Jan 29, 2015
Power Play

How do you develop a training plan for athletes who need to maintain strength and balance while competing on a sheet of ice? Notre Dame’s coach explains.

By Tony Rolinski

Tony Rolinski, MS, SCCC, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of Notre Dame, where he oversees training for 25 sports and works directly with the men’s ice hockey team. He has been a strength coach at Notre Dame for 15 years, and served as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Duquesne University and North Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Like other sports, the physical demands of ice hockey dictate that players perform complex motor skills at a high rate of speed. During the course of a game, they have to rapidly accelerate and decelerate to change direction, deliver and absorb physical contact from opposing players, and react to a constantly changing environment. Unlike other athletes, though, hockey players have to do all that on a sheet of ice while balancing on one-eighth inch wide blades of steel.

Hockey players require power to propel themselves around the ice. And they need strength to maintain balance through quick starts and stops, sharp turns, and devastating body checks. Here at the University of Notre Dame, we help them build that strength and power through a well-designed progressive plan based on Olympic lifts and other multi-joint movements.

Then there’s the interval nature of the game. Typically, players are on the ice for 45 to 60 seconds of maximum effort. Then they get three to four minutes of rest on the bench before taking the ice for their next playing shift. So in addition to maximizing their strength and power, we must also condition these athletes to recover quickly.

Over the past decade, Fighting Irish players have been able to transfer success in the weightroom to the ice. The team has reached the NCAA Division I Frozen Four twice in the last six seasons while winning two Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament titles and earning four NCAA playoff berths. While the credit for these successes undoubtedly belongs to the players and coaching staff led by Head Coach Jeff Jackson, I am confident that our strength and conditioning program has helped the team reach its full potential.


Here at Notre Dame, we identify two simple, straightforward goals for all student-athletes, including our hockey players. The first is to help reduce the risk of injury. Because hockey is a physical and violent game played at high velocities on a very unforgiving surface, we know there is no way to completely prevent them from occurring. However, by helping the athletes strengthening their bodies to build a figurative suit of armor, we help them more safely absorb the inevitable collisions they will experience and reduce their odds of getting hurt. These efforts can also decrease time lost from any injuries that do occur.

Our second overarching goal is to help improve sport performance. I view strength and conditioning as an opportunity to develop the raw materials of performance, namely the players’ bodies. Therefore, the mission is to provide a well-designed training program that is based on sound physiological principles. We do this by incorporating a sport specific focus on conditioning based on the energy systems used in hockey while utilizing safe strength training methods within a periodic plan. However, we rarely try to mimic hockey movements in the weightroom. Hockey specific skills are developed on the ice by our sport coaches through team and individual practice. Instead, we believe that improvements in strength, power, speed, agility, and conditioning will allow our hockey athletes to perform their sport specific skills at higher levels. All we ask is that players give great effort, engage one another, and pay attention to detail during each training session.


Before they enter the weightroom at Notre Dame, we make sure all our athletes understand the basic underpinning of our strength and conditioning program–the repetition. When designing training sessions for hockey, as well as all our other sports, we build up from the perfectly executed repetition. Whether we are training for strength, power, or speed, the repetition and how it is performed lay the foundation for performance gains. Even the most well designed plan will be of little use if repetitions are done in a haphazard manner.

We take the time to coach consistent technique before effort, and we talk about the importance of rep integrity every day. We explain to our players that it will take hundreds of properly performed sets and reps before they will see a change in their physical attributes, but a few poorly performed repetitions can hinder their progress or put them at risk for injury.

The philosophy in the weightroom is based on training compound, multi-joint movements. We use variations of the Olympic lifts for power development, especially clean and snatch pull variations (from both the knee position and the floor), hang cleans, dumbbell snatches, dumbbell split jerks, shrug pulls, and dumbbell or kettle bell swings. Our primary compound lower body strength movements are squatting (back and front), trap bar deadlifts, hip presses, Romanian deadlifts, and glute/ham gastroc raises. Our auxiliary lower body movements include lunge and step-up variations, single-leg Bulgarian squats, single-leg pistol squats, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, hamstring eccentrics, and reverse hypers. The players especially enjoy our hockey-specific variations. One is the walking hockey lunge, in which they step out at a 45-degree angle similar to what they do when skating. We also have them perform Messier squats where they use a wider base and lighter weight than regular squats. Once they are in the squat position, they rock back and forth similar to a side lunge, but instead they swivel their hips. This helps stretch and train their groin, which is a common source of injury in hockey players.

We maintain a range of three to five reps for strength and power movements throughout the year. This allows for continued improvement in technique, reduces fatigue, and improves the athlete’s rate of force development.

The players also perform plyometrics during the off-season and preseason as another way to train athletic triple-extension movements. The stretch-shortening component of these bounding exercises helps maximize speed of movement and develop the horizontal power a hockey player needs.

Our upper body compound movements provide a balance between pulling and pressing exercises designed to help increase shoulder stabilization and integrity. We build around major pulling exercises such as heavy rowing movements and weighted pullups and chinups. Push presses as well as bench, incline, and narrow grip pressing are also frequently used. Additional upper body exercises involve single-arm dumbbell work, weighted dips, upright rows, shrugs, and direct three-way shoulder work (posterior, lateral, and anterior deltoid focus). We also use medicine ball throws and slams and Keiser functional trainers to perform chopping motions that build rotational power through the torso. The head, neck, and trap areas are especially vulnerable to injury from collisions. Development of the trapezius takes place through heavy pulls and shrugs done throughout the workout. To strengthen the neck, we use a five-way neck machine like many schools, but we also do some manual resistance work as well. In these exercises, a player lies on a bench and a strength coach puts one hand on the player’s forehead and the other under his chin. He then applies resistance as the athlete moves his head through four planes of movement–flexion, extension, and laterally in each direction. The speed-controlled movements typically last two seconds in the concentric phase and four to six seconds in the eccentric phase. Once players have mastered this exercise, we teach them how to properly supply resistance to a teammate, allowing them to work in pairs.


We break our training year into four training phases: off-season, preseason, in-season, and postseason. Here’s a look at the training regimen for each of these periods.

Off-season: This phase covers 16 weeks from the beginning of summer break to the start of official team workouts in September. While these sessions are voluntary under NCAA rules, we have traditionally had very good turnout with most, if not all, players remaining on campus to train while taking summer classes.

During this period, we work hard to build the physical attributes that hockey skills draw upon as well as improving the players’ overall athleticism and addressing individual weaknesses. There is no hockey practice, film study, or meetings during this time, so our players can focus on enhancing their strength, speed, power, and agility. We split this phase into two eight-week cycles, which are then divided into four-week blocks. The plan is progressive within each four-week block as well as over the full 16 weeks.

Our players do three strength training sessions a week during the off-season phase. These are evenly split between weeks of three total body sessions and weeks consisting of one total body day, one upper body day, and one lower body day. (See “Off-season Strength” below for sample workouts.)

Each strength session also includes post-workout exercises that focus on players’ specific needs. We split the team into groups based on the area that needs to be developed. Typically these areas include shoulder stability, groin isometrics, and posterior chain/core activation. Twice a week, our players do dry land training, which is a hockey term for conditioning and agility work that takes place outside the weightroom. The main goal here is to start training the aerobic system to assure a fitness base in preparation for anaerobic sprint work. Hockey is not an aerobic sport, but having the ability to recovery quickly for the next high-intensity shift is critical. However, since we’re most interested in building a strong base at this point, we use a work-to-rest ratio of 1:5 for speed work and 1:4 or 1:3 for agility and conditioning.

We also use plyometrics as part of our dry land training, starting with basic exercises performed in a single response manner (vertical, horizontal, and lateral movements), then progressing toward more complex multiple response jumps and bounds at the end of the phase. This helps build both power and endurance at the same time.

Before each dry land session, athletes perform a dynamic stretching routine as a warm up. This typically includes 20-yard down-and-backs, butt kicks, carioca walks, toe touches, inch worms, and similar exercises. (See “Off-season Dryland” below for sample workouts.)

Preseason: Shortly after the start of the fall semester, the team begins its official preseason workouts. We use one six-week cycle during this time and are limited by NCAA rules to eight hours per week. In this phase, our weightroom volume drops from high to moderate as individual on-ice skill development with the hockey coaching staff takes priority. Our exercise selection generally stays the same as the off-season, although we do incorporate more plyometrics into our weightroom work by using a heavy strength movement, such as a 3RM squat, prior to an explosive activity, such as a tuck jump. The goal is to induce central nervous system stimulation for greater motor unit recruitment. Our players lift four days a week, with two upper body days and two lower body days. The intensity of our lifting sessions remains high, but the total volume of sets and reps is reduced. Speed and agility sessions are still held twice a week, but we change the work-to-rest ratios for these six weeks to 1:2 or 1:1 and focus on intervals of 15, 30, or 45 seconds, depending on the drill. A main goal of the shorter rest intervals is to mentally challenge our players. We need to see how they will handle being double-shifted or if they can sustain a long penalty kill. Putting our players in challenging situations during training sessions reveals a lot about their mental makeup while preparing them for the challenges that lay ahead. Because these workouts are very intense, they are also very brief, lasting 15 to 20 minutes. The purpose is to induce a level of hypoxia similar to how they feel at the end of a shift. I want our players to understand what that feels like before the season starts so they’re not surprised when it happens in a game.

To avoid overworking their joints, much of the metabolic work is done on stationary bicycles. We’ll use also slide boards, which provide an added benefit of working to prepare and condition the hips, glutes, and groin area.

In-season: For me, this is the most important of the four phases. Our players spend months working to increase their power and strength, and letting up on strength work once the season starts would put that time to waste. In addition, players need to maintain, or ideally increase, their strength levels to help reduce injury risk and sustain a high level of performance throughout the six-month season. Games, practices, meetings, film study, and individual skill development leave little time for strength training, though. Our coaching staff allots me two of the 20 hours the athletes are available each week based on NCAA rules. To make the most of this limited time, once the playing season begins, we dial back the strength training to two times per week (three for players not regularly in the line up) while working around the game schedule. With most games played on Friday and Saturday nights, our typical training days are Mondays and Wednesdays. Both sessions have a total body focus, and we rely on compound multi-joint movements to maintain players’ strength efficiently and effectively. As we get into the dog days of February and March, we usually drop to one session a week to assist with recovery of those players logging a lot of ice time, while developmental players will continue to train with two to three brief sessions during the week. (See “In-season Strength” below for a sample workout.)

Postseason: After the season ends–hopefully at the Frozen Four in early April–we give the players about two weeks off to recover physically and mentally from the grind of the long season. This usually leaves us with four to six weeks of work before the end of the semester.

I use this period to jumpstart activities in the weightroom by gradually increasing the training volume through general physical preparedness activities. I will also re-introduce some of the more demanding exercises we may not have performed during the season. The goal is to establish the work capacity the players will need to see gains during the upcoming off-season phase. To allow their bodies to heal, all conditioning work during this postseason period is non-impact. This includes stationary bike sprints, upper-body ropes exercises, slide boards, and non-traditional activities, such as sledge hammer swings and tire flips. The hockey coaching staff may also do some on-ice instruction during this time, which usually includes a conditioning component.

While our philosophy of using Olympic lift variations in conjunction with compound, multi-joint movements works for us at Notre Dame, I recognize that it’s not the only way to train hockey players. But regardless of the specific exercises you use, the ultimate goal is to show the players a vision of what they can become and then help them achieve it. To do that, you have to coach them with firmness, fairness, and dignity; get them comfortable with being uncomfortable; and hold them accountable for their actions. Only then will you and your athletes be able to enjoy success.


Here is a week of sample off-season strength-training workouts for the Notre Dame men’s ice hockey team.


Total Body

5-way neck machine & manual resistance Hang clean Front squat Glute/ham Thick bar row Thick bar incline press Reverse lunge DB floor press Pistol squat


Upper Emphasis

5-way neck machine & manual resistance Snatch pull DB split jerk Weighted towel pullups Bench press Step-ups TRX inverted row 3-way shoulder Reverse hyper


Lower Emphasis

Hang snatch Back squat clusters SL RDL Walking hockey lunge SL leg curl Messier squat Nordic hamstring Hip/leg press Banded monster walks


Here is a week of sample off-season dry land workouts for the Notre Dame men’s ice hockey team.


Plyos: Hurdle jumps 4×3 + 5-yd sprint x4 Tuck jump into 3 broad jumps x4 sets Skate jumps 3×6 R/L Split squat jumps 3×6 R/L Acceleration drills: One knee starts (lateral push) Max effort sprints 4×15 yards (2R/2L)

Agility drills: 5-yard square patterns (x4 each) Sprint/shuffle diagonal/sprint Sprint/backpedal/sprint diagonal Shuffle R/shuffle L/sprint diagonal Sprint diagonal/shuffle

Conditioning: Shuttles (50 yards and back x6) Shuttles (50 yards and back x6)


Plyos: Squat jumps 2×8 Lateral tuck jumps 2×8 R/L Power skip 2×40 yards Heidens 3×5 R/L

Acceleration drills: Cat/mouse scramble Max effort sprint and chase 4×10 yards

Agility drills: Figure 8 drill x 4 (2R/2L) 3-cone drill x 4 (2R/2L) Pro shuttle x 4 (2R/2L) 5-yard continuous shuffle x 2@:15 L shuffle/R diagonal

Conditioning: Shuttles (50 yards and back x6)


Here is a week of sample in-season strength-training workouts for the Notre Dame men’s ice hockey team.


5-way neck machine Clean pull Front or back squat Glute/ham or RDL DB or seated row Bench press SL compound movement (choice) Cable pulldown Keiser rotational chopping


Manual 4-way neck DB single arm snatch or shrug pull Step-up SL hamstring curl Weighted pullups or chinups DB SA incline press 3-way med ball groin 3-way shoulder raise Reverse hypers

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