Lots of hockey players are really strong in the lower half. Years of skating produce those kinds of changes.
But what about the upper body? It seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle in hockey strength training. I am not exactly sure of the circumstances, but Sam Bennett couldn't even do a Pull-Up at the Combine a few years ago. That is not good for someone who was slated to be playing against grown men a few months later.
Lucky for Bennett, his world-class talent made up for it. And I believe he has since increased his strength dramatically.
Hockey players need upper-body strength to play stronger on the ice. It enhances their ability to play the body, shoot with power and ward off defenders.
Shoulder problems can arise with upper-body strength training. Many hockey players have shoulder separations or dislocations. I was working with a junior team last year, and one out of three players had suffered at least one serious shoulder injury.
Injuries, poor posture and lack of strength can make certain upper-body exercises risky. No exercise is inherently bad, but some could be bad choices for an individual hockey player.
This is where you can assess an athlete to see what kinds of exercises will offer higher rewards with less risk.
Assessing the Upper Body
When you assess hockey players, you need to understand how aspects of the sport can affect their training. In hockey, the shoulders are easily dinged up, and the sport is played in spinal extension—i.e., with an exaggerated arch in the back. Both factors affect upper-body exercise choices. You must determine whether an athlete has appropriate range of motion in the shoulders and whether he or she has sufficient core control to allow their shoulders to move safely and effectively?
Overhead Reach Test
I like the Overhead Reach Test as an assessment tool. It is simple, can be done anywhere and gives me the information I need. To perform this test, stand up straight, reach both arms overhead, keep your chin tucked and have someone note or take a picture of where your upper arms go in relation to your ears.
There are three scenarios you can expect, and each one calls for a different set of exercises to minimize risk to the shoulder. Pressing movements are where things can get ugly. The only exercises that get a free pass are Upper-Body Pulls. They are necessary for creating balance in the upper body and are rarely a bad choice.
1. No Restriction
Athletes with no restriction on the Overhead Reach will be able to get both arms to their ears with no rib flare. This shows they have good core control and adequate shoulder range of motion.
These athletes have earned the right to perform any kind of pressing move. That does not mean all exercises may be perfect, but at least we know they can safely get into the positions needed for upper-body training.
These athletes can perform Flat Chest Presses, Incline Chest Presses, Cable Presses and Overhead Presses. I recommend single-arm variations of anything overhead, because athletes usually get more out of the exercises, but that is my personal preference. Single-arm work is harder to cheat, gets the core going and puts more demand on the individual arms.
These athletes can also perform Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups without concerns about depth.
2. Rib Flare
Some athletes can get their shoulders to their ears but they have to go into extension to get there. This is rib flare. It can be seen when the ribs lift up and come forward. Rib flare appears to indicate good shoulder range of motion, but it does not.
To help with this, we can incorporate some upper-body work and core training.
For upper-body pressing, we can use Landmine Press variations. I like to start in the half-kneeling position, then tall kneeling, before getting to standing. These Presses are a middle ground between Overhead Pressing and Chest Pressing. They are a little friendlier on the shoulder but are still extremely effective.
I also like Deadbug variations, which teach core control and shoulder range of motion at the same time. The first variation I use is a Wall Press Deadbug. Here the arms are overhead to activate the core. Lying on the back gives the body support to get more shoulder mobility while also training stability. We can then move on to a regular Deadbug, where the arms are required to move back in opposition of the legs.
These athletes can also probably perform Chin-Ups safely, but they should probably do them with straight legs to avoid extending the back.
3. Lack of Shoulder Range of Motion
Some people cannot get their arms to their ears. They lack shoulder mobility regardless of rib flare.
Sometimes this is where injured athletes show up. Depending on the way they rehabbed and healed from the injury, they may never get out of this stage.
The goal for these people is to improve core and scapular control. These athletes should do a lot of posterior shoulder work, which over time should improve their range of motion.
For this group, I like Banded External Rotations, Banded Y's and T's, and Push-Up variations. I especially like Yoga Push-Ups. Push-Ups teach the shoulder blades to move while pressing and promoting core stability.
I also like the same core exercises I listed above, but any stability movements that force the body to resist extension are a good choice.
Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups are risky choices for these athletes, because either they train in partial range of motion or they force full shoulder mobility, which they do not have.
You can do the assessment yourself with the help of a camera. Get a picture of yourself reaching overhead and see what category you fall under. Spend eight weeks performing the exercises from that category and then re-test. You should see improvements from performing the exercises. If not, you may have an injury or some other advanced issue.
Getting strong in the upper body is important for hockey players, but doing it right is essential.
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