Hockey Dryland Not the Only or Best Option

January 11, 2011

Over the past few years a disturbing trend has started to develop, young, developing hockey players using dryland as their only means of physical conditioning. I am not anti dryland, it does have a place and if done properly can be a valuable tool for building some aspects of hockey fitness but it can’t be the only tool. A well designed balanced program that includes strength training, aerobic training, hockey specific conditioning and dryland is the key to long term development.  Dryland alone has some severe limitations that will prevent a young player form reaching their full potential.

Not Hockey Specific

Dryland is not hockey specific. If you watch a hockey dryland session and a football dryland and a baseball dryland they all look the same. In fact dryland was designed for and transfers over to field based sport performances much better than it does on ice performances. There have been studies that show improvements in on field performance tests in football and soccer following drland agility training because the exercises used are similar to movements used on the field. All the data available on hockey actually shows no improvement in on ice agility following dryland agility training because skating and running are too different.

Hockey is a speed and power sport but the structure of most dryland sessions may be making athletes slower. Most dryland sessions are set up so that the athletes are exhausted at the end, they are constantly moving for the whole session with very little rest. In many cases the parents are at fault for this because they don’t want to see the kids standing around. Humans have an innate pacing ability, when they know that they have to do something hard for a long period of time they naturally pace themselves. If an athlete knows they have to do 25 sprints they won’t go as fast as if they only have to do five. Developing speed requires maximum speed on each sprint . A couple of years ago an NHL team approached us to analyze their practices. The media had been going on about how the team was slow and needed to develop some speed. We knew from seeing the on ice sprint testing that the strength coach had done in camp that the team actually had some of the faster players in the league and on average was a much faster team than several others that the media said were faster.  We shot video of the practice and analyzed it using biomechanics software to get skating speed during the different drills and then compared the practice speeds to the training camp testing speeds. At no point in the practice did the players skate at more than 80% of the peak speed. They paced themselves through the whole practice because the coach liked to run up tempo practices that tired the guys out. They learned to play slow because this is how they practiced, and they could not improve on ice speed because they never skated fast enough in practice. After adjusting the practices the team went on a winning streak and the media stated commenting on how much faster they were playing. Continuous motion dryland is only going to teach a player to pace themselves not build speed.


Elite athletes us individualized programs to address their weakness and build on their strengths to make them complete athletes. All the top NHL players hire strength coaches for personal training over the summer months. Every NHL team has a full time strength coach who is expected to individualize the programs for each player during the season. They make this investment because every athlete responds a little differently to training and has different needs depending on their age, fitness, position and role on the team. It is no different for a developing athlete, in fact it may be even more important for a developing athlete to get the individual attention.


Any good program starts with a detailed assessment of all aspects of hockey fitness and then uses that information to build the program that is specific to each athlete. Group fitness, yes dryland is group fitness, treats everyone the same way, they do the same workouts regardless of their fitness or individual needs.

Long Term Development

Development is a favourite word of hockey coaches and parents but few actually pay any attention to the principals of long term athlete development. Several years ago Sport Canada started investing money in the creation of a long term athlete development model. They brought in top experts on sport and child development from around the world. The results of this can be seen at One of the key results of this work is that we now know that as kids grow and develop there are period s of time when different fitness qualities develop most effectively. For instance between the ages of 7-9 is period where kids are most adaptable to speed training, particularly hand and foot speed. Missing this period can affect speed later in life. Just going into the growth spurt is a period where aerobic fitness is most trainable and in the 12-18 months immediately following the growth spurt is a period where strength and muscle mass is most trainable. Dryland training alone does not and cannot address these key developmental points. Group programs don’t account for the individual maturation and development rates of each athlete in the way that an individualized program does. They are also not structured to effective develop strength and size. If an athlete is not in a proper strength program by the time they go through their growth spurt, they will have a much harder time developing the size and strength they need to play at the highest levels of hockey.

Dryland can be a valuable part of an athlete’s development but only if it is combined with an individually designed, testing based program that respect the principals of long term athlete development.

Squatting Improves Speed

June 10, 2010

Modern strength training programs for athletes spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on using unstable surfaces, single leg exercises and balance training to improve speed, strength and power.  There is currently no research that shows that these types of training improves athletic performance (1) but it has been well established that training on unstable training results in significantly less force development and loads that will limit strength gains (2). All this balance and stability training has come at the cost of building strength in traditional exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and power clean yet these exercise have time and again been shown to be key to athletic performance. A recent study at Applalachian State University examined the relationship between squat strength and sprint speed(3).  The subjects were a group of 17 football players with an average height of 1.78m and an average weight of 85.9 kg.  1RM squat was assessed on the first day of the study. All subjects were required to squat to a 70o knee angle, making it a deeper squat than the 90o knee angle that many people use in training. A deeper squat will normally decrease the amount of weight lifted. The average 1RM squat was 166.5 kg. Later in the week the subjects performed electronically timed 5, 10, and 40m sprints on a standard outdoor track surface. When they analyzed the data they found significant correlations between squat strength to body weight ratio and the 10m and 40m sprints.  When the group was divided into those with a squat to bodyweight ratio of greater than 2.1 and those with a ratio of less than 1.9 those with the higher strength to weight ratio were significantly faster than those with a squat to bodyweight ratio less than 1.9. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that shows the importance of traditional strength training exercises for improving athletic performance.

So why does improved strength improve speed and acceleration? Think back to your high school physics class and you might remember the formula F=ma; force is equal to mass times acceleration.  Transforming the formula to solve for acceleration we get a=F/m; acceleration is equal to force divided by mass. When we are speaking of running or jumping activities the mass is your body weight. If you increase your strength to body weight ratio you will increase your speed and acceleration; it is simple physics.

Unstable surface, single leg and balance training may be fine during a warm up but they are no replacement for good old fashioned deep squats when it comes to increasing strength and improving speed and power that translates to athletic ability. So if you want to get faster stop using circus tricks and lift some real weights.

  1. Wilardson, J. (2004). The effectiveness of resistance exercise performed on unstable equipment. JSCR. 26(5) 70-74.
  2. Behm et al (2002). Muscle force and activation under stable and unstable conditions. JSCR 16(3) 416-422
  3. McBride et al (2009). Relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten, and forty yard sprint times. JSCR. 23(6) 1633-1636.

Skilled Agility

February 3, 2009

Ed McNeely

The term agility is often used synonymously with change of direction speed, athleticism, and sport speed.  While the ability to change direction is definitely part of the equation agility is much more; encompassing perceptual factors such as the ability to anticipate and react to a stimulus, select the appropriate movement and direction, and make necessary body adjustments to optimize stride rate and frequency for the movement (Young et al. 2002).

 Over the past few years agility training has become an important part of athletic conditioning programs. Many strength coaches now specialize in teaching body mechanics and movements associated with agility training. Virtually every strength and conditioning conference includes at least one lecture on some aspect of developing agility and yet there is little evidence that agility training as it is typically practiced is important to sport performance or enhances sport performance. In fact there have been a few studies that suggest that agility may not be related to performance.

Hoffman et al. (1996) examined the relationship between basketball playing time over a four year period and athletic performance tests. Testing vertical jump, 1RM squat, 1RM bench press, 27m sprint, Agility T-test, and 2414m run they found the 1RM squat to be most consistently correlated to playing time. Agility was not significantly correlated to playing time (r= -0.26 year 1; r=-0.30 year 2; r=-0.33 year 3 and r=-0.30 year 4). This suggests that either a players athleticism is not accurately measured through traditional agility testing or that it plays very little role in a coaches impression of the players ability.

In a recent examination of skating ability in hockey players Farlinger et al (2007) found very low correlations between on ice cornering ability and performance on a hexagon agility test (r= 0.19).  Lateral shuffle was correlated to skating cornering ability (r=0.53). These results are similar to what we have seen in our work with NCAA, Professional, and Youth hockey players. It has been our experience that changes in off ice agility test and drill performance does not translate to performances in on ice agility and change of direction ability.

Roetert et al. (1996) examined the relationship between tennis performance level and selected performance tests. They found a significant contribution by side shuffle, vertical jump, push ups and sit and reach to their prediction equation. The hexagon agility test did not contribute to the accuracy of their prediction. 

Empirical evidence suggests that higher level athletes who are typically getting more playing time are more agile than lower level athletes. So, one has to wonder why there is no research showing the relationship between agility and sport specific performances. The answer to that may lie in the way that agility is measured. Performance tests like the hexagon test, T-test and Pro -Agility test are among the most commonly used agility measures in both practice and research.  All of these tests measure only the change of direction aspect of agility and they do so using a predictable predetermined pattern. There is considerable research suggesting that better athletes produce faster, more accurate responses because of their ability to anticipate what their opponent is about to do based on body angles and other behavioral and visual cues (Young and Farrow, 2007).

In a novel approach to agility testing in netball Farrow, Young, and Bruce (2005) used a life sized video image of an attacking player about to pass a ball. The subjects were required to side shuffle, move forward and then break left or right depending on the direction the ball was passed in the video. They found that more highly skilled players had faster overall test times than lower skilled players due in large part to faster decision times in assessing the direction of the pass.

If we accept that agility, as it is performed in a game situation, is more than just the ability to change direction we need to reexamine the way we do agility training.

Skilled Agility Training

Sport specific skills are the most important factor in sporting success. There are plenty of examples from all professional sport leagues of athletes who did very little conditioning yet excelled because of their superior skills. There are far fewer stories of athletes who had long successful careers based solely on physical conditioning. Skilled agility training links sport specific skills to physical conditioning, creating a better transfer of physical conditioning to game situations.

Gabbett (2006) compared traditional a conditioning program that consisted of vary duration sprints of 10-40m with skill based conditioning games that were designed to develop passing, catching tackling and other skills needed for Rugby. Overall training time was similar between the two groups and both groups participated in team skill sessions. At the end of the 9 week program the traditional conditioning group had improved both their 10m sprint time and their aerobic fitness scores. The skill based conditioning group improved their 10m, 20m, and 40m time and aerobic fitness and vertical jump scores. The 20m, 40m and vertical jump scores were significantly different between the groups after training with the skilled conditioning group outperforming the traditional group. Of greater significance was the performance in actual game play. Both teams played eight league games during the study with each team compiling a 6 win 2 loss record. The traditional conditioning team had an average score of 28-18 while the skill based training team had an average score of 45-12. While there are a variety of factors that can effect the final score of a game this study clearly shows that skill based conditioning is at least if not more effective than traditional conditioning programs at producing not only fitness improvements but on game performance improvements.

It has been our experience that skill based agility training has several advantages over traditional training.

  • Skilled agility training is time efficient allowing both skill and fitness to be trained simultaneously. This can be a big advantage in sport programs that only have limited gym, field or ice time. Coaches do not feel like they have to choose one over the other.
  • Skills can be practiced under fatigued conditions similar to those experienced late in games.
  • The conditioning coach has more control over the athlete’s total training volume. Very often the work done in practice is not counted in the overall training volume when conditioning programs are designed. Traditionally the conditioning coach has no control over the type and intensity of work done in practice so in many instances athletes show up for speed and power sessions already fatigued from a practice, making the conditioning session less effective
  • Intensity is higher. Skilled agility training makes use of games and game like situations to create a competitive environment that forces the athletes to train at a higher level of intensity than normal. We saw this quite clearly when we conducted a practice evaluation and analysis of a Professional hockey team. Using video analysis of the practice we found that on average during drill players were skating at about 75% of the peak velocity that was found during testing in training camp. At the end of practice when a competitive drill was introduced average velocities increased to 83% of peak velocity even though it was the last drill of the practice and the players were fatigued.
  • Athletes learn to use perceptual cues to make their reactions and agility performances better.

Getting the Most out of Your Hockey Dollars: Guidelines for Choosing Hockey Programs for Your Young Athletes

January 20, 2009

Ed McNeely

As parents you make a sizeable investment in your kids participation in hockey, both financially and with time. There are literally hundreds of on and off ice hockey programs and camps for kids of all skill levels and ages, so how do you know if you are getting a good program? Here are a few things to think about when choosing a program for your young superstar.

Appropriate Programming

Is the program appropriate to the age and developmental level of your child? If it is a camp, does it provide adequate activity time in addition to instructional time? Is there an opportunity to incorporate skill development into game like situations?


Whether the program is on ice or off ice there should be some sort of assessment tool in place to assess starting levels and measures progress throughout the program. Not only will the assessments help you determine if your child is getting value and improvement from the program but a well designed assessment can help you determine the type of program that is most appropriate. There is no point in having your child take part in an on ice conditioning program if they do not have good skating skills, they would be better off taking some skating skill sessions before moving on to the conditioning program.


Are payment, refund, change and cancellation policies explained clearly in writing at the time you register for the program? Ask if there are any additional costs for equipment, clothing, manuals, or in the case of day camps; food and drinks.


Does the program have a formal curriculum that outlines the activities and progression from session to session? This ensures that there is a plan in place and the players will progress through drills and activities towards a specific goal. Programs without a formal curriculum may not have appropriate progressions or a long term goal in place, limiting their effectiveness.


In group programs either on or off ice the instructor to player ratio should be 1:12 or less for athletes under the age of 16. This allows the instructor to safely supervise the athlete and provide feedback and instruction. Larger groups limit the quality and quantity of individual instruction that your child will receive. Older, more experienced athletes can effectively work in groups that are up to 1:25.

Instructor Qualifications

One of the most important aspects of a good camp or program is the qualifications of the instructors. On ice instructors should have at a minimum some level of Hockey Canada Coaching Certification and preferably a combination of hockey coaching certification and formal education in Physical Education or Kinesiology. Formal education in Kinesiology or Physical Education ensures that the instructor has a background in skill learning and child development that is particularly important when younger athletes are involved in the program. While it is tempting to put your child into a camp run by a former professional hockey player, their experience at the professional level does not ensure that they have the ability to properly develop younger athletes.

If you are putting your child into an off ice or dryland conditioning program instructor qualifications are equally important. A degree in physical education or kinesiology as well as professional certification through the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP), Ontario Kinesiology Association (OKA) or the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) should be the minimum qualifications you look for. If your child is going to be doing weight training, coaching certification through the Canadian or US weightlifting Associations or the NSCA will ensure that the instructors are competent at teaching exercise technique. The weekend certification courses that many personal trainers take do not provide training in child development. Trainers with those credentials often give adult programs to children, which are not only ineffective but in some cases can be dangerous.

Emergency Procedures

The facility and organization running the program should have an emergency action plan in place, which includes access to first aid kits, defibrillators, phones and emergency contact information for each child. At least one staff member should have training in first aid and CPR. Evacuation procedures in case of fire or other hazards should also be in place.

There is a lot to think about when you invest your money into a hockey program. Taking the time to ask questions will ensure that both you and your young player get the biggest bang for the buck. Use the checklist below to help with your selection. If a program does not score at least 9 out of 12 you might want to look elsewhere.


Checklist for Choosing Appropriate Programs for Your Child

□    The program takes into consideration the long term development  of the child

□      The program contains appropriate activities for your child’s level   of development

□    A progressive written curriculum is in place for all on and off ice  group sessions

□    On Ice instructors have Hockey coaching certification

□    Off ice instructors have degrees in Physical Education or Kinesiology

□    Instructor to Athlete ratio is less than 12:1 for both on and off ice programs

□    Opportunities are provided to incorporate skills into game like situations

□    Active time is maximized for all athletes regardless of skill level

 □    A long term plan is in place so that the athlete can progress from  one level to another at their own pace

□    Feedback on progress is provided to both athletes and parents

 □    Assessment tools are in place to ensure that progress is occurring  and when appropriate homework is assigned to help the child  develop specific areas that need attention.

□    Administrative policies and procedures clearly explained.