Jan 29, 2015
Before the Puck Drops

At Boston University, preseason training for ice hockey includes a mix of on-ice and off-ice work, with a focus on conditioning.

By Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle, MEd, is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for Ice Hockey at Boston University. He served in a similar capacity for the 1998 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team and for the Boston Bruins of the NHL from 1991-1998. He is the author of Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities and can be reached through his Web site at: www.michaelboyle.biz.

At the collegiate level, the sport of ice hockey is thriving, with a large increase in the number of teams playing at the Division I level. Since 2000, the NCAA has expanded the Division I men’s national tournament to 16 teams and added a Women’s Frozen Four. With increased participation comes increased interest in training for the sport. However, there are still many misconceptions about developing ice hockey players for peak performance.

Hockey is an interesting sport to train athletes for because it has high energy system needs as well as high muscular system demands. Athletes must possess great speed and acceleration, withstand some of the highest velocity collisions in all of sport, and repeatedly perform at a high exertion level with limited rest.

An effective strength and power program must resemble that for a sprinter, utilizing Olympic lifts and multi-joint upper- and lower-body exercises. The conditioning program must prepare the athlete for repeated efforts while also promoting rapid recovery. Meeting these unique demands requires unique programming.

While this article will focus on preseason training for ice hockey, let me briefly explain our off-season program here at Boston University, since it differs from either preseason or in-season training. In the off-season period, from April to Sept. 1, the priority is strength and power work with a goal of building maximum strength and lean mass. Conditioning is maintained through running and extensive use of the slideboard, which develops the proper energy systems while stressing the hip flexors, adductors, and abductors. We do not use the stationary bike in the off-season because it can shorten the hip flexors, and the key to long-term injury prevention is to keep athletes extending the hips.

With a good strength base and flexibility in the hips established, our preseason program concentrates on interval training for conditioning and total-body strength work. Our conditioning program has changed the most over the years, from running workouts to an on-ice and stationary bike regimen with no running at all. We do not train for aerobic capacity—only for the sprint demands found in the sport.


A major problem with many traditional hockey training programs is that they focus on developing aerobic capacity, in spite of an ever-increasing body of evidence that clearly refutes the “aerobic training for anaerobic sports” theory. Research done in Australia concluded that “elite and sub-elite players have about the same VO2 max scores but that elite players perform better on muscular strength and power tests.” An article in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness by A.R. Aziz concluded that “improving aerobic capacity further will only be expected to contribute marginally to improving repeated sprint performance of team game players.”

Still, many coaches cite the value of aerobic capacity in recovery. However, S.R. Cooke, in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, concluded that “VO2 max is a poor predictor of metabolic recovery from high intensity exercise… Differences in recovery rate observed between individuals with similar VO2 max imply that other factors influence recovery.”

Last year, we decided to test the importance of VO2 max with our own athletes by comparing physiological test results to actual performance results. We used a Korr Analyzer, which provides peak values for VO2 and anaerobic threshold, for the physiological testing. For the performance testing, athletes completed a 10-10 test, a five-mile time trial on a stationary bike, and a repeat 300-yard shuttle run test. The 10-10 test requires athletes to run to exhaustion on a treadmill at 10 mph and 10 percent incline. Although it requires close supervision in case the athlete falls while mounting the moving treadmill or from exhaustion at the end, it is a great test of fitness, strength, and willpower.

We found no relationship between the results of the three performance tests and the results of the VO2 max and anaerobic threshold tests. In fact, the top performer in most of the competitive tests had a measured peak VO2 of only 52 ml/kg.

Ultimately, I think VO2 tests are too one-dimensional to be used in multi-dimensional sports. Performance testing produces results on functional movements and incorporates the combined functions of the athlete’s physiological, mental, and emotional systems. In other words, performance testing allows athletes to use their competitiveness as well as their heart and lungs. Scoring fitness based on physiological indicators obviously rewards physiology over performance. In reality, physiological test results have little relationship to actual performance.

Based on both the literature and our own experimentation, we have decided to disregard VO2 max as an indicator of performance. We do not strive to increase our athletes’ VO2 max during preseason training, and we do not use such measurements to assess fitness levels.

However, we have not thrown peak VO2 testing out the window. Peak VO2 accurately measures maximum heart rates, which are critical to know when devising individual workouts for athletes. In our 2004 testing, heart rates at the conclusion of the peak VO2 test ranged from 184 to 211 beats per minute. There was no relationship between maximum heart rate and performance, but based on the commonly used 220-minus-age formula, the athletes’ maximum heart rates had roughly a 10-beats-per-minute variation, plus or minus. If we had assumed that all our athletes had maximum heart rates of approximately 200 beats per minute and designed programs around this number, we would have overtrained some athletes while undertraining others.

Instead, the physiological data allowed us to design individual programs based on each player’s actual maximum heart rate and the heart rate at anaerobic threshold as provided by the Korr Analyzer. This let us design individual conditioning programs in which recovery was based on heart rate, not time.


The NCAA allows strength and conditioning coaches to conduct on-ice conditioning in the preseason, provided no hockey equipment is used and no hockey coaches are involved. It would appear obvious that the most effective method of preparing athletes to perform in ice hockey would be to utilize a program of ice skating. Although this seems like a simple conclusion, many teams continue to follow preseason programs based primarily on running.

Our preseason program utilizes both on-ice and off-ice workouts. Three days a week, the players perform on-ice interval work followed by off-ice interval training on a stationary bike. This mix allows us to progressively and safely stress both the muscular and energy systems of the athletes. (See “Preseason Conditioning” .)

The program is designed to acclimate the athletes to the demands of skating and at the same time avoid muscle strains. In preseason ice hockey conditioning, groin and adductor strains are a frequent problem. This is most likely due to a sharp increase in the use of the hip flexors and adductors in the recovery portion of the skating stride. The use of on-ice conditioning during preseason training helps athletes strengthen their muscles, while using the off-ice stationary bicycle ensures that they do not overtrain their groin or adductor muscles. The bike is great for energy system stress but produces little groin stress. The reason we do not use the bike in the off-season is the same reason we do use it in the preseason.

Our on-ice work mainly consists of simply skating laps in clockwise and counterclockwise directions. Four groups of two or three skaters skate simultaneously, starting from opposite sides of the blue lines. The lap program can be preceded by an informal skating workout. If not, a proper warmup should be performed. Prior to skating laps, players may engage in short sprints and some change-of-direction skating.

Bike work is done immediately after the skating workout, and our stationary bicycles have a couple of important features. They include an automatic system of accommodating resistance—increased effort yields increased resistance with no manual adjustment of tension. The bike also uses both upper- and lower-body action, thus more closely replicating the metabolic demands of skating.

The bike allows for intervals based not only on time but also on distance. Players are required to ride a specific distance rather than a specific time interval. This forces greater accountability and greater effort.


In order to comply with NCAA rules limiting preseason work to eight hours per week, athletes perform six 75-minute workouts each week. Three of these are our conditioning workouts, leaving three days for strength and power work. We use two of those days for intense total-body strength workouts, while the third day is often a movement workout followed by some sort of competitive game. At this point in the calendar, strength development takes a back seat to conditioning, as conditioning will be a more limiting factor in game situations than strength.

With only two days for strength training per week, we work hard to hone in on what is most important and make the most of every minute in the weightroom. (See “Strength Work” for a sample protocol.) After warmup and ab work, one power movement is performed at the beginning of each workout. Each set of the power movement for that day, generally a variation of a clean or a snatch, is followed by an active isolated stretch of a problem area, such as the quads or hip flexors. After the power exercise are two tri-sets, consisting of two multi-joint exercises with a stretching exercise in between.

The concept of tri-sets is a variation on the old bodybuilding idea of supersets. Exercises are grouped together for a more efficient use of time—while the body is recovering from a lift emphasizing one group of muscles, it is performing a lift with another group of muscles. Inserted between each set of the strength exercise is an active isolated stretching exercise. Stretching occupies the athletes during the rest period and extends the rest between strength exercises, thereby facilitating strength gain.

In the first tri-set sequence, an upper-body pulling exercise, like a pull-up or chin-up, is paired with some type of squatting movement. In the second tri-set, an upper-body pressing exercise is paired with what we would classify as a hip-dominant movement—a variation of deadlifts and straight-leg deadlifts.

On our third day of strength work, we typically do some type of enjoyable outdoor activity. This gives the athletes a break from the usual workouts, and I feel I can develop what they need in two days a week in the weightroom.


Because ice hockey has such unique demands, its training program must be carefully designed. The off-season should focus on strength training and keeping the hip flexors, adductors, and abductors loose, while the preseason should focus on conditioning, developing skating muscles, and injury prevention.

I have found the keys to success include combining on-ice and off-ice work, both done in an interval format, and making the strength workouts simple and very efficient. While my teams have also benefited from preseason testing and using VO2 max rates for determining workout loads, they are not mandatory. Any coach at any level can use the basics I’ve described here to make their ice hockey players faster, stronger, and better conditioned.

Table: Strength Work

The following depicts our strength training during the preseason. Note that exercises numbered 3 and 4 (both days) are tri-sets. We implement one-minute rests in the tri-sets. With several of the exercises, we increase the number of sets or reps each week. We also pay close attention to the tempo of the exercise (which is listed immediately after the exercise name). 4/0/4 indicates an eccentric emphasis with a four-second concentric contraction, no pause, followed by a four-second eccentric contraction—a number greater than zero in the middle indicates a pause. Exercises designed to be performed in an explosive manner are indicated by “Exp.”


    1. Warm-Up and Ab Work

    2. Snatch Pair, Exp. 4×5 with Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch

    3. Chinup, 4/0/4; 3×5 with Squat Toe-Touch Stretch; Front Squat, 3/0/3 Exp., 3×8

    4. Alt. DB Bench, 3/0/Exp.; 3×8 with Standing Hamstring Stretch; Slideboard Leg Curl, 2/0/Exp., 3×8

    5. Side Twist Pass, 5K (x10, x3)


    1. Warm-Up and Ab Work

    2. Clean Pair, Exp. 4×5 with Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch

    3. Sternum Chinup, 2/0/2; 3x8with Squat Toe-Touch Stretch; Leg Squat, Exp. 8×8

    4. Bench, 3/1/Exp.; 3×8 with Standing Hamstring Stretch; Single-Leg Straightleg Deadlift, 2/0/2, 3×8


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