.
This is an exercise that’s in all of our hockey training programs, and should be used by literally all hockey players at every level.
#4: Box Step Downs
Alright, so the last few exercises primarily focused on hinge patterns, and while this is likely most valuable for hockey players, there’s still a ton of value in challenging more quad dominant stability exercises.
One of our favorites for this is the Box Step Down.
This exercise challenges hockey players to not only stabilize their ankle, but also puts an intense focus on stabilizing the knee from collapsing inwards.
Often we’ll see hockey players, even our pros, struggle with this one.
We like to start all players off on the lowest box possible. This can even be hanging one leg off the stairs (don’t underestimate this). As they successfully master their control at that level, we first add a slower tempo (3-5+ seconds on the way down) and then increase the range of motion to higher benches or boxes.
#5: Crossover Box Step Offs
This looks essentially the same as the exercise above, but is an insanely valuable variation for hockey players.
While hockey players have an intense crossover demand on the ice, they rarely train it off the ice. And while we also love step ups for increasing this strength, we love the crossover step down for challenging stability from that low hip position.
Same principles apply as above, start low, get slow and controlled. Doing this for 5 seconds of flawless movement is insanely impressive and valuable.
#6: Lateral Bound
While the previous exercises focus on true stability, this exercise focuses more of stabilizing against movement – or stopping momentum and repositioning into a braced position.
This is obviously insanely valuable because every stop, cut, pivot involves taking movement, absorbing it, and then finding a stable position to generate power from.
We could do an entire article on how “landing exercises” are valuable for hockey players, but this is a great place to start.
This exercise involves generating as much power as possible into a lateral bound and focusing on landing on a single leg and stabilizing.
Often even elite hockey players struggle with this one because they generate a ton of power – but have never intentionally trained absorbing it and stabilizing. If you haven’t done work like this before, you’ll likely land and “bounce” or wobble a little bit to stabilize.
Our goal is to eliminate this.
We can land and then smoothly absorb and stabilize into an athlete position that you can generate your next jump from here.
Getting started, try to jump with just 50% power and eliminate those little bounces when you jump. Once you get more confident, start adding more and more power. All the value here is in the landing.
#7: Single Leg RDL to Lateral Bound
This drill is rare to see in most athlete’s programs, but we absolutely love it for improving hockey player’s stability. It’s a little less power-demanding than the previous exercise, but is still insanely valuable for hockey players.
We really like this because it challenges a lot of stabilizing elements into one exercise:
- You need basic stability through a slow and smooth single leg RDL;
- You need to stabilize into a position that you can generate power from so that you can jump;
- And then you need to land and stop your momentum by stabilizing again.
We never start players on this drill, and instead aim to build up to this. We don’t want high speed or ballistic reps, but instead have a player completely own all 3 components of this exercise.
More Exercises & Explanation
Those are the top 7 exercises we have in literally all of our workout programs for hockey players. We believe that hockey players at all levels should be intentionally trying to improve their stability so that they can become more solid on the ice.
In this Youtube video we take a dive into a couple of extra stability exercises along with giving more in-depth coaching cues for many of the above exercises.
In addition to this, if you’re truly looking to take your stability to the next level we recommend you check out our Essential Core Exercises for Hockey Players article. Core strength isn’t just for making hits or resisting contact, it is vital to developing that “rock solid” feeling on the ice.
And lastly, if you’re looking to get serious about your training – we encourage you to check out on our Relentless Hockey workout programs. Each workout is specifically designed to improve the stability, strength, and power that translates to the ice.
From our Weekend Warrior Program designed for Men’s League Players to our Explosive Power Program that’s been used by over 150 pro’s we’ve got the program to elevate your game! You can check them out here!
Now go put this stuff into practice & take your skating to the next level!
Frequently Asked Questions About Balance Training
Are Balance Boards Good for Hockey Players?
Hockey players can effectively improve their balance through tools like balance boards but they have limited application as a player gets older and/or more advanced.
We’ve seen youth players jump onto a balance board and immediately find their balance and be able to stick handle a ball no problem – while we’ve seen legitimate NHL players struggle for the first couple of minutes until finding their balance.
This showcases that this is really more of a task dependent balance challenge than it is anything else. Meaning the more you balance board, the better you get at balance boarding.
But does it translate on the ice? Not really. We’ve seen some elite players use it as a warm-up tool ahead of a stickhandling or shooting session – but we typically don’t advocate they use it for strength or stability training.
For youth players, it’s more likely a more beneficial tool and can help them find more balance while stick handling but challenging their coordination and kinesthetic awareness. For this, we actually do advocate balance boards for youth players – but during at home skill work, not strength work.
What training aids are helpful to improve balance for hockey players?
Along with balance boards, we often get asked if there’s any other training aids that can be used to improve balance or stability. While we outlined our thoughts on balance boards above, let’s look at a couple of other common ones:
- Swissball/Physioball – we use this a lot in our training programs, but never to stand on or to challenge balance. This is more so a valuable tool for challenging stability in the upper body or core.
- Bosu Ball – this is an insanely overused tool today. We’ll see players or trainers doing squats on these and they’ve essentially just reduced their strength/power output by 60% while not getting that much more reward when it comes to balance or stability. We will use this for upper body exercises like high planks or push ups, and occasionally do a lunge variation with the front leg on the ball to challenge ankle stability.
- Stability Pads – of all the tools, this is our favourite. We do use stability pads for lunge, RDL, and even landing variations because they directly challenge hockey players ability to stabilize at the foot and ankle. We rarely do these exercises loaded up, but this tool can absolutely be a valuable addition to players strength training.
Do Hockey Players Need Balance?
Yes, balance is incredibly valuable for hockey players – but not as valuable as stability, which could be considered a far more important off-ice attribute. Hockey players should aim to use drills that challenge their ability to create stability instead of training balance.
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.