Feb 282011

This is a question that I am asked quite frequently.  My answer is always “It depends.”  It really depends on a number of factors.  I hope to explain my best. 

The bench press has always been one of the most popular exercises in the weight room.  I can remember back to when I first started lifting weights.  I always wanted to bench 225lbs because that was 2- 45-lb plate on each side of the bar.  All of the stronger guys could do it and I was stuck doing 185lbs.  “How much do you bench”? It is still probably a frequent question amongst all teenagers today.   

Although some feel the bench press is a key exercise in any strength and conditioning program, there are some who disagree.  I can recall being at a meeting at the 2008 NHL scouting combine when one of my colleauges asked “Why do we test the bench press”?  He then proceeded to tell us that his athletes don’t bench press and never will.  You will also here the saying “If he can press a lot of weight off of his chest while laying down, then he probably isn’t a good hockey player (or football player or any other sport for that matter).” 

The issues that I see with the bench press aren’t that it is an unsafe exercise or it isn’t good exercise for athletes.  In my opinion, the problems are:

1-    It is an easy exercise to perform.  Lying on your back and pressing a barbell off your chest to a locked out position is not that difficult.  In comparison to other compound exercises, the bench press doesn’t involve that many muscles. 

2-    It works muscle groups that you can see in the mirror every day.  Some athletes are more interested in looking good at the beach then they are at increasing their performance in their sport. 

3-    It happens to probably be the most popular exercise in all weight rooms and gyms today.  The next time that you are in a large commercial gym, count how many flat bench press and incline benches there are in comparison to squat racks.  Or, on any given day, count how many people are bench pressing versus squatting. 

As a result, young athletes aren’t doing the more difficult exercises in the weight room such as squats, dead lifts, pull ups, etc.  They aren’t training the muscles that aren’t in the mirror such as the upper and lower back, the glutes, and hamstrings.  Also, they don’t want to do what other people aren’t doing. 

We will bench press once per week during the off-season.  Why? Because I think it is a good exercises for developing upper body pushing strength.  For a hockey player, is it as important as lower body strength?  Probably not, but I am always looking for ways to improve my athletes total body strength and power.  I prescribe the bench press as an exercise in conjunction with many other different exercises for the whole body. 

While we are bench pressing once per week, we are also developing strength in the upper back muscles.  Exercises such as pull ups, chin ups, inverted rows, and dumbbell rows are used to develop strength in the upper back.  We are doing these to help the body stay in structural balance so that that we can stay healthy.  We probably actually do more pulling than pressing exercises.  I don’t think this is a problem as young hockey players probably have already done enough pressing exercises prior to incorporating pulling exercises. 

So, my point is that, if you are not doing enough pulling exercises, and the bench press is the #1 exercise in your program, then you probably shouldn’t be bench pressing.  To find out if you are doing enough pulling exercises, simply add up all of the sets and reps of pulling and compare to the total number of pressing sets and reps.  If you are pressing more than pulling, then I would think you could be heading for some shoulder problems.

Feb 242011

I apoligize as I know it has been a few days since I have updated the blog.  Even though I have been pretty busy at work, I still have to make time for the blog.  I promise that it will be updated more frequently in the next coming weeks. 

As for HockeySC.com, we have been getting some excellent material from our usual contributors and some others.  The forum has had some great discussions going on including sled training, long response plyometrics, and psychology vs. physiology. 

For the articles and videos, we have some great new info including:

Metabolic Circuit #1 by Darryl Nelson.  This is a great example of a workout that can be done with a hockey team with minimal equipment.  I have used versions of the plate circuits late in the off-season with our players.  What I liked about these workouts is that we can get plenty of quality work done with a 25-lb plate.  Good stuff from Darryl. 

Youth Sports and Fitness by Darryl Nelson.  Another good submission by Darryl.  These are actually 2 different articles that talk about the reality of our youth and fitness today and the direction of where it may be going.  Scary stuff when the statistics are brought to our attention.

Presentation on Youth Hockey by Brian Burke.  This is a fantastic presentation by Brian Burke, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  As a former employee of “Burkie”, I got to interact with him on a daily basis.  He is a guy who says it how it is and holds nothing back.  This presentation is right on the money and it will hopefully provide a good guideline for those coaches and parents who may listen. 

A Minor League Hockey Player Aspiring to be a Strength Coach by Kevin Schaeffer.  This is another great piece written by a current professional hockey player who is playing for the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.  I like this because it gives a players’ perspective on the reality of playing and trying to get workouts during the grind of the ECHL.  You have to make do with what you have.  I think by Kevin learning as he goes along, he will be a bright strength and conditioning coach when he decides to retire from pro hockey. 

That’s it for now.  Thanks for reading!

Sean Skahan

Feb 142011

Up until recently, whenever I have designed programs for hockey players, the Hang Clean has always been a part of my program.  I always found it to be one of the most important exercises for developing power.  I was very fortunate to learn how to coach them effectively earlier in my career.  As a result, I had the confidence to implement them in my athletes’ programs.  I have continuously seen positive results and specifically noticed our guys improve their on-ice acceleration and speed.  However, despite my love for Hang Cleans, I no longer use them with MOST of our players.

Prior to working in the professional sport setting, I worked in the college environment for 4 years.  In the college setting, I was able to coach my athletes’ everyday during the whole entire year.  Therefore, I was able to coach, evaluate, and periodize their programs and see Hang Cleans and all other exercises being done on a weekly basis.  In my present coaching situation, with the exception of 4-5 players, I don’t get to coach my athletes throughout the whole year.  The reality is I coach most of our players during the pre-season and in-season phases only.  (If I was still working in the college setting, I would be using the Hang Clean). 

At the conclusion of every season, our current roster players will receive an off-season training manual and then depart for their off-season homes which may be in a different part of the world.  We will then maintain communication throughout the off-season as best as we possibly can.   For our drafted players who may be in the minor leagues, juniors, or college, they will be sent a manual in the mail.  With these players, we may only see them for a week during our developmental camp where we can actually coach the Olympic lifts (as well as several other lifts).  Sometimes, we may acquire new players through free agency and trades.  Some of these new players have never done a hang clean or may have been taught different techniques other than what I would have liked to see them do.  With our older players who are newly acquired through free agency or trades, it gets a little tricky.  Sometimes we get players who are established veterans who have never done Hang Cleans before or may have tried them and got hurt.  In their minds, why perform Hang Cleans if they can play the game at a high level without doing them? These guys are hard to convince.  The guys that I really enjoy coaching are the ones that are willing to learn.  For example, we once acquired one of the best players in the game who also happened to be a three time Stanley Cup winner at the time.  He also happened to be one of the most powerful skaters in the game.  He had never done a hang clean before and wanted to try it in one of our first training sessions.  After coaching him through a couple of reps with a very light weight, we discontinued them right away because of his poor and inadequate form.  I honestly didn’t feel that the benefits he would get from the hang clean would outweigh the risk of him getting hurt. I don’t ever want to risk having any of our players possibly get hurt in the weight room.  How much more power did one of the most powerful players in the game actually need with the risk of possibly hurting himself? 

It is clearly my job to coach my athletes and ensure that Hang Cleans or any other exercises are being done properly.  However, teaching correct form with a Hang Clean can be problematic because of the technicality of the lift.  I have found that bad habits with the clean are hard to break.  Some bad habits I have seen include flexion of the lower back, bending the elbows at the start, not exploding, and improper start and finish positions. Sometimes, previous injuries will also inhibit our ability to teach them correctly.  This would include previous low-back, knee, shoulder, and wrist injuries.  

(It is important to note that with players who stay in the area throughout the off-season, we are doing Hang Cleans 1-2 times per week.  For the players who live elsewhere in the off-season, we are going to do alternative exercises.) Listed below are some of the exercises that we do to substitute for the Hang Clean to allow us to increase power in our players: 

Snatches– We will use 1-arm dumbbell snatch consistently with our players, even if they are doing Hang Cleans.  We will use the barbell snatch during the off-season program with our players in town.  We will not however, advocate the Kettle bell snatch for a power exercise.  Although it’s a great exercise, I don’t use it for power development.  We will usually do 2-5 sets of 3-5 reps. 

DB Jumps– Basically, these are squat jumps while holding dumbbells.  The key to this exercise is to make sure that the arms are straight, chest is up, and back is arched at both the start and the finish.  We usually may do 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps.  We will coach our guys to be elastic as possible with these. 

DB Push Jerks– I’ve recently become a big fan of these again.  What I like about them is that they help our less-explosive players generate power quickly.  The athletes are also getting some shoulder stability at the top of the exercise.  Once technique is established, this can be an easy exercise for our players to get stronger with.  We will do 2-4 sets of 5 reps with this exercise. 

MVP Shuttle Jumps-The MVP Shuttle has been a great tool for us not only in power development, but also its use with injured players.  We also use it for both double leg and single leg squatting for our guys who may have previous low back issues.  We will usually do 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps of these. 

If I had the ability to coach every player in our organization on a daily basis, there is no question we would use the Hang Clean.  Due to the fact that I don’t have that ability, we’ve had to come up with other strategies to develop our players’ power.  We’ve found that we haven’t missed a beat when it comes to this important aspect of our players’ development.

Feb 072011

The crossover step in hockey is an important component of skating for any hockey player at any level. It is a movement that is necessary for turning, stopping, and changing direction. It is a technique that is also used when players are turning up the ice to start offensive breakouts. Many times I have heard players refer to “blasting off” when referring to the crossover. Since it is such an important aspect of the game, I felt it was important to develop some progressions and strategies to help us improve in this area.

In hockey, the ability to accelerate is something every player should look to improve. The first 2-3 steps are more important than the ability to skate at top speed- which rarely happens in a hockey game. As a result, we have always done acceleration drills where we emphasized the first 2-3 steps instead of running longer sprints. Drills such as Lean Fall Runs, ball drops, and push up starts to sprints, have always been part of our linear speed program and will continue to be. Since hockey is a multi-directional sport, we’ve always done acceleration drills to improve both linear and lateral speed. For our lateral speed progressions, we have always done drills where we push off the outside of our foot to create enough force to push off the ground and go in the other direction. Drills such as 1-knee side starts, shuffles, 1-2 cuts, and pro-agility drills have always been part of our lateral speed program. Now, since I have been observing our guys and their frequent use of the crossover in games and practices, I have changed my thought process. I now think it would be more beneficial to incorporate crossover movements into our lateral speed program. As a result, we are now incorporating a crossover step to the beginning of our sprints on lateral movement/speed days.

From a coaching and technical aspect and what’s important to note is that when crossing over is taught on the ice, one of the most important aspects is the ability to shift your weight and lean in the direction you want to go. In our acceleration drills, this is very similar to the lean fall and run where we coach our athletes to be tall, lean, fall, and run straight. I’ve noticed that the further our players lean, the better the drill is for them. In our crossover acceleration drills, we are incorporating a body lean to the side that we want to go. For example, if we want to go left, we will have them lean to the left and actually shift their weight to the outside of their left foot. When they reach the point where if they fall anymore, then they may fall to the ground, we will then cross the right foot over the left and push off of the right foot. Here is the progression we will now use on our lateral speed days in our off-season program:

Phase 1- Tall Lean Fall Crossover Run- Again, like the linear Lean Fall Run, we will lean almost to the point where the athlete will fall down and then they crossover and push of the foot crossing over to help us get into our sprint. We will do 3 crossovers each leg. The emphasis is getting a hard push, then 3 hard steps, and then coasting.

Phase 2- 1- Leg Lean Fall Crossover and Run- This is the same as the lean-fall-run except for now being on 1-leg in a hockey stance.

Phase 3- Lateral Crossover Ball Drops- These are different from the linear ball drops because we are actually getting the person who is dropping the ball to drop it when the running athlete starts to lean. What we find is that the ball drop helps the athlete crossover a little quicker.

We also incorporate the crossover to other aspects of our program. We will do crossover lateral sled marches. We will start these early in the off-season program with athletes who are training with me in the off-season or who have access to a sled at home. The emphasis is on the lean and the crossover.

Another aspect where we incorporate the crossover step is in our conditioning program. When we are running 150-yard and 300-yard shuttles, we will instruct our players to crossover when we break down at the lines when we change direction.

Honestly, if I had never started skating with our injured players during the last few seasons, I may have never known how important the ability to crossover is in skating. There are hundreds of drills on-ice that are used to promote better technique when it comes to crossing over. When I realized how important it actually is, then I decided that we may have to incorporate some drills to help improve this part of skating and being a better hockey player.

Feb 042011

This week at HockeyStrengthandConditioning.com, we have some really good content. The site has been growing week by week as we continue to get more and more good contributions. Also, the forum has been buzzing with some great posts by different people.

Up first was Kevin Neeld’s Dissecting the 1-Leg Squat. Kevin gives us a different look at the 1- leg squat and different ways to progress it in a safe and maybe a more biomechanical way than the traditional pistol style 1-leg squat. As a big 1-leg squat endorser, this was a good article for me.

Next was another article from Kevin- Team Dynamic Warm-Up. This is kind of a new feature on the site where we are posting really easy programs that coaches and trainers can implement immediately with their players and teams. This was the first installment of our new Youth Training section on the site.

Next up was Mike Potenza’s Post-Game Conditioning Ideas– I really think that finding the right modes of conditioning for the players is a huge part of being a strength and conditioning coach for a hockey team- especially in-season. Mike looks at how players who play different amounts of time versus others on the team who may play more or less time. Great stuff from Mike.

My own Reap the Benefits of Proper Stretching was up next. I wanted to add this one to help educate our youth training community. This might not interest those of us who know the different ways to classify stretching, but for those who don’t know, this is very informative. You can also read this on my blog in the Article section.

Top 5 Take Homes from My Weekend with Dr. Stuart McGill– by Maria Mountain. I really like these real world looks into what professionals take home from a seminar. Those who read my blog have read my praise for Dr. McGill before.

Again, I am really looking forward to continuing to improve HockeySC.com in 2011. If there is anything that you think of or that we can do for you, please let us know. Thanks!

Sean, Anthony, Mike, Kevin, and Darryl

Feb 032011

Neck Strengthening For Hockey

Since hockey is a fast game with frequent changes of direction and collisions, injuries to the head and accompanying neck strains will sometimes unfortunately happen.  When I mention head injuries, I am referring to a hit to the head by an opposing player or when a players’ head may hit the ice or the glass as a result of a hit from an opposing player.  I know that this may be referred to as a concussion.  However, with the uncertainty of what a concussion may or may not be, I will leave the definition and diagnosis to the doctors and medical professionals.  Concussion or not, an injury to the head and/or neck is a serious matter. 

Recently there have been a high number of pro players who are out of the lineup or have yet to play his season because of post head injury related symptoms.  There is currently a head injury epidemic in hockey and also in football.  As a result, rules are being implemented and equipment is being modified to help combat the problem. 

In my own experience with seeing these episodes, it was usually a player who was in a vulnerable position when contact was made by an opposing player.  When the player was hit, it might have been a shoulder or an elbow to the head.  In all of the cases, I don’t believe that there was anything that could have been done to prevent them from happening.

Each situation that I have seen varied in its severity and recovery time.  Some players came back to the lineup quicker than others while others may have taken longer.  I have also unfortunately had to see a player have to retire from the game because his symptoms weren’t improving.  Each case and the recovery process ran its course differently with each individual. 

The most difficult time for the athlete who is recovering from these injuries is the time that it takes to become symptom free.  Symptoms may include dizziness, sensitivity to light, nausea, headaches, depression, and/or an overall bad feeling.  These can last for weeks and/or months at a time.   During this recovery time, the athlete cannot participate in anything that increases heart rate or perceived exertion.  It is a “wait and see” time.  Team doctors and athletic training staffs have strict protocols in place that may clear or not clean an individual for activity while in the recovery process. 

One of the most difficult situations as a Strength and Conditioning Coach is working with a player who gets cleared to resume training again after an episode like this occurs.  The player wants to hit the ground running (or the ice skating) and get back in the lineup as soon as possible.  It is important for the athlete and the strength and conditioning coach to be patient during this process.  The longer that the player has been out of the lineup, the more patient you have to be as it may take longer. 

From a physical standpoint, one of the first things to happen while the athlete is inactive in the recovery process is the loss of lean body mass.  Adding lean body mass onto an athlete (especially one who has had the weight on before) can be done easily with a sound strength training program and adherence to proper nutrition.  Where it is more difficult is when they may be cleared to resume activity during the competitive season.  It can be very hard to add lean body mass to a player while in-season.   The volume of skating in practices combined with the strength and conditioning work can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. 

The whiplash associated with a head injury will almost certainly cause trauma to the neck muscles.  There are several muscles that can be affected including the trapezius and several other supporting muscles that help support the weight of the head.  To help with this, we will enlist our massage therapist to help those muscles relax and release the spasms.  This is one of the most important aspects of the recovery process.

One thing that I have learned is that proper neck strength can help lessen the severity of the whiplash effect from any hit involving the head.  Although we don’t have any neck machines in our training facility, I think we are doing neck injury prevention training almost on a daily basis.  We will accomplish this through the Olympic lift variations that we do such as the hang clean, hang snatch, and dumbbell snatch.  In my opinion, if we are Olympic lifting, we will help prevent the effects of a head injury by trying to limit the whiplash effect by getting our neck extensors and stabilizers stronger.  If you ask any athlete a day or two after doing Olympic lifts to point out where they are sore, more than likely they will have some sore traps and upper back region. 

What do we do with players who don’t Olympic lift? With these players, we will have them perform dumbbell shrugs, manual resisted isolated neck exercises and/or isometric neck bridges.  (We will also perform these exercises in addition to Olympic lifting for some individuals.)  Here are some videos of those exercises:

Manual Neck Extension– We will stick to doing manual neck extension only.  We will not do any flexion or rotation.   We are very cautious as we don’t want to provide too much resistance while the athlete is performing the movement.  We will provide 10% of max resistance only and instruct the athlete to perform extension in a smooth, fluid like fashion. 

Neck Bride on Stability Ball– This has to be done with a partner who is spotting.  We will simply put a stability ball between a wall and the back of the players’ head.  We will start with a 15 second hold and progress accordingly.  We will not progress this to a wrestler type bridge on the floor or with the stability ball on the floor. 

While I certainly can’t say that we can prevent head injuries in hockey, we certainly can help prepare our athletes with the ability to have a strong neck to help lessen the severity of the whiplash effect.  Collisions on the ice or on the field (football) are similar to car accidents.  As a strength and conditioning coach, it is our responsibility to help prevent injuries in the safest manner.  Strengthening the neck is a priority for us.