The Top 10 Lower Body Strength Exercises for Hockey Players
For hockey players - lower body strength is everything.
Want a faster stride? Get stronger legs. Want faster starts or to improve your change of direction? Get stronger legs. Want to get more stable and solid on the ice? Get stronger legs.
While it’s far from being the only piece of the equation to improving skating and taking your game to the next level – for nearly every hockey player, they should be intentionally improving their lower body strength.
In this article you’re going to learn why lower body strength is so valuable, the types of lower body exercises, and then the best 10 lower body exercises to implement in your training today.
Let’s dive in.
Why Lower Body Strength Is So Essential for Hockey Players
If you’re a hockey player, undeniably you’ve had it ingrained into you the importance of getting stronger legs. We see young hockey players doing extra squats and lunges, we see the pros
As the great Herb Brooks said - the legs feed the wolf.
But why is it actually so important to intentionally develop strength in your lower body?
We can break this down to a couple of reasons:
- Strength is the foundation of power. Put simply, power is your ability to rapidly express strength. In biomechanics, we write this as Power = Force/Time. While hockey players need to refine their capacity to express power through athleticism, plyometric, and speed drills – improving their strength will allow them greater potential for power output. Want a more powerful stride? Get stronger.
- Strength is essential for change of direction and agility. Absorb and re-express – this is the foundation of any change of direction. Sports science research has repeatedly shown that improving strength improves your capacity to change direction (1, 2, 3). This is because it requires intense strength to safely absorb speed and then express it in a different direction. Therefore improving strength is essential to more effective and efficient change of directions on the ice.
- Strength creates stability. While the players we work with aren’t exactly benders, even our elite college and pro players can improve their strength and stability to give them a more confident and limitless feel in their skates. Sometimes this is creating strength through new ranges of movements that allow players to express strength/power from a low position, while sometimes it’s activating the stability muscles that allow for better mechanics on the ice.
Understanding the Types of Lower Body Exercises
So, while we defined the obvious for most hockey players in that last section – let’s define the not so obvious – not all lower body exercises are equally valuable.
Before we dive into the best lower body exercises for hockey players, it’s valuable to understand the different types of exercises.
We can break lower body or leg exercises into three categories:
- Squat-based. These exercises resemble the squat pattern and involve more of an up and down movement at the hips.
- Hinge-based. These exercises are posterior-focused, such as deadlifts or hip thrusts, and are focused on your hips coming back to front or hinging at the waist.
- Lunge-based. These single leg exercises could arguably be the best of the three. They act as their own unique movement pattern that load up a single leg both and come with both intensive anterior and posterior demands.
We define these categories because it’s important that hockey players are using all three types. Often we’ll connect with a player who’s been doing their own workouts and has been sticking to just squats or just deadlifts depending on what their favorite is.
There’s nothing wrong with favorites – this is often defined by your movement mechanics and how your bodies default activation patterns. But it can lead to further imbalances or neglecting to improve movement patterns of muscle groups that are valuable on ice.
This is why we use all three categories each workout in our Relentless Hockey training programs.
While the primary focus can still be a heavy squat or deadlift, we want players to train through the other movement patterns every single workout.
So, let’s finally get to the top 10 exercises you can be using to take your game to the next level on the ice.
The Best Lower Body Exercises for Hockey Players:
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Reverse Lunge
- Goblet & Front Squat
- Single Leg RDL
- Anterior Loaded Split Squat
- Single Leg Box Step Offs
- Hip Thrust
- Cossack Squats
- Eccentric Hamstring Sliders
- Lawn Bowlers
Our next section takes you through why each exercise is so valuable for hockey players, the type of movement pattern, and a video link – but we figured we’d give you these exercises straight up to screenshot and save on your phone.
While we focus on integrating these exercises together and finding combinations that act synergistically to create a greater training stimulus with our workout program for hockey players - if you were to simply integrate these 10 exercises into your workouts each week, your off-ice training would be further ahead than 95% of players.
Exploring the Best Leg Exercises for Hockey Players:
Movement Pattern: Hinge
Trap Bar Deadlifts are likely in 90% of college or pro training programs. And for good reason, the Deadlift is one of the single greatest exercises for developing lower body strength and developing strong full-body chains.
As a hinge-based exercise, Deadlifts primarily load the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, etc). But it doesn’t stop there, Deadlifts also challenge the low back to stabilize the trunk, the musculature of the upper back to keep shoulders pulled back, and the forearms to hold the weight. The Deadlift is an awesome full-body exercise that challenges chains not just muscles.
Moving the traditional Deadlift to a Trap Bar or Hexbar, shifts the loading pattern to allow athletes to train in a safer position that takes unnecessary load off of the spine (4), while putting the shoulders in a more neutral position.
Along with loading the body in better positions, studies have found that they also allow athletes to move the weight faster and ultimately create strength/power that’s more transferable to on-field performance (5).
Movement Pattern: Squat
The Goblet Squat is a hugely underrated exercise for Hockey Players.
Most Hockey Players likely started with the Goblet Squat as a youth player. It’s the perfect exercise for younger athletes to begin to build their lower body strength and start moving weights. But the reality is, hockey players at all ages should be using the Goblet Squat.
Early in the off-season, regardless of what level – we’ll use Goblet Squats to get movement mechanics dialed in before adding any sort of complexity like a barbell. But even then, this doesn’t have to be light.
Recently we had a KHL pro in our coaching program who, based on his mechanics/training needs, we strictly used the Goblet Squat for all off-season. He was Goblet Squatting 120+ lbs by the end of the summer, his movement mechanics had become flawless, and he felt strong on ice.
For some players mechanics, it’s more valuable to have a heavy (80+ lbs) and controlled squat than loading up a bar just for ego sake.
Don’t sleep on Goblet Squats.
Movement Pattern: Hinge
This is another all-time favorite for hockey players.
There’s few exercises more valuable than the SL RDL for challenging that hinge pattern, developing single leg stability, addressing imbalances, and building better structural chains.
Hockey Players are infamous for developing imbalances throughout the body. While all athletes have a “strong side” - this tends to be exaggerated in Lacrosse Players (6). This is why we love unilateral exercises, and why we love the SL RDL.
The SL RDL is another hinge-based exercise that challenges the posterior chain, but it also creates an intense stability demand to create ankle-knee-hip alignment AND a braced core against an asymmetrical load.
For youth athletes, this can be done with just body weight. While older and more elite athletes can use a weight, with a focus on control instead of load.
Movement Pattern: Lunge or Squat
We love the Front Loaded Split Squat for the same unilateral reasons as the SL RDL - but this time focusing more on the quads and lunge pattern.
Similar to the Goblet Squat, this exercise can be insanely valuable with just a single weight held in a goblet. It allows players to focus on staying upright and braced, without having to focus on a barbell.
Of course, this exercise can be progressed by increasing weight, - but one of our favorite variations is playing with tempo. Oftentimes, we’ll focus on 3-5 seconds on the way down, and then strongly drive back up. We’ll even add 3-5 second pause on the bottom of the movement for players in the early off-season to rewire their muscle activation patterns.
Movement Pattern: Lunge
The Reverse Lunge is by far our favorite lunge exercise.
While typically athletes will default into a walking lunge (also valuable) or forward lunge, the Reverse Lunge has been shown to be significantly more effective for loading up and developing the glutes (4). Not only does this reduce potential stress on the knees - but it loads the musculature similar to the hockey stride – by placing emphasis on loading the glutes and then the posterior chain.
It’s important to note that this exercise is a lot different than the Split Squat. While their movement archetypes look the same, they are a radically different loading pattern. Most notably - the Split Squat places more load on the quads and then the posterior chain, the lunge is more posterior chain focused.
The reverse lunge is in every single one of our programs from Peewee to Pro – and can’t be understated how valuable it is for players.
While this exercise might not seem like much - it’s super valuable for all athletes.
Often called a Peterson Step Off, this exercise deliberately challenges the quads, and specifically the medial quad muscle - the VMO.
The VMO is often underdeveloped in athletes, creating a quad imbalance that can lead hockey players to finding poor positions and creating mechanics that places more load on the ligaments of the knee. (5,6). This can leave players with worse off change of direction abilities, and more importantly at increased risk for knee injuries with aggressive stops or cuts (7).
This exercise not only specifically challenges the quads/VMO, but it also creates a stability demand where players must maintain knee alignment and fight against collapsing inward.
We start even our elite players on a low box (12 inches) and progressively increase the height instead of adding weight.
Movement Pattern: Hinge
We’ll end the debate: there’s no better exercise to develop posterior chain strength than the hip thrust.
Unlike the Deadlift which has an intense full-body demand (lower, core, upper back, grip. etc) this exercise singularly loads the glutes and posterior chain. This allows athletes to load up more than they typically would, without the same risk of failure or injury.
We’ll often see Hockey Players add significant muscle and strength when we add a phase of heavy hip thrust in their program. Studies have also suggested that heavy hip thrusts improve sprint times versus squats (7) – likely attributed to the emphasis on glute strength.
With the glutes and posterior chain demands on hockey players, this should be in every hockey player’s program.
If you want to develop your posterior chain, this needs to be in your program.
Movement Pattern: Lunge
This is a little-known bodyweight exercise that can be valuable for hockey players at all levels.
While many players have seen the bodyweight Single Leg RDL with Reach or the “Standing T” exercise – this can quickly become easy for players.
The Lawn Bowler is designed to challenge hockey player’s stability by creating a crossbody reach as far as possible. This forces players to create stability across the ankle, knee, and hip – while connecting through the core and upper body for fully integrated stability.
This can be continuously progressed by going slower and reaching further.
When many of our pro players see this exercise in their program, they are quickly humbled – but almost all of them come back to us saying that this one of their favorite stability exercises and one of the exercises they actually feel themselves improving at.
It might not be a heavy strength exercise, but it’s definitely one that translates to the ice.
Movement Pattern: Hinge
This exercise is a huge sleeper pick.
While hinge-based exercises challenge the musculature of the posterior chain (muscles through the back of the lower body), oftentimes these exercises can be dominated by glutes. The same thing is true with the hockey stride, which is so glute-dominated. While this is overall positive (the glutes ultimately define your horsepower) it can often leave players with weaker hamstrings.
This is an issue.
While strong hamstrings are essential to developing strength and power on the ice, eccentric hamstring strength specifically has been shown to be the number one predictor of future hamstring exercises (8). Because of this, we try to utilize exercises that’ll challenge eccentric strength the most - both to build a strong chain that can be used to generate more speed and to minimize injury risk.
The Eccentric Hamstring slider has players sliding out (ideally one leg at a time) and going as slow as possible. This can even be done on hardwood or tile at home with a towel under your feet and players should aim to add this exercise in as frequently as possible!
Movement Pattern: Lunge
Often hockey players will ask what stretches or mobility exercises they can do to improve their stride length. It’s a great question, and one that shows that a player is educated and thoughtful about their movement mechanics.
While we have a long list of mobility exercises that hockey players can use – the Cossack Squat is a rare exercise that can be used to improve mobility, strength, and motor control.
Let’s explore each.
For mobility, the Cossack Squat can be done with just bodyweight and a focus on getting as low as possible. This opens up the hip in abduction (the lateral movement), while creating an ankle mobility demand. It’s also an active stretch in the adductors/groin, medial quad, hamstrings, and even calves.
For strength, this exercise can be performed with a light weight. While this exercise won’t help you pack on muscle, it will help you get stronger in ranges and positions you’re unlikely to train otherwise.
For motor control, this exercise is insanely valuable. There’s no value in adding range of motion if you can control that range. This exercise challenges players to control their body in an ultra low hip position – something they’ll often see in a tight turn or reaching to protect the puck.
All this to say, the Cossack Squat is an extremely valuable exercise for hockey players.
It can’t be understated enough how important lower body strength is for hockey players.
From playing stronger and more solid in your skates to developing a more explosive stride and next level speed – it all comes back to strength.
Gone are the days of crushing out some squats and moving on. These are the leg exercises that should be in all hockey players' workout programs each month.
While we strategically combine these exercises in our workout programs, we encourage all players training on their own to choose a hinge, lunge, and squat exercise each workout – and make sure they're building the integrative chains that truly translate to the ice. We take a deeper dive in how to create hockey workouts and how elite hockey players train in this article here: Workouts for Hockey Players: A Complete Guide.
Now get out there & get training!
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.