Mobility for Hockey Players
It’s no secret, hockey players are tight.
It’s not just from the bumps and bruises from banging around the ice – the positions, postures, and movements hockey inherently creates dysfunction in our bodies. In fact, it's rarely the result of hits that cause pain and restriction in our body, it’s these structural imbalances that develop over a hockey season.
This article is specifically written to help hockey players undo this.
Creating a healthy and mobile body needs to become a top priority for hockey players who not only want to play better, for long – but also want to maximize their performance now.
While hockey players know they should be stretching more, they typically default to a couple of lunges, some toe touches, and call it a day. This isn’t good enough to unwind the stress that hockey puts on players' bodies.
Enter mobility training.
These are the exercises that hockey players can use to intentionally restore mobility and eliminate the movement restrictions that cause pain, compensation, and performance to suffer.
In this article, we’re breaking down the importance of mobility at every joint, and showing you some of the exact exercises and how you can use them to improve your mobility.
Why is Mobility Valuable for Hockey Players
Okay, so it’s obvious that hockey players need to be strong, powerful, athletic – but does mobility actually impact performance? Or is it only important to keep players healthy?
For starters, a healthy hockey player is a better hockey player.
While many young and ambitious hockey players focus all their energy on getting stronger, improving their conditioning, or getting in more reps – failing to build a healthy, balanced, and mobile body is like a temple on sand, eventually it’ll crumble.
We can’t brush off general health because it lacks “hockey-specific” applicability. This is something that pro-hockey players uniformly understand.
Note from the author: I had my first exposure to this when I was still a junior hockey player. The gym I worked at was visited by a (now hall of fame) defenceman who was in town for a charity golf tournament. Known for his fitness, I expected to witness a legendary workout. Instead he put on some headphones and proceeded to do mobility and activation exercises for over 90 minutes. One of the older guys joked with him asking if he was ever going to finish his “warm-up” and he just laughed and said “this is the s**t that lets me play 30 minutes a night – take notes.”
Looking after the foundations is what allows you to build on top of them. And, for a lot of players, this means focusing on building a healthier body.
So let’s quickly go over the two most obvious reasons for mobility work.
First, this type of work reduces injuries and chronic pain from restrictions. While research shows that the majority of hockey injuries are contact related (1), when we eliminate cuts/concussions, we start to see that a lot of the musculoskeletal injuries can be attributed to tightness/weakness (which go hand in hand).
Furthermore, a tight and restricted area in one area of the body will create an injury vulnerability in another area by being overly activated or having to be hyper mobile (3). While this point is the most obvious, it still needs to be addressed. You can’t play your best hockey if you can’t even step on the ice.
Secondly, improving your mobility will allow you to maintain your performance over the course of a season and career. Let’s look at those two things separately here. First, performance objectively declines over the course of a hockey season. This has been measured at all levels of college and professional hockey and is the constant focus of strength coaches at this level.
While this can primarily be attributed to decreases in strength and power output, it can easily be argued that the strain of a hockey season also builds movement restrictions and imbalances that reduce performance. Mobility, along with maintenance work, seeks to reduce this and keep you performing throughout optimal ranges of movement all season.
This same concept can be applied to years instead of months. Often we’ll see players who had a minor restriction or tightness they ignored and started to compensate around, and now years later are struggling with repeat injuries or things they just “can’t do.” This isn’t even to mention the beer league guys who want to play their best hockey into their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond.
If you want to keep playing your best hockey, regardless of what level you’re at, you need to be intentionally addressing your mobility and maintaining a healthy body (5).
Okay, so the big question for a lot of players – can you stretch your way to being a better hockey player? The honest answer is yes, improving mobility will optimize your movement mechanics and improve your on-ice performance.
This is a bold claim. But we’ve seen it time and time again, where players invest time and get serious with mobility work and come back to us saying they feel smoother on the ice.
While hockey demands so much strength, stability, and power – it’s easy to argue that when you have more range to express all of these traits, your performance will increase. Let’s take skating for example:
- A player who improves their ankle mobility will be able to create lower positions on the ice that will let them get more aggressive with their edgework.
- A player who improves their hip extension will be able to create more length in their stride, ultimately increasing their ability to express more power.
- Even a player improves their shoulder mobility will improve their arm swing mechanics and improve their skating speed.
Lastly, it’s important to recognize that restriction in one area creates compensation in another.
Remember this, because it’s an impactful concept for hockey players.
While we often focus our stretching and mobility work on the hips and areas that feel tight/painful, any area of your body that is tight and restricting will not only limit you on the ice, but also start to create compensations that will reduce your performance and can create vulnerabilities to injury.
Mobility work is essential for on ice success.
Understanding Mobility & Stretching for Hockey
Alright, so by now you likely understand the importance of mobility and stretching – but we still need to create a little bit further clarity before we dive into the practical work. If you’re looking to get right to the exercises, feel free to skip this section, but we think it’s probably valuable for most hockey players.
Mobility vs Flexibility for Hockey Players
What’s the difference between mobility and flexibility is a common question for hockey players. The truth is, a lot of coaches wrongfully use them interchangeably. Mobility and flexibility are not the same thing. Mobility is the dynamic or active range of motion that an athlete can control, while flexibility is the passive range of motion.
While flexibility is important, mobility is more valuable for athletes. Mobility allows athletes to actually utilize their range of motion, control it, and express optimal movement patterns through it. While this is a complicated topic, that includes both flexibility, motor skills, and neurological facets – the important takeaway for hockey players is that being able to control a range of motion is far more valuable than just being able to get into a position to hold.
This is why we perform nearly all of our exercises with an active variation. Not only are we attempting to improve flexibility and increase the joint range of motion, but we’re also challenging the nervous system to control this range.
Static vs Dynamic Stretching for Hockey Players
This naturally brings us to the second most common question – should hockey players do static stretching?
In answers from Strength Coaches we often see very polarizing answers. Some believe that static stretching is a waste of time and has no value for hockey players, while others will argue that hockey players need to spend 30+ minutes a day stretching and be doing yoga weekly.
It’s hard to justify the “no value” argument because time and time again we’ll see hockey players improve their flexibility, and thus mobility, by just adding a couple of passive Netflix & Stretch sessions per week.
But ultimately, we want mobility & stretching sessions to be a combination of active/dynamic stretches and static – with a focus on dynamic.
So the next question should be – when should hockey players use static stretching?
Our general rule is we never want to stretch cold muscles. This means we don’t use any static stretches in warm-ups or before hockey/workouts. Even within a mobility session, our goal is to first warm and activate muscles with dynamic exercises and then finish with static holds.
Post hockey/workouts, we still like to go with dynamic mobility exercises to start and then as we look to unwind and relax the body we move to static stretches.
Stretches & Mobility Exercises for Hockey Players
By now hopefully you understand why mobility is valuable for hockey players – let’s get to the actionable part of the article.
Hockey player’s need to stretch more.
For 99% of hockey players this is a universal statement. Getting intentional about improving your mobility, flexibility, and tissue quality will allow you to develop a healthy mobile body and allow you to optimize your movement mechanics.
But not all stretches are created equal.
While most players know that they should be using intentional and dynamic movement exercises – we still see players default to toe touches and hanging out in some sort of lunge and calling it a day.
Not only does it lack the intention that’s necessary to reclaim range, but it also fails to address movement limitations across the body. Like we mentioned before, restriction in one area creates compensation in another.
That’s why, for the rest of this article, we’re going to break down the top mobility exercises by body segment. While this will let you hone in on different areas of your body when they’re tight or restricted, it will also give you options to choose for each area
If you’re just looking for a full-body, must-have checklist then this article on the top 10 stretches for hockey players might serve you well.
If you want to get a little more targeted and intentional with specific areas you struggle with – let’s dive in!
Improving Ankle Mobility for Hockey
While we’re starting at the bottom of the body, we might just be starting with one of the most overlooked and undervalued joints when it comes to hockey players.
We’ve written an entire article on the importance of ankle mobility for hockey players but to summarize it – if you’re a hockey player who uses hockey skates you should be focused on improving your ankle mobility off the ice.
Not only will improving ankle mobility reduce compensations and tightness up the chain (namely knee issues, but also hip/low back), but it will also allow for a great allow for a knee bend and allow players to play lower to the ice – thus generating more power in their stride.
[YOUTUBE VIDEO: ANKLES]
We take a deep dive into ankle mobility in the youtube video above and include 5+ bonus exercises that you can use to improve your ankle mobility.
If you choose to skip it, here’s our two staple exercises that all hockey players should be using.
Stretch #1: Ankle Gliders
Our goal is to get our knees over the toes as much as possible with this exercise. This takes intention to actively find your end range, and then without collapsing inwards, push against that end range and try to relax the structures holding you back. This can be easily done anywhere and anytime, and even just 8-10 reps can have you radically opening up those ankles.
Stretch #2: Toes Elevated Ankle Gliders
This exercise absolute gold for ankle mobility. Throw your toes up on the boards, a wall, or a foam roller and then focus on driving your knee forward as much as possible. When you actively flex against the end range of motion - you'll be able to reclaim that range after just a few reps .
Improving Hip Mobility for Hockey
There could be literal books written about hip issues in hockey players. In fact, I have 3 friends who have all done their graduate studies in this exact topic.
Hips are a complicated topic for hockey players.
To provide the shortest possible overview, hockey players have chronically tight hips, shortened hip flexors from overuse, and lack healthy range of motion in the joint capsule (7, 8).
“Hockey Hips” are typically bad hips.
But the truth is, with intentional work – even hockey players logging serious ice time can restore mobility to their hips and maintain a healthy range of motion. This does take an active practice with intentional focus on reclaiming range, but often takes less work than players realize. Even 10 minutes a day while watching the game or Netflix can unlock massive release in hockey players after a couple of weeks and have players radically moving and feeling better.
[HIP MOBILITY VIDEO]
This video above walks through some of our favorite hip mobility exercises for hockey players with intensive coaching cues. The exercises below should be considered staple hip stretches for hockey players whether it’s at home, at the rink, or at the gym.
Stretch #1 : Couch Stretch
This stretch might be the greatest of all time for hockey players. Not only does it release through the hip flexors, but it simultaneously releases through the quads – essentially creating a stretch through the entire anterior musculature that gets tight on hockey players.
While holding this for 1-2 minutes (perhaps on the back of a couch while watching a game) can be a massive release in hockey players, but otherwise we like to do this stretch actively. This means we squeeze our glutes and push our hips down and forward for 2-3 seconds before letting go. We find the active version creates a much deeper stretch.
Stretch #2: 90/90
Hip rotation is vital for hip health. While this exercise is becoming more common in programs (it’s in all of our hockey workout programs at least weekly) – it’s still an exercise that not a lot of hockey players are familiar with and that a lot of players struggle with.
We can start with just basic holds in this position, finding three different areas to “hangout in” and try to release. But the goal here is really to move to active flows that challenge that hip rotation and actively trying to improve dynamic range of motion.
While we linked our favorite flow above, here’s two other versions you can use
90/90 Holds – this is the basic version you can just hangout in.
90/90 Hip Flow – this will absolutely make your hips cramp, but is insanely valuable for hockey players.
Stretch #3: Internal Hip Rotations
This exercise gets super intentional in creating rotation at the hip and creates an immediate release. While this is insanely valuable for goalies, we use this exercise in all of our hockey training programs because it’s so easy to feel that rotation and try to create more of it.
Stretch #4: Fire Hydrant to Pigeon
While the Pigeon Hold alone is an amazing exercise for hockey players to release the stubborn upper glutes, this exercise turn it into more of a dynamic mobility exercise that can be used to really reclaim range.
Stretch #5: Iso Squat Hold
This is our one truly passive static stretch that is in all of our hockey players programs and that you should be doing multiple times a week.
A lot of hockey players, and most of the population, can’t get into a deep squat. While we anatomically evolved to be able to hangout in this position constantly, we’ve lost this function because we just simply never do it. If you look at many Asian cultures they will sit or eat in this position for hours per day – and research shows that these cultures have the lowest rate of hip and back problems in the world (2, 3).
Saying that, this is insanely valuable for hockey players because it releases the ankles, hips, and low back – while reclaiming the capacity to move in that deep hip position.
The longer we hangout in this position, the more our body seems to let go of tension in these areas and oftentimes we can find that we immediately have reclaimed range of motion. Start off by aiming for a 1 minute hold while watching TV or on your phone. For many players this will result in hip and upper glute cramps. While these suck, we want to try and stay in the position and just try to breathe through them and intentionally relax the area.
Improving Tight Backs in Hockey Players
We typically beat up on our backs. From poor posture to slumped sitting positions to getting banged around the ice. We rely so heavily on back health, but tend to intensely neglect it.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about spinal health such as disk issues. While upper and lower back musculoskeletal issues and a lack of spinal mobility can lead to disk issues – these types of injuries or chronic disorders should be addressed and managed by a physical therapist and a medical professional. Our goal is addressing the muscle of the back to prevent injuries and restrictions before they even have an impact on the spine itself.
Looking at this, we should really consider the back in two different segments: 1) the lower back and 2) the upper back (known as the t-spine).
Hockey players tend to have issues with both (6).
Let’s look to understand each section quickly:
- The Low Back – low back is one of, if not the most, common source of chronic pain in the world. While low back pain can be caused by contact or improper lifting, it can often be the result of tight hips, glutes, and poor core strength. All three of these can cause the back to lock up and get restricted.
- The Upper Back – we could also consider the shoulders and neck in this conversation. The upper back is often one of the most restricted areas on hockey players, leading to not only tightness and pain but reduced rotation capacity (which can also cause more strain and torque on the low back). Because of our hunched over on-ice position and the natural forwarded-rounded shoulders on the ice – this needs to be a priority for all hockey players to restore postural balance to the upper body.
It’s important to note the importance of strength work in improving your back. For your lower back, your core muscles are protective of strain on back muscles and the spine. While it’s important for all hockey players, those with low back pain need to place extra emphasis on core strength with exercises like planks and bear crawls.
The same is true for the upper back. While hockey players naturally have the forward-rounded shoulders on the ice, this is often exaggerated by their love of bench press and push ups. Over developing the chest, or simply including too many push-based exercises, in your training leads to a structural imbalance that further pulls the shoulders forward. This is why we place an emphasis on having at least a 1:1 ratio between push:pull exercises within your workouts, and all of your workouts should include pull-based exercises like Face Pulls that challenge these muscles that pull your shoulders back.
So while strength deficits can often lead to tweaks or tightness in the back, mobility work is still essential for restoring a healthy movement through the back. Our goal with these exercises are focused on three movements: low back mobilization, t-spine extension, and spinal rotation.
Here’s our “must have” list that hits all of these goals:
Stretch #1: Scorpion Stretch
For the low back, there’s no better way to mobilize than with the Scorpion. By keeping your chest on the ground, you’re forced to find mobility in your lower back. For a lot of players who say they have back pain or feel tight, even 1 set of Scorpions have them feeling immediately better.
Stretch #2: Book Openers
This is an amazing exercise for opening up the entire back and creating rotation and should be considered a “must have” exercise, potentially in every workout, for hockey players.
The goal here is to really create range of motion in the upper back and t-spine. While a lot of players can find range in their low back, when we keep our knee on the ground to immobilize our hips we force ourselves to find that range in our upper backs. It’s helpful if we start by intentionally creating rotation there.
Stretch #3: T-Spine Extensions
Of all the stretches in this article, this is probably my personal favorite.
Our t-spines as hockey players are notoriously locked up. We’re almost always slumped over in a forward position, and then off the ice we typically sit in even worse postures that reinforces this “hump back” style posture.
This exercise undoes all that by intention creating spinal extension and working yourself into the exact opposite movement than you’re chronically posted up in.
While you can also do this on the floor with your elbows down, the goal for any variation of this exercise is to create extension in your upper back. This needs to be intentional, otherwise we’ll find the mobility in our low back and never really get into that upper region.
You can do this at home off of the couch or your bed – but really make sure you’re getting intentional in opening up that upper back!
Stretch #4: Banded Lat Stretch
After a tough workout, nothing feels better than this stretch.
We loop the band as high as possible and then sink to our hips to create a “pull” along our entire side body. For every single hockey player, this will feel amazing because it carries so much tension in these big lat muscles.
While we’re here we really want to expand and open our rib cage – so we encourage players to take deep breaths. We can also further enhance this stretch by shifting our hips in the opposite direction. Our goal should be to feel a stretch through the entire side body.
Improving Shoulder and Mobility in Hockey Players
The shoulder is an intensely complicated joint. In hockey players, it can never be stable (strong) enough, but it’s also usually too tight and immobile – diametrically opposed concepts.
Let’s first look at shoulder stability. Strengthening the shoulder stabilizers is insanely valuable for hockey players to reduce their likelihood of injury. For this, we use shoulder activation exercises like Banded Pull Aparts and Banded No-Moneys to target and activate these stabilizers – but we also want to focus on stability in all of our upper body exercises. This can be done with exercises like Alternating Chest Press (where you need to stabilize the DB at the top of the rep) or High Plank Shoulder Taps.
Any chance we get, we want to challenge our ability to stabilize the shoulder – not only will this help us to get stronger and express both strength/power better, but it’ll reduce their likelihood of contact-related shoulder injuries. We look at this more in the article: How Hockey Players Develop Bulletproof Shoulders.
Keep on the theme of this article, shoulder mobility is also vital for hockey players – and often lacking. We could essentially copy and paste the section on the upper back here.
Rounded shoulders, a cross-body arm swing, and a chronic asymmetrical posture while holding a hockey stick all creates very imbalanced and often restricted shoulders in hockey players. Our goal is to restore some of this mobility, not only to improve our movement mechanics and reduce our risk of tweaks and injuries, but also reduce the risk of compensating elsewhere in our body.
Here’s our must have shoulder mobility exercises for hockey players:
Stretch #1: Shoulder Dislocators
This stretch immediately feels amazing. If you don’t think you’re tight or restricted doing this exercise will immediately show you that a) you are and b) that it can immediately release that tension. You’ll typically feel this wherever you’re most tight, with some players feeling in their pecs, while others through the front of the shoulders.
You can do this with a band (we find this works the best), a broom, or even a hockey stick. If it’s too easy, move your hands closer together.
At the end of a long day sitting at work or school – this feels incredible.
Stretch #2: Shoulder Extensions
This exercise is essentially the opposite of the one above but also feels incredible.
Typically we focus so much overhead (and justifiably so, this is where most players struggle) while extension is just as important. This exercise targets just that.
With a band or hockey stick, the goal here is to lift your hands as high as possible, without shrugging your shoulders.
Stretch #3: 1 Arm Trap Raise to Swimmer Hold
This exercise might look funny, it’s gold for restoring active range of motion in your shoulders.
For this exercise we really want to get intentional with fighting against the entire range of motion so that we can subtly increase it each time. Without pushing against your end range, this exercise really doesn’t have much value – but with intention is one of the single best exercises at reclaiming your optimal range.
Before we wrap up, you might be wondering why we didn’t address knees. The truth is that knee pain is extremely common in hockey players – but it’s rarely an issue with the actual knee itself.
Many physical therapists call the knee the middle child, because any issues are typically caused by either the ankles below it (pulling the knees into collapsing positions) or the hips above it (putting torque on the musculature and ligaments of the knees because they lack mobility at the hip). While these are absolutely issues that we should address, there’s often an easier and immediate solution – and it’s releasing the quads.
Having worked with thousands of hockey players both online and in-person, time and time again I’ve seen players who spent a week foam rolling and stretching their quads (with an exercise like the couch stretch) and their knee pain has reduced by 80%.
While we don’t create mobility at the knee, we can do activation exercises that will reduce the risk of injury and likelihood of pain. This article takes a deep dive into how hockey players can develop bulletproof knees.
Wrapping it up
So by now, we hope you understand not only what stretches and mobility exercises to do as a hockey player, but also why it’s such an important part of your training.
It’s time to put this into action.
We encourage all of our players to not only add 5-15 minutes of mobility at the end of a workout or practice, but also mix it into their routine at home. While some of our players will start the day with a 5-10 movement practice, we find most players love building a mobility routine to the end of the day while watching a hockey game or Netflix.
If you’re just hanging out watching something, it’s the perfect time to gently get in some mobility work, foam rolling, and improving your body.
While all hockey players want to get faster, stronger, and more explosive – this is the work that's essential to optimizing movement mechanics and creating a body that’s going to allow you to move and perform at your highest level.
If you’re relentless about being the best hockey player you can be, it’s time to get relentless with your mobility.
Common Hockey Stretching Questions
Should hockey players do static stretches?
Hockey players should use static stretches to improve their flexibility. While active and dynamic stretches should be considered more valuable, there’s still a place for static stretching of warm muscle groups – especially long holds intended to create a release of tension in a muscle group.
Should hockey players stretch before hockey?
Hockey players should absolutely stretch before hockey – but they should be using dynamic and active movement exercises instead of static stretching. These exercises should be intended to mobility joints and create blood flow through the body as opposed to increasing flexibility.
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.