Jan 29, 2015On the Doorstep
For the past two seasons, the Miami University RedHawks have been on the brink of claiming college hockey’s ultimate prize. This is the conditioning and strength training program that helped get them there.
By James Carsey & Matt Cady
James Carsey, MS, CSCS, is Head Strength & Conditioning Coach and Matt Cady, MS, CSCS, is Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at Miami University (Ohio). They can be reached at: [email protected].
Winning a national title in any sport is an incredible challenge. At Miami University (Ohio), our men’s hockey players might know that better than most. We’re the only team to have reached the NCAA Division I Frozen Four in each of the past two seasons, yet we’re still waiting for our turn to hoist the championship trophy.
Head Coach Enrico Blasi teaches an aggressive, hard-hitting style of hockey, meant for winning battles along the boards, continually cycling the puck, and wearing opponents down. Our training philosophy is designed to enhance the attributes that will help players excel at this hard-nosed style, but we also train speed and quickness so we can match the contrasting high-speed, “run and gun” game plan favored by some opponents.
To shape our strength and conditioning program, we focused on the coaching staff’s approach to the game and the resulting demands placed on the athletes. We also examined skating mechanics and explored the differences between training on the ice and training on dry land. In addition, frequent evaluations of the players’ strength, endurance, speed, and body composition impact our day-to-day program design.
The team needs to be durable, strong, and well conditioned to maintain our physical style of play over the six-month hockey season. Therefore, we begin our strength program for all players with a focus on higher volume training to maximize muscle growth and increase peak strength. This is especially important for incoming freshmen, who are typically adjusting to more intense training than they’ve experienced in the past.
Through consultation with Steve Cady, founder of the Miami hockey program and a respected expert in power skating, we’ve established a few top priorities. First, we place a great emphasis on single-leg work.
For example, skating with optimal mechanics requires a player to drop his hips into a lunge position while keeping his chest erect, so we use several lunge variations in multiple directions. We have also added single-leg squats in which we elevate the back leg on a 12 to 15 inch box (also referred to as Bulgarian one-legged squats), and a variation in which the athlete performs a single-leg squat while extending the other leg backward and slightly out in a skating motion at the start of the movement.
After the athletes achieve a sufficient strength base in these exercises, we incorporate a dynamic component. They perform the same motion but add a jump, creating what you might call a Bulgarian squat jump.
One squatting exercise we do not typically use is the back squat. This movement tends to force the athlete’s torso into a flexed position, especially when he is first learning to perform it, and we feel that promotes an improper body position for skating. If a hockey player leans forward while skating, he compromises overall balance and shortens his stride, which makes his movements less efficient–essentially requiring more work for the same result. Therefore, we have replaced most of our back squat routines with a front squat movement, which helps train a strong, upright torso while also emphasizing the quadriceps muscles used to stabilize the low body position used in optimal skating.
For the upper body, like at many college programs, we continually see incoming athletes in all sports who have under-developed shoulders and upper back muscles. These deficiencies result in impingements, lost range of motion, and heightened risk for injuries within the shoulder capsule. Hockey players with these weaknesses are especially prone to injury from the high-speed collisions that occur regularly in the sport.
To address this problem, we start by working on retracting the scapulae to increase endurance and the ability to hold a good posture. For example, we’ll have the athlete lie prone on a bench and perform dumbbell holds in T and Y positions for as long as possible. We superset these exercises with low cable rows, varying the movement with holds, tempos, and negatives. Even during standing lateral or front raises, we emphasize standing tall, pulling the shoulder blades back and down, and keeping the head level.
Once these basics are mastered, the athletes progress to standing cable reverse flys using a long rope attachment. We’ll also add a variety of body weight exercises, such as chin-ups, pull-ups, and body weight rows, always with varying hand placement and tempo.
By focusing on upper back work at a 2:1 ratio over push exercises, we can correct imbalances caused by overemphasis of bench pressing in the athletes’ earlier years. For the push work we do perform, we again emphasize variety, with progressions of push-ups with varying hand placements, dumbbell bench pressing at different angles, and push-ups on Swiss balls or in rings–all meant to increase strength and stability at virtually any angle.
SPEED & BALANCE
A major key to our team’s recent success has been the progress we’ve made in skating ability, largely thanks to on-ice plyometric, speed, and agility training. We’ve essentially taken power skating methods used by Coach Cady when he was training the Colorado Avalanche in the mid 1990s, and morphed them into a program that combines power skating with dry-land plyometrics and agility drills.
The idea is to increase leg drive power and rate of turnover for improved skating speed, quicker acceleration, and the ability to change direction as rapidly as possible. On-ice training occurs two to four days a week depending on the time of year, with speed and agility drills concentrated at the beginning of the week when the athletes are freshest, and conditioning work reserved mostly for the end of the week.
Here is a breakdown of some of our most effective on-ice exercises:
• Single-leg starts and stops. The player pushes off from a face-off dot, balancing while gliding on one foot until reaching the boards. He stops, then restarts using a small C-cut and glides on one foot again back to the starting position. This drill reinforces stabilizer muscle use and weight transfer, along with the ability to push off with power from the ball of the foot.
• Shoot the duck. Skating forward or backward, the player sits in a deep squat position with his chest upright. Once in this position, he balances on one leg while extending the other leg in front of him and holding this seated position for as long as he can.
• Single-leg power pulls. The player makes one push-off stride and balances on one leg for the entire length of the rink, making small cuts in the ice by swiveling his foot to alternate from the inside to the outside edge.
Plyometric, Speed, and Agility Drills
• One-leg lateral jumps. The player loads his back leg, jumps laterally for height and distance, lands on his front leg, slides to a stop, reloads, and repeats.
• Quick-foot steps. Standing with an agility ladder to his right, the player loads his left leg, drives to the right, touches both feet inside the ladder, lands on the ball of his right foot, and then repeats in the other direction. This is just one of many agility ladder drills that work well on the ice.
• V-starts. From a static V-start position, the player drives hard, stepping over three sticks each placed two feet apart. We feel a college hockey player should be able to reach full speed within three strides with no glide, as required in this drill. If the player hits a stick, that indicates too much glide in his acceleration pattern. When performed properly, the marks left on the ice should match the length between the toe of his skate and the ball of his foot.
• Russian kips. Skating forward, the player assumes the same deep squat position as in “Shoot the duck.” In one dynamic motion, he kicks both legs forward and then returns them under his body fast enough to avoid falling.
• Cone drills. To develop lateral quickness, we have taken standard cone drills used in dry-land training and incorporated them into our on-ice agility work. TESTING & EVALUATION
In addition to evaluating performance in these drills, we use several other types of tests to track our athletes’ progress and identify those who need individualized remedial work. For the past two seasons, we have collaborated with Jeffrey Potteiger, PhD, a Miami professor of kinesiology and health, on our testing protocols.
Besides basic height, weight, and body composition (measured using a Bod Pod), Dr. Potteiger and his staff administer the Wingate test to track peak power output. He also has each player perform the following tests, typically four or five times a year:
• Power clean (one-rep max) • Front squat (one-rep max) • Bench press (one-rep max) • Vertical jump • Standing long jump • Seated medicine ball put • Chin-ups (reps to exhaustion) • Pull-ups (reps to exhaustion) • Dips (reps to exhaustion)
We also put each athlete through the Gray Cook and Lee Burton Functional Movement Screen. These seven exercises assess body movement and reveal imbalances between muscles and within joints. Both the sports medicine and strength and conditioning staffs at Miami are certified to administer the screen, and it has become integral to our evaluation of athletes’ health and development.
On the ice, we conduct a series of tests during the preseason and again after the season. The series consists of:
• Short sprint. The player skates from blue line to blue line, starting in a stationary position.
• Top-speed sprint. The same as above, but with a flying start beginning in the face-off circle.
• Shuttle drill. The player skates from the center line to a blue line, then to the opposite blue line, then back to the center line. Similar to the pro agility drill used for football players, this drill tests both speed and change of direction.
• Three-minute conditioning test. The player performs six sprints from goal line to goal line and back, starting each sprint at 30-second intervals. Thus, the faster he completes each pass, the more time he has to rest before taking off again.
As you can imagine, all this testing produces a large amount of data for each athlete. We use the information as a barometer for each individual throughout his career, and also for the program as a whole. For instance, thanks to our work with Dr. Potteiger, we learned that some of our larger players were losing lean muscle mass at a faster rate than the smaller players as the season progressed. In response, we rearranged our schedule to provide more recovery time between workouts, advised these players on healthy ways to increase their caloric intake, and made a few adjustments to our training regimen to protect lean muscle.
As another example, in the past, we had noticed a tendency among some players to “run out of gas” toward the end of the long, grueling hockey season. This onset of overall fatigue is often a mysterious blend of neural, physical, and psychological factors. But since we were working with Dr. Potteiger, we had hard data to guide our hand. We now use the results of the Wingate test to track power output before, during, and after the season, in addition to the usual practice of keeping an eye out for visual and verbal cues of fatigue. The results of the Win-gate and other tests improve our ability to decide when a player needs more rest, or conversely, if he needs extra strength or conditioning work.
All that said, we are still developing ways to use the data more effectively. The process is a mix of art and science and involves collaboration with the coaches, who are best situated to notice subtle changes in on-ice performance during games and practices. Because the hockey season is so long and physically demanding, we tend to err on the side of resting a player when we suspect serious fatigue or burnout, especially late in the season.
We break the training year into five distinct phases.
Phase One: early May to mid-June (six weeks). In the first phase, as the academic year comes to a close, the team trains together four days a week. Days one and three focus on the upper body, and days two and four focus on the lower body. The primary goal is to set a tone for the off-season by having everyone train hard as a single unit.
The first two days of the week follow a planned progression, with the intensity, weight, and volume of lifts increasing. On the last two days, we focus more on varying the movements and addressing weaknesses throughout the ranges of motion required in hockey.
That format carries through the first four weeks, starting with a hypertrophy/strength focus and gradually moving toward a strength/power focus. Week five is a de-loading week to give the players a chance to rest and recover before we perform testing in week six.
Phase One is an excellent time to emphasize lifting technique as the players work toward new personal maxes before taking some time off in early summer. The team also runs two to four times a week in this phase, focusing on speed and agility early in the week and general conditioning toward the end. We sometimes get creative with running challenges in this phase, employing things like hill sprints and even having groups of players compete at pushing a vehicle up a hill. We also drag heavy sleds in multiple directions, and carry weights up our stadium stairs.
Phase Two: late June to late August (eight to 10 weeks). Players begin this phase after they’ve had some time away from campus for summer break. They lift three to four days a week, and continue land-based speed and agility work early in the week followed by conditioning toward the end.
In the first five weeks of the phase, we strive for maximum muscle growth and developing strength in weak spots we’ve identified. For example, some players have difficulty moving weight past their knees during a power clean, or their knees turn inward at the lowest point of a squat. To correct these flaws, we use quarter movements and pauses at the points of weakness. Auxiliary lifts also help address any deficiencies. During weeks six through eight of the phase, we start progressing the players toward a strength peak for testing we’ll perform at the start of the fall semester.
Phase Three: late August to early October (six to seven weeks). Once the players return to classes, we have roughly six weeks before their first game. To start phase three, we conduct physicals and complete Dr. Potteiger’s tests and the other testing already described.
We spend the first two weeks finishing the summer strength peak cycle before de-loading in week three and more testing in week four. For the rest of the phase, the players lift three days a week, working for peak power output and moving weights quickly, trying to produce as much force as they can. Most of our speed, agility, and conditioning work moves from dry land to the ice at this time. (See “Phase Three” for three weeks of sample workouts from this phase, along with instructions for downloading more detailed information.)
Phase Four: October through season’s end. We divide the hockey season into three parts: the first half of the game schedule, the university’s three-week winter break, and the second half of the schedule. During the first half of the season, we train two days a week, with a heavy total-body lift and a 30-minute circuit at the rink on Monday, followed by light weights on Wednesday.
Over winter break, we train three days a week. The main goals are muscle growth and recouping any conditioning losses identified in the first half of the season.
During the second half of the schedule, the team is pushing for a championship. The first lifting session of the week is short but intense, and the second may be a light circuit or stretching and rest, depending on the coaches’ assessment of the team’s physical state. We repeat Dr. Potteiger’s tests before the conference tournament. And of course, the better the team performs on the ice, the longer this phase lasts.
Phase Five: April. After the season, we again perform Dr. Potteiger’s tests to evaluate the effects of the long season. Our training at this time is geared toward rehabilitation and recovery. We hope that the recovery time, as well as the time off from training provided during final exams, will prepare the athletes for the return to Phase One in May.
Collaboration between the strength staff, athletic trainers, coaches, and other specialists has been essential to developing our current program. It is an ever-evolving process that requires frequent communication and assessment. In other words, none of the strategies outlined in this article has been a magic bullet. Instead, as the team roster changes from season to season, we believe our long-term success depends on a strongly coordinated effort.