Cressey Performance was lucky to have Kevin Neeld around the facility last summer, and all our coaches were much better off thanks to this experience. Kevin always makes some great points and is never afraid to question the norm - and do a ton of research. Kevin’s specialty is hockey, and he recently introduced an Off-Ice Performance Training E-Manual for hockey players and coaches that is absolutely fantastic. I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy, and it was so good that I couldn’t wait to get an interview with him up here at EricCressey.com. So, without further ado, here it is.
EC: I’ll be the first to admit that if I see another seminar presentation or article on “core training,” I’m going to lose my lunch. Interestingly, though (and to be blunt), yours in this product doesn’t suck. In other words, there is a lot to be learned both specific to hockey and in a general sense. Can you explain for my readers in a bit of detail?
KN: Sure thing. In my experience, the reason core training is so poorly practiced is because people don’t understand what muscles are involved in the core and what their collective function is. Beyond the rectus abdominis (”6-pack” muscles) and the external and internal obliques, the core encompasses over a dozen other muscles that attach to the hips, rib cage, and spine. Collectively, these muscles serves a few major, inter-related functions: 1) Control movement of the hips; 2) provide a stable base for leg and arm movement; and 3) create stiffness for efficient force transfer between the upper and lower body.
My approach to core training is pretty straight forward: 1) Teach athletes awareness-what core stability is and feels like; 2) Train for core stability; 3) Progress to dynamic stability (stability challenged by internal or external forces); 4) Progress to training core stiffness and force transfer; 5) Combine force transfer and dynamic stability into one exercise.
The progressions are explained in more detail in the course, but to give you an idea of what that looks like:
1) Abdominal draw-ins (for awareness, NOT transversus abdominis isolation…which is a stupid concept), and simply having the athlete put their hands over their stomach, fill their belly up with air, squeeze their core and continue to breathe.
2) Planks and bridges
3) Planks and bridges with partner perturbations
4) Medicine ball throws, tosses, and slams
5) Combined med ball exercises with holds in various positions challenged by a partner perturbation
I hope that all makes sense. The course doesn’t go into full detail on medicine ball exercises because I really wanted to make the exercises and progressions realistic for a team setting, and typically there isn’t a lot of equipment available.
EC: Along these same lines, what are the specific injury issues that you prioritize in this e-manual?
KN: Hockey players are plagued by hip and lower abdominal injuries. What’s scary is that the true causes and predisposing risk factors to these injuries are only starting to be explored in the research community. Usually, creating an appropriate balance within and between the hip and core musculature can prevent these injuries. For example, if you have a strength imbalance between the muscles on the outside and inside of your hip, your risk of adductor (commonly referred to as the “groin”) strain increases. If you have a strength imbalance between your adductors and your anterior abdominal musculature, your risk of lower abdominal injury increases. As with most injuries, the key is creating a balance.
As a quick note, creating balance often means utilizing unbalanced training. Your readers may know this already since you talk about the same things with your baseball guys. Hockey players take several dozens shots every week. These shots usually involve forceful rotation in the same direction. The best way to create balance would be to use an unbalanced training program with more rotation or anti-rotation exercises in the direction OPPOSITE to that in which they shoot. This is where sport-specific training really threw people off. Training “sport-specific” patterns again and again off the ice is likely to increase injury risk, not performance.
Getting back to hip and lower abdominal injuries…Typically these injuries are a result of under-preparation or overuse, both of which can be addressed with similar training methods. I first implemented some of the dynamic warm-up and core training exercises outlined in the course with the University of Delaware Men’s Ice Hockey Team in 2006. We had ZERO pre-season hip flexor or “groin” injuries. Not a single player missed a single practice or game. I’ve refined a lot of things since then, but a lot of the concepts are still the same. Warm-up appropriately by improving range of motion around the right joints and activating the right muscles, and train the core for its true function, and you’ll likely avoid these injuries.
EC: Hockey players, like all athletes, have loads of competing demands - from on-ice technical work, to energy systems training, to resistance training, to flexibility training. This manual does a great job of integrating all these features. Where do you feel that most people make the biggest mistakes in this regard?
KN: It really depends on the team, but the three things that seem to come up most often are:
1) The training of most youth programs involves a couple laps around the rink, a long stretch, maybe some jumping, push-ups and sit-ups. These programs leave out a lot of important forms of training (e.g. dynamic flexibility, core stability, reactive agility, acceleration/deceleration, etc.).
2) Conditioning is still horribly misunderstood. The idea that hockey players need to train for a well-developed “aerobic system” by going for long runs is pretty ridiculous. We’re talking about a sport that typically involves 30-45 second shifts, followed by several minutes of rest. Within each shift, there are typically a few bouts of 3-5 second all out efforts, followed by periods of gliding, and usually a stoppage or two. This breaks down into something like 20 seconds of high intensity effort every five minutes. Repeated 20-minute jogs around the rink will make you well-conditioned for the wrong sport.
3) The largest problem I see in team settings is a complete disregard for the QUALITY of movement. Hockey players and coaches are very driven, which usually means they want more, not better. The first thing I do when working with a new team is sit them all down and tell them that focus will be placed on quality of movement before intensity or quantity of movement. Moving the wrong way, at a high intensity or volume, will only make bad patterns worse. I made a strong effort in the course to emphasize proper movement and technique and provide simple coaching cues so that people without a background in sport biomechanics can still move the right way.
EC: A large percentage of the folks reading this resource are going to be high school athletes and coaches - many of whom play multiple sports. What pieces of advice do you have for these folks? How can they make the most of this training when they’ve got other sports on top of the competing demands we discussed above?
KN: My advice: Keep playing multiple sports. Early specialization (only playing hockey from a young age) will have detrimental effects on your development and movement quality as you get older. Typically these are the players that dominate when they’re 12-14, then drop off the map or are plagued by injuries at 20.
To get to the heart of your question, good training is good training. The course outlines quality training in the context of hockey, but the principles are mostly the same for all sports. A strong, functional core will improve performance in all sports. Training to improve acceleration, and your ability to rapidly decelerate and change direction explosively will improve performance in all sports. I use many of the same dynamic warm-up progressions for hockey players as I do for athletes in all other sports (rowing, soccer, football, basketball, lacrosse, etc.). All team-sport athletes need to be mobile, stable, strong, explosive, and quick. I honestly can’t think of a sport that wouldn’t benefit from the training outlined in the course, which details how to alter the intensity and volume of your training in preparation for more important games (which becomes an increasingly important concept for athletes playing multiple sports at the same time).
EC: Thanks for taking the time, Kevin. Great points - and definitely a great resource, too.
For more information on Kevin’s Off-Ice Performance Training Course, head over to HockeyTrainingU.com.