With the off-season strength gains achieved, training camp finished and the season in full swing, many hockey players wonder what they should be doing in the gym.
There are a couple of extremes here. Some players think that they shouldn't be doing anything in the gym (or only doing biceps and chest exercises), while others do way too much, trying to keep up with the same amount of work as in the off-season.
While the ideal training approach is obviously a tapered version of the latter, maintaining the strength and movement patterns you developed in the off-season should be the central focus. In-season training support players staying healthy and maintaining peak performance throughout a grueling hockey season.
Hockey In-Season Training Approach to: Strength
Although we don’t expect you to add 50 pounds to your squat in season, strength maintenance is crucial to a good in-season program. When strength levels fall, you invariably rob your stride of that "firepower" and feel like you are slowing down on the ice.
Players/Coaches typically try to skate more to try to keep your conditioning, without focusing on strength, which typically reinforces the strength declines, and begins to create a cycle of continuously trying to get that "start of season pep" in your stride through more skating.
Strength is the key in order to break this cycle or avoid it altogether.
Although many players and coaches are worried about soreness from a heavy workout, with some careful planning around big games it is pretty easy to keep your strength, and have you firing not only on Saturday, but all the way through to playoffs.
Why is strength so important in season?
Every acceleration, hard stop, pivot, cut, or puck battle involves an intense strength demand. This means that as you become weaker throughout a season of not training, every on-ice element will be more difficult to perform. This means that shifts will progressively get tougher throughout the season, and performance will ultimately decline. This is often mistakened for being "deconditioned", when really strength (and subsequentially power) levels are what's holding back peak performance.
How should you tackle this?
Although the weight still needs to be relatively heavy, we can reduce the volume a bit while training in season.
We want the muscles to be stimulated yet able to recover, so going from a rep range such as 4 sets of 8-10 which may have been used in the off-season towards something such as 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps will be important. We are still using a reasonably heavy weight and doing the big movements (squatting, deadlifts, etc.) but the volume is turned down to ensure the body is recovering adequately for games.
In addition to changing the reps for our exercises, we also perform these exercises a little differently. In-season, we're less worried about a slow eccentric phase of a movement, which would be an off-season focus when trying to build muscle. This is because these "negatives" longer negatives tend to create more muscle damage that leads to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
Reducing Injuries with In-Season Strength Training
Along with the performance benefits, maintaining your strength also can help prevent injury.
One area where I believe hockey players should do that previous discuss eccentric work is with the Nordic hamstring exercise (or eccentric hamstring exercises in general). This one should be done a minimum of 2 days before games as it can leave you feeling a little bit sore, but its benefits in reducing injuries cannot be understated. A 51% decline in hamstring injuries was seen with a group of soccer players who had this exercise in their program (Source 1) and anecdotal evidence suggests these results would be seen in most other sports including hockey.
Further, when hamstring and glute strength is maintained, it is less likely for injury to occur to the low back, which often overworked in hockey players when the surrounding muscles are weaker. I would recommend doing this with a partner to hold your ankles down, but check out this video for more on how this helps avoid low back pain (Source 2).
Another training focus to help hockey players stay healthy over the course of the season is core strength. Maintaining anti-rotation based core strength in your programs can go a long way in keeping the back and several other joints healthy. Most hockey players tend to like doing core in the season as they feel like they get a bit of a sweat without killing themselves. While core exercises that are isometric in nature are valuable for hockey players (such as planks) anti-rotational exercises are phenomenal for hockey players to challenge core strength and carryover to staying braced on-ice. Our guide on core training can help you pick some good exercises to build from.
In simple terms, when strength is maintained, overuse injuries are less likely as the body has been trained to withstand more trauma.
Hockey In-Season Training Approach to Power
Maintaining power through explosive exercises, and purposeful force on the big lifts will compliment your strength maintenance and keep "the pop" in your stride.
Many of the same reasons we explored in our approach to strength training also justify training for power. With an emphasis on expressing as much rapid force as you can with each muscle contraction, your neuromuscular system will continue to develop and stimulate faster contractions. This has incredible carryover to maintaining and developing those explosive first steps on-ice.
There are several ways to train for this off-ice, with the most simple being moving aggressively and explosively through the concentric phase of the lift. For example, instead of loading a bar for a heavy squat, using a lighter weight (between 50-70% of your max) and focusing on explosive movements. The intent to express force as rapidly as you can here is extremely beneficial for maintaining those rapid contractions in the nervous system.
"Power-specific exercises" such as hang cleans are useful for eliciting this type of demand, however more basic movements such as a fast (but strict) trapbar deadlift or simple squat jump can be useful as I tend to lean more towards a fast trap bar deadlift or jump during the in-season when working with a large team.
The reps for any exercise with the intention of training power should be low (typically under 5), with the goal of expressing as much force as possible with high quality movement.
Hockey In-Season Training Approach to: Conditioning
To a degree, the amount of conditioning that a hockey player needs depends on how much time they are on the ice.
For the defenseman that plays 30 minutes per game, there is very little need for extra conditioning work. On the other hand if you are a bubble player that may only play a few shifts per period, you may need a little bit of extra off-ice work to stay in the same elite conditioning shape.
Postgame is a great time for someone who didn't play very much to add in some conditioning. It allows players to maintain the same workload/rest-load as teammates, without having players to add an additional commitment into their schedule. This can be a 20-minute interval-based workout that involves intense bouts of exercise (run/bike/stair sprints) followed by rest. Players should avoid long aerobic workouts such as jogging or long bikes as this typically only adds stress to the joints and passive tissues without paying significant dividends in conditioning gains.
This will vary inevitability from team to team, as typically players won't need any extra conditioning work if your coach focuses on on-ice conditioning.
Hockey In-Season Training Approach to Recovery and Mobility
Although strengthening is important, maintaining proper mobility is one of the most important facets to staying healthy and performing your best all season. Regardless of your strength or power, if you constantly have tweaks or pulls that are keeping you off the ice or only playing at 50% - you'll never reach peak performance.
We like to promote daily "pre-hab" for players to spend the time on now instead of having to spend 10x amount of time off the ice on eventual rehab. 15-20 minutes a day of mobility work should be a must if you expect to be at your best all season long. This targeted mobility is intended to help combat some of the negative patterns and postures of the sport and reduce the impact of overuse on your body.
The effort put into recovery is one of the variables that we believe truly sets the players that have longevity in the sport, apart from the rest. Every pro we either work or connect with has some sort of active recovery habit or movement practice that they're borderline religious in completing.
An active recovery that provides a light sweat is one of the best ways to bring about the necessary blood flow to heal overworked tissues, and combat muscle soreness. It is inevitable that you will walk away in pain after a couple games during a tough season, so doing what you can to take care of yourself, and getting the therapy when you need it will be your best friend when trying to stay healthy.
What Should a Week Look Like?
By now you should realize that training in-season is essential for hockey players. While a complete in-season program can have a variety of influential factors, a good Strength and Conditioning Coach can create the structure built around your schedule that allows to you to maintain and enhance your performance in-ice (if fact, we offer specialized "in-season training" programs here). If you're building your own in-season training program, here are a couple guidelines to keep in mind:
- The 5 movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull, and core) should all be included throughout the week, with some single leg work included.
- Big compound movements that work the system are a better use of your time than isolation exercises
- Eccentric work should be done at least 2 days prior to games
- The focus should be on proper movement patterns when maintaining strength and power and accompany fast explosive exercises.
- Conditioning work is mostly done on the ice and you shouldn’t need more than one extra conditioning session
- Keep the volume low but weights heavy
- Blood flow is the key to recovery, get a light sweat going when you are feeling sore
- Avoid injuries by not bailing on strength and prehab
- If you are injured take care of it, pushing through isn't always the best call
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.