For the serious 14U/16U hockey player, autumn means getting back into hockey shape. Some of that happens naturally simply by getting back on the ice. But there are also exercises and lifts players can be doing to regain and build explosiveness.
Darryl Nelson, the strength and conditioning coach for the United States National Team Development Program, has several suggestions for 14U and 16U players along these lines.
The first thing Nelson wants to emphasize is that if someone is trying to sell you on a hockey-specific training program, it might not be the right program.
“A lot of people don’t understand what training to be an athlete is. A good program is a good program no matter who is doing it,” he said. “The problem is trying to call something a sport-specific program. All the patterns of movement are gross-motor patterns. It’s impossible to do a sport-specific strength and conditioning in training.”
Nelson says he’ll have players tell him they don’t want to do things that are for football players, for instance.
“But a lot of things designed for football aren’t even good for football,” Nelson said.
Instead, a good program should involve a lot of changing directions, changing speeds and changes laterally. One-leg squats, dumbbells, kettlebells are actually great training.
“The program I’m doing here with the NTDP, I would run a similar program no matter what the sport. If it was basketball I’d be doing the same thing,” Nelson added. “In my mind, there are two priorities: reduce injuries and make players faster. That’s what a program should be for.”
One limb at a time
To do that, Nelson is a big believer in lifts and exercises that isolate limbs. His contention is that two-leg exercises have minimal carryover with virtually every sport, which makes sense when you think about it.
“We do bench and chin-ups but we also use a lot of kettlebells and dumbells. We do the overhead press one arm at a time – alternating instead of pressing both at same time,” Nelson says. “The left and right side rarely do the same thing. If I’m shooting a hockey puck: if I’m rotating my body, one hip is internally rotating, one is externally rotating. One arm is doing something different from the other. It’s all about reciprocal patterns of motion.”
Everything, he says, is about symmetry – left-to-right, top-to-bottom, front-to-back.
“We do a lot of Olympic exercises – dumbbell snatches and cleans. We do all that from a hang position, where weight starts knee high,” Nelson said. “Most people can’t get low enough to get the weight off the floor without putting their back in a bad position. From a performance standpoint, the explosive part of the lift doesn’t start until you get above knee. So we take the dead lift out of it.”
And if possible it’s done on one leg. That’s Nelson’s recipe for adding explosiveness relative to size, something he says is akin to adding horsepower to a car. He says it reduces stress on the joints while building more muscle, which makes it an easy sell for his players.
“They’re doing exercises that intuitively have more carryover and make more sense,” Nelson added. “People good at team sports tend to have long arms and long legs – which tend to be bad for lifting weights.”
Still, Nelson will experience a transition with NTDP players this fall similar to the one other 14U and 16U players will go through. His advice: Start slowly, particularly if you had a leisurely summer.
“We don’t have them in the summertime, so you don’t know what you’re going to get until they get here,” Nelson said. “Even with 18U, I always start with lowest progressions and then find out who’s where and what they’re doing. If you start too high and guys haven’t done a lot of one-leg stuff or haven’t been skating, you get three or four guys with a groin pull and you can’t run good practices. Start at low progressions and then transition.”
And it’s also important to remember that for as much work as you do off the ice, the dynamic completely changes once you get on it.
“You can do all the running and jumping and squatting, but on dryland you don’t have edges,” Nelson said. “There’s no way to replicate skating without ice. It has to be a transition period to work into that as well.”