Strength is essential for hockey players.
While the big body era of hockey has ended, and the game has continued to evolve to get faster and more skills – strength still remains paramount for hockey players to thrive in the modern game.
And, while most players understand the significance of lower body strength on their performance, many players default back to gym bro and bodybuilding exercises when it comes to upper body exercises.
That’s why, in this article, we’re looking at the top 10 articles that actually translate to hockey performance. No fluff, just the exercises with the highest return on investment for your time, energy, and hard work.
Let’s dive in.
The Significance of Upper Body Strength for Hockey Players
This begs the question: “is upper body strength important for hockey players?”
The answer is absolutely yes.
First of all, the body works in kinetic chains. This is the reason why we believe in training with full-body workouts (we explore this deeper in this article on hockey workouts). To focus on any one body part is to fail to recognize the integrated chains that create that movement.
This also means that failing to train any specific part of the body, such as the upper body, will hold you back from developing optimal strength throughout a kinetic chain.
This concept is essential to develop the integrative strength that translates to the ice, but let’s look at four specific reasons why upper body strength is so essential for hockey players.
- Fighting off checks, corner battles, contact. This is likely the most obvious example, any puck or positional battle demands intensive core and upper body strength.
- Shooting power. While most players or coaches will chalk this up to core and grip strength, shooting in hockey is a pure example of kinetic chains and the importance of developing integrative strength.
Let’s consider a snap shot. Imagine shooting with us here. While it starts with the lower body and either a step into a shot or a rotation at the hip, it’s ultimately defined by a players ability to create a quick brace at the core (rapid core muscle flex). Then, as it’s expressed through the upper body, you start by utilizing an intensive push movement with both hands to create the initial flex into the ice. This turns into a push with the lower arm, with a pull in the upper arm.
Intensive push and pull movements all wrapped into one quick shot.
- On-ice speed. This is less intuitive, but research has shown that not only are upper body muscles more highly activated during sprinting (1), but that when sprinters added upper body strength work to their training, their sprint times improved. For hockey players, this makes sense too. Generating more strength and power in your arm swing will support
- Reduce injuries. Stronger athletes are more physically resilient athletes. Sure, injuries still happen, but research has repeatedly shown that even contact-related injuries are reduced with increased strength. With the risk of shoulder injuries in hockey players, this should absolutely be considered.
So with a glimpse into the value of training the upper body for hockey players, let’s start to dive into how hockey players can train.
Understanding Horizontal vs Vertical Upper Body Exercises
Before we look at the best upper body exercises for hockey players, it’s important to recognize that there’s different types of exercises that hockey players should be utilizing.
Classically, this is broken in push and pull exercises. Push exercises typically use the anterior muscles and include exercises like shoulder presses, chest press and push ups. Pull exercises typically use the posterior muscles and include exercises like pull ups, rows, and pull downs.
But we can take this a step further for the players who really want to get dialed into their training and break push/pull exercises into horizontal and vertical.
- Horizontal push - these are any push exercises that you’re pressing out from the body, such as chest press and push ups.
- Vertical push - these are any exercises that you press up from the body, such as shoulder presses.
- Horizontal pull - these are any exercises you’re pulling into the body from ahead of you, such as half kneel or bent over rows.
- Vertical rows - these are any exercises that you are pulling into your body from above you, such as pull ups.
These might seem like gritty details, but it’s important to consider when looking to choose the right exercise for your program. For our workout programs, we look to include opposite movement types within a given day.
For example, we’d add a horizontal push (a chest press) with a vertical row (pull ups) on the same day.
If we zoom out a bit here, hockey players should be working on a push:pull ratio of at least 1:1 – meaning that for every push based exercise you use, you should be using one pull based exercise.
In the early off-season, we’ll typically go with a 1:2 ratio, with 2 pull exercises in a workout for every 1 push based exercise. This is because hockey players tend to be push dominant and have a forward rounding posture that can cause upper body dysfunction. Doubling up on pull-based exercises will help improve postures and create balance in the upper body.
The Best Upper Body Exercises for Hockey Players
What you finally came here for – our list of top 10 upper body exercises for hockey players.
We’ll save any more conversation about how to use these exercises below – let’s dive in here.
1. Incline DB Chest Press
Movement Type: Horizontal Push
Movement Type: Horizontal Push
Hockey Players love chest exercises. If it was up to most players, workouts would be 5 sets of Bench Press, some ab exercises and lunges, and then move on. While the incline chest press is still a chest press, the incline forces more recruitment of the shoulders and develops the upper pecs more.
Not only do the dumbbells challenge more shoulder stability, but it also addresses the right/left imbalance that hockey players naturally develop in their upper body.
Lastly, the incline chest press is valuable for hockey players because it creates a more functional recruitment pattern than a traditional bench press. This exercise challenges both horizontal and vertical press movements and creates a healthier press position.
2. Half Kneel DB Shoulder Press
Movement Type: Vertical Push (mixed with horizontal)
This exercise could absolutely challenge the incline chest press for the best push exercise for hockey players.
While hockey players have likely seen the classic “shoulder press” - using a bar, machine, or even DBs – performing these exercises with even slightly suboptimal form can lead to A LOT of shoulder dysfunctions.
This variation puts players in a strong position through the torso so that they can press overhead with a lot of discipline - ultimately allowing them to load up more and really challenge those shoulder and push-based muscles.
3. Half Kneel Lat Pulldown
Movement Type: Vertical Pull
Another half-kneel exercise, this row variation forces players to create a super braced torso before they start to pull and ultimate recruit the lats better than a traditional “lat pull down”.
Also unlike the lat pull down, we love this exercise for hockey players because it’s unilateral.
If you talk to any physical therapist, they’ll tell you about the imbalances hockey players have in their back. This is because not only are you always rotating one way, but you’re also always at two different shoulder positions.
This exercise helps solve that, while also developing the powerhouse muscle of the back.
4. Alternating Chest Press
Movement Type: Horizontal Press
While we stick with the incline chest press being the best possible chest/ush exercise, this chest press variation could very well be a sleeper pick.
We love dumbbells when it comes to push based exercises. While most athletes default to the classic Bench Press, the fixed bar allows for very little movement variation. While this is good to load up and get heavier, it’s not ideal for an athlete who needs to develop a strong and stable upper body.
Shifting to DBs, this exercise allows both arms to be targeted equally (not the strong side compensating for the weak), and also challenges players to stabilize against movement variance. Adding the “alternating element” exaggerates this effect - where players need to now stabilize one DB at all times.
Ironically, challenging the stabilizers muscles like this almost always produces a heavier Bench Press result.
We’ll use this alternating version in nearly all of our programs year round, with sometimes switching to a non-alternating chest press to get heavier for a phase. Either way, this is definitely a movement that should be in hockey players programs.
5. Chin Ups/Pull Ups
Movement Type: Vertical Pull
These exercises are classics for a reason. They might be the single greatest exercises for developing integrated upper body strength. While they don’t recruit push-based muscles, they place an intense demand across the majority of the upper body.
For reference - chin ups are palms in, pull ups are palms out. This subtle difference changes the muscle recruitment patterns. Chin ups recruit more biceps, while the pull up subtly shifts more recruitment to being more lat dominant.
For players who can’t perform either exercise, we always start with an “Eccentric Chin Up” - this variation involves a player jumping or stepping up to the start position and then controlling their body on the way down (for ideally 5 seconds). This forces players to control the movement and rapidly develop upper body strength. We’ve worked with female hockey players who go from unable to do any chin ups to crushing out 5+ in just a couple months with this technique.
Regardless of where you’re at, you should be adding chin-ups/pull-ups into your workouts routinely.
6. Face Pulls
Movement Type: Horizontal Pull
Another huge sleeper pick.
As we touched on earlier, hockey players are notoriously rounded forward in their shoulders and upper bodies. While most people have this forward rounded posture from too much sitting, it seems to be exaggerated in hockey players because of the nature of the forward leaning stride.
Face pulls directly counteract these poor postures.
This exercise can be done with bands or cables, but is an exercise that every hockey player should have in their program. It doesn’t have to be, and often shouldn’t be, heavy. In fact, it’s better to create that intentional pull back and pinch your shoulder blades together with a pause at the end.
This exercise is huge for hockey players to restore balance to their upper body and start to find better postures. We even recommend adding a banded version in your warm up.
7. Band Pull Aparts & No Moneys
Movement Type: Horizontal Pull
These exercises are two different exercises with the same goal - deliberately target the rotator cuffs and shoulder stabilizers.
Much like the face pull, these exercises target the posterior shoulder muscles such as the rear delts, rhomboids, and muscles of the rotator cuffs.
Again, these should be added to pre-hab or warm-ups for hockey players b
Video demonstrations to each exercise:
8. Rotational Landmine Press
Movement Type: Horizontal & Vertical Press
While you might have seen many of the other exercises in programs before, this one is often new for a lot of players.
Like we explored at the start of the article, rotation and shot power are intensely kinetic-chain based – and this exercise challenges that exact chain.
This full-body exercise is so valuable for hockey players to develop that rotational power. We have all of our players start light with the exercise, the goal is to refine movement mechanics and create the feel for activating different muscle groups in rotation.
This is one of those exercises that you can really let it rip.
If you don’t have a landmine (or a corner that you can stick the barbell), you we have a handful of dumbbell versions such as the scoop to rotational press which are also valuable.
9. Push Ups
Movement Type: Horizontal Push
As hockey players get older and more advanced in their training, they often consider the push-up too rudimentary to have in their training.
But the truth is, push ups are an insanely valuable exercise that can integrate the entire upper body and even create full-body strength demands.
Once an athlete can do 12-15 perfect form push ups, they can start to change to variations that challenge their strength.
Three of our favourite variations include:
- Eccentric Push Ups. eccentric strength is so valuable for athletes, and this exercise should be essential in all hockey players programs. Essentially we’re taking the basic push up and adding 5-10 seconds on the way down with perfect control and form. This will create a muscle building strength demand.
- Alternating Hand Elevated Push Up. It’s rare in hockey that you express force in a perfectly braced position with perfect posture. This exercise challenges your ability to find that braced position with uneven hand/torso placement.
- Spiderman Push Ups. This is a variation we love to use to really create a full body and core demand. Each rep challenges your ability to stabilize your torso and create a brace core position.
In fact our workouts program for hockey players contains on average over 12 different push-up variations.
Don’t sleep on push ups.
10. Carry Variations
Movement Type: Carry / Pull
When it comes to developing strength, carry variation can be considered a legitimate hack to elite strength development.
We love two primary variation here:
- The Farmer Walker which involved carrying two dumbbells for ~20 yards with perfect posture (abs tight, shoulders back, no hip dips).
- Suitcase Carry which involves carrying just one dumbbell and requires intense core strength to stabilize against a side bend.
Both of these exercises are full body and really truly challenge strength. Some of the upper body muscles include: arms (biceps and triceps), intense grip/forearm demands, shoulders, upper back, traps, obliques, transverse abdominals, rectus abdominis.
While many hockey players add shrugs (which are still super valuable for building traps) and forearm exercises (like wrist curls which are less valuable) – using a heavy carry is far more valuable.
This combined with the core strength demands make shrugs essential for hockey players and some variation should be in their workouts at least weekly.
So these are what we would consider the best upper body exercises that should be in all hockey players training programs.
The next inevitable question is - what’s the best upper body workout for hockey players? And the reality is, there isn’t one.
Whether we’re working with a u-12 player or 12 year pro, we consistently recommend full body workouts to athletes instead of upper/lower or body part specific. While we explore this deeper in the article “Workouts for Hockey Players” – we really want to promote the fact that hockey players need integrative workouts that focus on training kinetic chains that translate to the ice.
If you’re looking for a workout program that’s specifically built for the physical demands of hockey players, we recommend you check out the Relentless Hockey workout programs and see if there’s one that’s right for your training needs and hockey goals.
Until next time, get out there and get relentless!
Hope this helps you take your workouts to the next level! 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.