Every year when the hockey season begins, we get lots of questions from parents. They wonder what kinds of training we do, and how safe it is for their children.
In this post we’ll answer some general questions and provide a resource for hockey parents to help them understand what we do and the science behind it. As always, we’re happy to follow up this up and answer any further questions - feel free to contact us any time.
It’s important to understand that weight training should not replace play. Play in a variety of sports is crucial for athletic development. In combination with play, weight training helps athletes push their limits to improve in their sport.
In this article we’ll aim to explain why weight training is not only beneficial for young hockey players, but is essential for perfecting skills and technique on and off the ice.
Is Weightlifting Dangerous for Young Hockey Players?
This is probably the most common question from parents around this time of year. The simple answer is that if done properly, no. Lifting weights is perfectly safe (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3, Source 4, Source 5, Source 6). This topic has been extensively studied for a wide variety of exercise modalities and despite common myths resistance training is not dangerous, and in fact the myth that weight lifting can stunt growth couldn't be further from the truth.
Bones can actually adapt in a positive manner to gradual loading from weight training, and there have been several studies reporting increased bone mineral density in response to resistance and plyometric training (Source 7, Source 8, Source 9, Source 10). The are numerous studies for a wide variety of exercise modalities, and despite common myths, prove that resistance training is not dangerous. In fact, the myth that weight lifting can stunt growth couldn't be further from the truth.
When working with young athletes, we, along with most good strength & conditioning coaches, pride ourselves on keeping programs effective, and more importantly safe. Our goal isn’t to turn kids into weightlifters, but rather start to challenge movement patterns and start to develop strength with an external load.
Benefit #1: Sport Specialization and Overuse Injuries
Both Wayne Gretzky, and Bobby Orr have recently made comments about this noting that players are skating too much, and not playing enough variety in other sports. If hearing it from two of the best players of all time isn't enough, studies have proved the validity of their comments (Source 15).
There are a variety of possible reasons for this. Many children spend the majority of their ‘exercise hours’ trying to hone their skills in a specific sport. This can cause them to repeat the same movements over and over again without developing a full spectrum of athleticism (we dive deeper into developing athleticism in an upcoming article). Overuse injuries can occur as a result of this due to certain muscles and joints being under too much stress, and others not receiving enough.
One of the things we consider when designing a strength training program for hockey players is to ‘undo’ some of the overuse, by strengthening areas that are weaker and less developed. In addition to this, we focus on mobilizing and restoring proper function to those that have been overused.
Benefit #2: Enhancing Physical Literacy
One of the first things we aim to assess after meeting a group of young athletes is their physical literacy. Often this is related to their “training age”. Physical literacy is essentially our ongoing assessment of how someone moves; their body awareness, coordination and movement patterns are all aspects of this. By taking a team through a dynamic warm up we are able to get a general idea of their level. One thing to keep in mind is that due to sport specialization, it is possible for children to be very talented on the ice, yet seem to have limited physical literacy in the gym.
If athletes from a AAA team are compared to those of an A level team of the same age group, they are actually likely to have a similar physical literacy off the ice. This where training age comes in, as it is not necessarily the same as chronological age. Training age is related to the hours spent in the gym learning movement patterns.
How nicely a player squats, hinges, lunges, pushes, pulls, or braces their core off the ice doesn't always directly predict talent on the ice. We all know someone who is an all-star in the gym but lacks talent on the ice.
By correcting faulty movement patterns in the gym, we can improve performance on the ice, and dramatically reduce the risk of injury. For example, a faulty movement pattern is the knee falling inwards (valgus knee) on a squat and is closely related to ACL injuries. We specifically train athletes to exercise using proper form to reduce the risk of injuries related to an incorrect form. (Source 16) This is one of the first things we look to correct.
To be able to perform your best, and stay healthy, you need to be able to move properly. This cannot be achieved solely training on the ice. Using resistance training helps teach strength around proper movement patterns, which will be the basis for more advanced movements as a child grows and develops. Any child that wants to improve on-ice will eventually start strength & conditioning, so learning how to do so properly from a qualified trainer is a great way to start.
Benefit #3: General Strength
Improving strength is one of the main goals of strength and conditioning.
Strength training is often be thought to just big muscles and heavy weights; however, the goal of strength training with youth hockey players is primarily to be able to perform essential movement patterns without any compensation occurring from another part of the body.
Yes, this will inevitably lead to more powerful skating strides and harder shots, but developing strength is also a great way to reduce overuse injuries. Think about a hamstring overuse injury for example, occurring during an intensive portion of the season. The hamstring muscle in this case has likely received a lot of micro stressors that were eventually too great to overcome, and an injury occurred. If we train this muscle to withstand more force progressively in training, it will be able to withstand a lot more repetitive trauma on the ice, reducing the risk of any injuries, (Source 17, Source 6).
Despite popular myths, young athletes lifting weights is proven to be very useful. Training can reduce the risk of injury, provide an opportunity to perfect form, and can greatly improve performance. Weight lifting is safe, provided it’s supervised and athletes are taught properly. Not only can training properly improve performance, but it will also help your child reach their maximum potential!
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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.