Should hockey players focus on strength or size?
Are bigger hockey players actually always stronger?
Can hockey players get stronger without adding size?
These are just a few of the questions we hear when helping hockey players set out to get bigger, stronger, or both. We find that actually creating some understanding into the mechanisms behind getting bigger and stronger can help hockey players train more effectively for their actual goals.
In this article we'll explore the mechanisms of strength and provide some strategies that hockey players can use to get stronger without necessarily adding size.
Defining the Mechanisms of Strength Enhancements:
While there are a variety of facets that contribute to strength development, for our sake, we can focus on two predominant factors that lead to hockey players getting stronger.
Strength gains can be simplified into:
1) Increasing the actual size of the muscle fiber;
2) Increasing the neuromuscular capacity of the muscle.
Increasing muscle size, also called muscular hypertrophy, is the result of muscle fibers responding to a stress stimulus (such as lifting weights) by increasing contractile proteins. These bigger muscle fibers are capable of producing more force per contraction and ultimately will provide increased strength.
On the contrary, in the initial stages of training strength enhancement are a result of enhanced neuromuscular capacity. Also in response to a stress stimulus, these strength gains aren't a result of that muscle getting bigger, but rather firing with more contractile strength. This is a result of the neuromuscular pathways being able to recruit more muscles with greater efficacy and ultimately result in muscles contracting with greater force. These motor pathways improve rapidly, even after a single workout, and can then be recruited to create faster, stronger, and more coordinated muscle contractions.
Why Size & Efficacy Are Beneficial
Typically, a combination of both muscle size and neuromuscular capacity lead to increased maximal strength.
It is difficult to find a bodybuilder that doesn’t have reasonable strength or a powerlifter that is small. Similarly, bigger hockey players are often stronger and routinely perform the best on strength-related tests.
By adding muscle mass through hypertrophy, you automatically give your body more resources to produce force. This can be conceptualized by imagining putting a bigger engine in a car. Meanwhile, improving our neuromuscular pathways is enhancing your capacity to utilize that engine. This is similar to putting a skilled driver in a car.
While having a Ferrari engine is going to help you win a race - having a skilled and efficient driver will maximize its capacity to really take that car's performance to the next level.
When it comes to hockey, players need to have both the muscle to recruit and the ability to recruit their maximal capacity. This gives hockey players the base level of strength that can be translated into a powerful stride or exploding into a puck or hit.
How to Get Stronger Without Gaining Weight
So the ultimate question, can hockey players get stronger without putting on weight?
While the pursuit of strength typically results in gaining muscle mass, this may not be ideal for all hockey players. Players that already naturally have a big frame may not want to add size that could potentially slow them down and reduce on-ice agility. Noting this, with the right strategy, we've had countless players add significant strength while maintaining or even losing weight.
Generally we recommend three strategies for getting hockey players stronger without adding extra size.
The first step is strategically approaching reps and sets.
As a general rule, training with heavy loads for lower reps (under 5) causes a stress stimulus that is more likely to cause neuromuscular adaptations; whereas, utilizing higher rep ranges (such as 6-12) with moderate loads tend to stimulate more hypertrophy response (Source 2, 3). While these rules aren't absolute, utilizing a lower rep range is essential to to maximizing strength.
The second strategy is to focus on the way the exercise is performed.
Often we'll give players similar strength development programs with small tweaks depending whether or not they need to add size. In this case, the most notable element we focus on is the eccentric or negative portion of the exercise.
Focusing on negatives (the lengthening portion of a muscle contraction), has long been favoured by bodybuilders looking to get bigger. This is because that down phase, such as a lowering portion of a bicep curl, causes increased muscle damage and stress and subsequently causes the muscle to grow in response.
This means that for a hockey player looking to strictly get stronger, the primary focus should be on the concentric phase of an exercise. An example of this would be utilizing a heavy deadlift, but instead of controlling the movement on the way down - just dropping it, and thereby completely eliminating the eccentric component.
To expand on this, exercises such as cleans, squats and deadlifts for speed, or plyometric exercises can be excellent exercises to build strength rather than size because they train the motor units to rapidly contract and become more efficient, without stimulating the same degree of hypertrophy as slow controlled reps.
The third step is accessing and monitoring nutrition.
While it's great to focus on optimizing your workouts, if you're not eating properly, you're ignoring a massive element of performance. Simply put, calorie consumption is an essential facet to gaining weight (productive or unproductive pounds) and if you want to enhance strength while staying at your current weight or losing weight then this needs to be a primary focus.
With any training program, we want to make sure that we're adequately fueling both our performance in the gym and our capacity to recover afterward. Saying that, if you're consuming more calories than you're burning on a daily basis - then you'll likely add weight.
On the contrary, if you're eating at a caloric balanced or maintenance level, then you're less likely to enhance muscular development. We've seen players in the off-season eat a caloric deficit and ultimately increase strength 15-20%, while losing weight.
So while enhancing strength has significant performance carryover for hockey players, some players need to be mindful about adding muscle.
Bigger players need to evaluate and create goals around whether adding muscle would enhance their on-ice performance, or if they should adopt some of these training strategies to add strength without size. Whether it's getting bigger or adding strength, hockey player's training goals should always be focused on enhancing on-ice performance.
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.