With Spring finally in full swing, most NHL teams (and all NCAA hockey teams) are immersed in off-season training. A time for physical improvement and mental recovery, the off-season is also the most dangerous time of year for hockey players. It is during off-season training that too many players lay the foundation for chronic over-use injuries. Ironically, the very training intended to elevate a player’s game is often the mechanism for their downfall. I have witnessed this tragedy time and again during my career working in the trenches of the LA Kings organization. During LA’s off-season, most players worked with “outsiders”, or independent strength coaches not affiliated with the team. These guys are the catalyst to most chronic over-use injuries in the hockey world today. How do I know this? It was my job to clean up their messes, to assemble the jumbled chaos of puzzle pieces that were my player’s injured bodies, season after season. All too often, an uneducated “outsider” gave my guys off-season training programs riddled with downright harmful exercises that laid the foundation for injury.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of five exercises to avoid in the hockey off-season in order to prevent over-use injuries during the season. I’ll explain why these exercises are so dangerous by revealing what the outsiders simply don’t know: the science behind it. I’ll show you the hidden side effects that lay dormant, masked by a facade of strength gains and PR’s, waiting to flare up and ruin your season. While some of these exercises may not be harmful (or may even benefit) athletes of other sports, hockey players should avoid these like the plague.
To present these explanations in a way that you can all understand, lets first discuss the fundamental body mechanics of a hockey player and the ensuing dysfunctions as a result. First and foremost, hockey players skate in a trunk forward flexed position. To envision forward flexion, picture a golfer in the tee box during the set-up phase. With the trunk in forward flexion, the hip flexors, adductors, abductors, and extensors contract. Within a seven month season, a player spends a minimum of three hours a day, 27 days a month in a forward flexed position. Over time, these constant contractions yield two results. First, your muscles gain size and strength. Second, they lose flexibility and range of motion. As you lose the range of motion, you welcome a number of detrimental forces to various muscle insertions and the joints they are put in place to support.
During your off-season, I advise you to proceed with caution during the following five exercises. Not only are they dangerous, but they are also essentially useless as they relate to hockey players.
1. Skating Treadmills – Skating treadmills are like Tesla’s. They attract a ton of attention, everyone wants one, no one can afford one, and the people who have them typically own them for all the wrong reasons. Skating treadmills were created to closely monitor the skating stride and technique of a hockey player. Through close observation and technical coaching, a skater can ultimately develop an efficient stride and strengthen the proper muscle groups over time. Having said that, here are two important concerns for you to think about. Problems: 1. Through a season of skating, your hip flexors are shortened, why are you making them shorter? You just spent seven months in a forward flexed position and now you are training in a forward flexed position. Your hip flexors are jacked up, your psoas is shortened, and your low back is always sore. There is no need to continue training in the forward flexed position! Worse, an inefficient stride on such a treadmill only reinforces poor mechanics, and poor mechanics are the number one cause of chronic overuse injuries. 2. The floor is moving. Since when does ice move beneath your feet? On ice, your hip extensors exert force against the ice (which is stationary and provides resistance) and propel you forward. On a treadmill, where is the resistance? Instead of firing your hip extensor muscles, you end up using your hip flexors to place your foot in the proper position to stride once again. This disengagement of the posterior chain distracts the femoral head in your hip with each stride on the treadmill. The moving treadmill surface draws the femoral head back so far from the joint that it could potentially lead to labral tears.
2. Heavy Barbell Squats: Again, when you barbell squat your trunk is forward flexed at the most vulnerable angle of the lift. Problems: 1. On the ice, a hockey player’s ankle is fixed in about 15 degrees of dorsiflextion inside the skate. Just as the hip flexors shorten during a season, the mobility of your ankle shortens as well. Performing a squat with limited ankle mobility is one of the most detrimental exercises any athlete can do. If you lack ankle range of motion, you will try to achieve that motion from another joint – specifically your hips and knees. Compensating by overloading the hips and knees leads to labral tears, bone spurs, and meniscus tears. 2. Hockey players don’t skate on two legs at once, so why are they squatting with two legs? You might think I’m incorrect with that statement but I am not. Two blades on the ice only means two edges are on the ice. Hockey players are rarely skating on four edges, rather usually only one edge from each skate. 3. Heavy squatting is a low rep, slow exercise. Hockey is a high rep, fast sport. If a hockey player trains slow, they will play slow. Last time I checked, a hockey player skating 25mph can cover 200 feet of ice in just over five seconds. Why would we train slow? Bulging discs in the spine, labrum tears of the hip, and patellofemoral injuries of the knee are just around the corner.
3. Stationary Biking: I can’t blame you. Stationary biking is a culture for hockey players that has been set in stone for decades. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Strength coaches from the NHL to top-level NCAA programs have been trying to shift this culture for years – it just won’t budge. Biking is essentially one of the worst exercises a hockey player can do. Problems: 1. When sitting up straight, your hips are in the flexed position. When leaning forward, your hips and trunk are in the forward flexed position. Sound familiar? 2. Repetitive hip flexion in the sitting position can lead to piriformis (deep glute) tightness, and can potentially impinge the sciatic nerve that runs beneath it. Additionally, because your foot is fixed and your knees are always moving in the forward direction, your lateral and medial thigh muscles weaken. Anytime lateral and medial muscles weaken at different rates, imbalances are formed. Imbalances are NOT good. Low back pain is a common accompanying effect from excessive shortening of the hip flexors over time. Stationary biking is bad new bears for hockey players. Go for a brisk walk or a jog instead.
4. Power Cleans: Power cleans are excellent for sports like football, where terminal hip extension is crucial. Hockey players are NEVER in bilateral hip extension and ALWAYS in trunk unilateral hip flexion! Some might argue that power cleans in the offseason can help counter seven months of in-season unilateral; hip flexion. What they fail to realize is that those seven months of hip and trunk flexion have significantly shortened the hip flexors. Power cleaning with shortened hip flexors is bad. Though hockey players may think they are achieving hip extension in a clean, they are actually compensating with hyper extension of the lumbar spine. Excessive motion of the lumbar spine equals pain. Pain in the lumbar spine equals red shirt or waiver wire. No power cleaning until you’ve corrected all soft tissue problems that yield kinetic dysfunctions. Period.
5. Incline Running: Incline treadmills, trail running, and hill sprints are all devils in disguise. I’ll start by saying the only good treadmill is a treadmill turned off. If your very own posterior chain isn’t making the belt move, don’t use it. Secondly, if you’re running uphill in an erect position, then surprise! You’re in a forward flexed position. We don’t like forward flexion in the off-season. Incline running can be modified to yield appropriate results if your posterior chain is engaged in the running – meaning you are not on a treadmill that is turned on. Generally speaking, if your body is not in the position to make a heel strike, your incline is too high. Hockey players can’t plantar-flex their foot in a skate, therefore they shouldn’t run on their toes during an incline run. Lastly, the human body was constructed to withstand forces on an even surface. Excessive intense running on incline or declined surfaces will yield sheer forces on muscles and joints that are necessary for the stability, durability, and integrity of your muscles and joints over time. If you spend your time running up hill, be prepared to roll back down.
Off-season hockey training is a specific form of training. Hockey is the fastest sport on two legs with the best skaters in the world reaching speeds up to 29mph. Injury mechanisms replicate car accidents and your injury history will undoubtedly mimic an encyclopedia. Take my advice and work on the components of your game that will help you achieve durability overtime rather than strength gains over night. Skating efficiency, puck handling, cardiovascular endurance, joint mobility, flexibility, and annual durability will earn you far more rewards than any one rep max.
Stop trying to fit in and start trying to stand out.
The best advice you ever received.
P.S. Copyrighted artwork is from http://www.startingstrength.com and “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.”