When someone is asked what a "strong core" is, most people picture a "ripped" guy with a 6 pack hanging from upside-down doing some sort of bizarre situp.
When it comes to hockey players, a strong core looks a little bit different.
For hockey players, core strength translates to the player that never loses a puck battle, that can put their entire weight into a shot, or continue their stride while protecting the puck. In fact, hockey players without elite core strength may actually be limiting their ability to produce an efficient skating stride (Source).
When focusing on core training, it's important to consider the two main functions of the "core muscles" (Source 2):
- To provide a strong base for our limbs to move from.
- To provide a stiff, braced midsection to transfer force between the lower and upper body.
Without a core that is capable of these two functions, the strength we build in our lower and upper body will never be fully expressed. It’s like trying to shoot with a crack in your stick - it doesn’t matter how hard you shoot, you'll never fully be able to translate power.
Most of the core exercises we use with hockey players are isometric "anti-movement" exercises (meaning the core muscles are holding still while movement occurs elsewhere). These type of exercises, versus dynamic exercises such a crunch, have been shown to be more effective for improving core stiffness and strengthening that braced trunk position (Source 3).
This article will share with you 6 core exercises that you can add to your workouts. It's important to note that performing these exercises should only be one aspect of core training. You should be thinking about how you brace your abs and core in every movement you do from squats to presses to rows. Ab exercises aren't the only way to a strong core for hockey players - studies have shown that multi-joint, free weight exercises are just as important for core strengthening as standard core exercises (Source 4).
Regardless of the exercises, focusing on training that braced core position will ultimately help you become a more powerful overall athlete and hockey player.
Core Exercise #1: Pallof Press
Some variation of a Pallof Press is in almost every one of our workouts, no matter what skill level the athlete.
This is an amazing "anti-rotation" core exercise and will certainly help you come out of a few more battles with the puck. It’s simple to set up, with a band attached to a power rack beside you, and by either pressing the band straight out in front of you or holding it with extended arms.
One key cue here to focus on is to really focus on bracing all of your abs, while also keeping the glutes and shoulders activated. There should be no movement throughout the body other than your arms.
To make it harder, you can simply add more band tension (taking a step out) or changing the position from standing to a split squat, lateral lunge, kneeling, or various other options.
Core Exercise #2: Deadbug
This is another core exercise that we use with almost all of our hockey players. While it can be performed with just bodyweight, it can also be progressed with swiss balls (as seen in the video), bands, or weights - all with the focus on challenging the "anti-extension muscles" of the core.
When completing the deadbug you want to focus on keeping the rib cage down, without it flaring up, while keeping your low back flat against the ground. This flatback is especially when the legs and arm are in full extension.
This exercise is super useful in helping hockey players train those muscles that let you make a big hit or prevent you from getting knocked off the puck.
Core Exercise #3: Plank
There's a reason this one's a classic.
The plank not only challenges the anti-extensor muscles but the core as an entire unit - ultimately challenging us to create stability from the shoulders through the lower body.
Simply put, you should look like a plank of wood from your shoulders to your feet without excessively high or low hips. By keeping the abs and glutes squeezed as hard as possible, it can really teach what a rigid core should feel like. Having a partner gently push you around so that you have to fight to maintain position, can challenge this exercise as well as any plank variation.
One thing to remember is that a long time does not mean better. Start with smaller time intervals and focus on squeezing your abs and glutes as tight as you can, rather than doing one long set with less core activation.
Core Exercise #4: Bird Dog/Activated Bird Dog
Learning how to move while keeping the hips stable is critical for hockey players as it has many performance benefits, including enhancing spinal health.
This exercise demands the core to be rigid while the arm and hip extend, and is a staple exercise of world-renowned back specialist Dr. Stuart McGill (Source 5). The basic version of this exercise is straightforward, yet challenging and by placing a water bottle on your back you can self-test to ensure your hips are not rotating.
We can challenge it further with this variation, by raising the knees up or even progressing to a bear crawl where all the same positions and cues occur as you crawl forward.
Core Exercise #6: Suitcase Carry
Although many hockey players may not initially view this as a core exercise, cross-body carries or any kind of unbalanced carry, are phenomenal at teaching core stability through movement.
This exercise (demonstrated here) links the limbs below and above the torso which requires the core to be extremely rigid to maintain posture. You can start with a simple walk holding a heavyweight at the side and a lighter weight above your head. This can be challenged by changing the distance of the carry, weight, or type of weight.
The key here is to move slow and controlled, and keeping the bottom weight slightly off of your leg while staying upright.
Core Exercise #7: TRX Fall Out/Ab Wheel
This exercise may be the most challenging "anti-extension" exercise on this list.
I’ve grouped these two together as the motion is pretty similar, where an ab wheel is ground-based and the TRX Fall Out starts standing out and letting the TRX extend overhead. While keeping your arms straight as they reach overhead, you will try to extend as far as possible, without your back hyperextending (becoming really arched).
A great way to think about this exercise is to imagine you are carrying the puck and take a hit through the shoulder and chest.
When completing this exercise the key is to focus on slowly reaching your arms and hips out (only as far as they can go) without your back arching, and returning to the start position.
If your core is strong, and you can control your trunk in that braced position which is challenged in this exercise, you'll be able to translate this on-ice to being able to take hits without being "stood up" or knocked off the puck.
By including these 6 core exercises to your training you will not only develop core strength, but also learn how to transfer this strength to other exercises such as a deadlift or kettlebell exercise, and ultimately to your on-ice performance.
Whether done mixed within a workout or as a complete circuit at the end of a workout, a strong core will help lay the foundation for you to take your hockey skills to the next level.
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.