We can't blame hockey players, especially younger hockey players with next-level aspirations, for wanting to get stronger. But we can encourage them to look at their weight training workouts and consider whether those are helping or hindering progress toward their goals.
We spoke to New England native Scott Caulfield, the head strength and conditioning coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association, about why bigger isn't better when it comes to weight training for hockey, what it means to train movements and not muscles, and how players who get better off the ice improve on the ice. Caulfield has worked with hundreds of hockey athletes, including as the head strength and conditioning coach for Colorado College in Colorado Springs, which is also home to the NSCA headquarters.
USA Hockey: What do you like most about working with hockey athletes?
Scott Caulfield: I like that most hockey players really love the game and they’re willing to learn about what will make them better.
USA Hockey: Is there something that makes hockey unique from a strength and conditioning standpoint?
Caulfield: The main thing is that you’re in a skate, and that makes for a motion that can’t be replicated on the ground. There’s no real way from a strength perspective or an energy systems perspective to replicate skating without actually skating.
USA Hockey: What is one of the big questions you're trying to answer with hockey athletes and weight training?
Caulfield: Overall, how strong is strong enough? That’s a big question in all athletics for strength and conditioning coaches. There is a point of diminishing returns. We can only get so strong where, after that, it's not going to matter. But relative body strength is really the most important attribute, especially for young athletes. We’re not going to load them up with so much weight that they become hurt.
The other quote that I like is “Train slow, get slow.” You have to be careful because lifting really heavy weight and maximum weights, yes, it makes you stronger, but when you’re lifting max weights you're lifting weight really slow. So, if you only train at maximum weight with slow movement, you’re going to get slower. You’re not going to be explosive.
USA Hockey: Where does the contemporary science stand on muscle memory? Are you training your muscles to become slower or faster by the way you’re training?
Caulfield: I think you can train different pathways and muscle fibers. Muscle fibers get recruited at a different rate. They get recruited as they need to be used. So, depending on what type of activity, if it’s something explosive that requires jumping, the fast-twitch fibers get recruited for that. If it’s something where you need to use more force, more and more muscle fibers end up getting recruited.
But you have to take into consideration a person's training age, too. Someone can’t just train for the first time in their life for 12 weeks and be really well trained. Training age and learning the fundamentals of strength training movements is one of the key factors in becoming stronger. Strength is a skill. The stuff we do in the weight room is a skill.
USA Hockey: I think a lot of people underrate the right kind of workout. Too often, they might load up plates at the bench press. Why is that the wrong thing to do?
Caulfield: For one, there are not many times in sports where you’re laying on your back and pushing something off you. And, if you are, you were probably just beaten in that sport. But, most of the time, mastering those movements is going to take practice and explanation and instruction by someone who knows the movements that make you more proficient at them – whether that’s learning to squat or learning to lunge. Being involved in an organized and sensible strength and conditioning program that focuses on safe movements and effective movements that target the whole body is really a much more efficient use of your time, and it’s going to make you a better athlete.
USA Hockey: Do you wind up recommending full-body programs over, say, "back and biceps on Tuesdays?"
Caulfield: Yes, most programs that are athletic-centered programs are going to be focused on the whole body. Sometimes, if you get in the offseason with a more advanced athlete you might have an upper-lower split, but, for the most part, from an athletic standpoint, you’re going to train the entire body in one day as a whole, and you probably only do that two, three times a week.
USA Hockey: So, apply that idea specifically to hockey.
Caulfield: I’d say it’s whole-body. We want to train movements and not muscles. So we train squatting patterns and lunging patterns and jumping patterns. Olympic lifting variations have shown to provide the most bang for your buck from a strength and power standpoint. So if a coach is qualified enough to teach those kinds of movements, those are athletic-based movements that you have to learn how to do and become proficient.
USA Hockey: How do you find the right people to train you to do these things the right way?
Caulfield: Obviously, we’re partial to the NSCA-certified coaches. But I think it behooves parents to ask for a coach’s background and ask if they have a degree in exercise science or a related field, like physical education or biomechanics. And find out if they’re certified through an organization that is an accredited strength and conditioning-specialized organization like the NSCA.
USA Hockey: When someone gets in the gym, what are some of the wrong things on which to focus?
Caulfield: I’d say don’t focus on the mirror muscles, the ones they see in the mirror – the biceps and their chest. Not warming up properly is a big one, too – jumping in and putting the most weight on the bar possible and trying to do it. I think high school kids are notorious for that kind of stuff. Or doing something you just saw in a magazine or online because you thought it looked cool and you don’t actually know how to the movement. Those three are pretty big ones.
USA Hockey: Are there any gold mines you like to unearth for people? Almost like hidden gems in the workout game?
Caulfield: Relative strength is so huge, especially for younger athletes. If they can’t control their body weight and do squats really well or pull-ups really well or push-ups really well and have good core strength and be able to do multiple reps without fatigue, there’s no way they should be lifting weights at that point until they’re able to master those things with their own body weight. And most good strength coaches aren’t going to put them underneath actual weight until they show they can handle their own body weight. So I think people probably underestimate the importance of body-weight training.
USA Hockey: In a way, we’re talking about coordination and agility, aren’t we? When you watch athletes, are you watching an athlete's ability to control his or her body?
Caulfield: Yes. I think coordination and motor control, the whole American Development Model pathway. Sometimes you see kids who have just played sports all their lives, and we’ve had kids at the college level who can’t skip right. And it’s like, “This guy has to learn some body control before we can ever do anything more advanced with him.”
USA Hockey: How do you explain an athlete like Patrick Kane, a guy who doesn’t look like a body builder but is still a terrifically talented hockey player?
Caulfield: Obviously, muscles are a side effect of being stronger, but there are athletes who are super strong and super athletic that don’t look like they’re super jacked dudes with six packs and bulging biceps.
That’s part of a coach’s expertise, to be able to talk to them about why they may be doing things differently.
USA Hockey: What are some of the ease-of-entry training ideas – something that doesn’t require much expense?
Caulfield: Sprinting. Sprinting is probably one of the best ones you could do and you don’t really need any equipment. You need a field or a track or an area of your lawn. And for hockey athletes, getting out of their skates, especially after a long season, sprinting is a great way to work on training speed and being more explosive.
There are a lot of body weight circuits, too. You can do stuff outside, you can do pull-ups and squats and sprints and you can create all kinds of circuits that mimic energy system demands to train for the specific target you're trying to train for.
USA Hockey: How long should the average workout last?
Caulfield: In the ideal world, we’re very used to having an hour – with a warmup and proper training program and a cool-down, whether that’s foam rolling or stretching – and an hour seems to work really well. But in-season workouts might only last 30 minutes because you’re only trying to do a few things and get them out of there. Hockey’s the most important part of the program during the season. But I’d say anything is better than nothing.
USA Hockey: What about recovery through energy or protein drinks?
Caulfield: Recovery comes down to eating right and sleeping right. I think energy drinks are becoming a problem because people think they need stuff like that to get them amped up or stimulated. The big problem with energy drinks is they’re mostly either sugar and stimulants or both. But they’re really not a sensible alternative to just being ready to play. That’s a slippery slope, especially for younger athletes and the availability of energy drinks. Not to mention when you get older what other things could be in pre-workout drinks that might make you test positive for a banned substance.
USA Hockey: At what age should we start talking about working out for young players?
Caulfield: We say that if they’re mentally able to listen to instructions and follow instruction in a weight rom, they can start training. Does that mean we’re going to train with heavy weights, or seven days a week and an hour and a half at a time? No.
There’s not necessarily an age that is perfect time or the time to start. But if they’re mentally able to listen and follow directions, and do things right and not goof off, they’re probably ready to start learning some basic stuff.