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Strength Training for Adult Hockey Players

06/17/2015, 9:15am MDT
By Michael Rand

Summer is here, meaning hockey might be the furthest thing from many people’s minds

Summer is here, meaning hockey might be the furthest thing from many people’s minds – even adult recreational players who live for the nights at the rink most of the year.

The natural inclination is that this is a time for rest, relaxation, recovery and good old fun. But while all of those things should be consumed in high doses this time of year, it’s also important not to throw away the work that hopefully has allowed you to play at a high level.

Indeed, summer can be a time to maintain a high level of strength and fitness or embark on new programs aimed at coming back even better in the fall. We talked to a couple of experts in the field for some tips on how to do just that.

The Basics

Kevin Neeld is the director of performance at Endeavor Sports Performance and the strength and conditioning coach for the USA Hockey Women's National Team. He also has a particular passion for strength training when it comes to adult players.

“I could probably talk about that topic for two hours,” Neeld says.

One of the most important things, he says, is understanding why you are working out in the first place.

There are basically two goals of strength training,” Neeld says. “One is to improve performance on the ice, and the other is to improve durability or decrease injury risk.”

At the heart of any good workout is a good warmup, adds Doug Crashley, who develops elite hockey players at Crash Conditioning.

“One thing I’ve found is dynamic warmup stuff like range of motion and movement-based work is really going to strengthen the core,” Crashley says, adding that body weight exercises help with strength and flexibility.

Match the Exercise to the Sport

Hockey is a game built around short bursts of speed and specific lower-body strength and agility. As such, it’s important to work on those things at the gym instead of wasting movements.

“One of the main things, is we want is to be increasing athleticism, so the squatting patterns are the same as the skating patterns,” Crashley says.

When adding cardio work to strength work, it’s also important to tailor the exercises to the sport. Those short bursts of speed might last for 5 seconds, not the entire length of a shift, for instance – so train accordingly, Neeld says.

“The overwhelming majority of the time they’re not stepping on the ice and skating as hard as they possibly can for 45 seconds,” Neeld says.

Power of Aging

That said, adult recreational league players come in a splendid variety of ages, shapes, sizes and ability levels. And as players not only get older but go through lifestyle changes, it’s important to adapt at the gym.

Crashley notes that an average adult hockey player might work at a desk a lot and therefore need to work more on his or her glutes.

“With a lot of older players – and I use that as a loose qualifier – we tend to stick with single-leg, lower-body strength exercises,” Neeld says. “It helps with balance, and a lot of times as we get older we develop some limitations in our hips and we become a little less resilient to external loading.”

Neeld says understanding those limitations doesn’t mean sacrificing the quality of the workout and gives a great example:

“If I can do a single-leg exercise and hold 40-pound dumbbells, as opposed to doing a double-leg exercise and holding 80-pound dumbbells,” he says, “the internal load to the muscle will still be high but the external load to the spine and everything that has to stabilize that weight will be less, which is helpful.”

Work Smarter, Not Harder

The most important thing, though, is to listen to your body. Trying to power through when you are sluggish or haven’t had enough time to recover from a previous workout can do more harm than good.

“If you feel run down, then it might be a good idea to just go to the gym and get a bike ride and then leave,” Neeld says. “If you feel really good, maybe push more. But don’t push really hard on days you don’t feel up to it.”

That can be tough for an athlete, especially when pride kicks in. But putting your ego to the side will help you have a happier summer and be more productive in the long run.

“That’s where a lot of people go wrong – thinking that if they’re not completely crushed every time they walk out of the gym, they did something wrong,” Neeld says. “Really that’s counterproductive more than it’s helpful.”

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If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.

But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.

While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.

Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.

The beauty of hockey

A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.

“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."

That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.

“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”

Other workouts don’t measure up

Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.

“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”

Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.

“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”

Never too late to start

That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.

Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.

“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”

Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.

“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”

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