When designing a long term, periodized, hockey specific conditioning program, the challenge is understanding how to ramp up demands to continue to stimulate desired adaptations. Since ice hockey is a complex tactical and skill sport, with a wide variety of technical skills, there are several training variables that a coach can manipulate to benefit on-ice performance that the very same coach might not draw upon for sports of more singular focus, such as bobsled, shot put or linear sports of repetitive mechanics. In this article, I'll discuss the merits of density, neural complexity and reactivity to successfully progress and regress exercise.
As with any program, exercise must be stressful enough to stimulate a physical change in the body. Often, this involves working muscles and energy systems against a heavy enough resistance to induce momentary fatigue (overloading). Training sets the muscles and body parts up so they will adapt and recover to become stronger and more fit.
As improvements are made, the conditioning program must progress to keep challenging the muscles and energy systems. There are many ways to elevate the challenges imposed on your physiological and neuromuscular systems. On-going physical adaptations depend on progressive overload to ensure the training stimulus is stressful enough to challenge the body. There are several ways to go about this. You may accomplish this by increasing the number of sprint repetitions (volume), decreasing rest intervals for sprints (density), skating with a higher heart rate (intensity), progressing from three to four strength training workouts per week (frequency), running for a longer amount of time (duration), adding unpredictability (reactivity), making a lift sequence more difficult to coordinate (complexity) or emphasizing more power initiation for longer sets (explosive capacity).
Relative to the unique demands of ice hockey and the difficulty matching weight room activity to on-ice requirements, for this sport in particular, utilizing any of the following variables can help produce further improvement and increase the transferability of results to the ice surface.
Workout density involves the amount of rest between sets. There are different ways to apply density to a workout, depending on the desired results. Low density is key when quality of primary results is desired such as increasing strength or quickness. Muscle hypertrophy requires a heavy loading with a lift tempo that stresses time under tension with ample rest between sets to maximize muscle growth. But remember that hockey does not require the muscle size of a body builder nor does it require only the strength of a football lineman. Hockey draws upon a toolbox of attributes as deep as a decathlete, with mechanics and athleticism specific to the sport skills and individual tactics that win offensive and defensive confrontations.
Hockey is an anaerobic sport and success needs both ATP-PC and glycolytic supply. Uniquely, game breaking plays often occur under physical duress and anaerobic fatigue. Train athletes anaerobically in a traditional sense such as sprint repeats but also ensure the bioenergetics are integrated into some of the lift phases and within agility training as well. To actually improve speed of movement, drill sets should be kept very short so that agility efforts are fueled by the ATP-PC system, and accordingly, generous rest periods are prescribed to ensure sufficient ATP replenishment prior to the next set. However, just as linear speed does not transfer entirely to similar agility speeds, linear anaerobic endurance does not completely prepare the player for agility under fatigue. Include phases of training that integrate agility and anaerobic capacity to build quickness endurance in multi directional movements. Longer drill sets with shorter recovery help to accomplish this.
Density can be quantified as rest time or work-to-rest time, such as 1:4 work-to-rest. High density programming helps take improvements and build capacity within that system. Working on legs, you could perform a heavy set of squats followed by jump squats and next move right into unstable deep tuck holds. You are using density to build strength, strength endurance, anaerobic capacity and lactate tolerance.
Less intense, more general workouts like circuit training can use density, with little or no rest between exercises, to maintain heart rates through a great variety of exercises. This is used to accomplish a well rounded workout during a light training phase. A high density workout usually features lower duration and volume and is therefore more time efficient. High density workouts are sometimes used in season, when fitting in a dry land strength and muscular endurance workout, often post game. Circuit training has a high energy cost but produces below optimal results for other components such as strength, quickness and speed.
However, you can integrate density into traditional work-rest lifting programs to add metabolic benefits without compromising strength improvements. The density variable is effectively applied with three exercises using different body parts, so maximal strength and power can be exerted throughout, long enough to drive up heart rates and short enough to fuel anaerobically (as compared to circuits). You might approach your lift with a push-pull-core three set sequence, with no rest until the third exercise in the complex is completed.
The duration is short enough and the exercises draw upon different musculature, so strength gain is not jeopardized, but the multiple set approach also improves the anaerobic energy system.
Strength training programs should prepare participants for real life movement and complex sport skills. Your brain thinks in terms of movement, not muscle. This is a simple statement. However, the mechanisms that control whole body movement are quite complex. Neural complexity provides a continuum of exercise design that enables structuring of level appropriate challenges where participants have to solve the puzzle of how to best coordinate mechanics to succeed at an exercise. In this process, players learn how to activate the correct muscles that allow them to stabilize loading points before powering through concentric contractions. Neural complexity has contributed to the development of strength, hypertrophy, balance and heightening the metabolic cost of exercise.
In the health club setting, an effort is made to make exercise execution safe and simple, targeting either a cardiovascular response or isolating specific muscles with an aim for hypertrophy. But to truly optimize training and transferability of strength and conditioning to hockey performance, many neural factors play an important role.
In a traditional isolation-strength setting, as strength improves, the activation level needed to recruit and command muscles to contract actually decreases since the individual muscle fibers are now stronger and fewer need to be recruited to lift a fixed amount of force. But if we increase the amount of activation, more force is automatically generated (and strength improvements progress more rapidly). The trick is to increase muscle size and strength, then manipulate training variables to still force the nervous system to dial up the maximal number of fibers to go to work.
We discussed some of the variables already, now how can we manipulate them to attain results that carry over from the training room to the ice? Participants may be coached to move the load further outside their midline, more aggressively pre-load their legs, think “fast” and preferentially recruit more fast twitch fibers, place their bodies at a biomechanical disadvantage, couple eccentric-concentric actions for high velocity power, achieve more time under tension or integrate instability, all relying on greater neural input. In the end, the goal is smart muscles. This requires a specific curriculum to re-map the brain and unify firing patterns, enhancing stabilization and kinetic chain motion.
There are methods of training to ensure you are lying down patterns required for all foundational hockey moves. Considerations include movement patterns, ROM, joint angle, speed of contraction, angle of power initiation and coupling position. The more universal, the greater transference to other strength moves and to athletic maneuvers. Neural complexity can be an ingredient within the program and can help develop a body that works better in subsequent workouts and, as a result, derives more benefits from traditional strength and power training. More mature athletes may get very specific during a portion of their program to better link into refined on-ice skills.
While some coaches may perceive balance training as simply standing on a balance device and subsequently question the contribution to prime mover strength, there is much more to hockey performance than increasing prime mover strength in isolated weight room exercises and also, a much more sophisticated approach to designing integrated exercises and harnessing the value of neural complexity.
Your body is blessed with sensors, receptors and mini brains that assess the relative position of each limb, joint and muscle, deviations to center of mass, body sway, speed of muscle lengthening, joint movement and a host of other moderators of posture and mechanics. These can be overloaded and trained to improve your "responsiveness."
Whole body responsiveness and individual joint reactivity will be tested during the unexpected: play break downs, races for loose pucks, lanes opening, incidental contact, purposeful collision or teams altering their attack. Great read-react-respond abilities are reliant on effective reactivity in each area of the body. This is referred to as reactive neuromuscular training, with a goal of immediate fine motor adjustments leading to a precise and high speed, whole body response. That is hockey!
Reactivity is dependent on neural connectivity trained with integrated instability, deceleration training, unpredictable agility and coach reaction drills. The goal is to increase receptor sensitivity (so it notices a biomechanical deviation sooner), speed up the neural loop (so your "software" can detect, decide what to do and send the message to the muscles quicker to initiate a response) and enhance motor coordination (to respond with an accurate and precise motor action). Once an athlete can control his body in this way, he will have “mind-muscle compliancy.” This is the goal of reactive neuromuscular training. A smart hockey player is not just one who sees the ice well and makes good positional decisions. It is also one who has a smart body that will react quickly and accurately.
Coach reaction drills are referred to as "external reactivity." Additional demands can be imposed on the player with a known agility drill by demanding decision and movement responses to verbal, auditory and visual cues. As a player builds upon foundational elements of strength, muscle size and simple power, train the system and integrate energy systems, muscles, vision and mind into drill execution.
To keep athletes moving forward safely and without set backs, the knack for regressing and backing off training demands is equally important to progression. Training regression can also be appropriate to defining the best overload, allowing solid technique with level appropriate overload, to properly link biomechanics and physiological response. Hockey players who must struggle beyond their ability to fight through overload they cannot handle may face injury and certainly will not improve. Training prescriptions need to define the right amount of challenge to elicit intense, best efforts and stimulate improvement, but not be too hard or too easy that optimal results are jeopardized.
As coaches, we attempt to evaluate players through testing and everyday in workouts and practices to help us determine what challenges they can safely handle. But this is an on-going process. You must be an active coach with a keen, observant eye who is ready to tweak an exercise for any participant. If the athlete is lifting a weight in an unstable environment and cannot successfully lift the weight with reasonable body control, the coach could opt to remove the mechanism of instability, decrease the weight or both. Further, you could retain the weight and instability but regress to a simpler exercise that requires shorter ranges of motion, more mechanically advantageous body positions or one that requires less coordination to execute. All of these choices aim to modify the exercise demands to a more suitable level. When a player succeeds with a specific load but is not ready to jump up to a higher weight, you want to spend more time at that level while you train the system. There are numerous ways to use density, neural complexity and reactivity to increase the challenge and also pull back to a more achievable level. Regressing or progressing, keep increasing your knowledge for improving the sport specificity of your workout and training the system to prepare athletes for on-ice action.