How do I put together an offseason training program?

This is one of the most asked questions from players and their parents. The first bit of advice is to consult an Athletic trainer and or Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach or go to a sports training center with certified fitness professionals. If you join a gym, it is wise to ask the staff what type of training or professional certifications they have, and what experience they have dealing with high level athletes. Obviously, any experience they have dealing with hockey players is a plus, but making sure they have training and certifications is the most important criteria to look for.

Remember, offseason training does not mean training like a bodybuilder or weightlifter; the goal is to develop the muscles and specific movement patterns that will supplement you on the ice. Development of an offseason program must be sports specific and address the needs of the ice hockey athlete. Offseason training should also address specific rehabilitation of injuries, whether major or minor, that may have occurred during the season. The purpose of this article is to give you some guidelines for training but not specific exercise programs, since each athlete should have a program that meets their specific needs and goals. 

The areas I will address will be: strength training, core training, plyometric training, flexibility and cardiovascular training or energy system training.  If you join a sports training or fitness center, you will have access to a variety of exercise equipment. If you are at home, you may have free weights, dumbbells, stability balls and some cardio equipment. Do not let the lack of equipment stop you from your offseason training. If necessary, contact a sports training center and ask them to consult with you to develop an offseason training program for the equipment that you have access to. Bodyweight exercises, jump rope, power bands and running shoes are inexpensive and you can get a great workout using them. All workouts should begin with a dynamic warm-up for 10-15 minutes to increase local blood flow, warm the muscles up with different movement patterns and prepare the body for exercise.

Strength Training

Ice Hockey is an explosive power sport, therefore your core lifts should be multi-joint exercises such as:  Power cleans, Squats (Front /Back), Bench Press, Deadlifts, Push Press, Pull-ups or lat pull-downs, etc.  The most important lifts for the hockey player are for the lower body (hips and legs). Ice hockey is a single leg sport so single leg exercises for the hips and legs should be performed in your program. The number of exercises per workout should be between 6 -8 exercises, 3 sets per exercise for a total of 18- 24 sets per workout. Any more than this will produce negligible returns due to fatigue and improper form. The important thing to remember is to perform the exercises with proper form and increase the weight when the last set of the exercises becomes easy. You should look to increase the intensity (weight) at least every 4-6 workouts. Periodization is the concept of manipulating the cycles of the training program sets, repetitions and intensity over a period of time. There are many variations of lifting programs and a certified professional should be consulted to design this portion of the program. The frequency of lifting should be 3x per week with one day of rest in between your workouts.

 

Core training

There core is comprised of 29 muscles that attach to the pelvic girdle; it is not just the 4 abdominal muscles. The core muscles stabilize the spine, flex, extend and rotate the trunk. Doing sit-ups is not core training; all motions of the core must be trained. There are literally hundreds of variations of core training exercises. The key is to train the movement patterns that the core is involved with, specifically stabilizing, flexing, extending and rotating the trunk. Make sure that you vary your core exercise program and choose 1-2 exercises per motion, per workout. Repetitions can be in the 20-50 range per exercise.

Plyometric Training

Plyometric training is defined as a lengthening contraction of a muscle followed by a rapid shortening of the same muscle. The quicker the lengthening (eccentric) contraction occurs, the faster and more forceful the shortening (concentric) contraction. This is known as the stretch-shortening cycle and best described as explosive-reactive power training. Force reduction (deceleration) must precede force production (acceleration).  The importance of plyometric training for ice hockey players is essential to develop explosiveness. Both upper and lower body plyometric exercises should be incorporated into an offseason program. It is extremely important that proper landing mechanics are taught to the athlete and learned to prevent injuries to the joints. Various plyometric exercises include bounding, squat jumps, line jumps, box and hurdle jumps for the lower body and the usage of medicine balls for the upper body; all of these can be incorporated into the offseason program. Plyometric training is intense and younger athletes, due to their skeletal development, should stick to ground based plyometric activities before introducing a vertical component (hurdle and box jumps). Plyometric  training can be performed 2x per week and the number of ground contacts should not exceed 80-100 for the athlete with a low level of experience, 100-120 for the athlete with moderate experience, and 120-140 ground contacts for the athlete with considerable experience, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. The use of agility ladders is also a low level form of plyometrics but can be utilized to increase foot speed.

Cardiovascular/Energy System Development

An analysis of energy systems used in ice hockey shows that it is an anaerobic sport, requiring short bursts of high intensity skating followed by gliding periods. In order to train specifically for ice hockey, you must train your energy systems specifically this way. In other words, if you train slowly, you will be slow!  This is not to say that a 3 mile run or a 30 minute bike ride is not beneficial for your fitness level, but it is not specific for the energy system used in ice hockey. 

Interval training is the use of short intense bouts of exercise followed by rest periods. There are many interval training programs that can be used with sprint training, bicycle sprints, elliptical sprints, and rowing sprints. The important thing is to train specific for ice hockey using a work to rest ratio of 1:4 and progress to 1:3 work/rest ratio.  You could work up to 10 to 15 periods of work followed by the correct ratio of rest. Here is a bike example: 30 seconds of high level sprint over 120 RPM’s, followed by 2 minutes of a slow rest period at 65 RPM’s. This bike program can be performed for 10-15 sprints, for a total of 25-37.5 minutes.  This interval training will produce lactic acid in the muscle which is the byproduct of a muscles work and then the recovery period to get the lactic acid away from the muscles and to recover. This is exactly what happens on the ice: you work hard for a 30 second shift, recover on the bench for 1:30-2 minutes, and are ready to go again. By interval training and changing the work to rest ratio and the intensity of exercise, you will increase your overall anaerobic fitness level to develop your energy system used for ice hockey. The same work to rest ratio can be used with running or any other cardio piece of equipment.

Flexibility Training

As mentioned before, all workouts should begin with a dynamic warm-up to prepare your body for exercise. The dynamic warm-up is not to intend to increase the flexibility of a muscle. Therefore, static stretching should be incorporated into your offseason program to increase the length of the muscles, decrease the chance of musculotendinous injuries and help to decrease muscle soreness. In my Recovery and Regeneration article I review the use of a foam roller which is an excellent way to work on increasing soft tissue length. Static stretching is performed by stretching a muscle to a point where you feel some discomfort, holding that for a period of 15-30 seconds, and repeating 5-10 times.  The more you stretch the more you will increase the flexibility of the particular muscle group. Static stretching should be used for the muscles of the low back, gluteals and hips, groin, hamstring, quads and calves as part of your offseason training program.

Summary

Any serious hockey player that wants to improve their on ice performance should be involved in an offseason training program. Make sure that you consult a Certified Athletic Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist or other certified fitness professional to help you design you offseason training program.  Best of luck to everyone and make sure to work hard!

Steve Mackell