Whether players should lift during their hockey in-season training is often confusing. The proven benefits of developing strength for athletes are significant. It’s beneficial for injury prevention, speed, power and more.
There is no question that young hockey players need to be developing strength. Many make this the focus on their offseason.
After offseason gains are in the books and the season is underway, what should a young hockey player’s in-season training look like?
After all, you only have so many hours and so much energy. Isn’t the in-season just a time for maintaining the strength you built in the summer?
NO. If you treat it this way you will fall behind and never reach your potential.
But can you really improve strength when playing a full hockey season?
YES. You can increase a lot.
Here’s the key. Young players need to strength train if they really want to continue improving, but if they train like it’s the off-season they’re doing it wrong.
MYTH: Hockey Players Can’t Lift Heavy Weights In-Season
Decades ago the thought for coaches & players was that during offseason you built strength & power. In-season you just tried not to lose too much.
Back in the day, a lot of the training methods came from bodybuilding where it was all about gaining size. Strength and power were a side-effect.
In the off-season, they were grinding to build muscle and strength. Bodybuilding techniques are great for building muscle mass, and they are built on lots of sets and repetitions. Lots of time with the muscles under tension.
In strength training terms; Volume.
Because of this, a common approach to in-season training was built on the idea that lifting heavy would make players too tired.
The thinking went that if they spent too much energy training, they would be sore and tired. That would interfere with playing well and skill development.
Instead many people jumped to the conclusion that lifting lighter weights was the way to go. And if you have a lighter weight, you naturally can do more reps.
The problem is that lowering weight and increasing reps can lead to more fatigue, energy expenditure, and even soreness.
In elite hockey, that idea was losing steam when mandatory helmets were introduced.
Now to be fair, it’s true that if you spend in-season doing 2-hour, grinding workouts with high volume, you’ll be fatigued. As a coach or player that’s not ideal.
On top of that, it also won’t stimulate the neuromuscular system enough to maintain or gain strength.
The reason this approach was abandoned; it didn’t work.
Players were fatigued and sore but, they still lost strength.
Even Pros Can Get Stronger In-season
Many people think the demands of a youth hockey season are too much to gain strength. Here’s some perspective; even young pros can still improve strength & power during their season.
That’s right. Although they may be in the NHL or the minors playing a full season, many players haven’t fully developed their strength yet. In their late teens through early twenties, they still have a window of opportunity to improve.
We know because Velocity coaches have done it time and again with individual players and teams.
The key is that they stimulate their nervous system enough to improve. That’s hard because it takes high intensity and power output to stimulate adaptation. So how do they do it?
Hockey in-season training is all about stimulating the central nervous system and muscle, not grinding down the body and tissues to grow muscle.
Fast, explosive and heavy movements are what stimulate that type of adaptation. They do take focus and a serious effort. In strength training terms; Intensity.
The good news though is that you don’t actually need a lot of it.
You see, it’s the intensity, not the volume that stimulates the change.
Getting 2-3 small doses of intensity every week will do the trick.
This is what we see with pro and Olympic athletes at the pinnacle of sports. When they have a demanding schedule they can’t spend the time or energy on long grinding workouts like the off-season.
On the flip side, they also can’t afford to lose strength & power. That just leads to poor play and injury. It’s the player who can be at their best-come playoff time who shine.
If You’re Not Gaining You’re Falling Behind
Here’s the scary part; if you get stronger and bigger every off-season, but don’t train in-season you are falling behind.
That’s right, other players who train in-season are getting an edge and developing further. As a really young player, your strength levels will continue to improve just out of natural development. You keep pace.
However, as you hit middle school and older things start to change. Even with great gains in the summer, if you don’t train in-season at best you’ll gain slower. Worse, you can actually be losing strength.
That’s right, getting weaker through a season. For a high school player who has a few years of training under their belt, they can really make gains during the off-season. Yet, once they stop and the stimulus goes away the body will readapt to a lower strength level.
A good hockey in-season training program will stimulate that improvement and stop them from falling behind.
Get Stronger With the Right Hockey in-season training
So the key is to stimulate the neuromuscular system with small doses of intensity. What does that mean?
Well, it depends a bit on the developmental level of the athlete. This means their biological development as well as training experience.
Get this straight, it’s not about their level of hockey skills. Some very skilled players have barely learned to train off-ice. Others may hit puberty earlier and some later. The right training is based on evaluating these factors along with their current strength & power levels.
Middle School Years
For a middle-school-age athlete, they are approaching or in early puberty. They probably don’t have a lot of strength training experience yet.
An athlete at this age also can recover and adapt quickly. Plus, they don’t actually have the skill to recruit all their muscle fibers so they never hit the true high intensities. So overtraining them is really unlikely.
This means they need to be doing some explosive plyometrics, speed drills, and basic strength training. Because they have such a big window to improve, and a low-level experience, it doesn’t take a lot.
In practice hockey in-season training this age could look like;
- 2 -3 sessions per week
- 60-90 minutes
- Dynamic warm-up for injury prevention and movement fundamentals
- Athletic movement, speed, and plyometric drills
- Two-three basic explosive and strength lifts with kettlebells, dumbbells or barbells.
- Olympic lift fundamentals
- Squat, deadlift
- Bench, chin, and rows
- Compound free weight movements that involve multiple joints.
- Low reps 3-8 at most. Sets of 3-5 on basic lifts
In fact, the bigger benefit of in-season training for this age of athlete is that they are learning to train. Learning how to do the exercises right. They are building the neuromuscular foundation for when hormones kick-in later.
High School or Higher Training Age
For a hockey player of high school age, their physical development is further along. They may have some experience with strength training now.
For this type of athlete, the requirements go up. Now they can recruit more of their fast-twitch type muscle fibers. They can coordinate the movements a bit better.
Therefore, to generate enough intensity they need combinations of two things; Speed and force.
Fast, explosive movements are one way to stimulate the neuromuscular system. This means things like Olympic lifts with high velocity and power output. Explosive medicine ball drills.
The muscle needs a high rate of force development to create this stimulus. Lifting light weights, moving slow, won’t do it.
Traditional strength lifts like the bench, squat or deadlift only move between 0.5 and 0.8 m/s. That’s just too slow. Explosive lifts with medium weights should generate movement velocities between 1.0 and 2.0 meters per second. That’s the stimulus needed.
To really stimulate the fast-twitch fibers and the central nervous system, basic strength lifts need to be heavier. That requires a higher level of force production. This stimulates the central nervous system as well.
It also requires multiple muscles and joints under tension. Isolation exercises just don’t give enough bang for the buck. Whole-body exercises stimulating lots of muscle groups and joints are the way to go.
Weights need to typically be 85% or more of 1 rep max. That gets the nervous system fired up. It also means to avoid fatigue only 2 – 3 reps are needed.
High School hockey in-season strength example
For a developing athlete a hockey in-season training program may look like:
- 2 -4 sessions per week
- 30-60 minutes
- Dynamic warm-up for prep and injury prevention
- Two-three basic explosive and strength lifts with kettlebells, dumbbells or barbells.
- Olympic lift
- velocity of 0.75-1.6 m/s
- 3-5 sets or 1-3 repetitions
- Lower body lift – squat, deadlift, step-up, lunge
- 85% or more of 1RM
- 2-4 sets of 1-4 reps
- Upper body lift – press, row, pull-up
- 2-3 Injury prevention exercises
- Olympic lift
The off-ice training is the stimulus for the body and neuromuscular system to change. Improvements come for the body and brain’s process of adaptation.
Here’s the thing to take note of; adaptation happens when the athlete recovers. The work is the stimulus, the recovery is where adaptation happens.
What Is Recovery
Recovery is a term used for the processes every athlete goes through after some type of stress or fatigue. The return to their previous normal state or slight improvement.
This recovery process is specific to the type of stress the body experience. In sports, we classify four types of stress.
Faster Recovery for Hockey Players
When looking at how a young hockey player can recover faster, there are some key strategies we know work.
The body recovers in all four areas of stress during sleep. That’s why sleep is the foundation of all recovery. If you’re not sleeping enough, anything else you do is just a band-aid.
We’ve witnessed the benefits of sleep in athletes for decades with measurable changes in their readiness when they sleep better. Following a routine and some basic tips can really help athletes sleep better.
The second foundation in sports recovery is basic nutrition. We aren’t talking in-depth diets or loads of supplements. Just getting enough of quality foods at the right times.
After these, it becomes about the specific needs you have. It could be more mobility to help your muscles and joints. Types of flushing like compression, e-stim or cycling can be great when your legs are heavy after a grinding on-ice session or game. Or maybe it’s learning to reset mentally with breathing, visualization, floatation or other methods.
Start with the foundation of sleep and nutrition. Then you can add specific recovery methods to meet the rest of your needs.
Take Your Hockey In-season Strength Training Seriously
Unless you want to fall behind other players, you should take your in-season strength training seriously. If you are not getting stronger and more powerful in-season you are falling behind.
You can’t train with the same grind of high volume as in the off-season. However, focusing on consistent training every week and small doses of high intensity will make you better.
The science backs it, decades of experience have shown, and it’s practical to do. The only question, is why aren’t you training smarter during the season?