Strength training is an extremely valuable tool in the physical preparation toolbox for ice hockey players. Think of strength training as the vehicle (stimulus) that takes you to your final destination (adaptation). The final destination is an improvement in your performance on the ice. As long as you reach the final destination, the vehicle that got you there does not need to be the same for everyone. It is the job of sports performance coaches to use the minimum effective dose of training stress to create an increase in performance. It is not about giving an athlete all they can handle, it is about giving them exactly what they need to be their very best when they lace up their skates.
There are two primary goals when it comes to physical preparation for ice hockey. Number one is to reduce the incidence of injury. An athlete is of no value to their team if they cannot stay healthy. Number two is to improve athletic performance. This can look very different based on the sport you play and the role you fill on your team. For a forward this may mean having the strength and speed to win puck battles, the power and coordination to fire effective shots at the net and the conditioning to stay fast and aggressive late into the 3rd period. For a goalie this means having the hip mobility necessary to get into the extreme ranges of motion required to make tough saves and the explosive strength in the frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) planes of motion to cover the goalie crease in its entirety as the opposing team continuously attacks the net.
In order to reduce the incidence of injury, it helps to first understand what common injuries you are trying to avoid. In the game of ice hockey this includes concussions, collarbone fractures, shoulder separations, elbow bursitis, wrist fractures, chronic low back pain, hip FAI, sports hernias, adductor (groin) strains and MCL sprains and tears. Training for sport performance and training for general health are NOT the same thing. It is impossible to fully eliminate injuries in the game of ice hockey. They will happen! It is the job of the sports performance coach to reduce the incidence of injury as much as possible.
Let’s briefly touch on ways to prevent some of these injuries. Dawn Comstock, PhD is an expert in epidemiology of injury who has done some fantastic research on the effect of neck strength in the reduction in concussion prevention. She explains that your neck “acts like a shock absorber” against accelerative and rotational forces from athlete to athlete contact that cause concussions. The stronger your neck is in all directions the less accelerative and rotational forces will be (2013). While shoulder injuries are contact injuries, we can reduce the damage done by training the rotator cuff, serratus anterior and scapular retractors. Training these muscles will improve dynamic shoulder stability and shoulder blade position to meet the demands of the sport. Chronic low back pain can be reduced implementing training strategies that get hockey players out of the anterior pelvic tilt and excessive lumbar extension that they are constantly stuck in on the ice. You also want to train the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, back) to be able to tolerate the stress that will inevitably be put on the low back. Groin strains can be mitigated by improving tissue quality with the help of a good soft tissue specialist, making abdominal stiffness a priority via direct core work and improving the strength of the adductors themselves, especially isometrically. MCL sprains and tears can be reduced by emphasizing single leg strength and stability.
The second goal of physical preparation is to improve athletic performance on the ice. To me this comes down to four questions, in this order:
- Do they have enough muscle to withstand the demands of the sport?
- Are they able to produce enough force to optimize speed and power potential on the ice?
- Are they able to produce high amounts of force quickly?
- Do they have the conditioning to produce high amounts of force quickly, over and over again?
The first question can be answered by developing hypertrophy through higher volume training and shorter rest periods. Question two can be answered through getting stronger! Strength training using big foundational movements (squat, hinge, press, chin ups) with heavier loads and longer rest periods will help you develop absolute and relative strength. Question three comes from taking lighter weights and moving them as fast as possible. The fourth question comes down to a specific conditioning program that will prepare you for the special endurance component required of each athlete based on the level, position and role within the team.
As you can see, physical preparation for ice hockey is multifaceted and requires a qualified sports performance coach to design and implement the proper program for each specific athlete. Strength training is a fantastic way to reduce injury risk and improve athletic performance when properly implemented. Train hard and train smart!