The #1 goal I get asked about in regards to strength and conditioning is how an athlete can increase their speed on the ice. Rightfully so, speed of movement (in reference to Yuri Verkhoshansky’s research) is the most powerful physical component an athlete can bring to perform at their absolute best.
Why Agility is Important For Hockey Players
Speed is the intersection of many different qualities within an athlete that are placed in the correct balancing act so that one may not over power another. One of these qualities that encompasses speed development truly at its core is agility.
What is top speed without agility?
If all you have is top speed that doesn’t come in handy very often as your starting speed, explosiveness, deceleration and high velocity direction change are dependent on how agile you are.
Put another way, if you have a blazing fast 5th gear but it takes you forever to reach that gear, how many times will that be of value out on the ice? Rarely, if ever?
The game of hockey moves incredibly fast and it’s not so often you have open ice in front of you to skate straight ahead and try and find your top gear. No, it’s not played like that. More often than not there is a ton of external stimuli going on both with the play, the position of the opposing players, the position of your players, the position of the puck and what’s going on in your mind that almost always break up this straight away course.
Which is why the development of agility is a highly desirable trait out on the ice. If you can move swiftly, you have a distinct advantage over those who can’t.
Although well rounded speed development can be broken down into many different components and one of those components is agility, agility itself can also be broken down into several different qualities as well. Sports physiology is no cake walk, these discussions, breakdowns and theories can go on forever if you’re speaking to right crowd.
What is Agility?
Agility in and of itself heavily involves both physical and mental qualities within an athlete.
Most people assume the physical part, I mean that makes sense right. Train for agility and you become more agile. What many people seem to forget though is how important the mental aspect is behind what I would consider a more thorough and complete look at what agility truly is.
Agility demands you have a strong mental game and when it comes to hockey this requires both mental agility, comfort and confidence.
Mental agility can be thought of as your ability to follow two conversation at once. You need to have the vision, attention span and focus to be able to read what’s in front of you in unpredictable environments. A game setting is as unpredictable as it gets, in a matter of a few seconds and all the players on the ice will have changed their position and the puck can be far from where it originally was. If you can foresee the actions of those around you and read the ice, agility can suffer.
Because a mental block is a physical block.
You may have all the physical components in the world but if you’re not “in the zone” it doesn’t matter what your body is capable of doing because your mind is making the wrong decisions.
Take the example of female gymnasts in the Olympics. You have a look at these girls and they are pretty much all identical height, identical muscle mass, identical flexibility and identical builds.
So what makes them different than one another on that day?
Their mind. Whoever came the most mentally prepared is going to be the one who executes her routine most flawlessly. This plays out just the same in hockey.
Maybe the first and only reference ever towards hockey using female’s gymnasts? Most likely.
But I know you can level with me here. Everybody has had that game, or had that workout where their mind just wasn’t there. Their body was probably physically capable of performing better but it was being limited by your decreased mental performance.
So what do hockey players need out there to make sure they have this mental agility?
Comfort and confidence.
You need these in order potentiate your maximal agility capability. Let’s have another more real world example on how confidence and comfort can have a huge impact on your agility.
Let’s say this year you made it up to the next level in competition, you’re in the semi-pro’s now.
But with jump up you also had to move away from your friends and family to another city, play on a team that you have never played with before and you’re also travelling much more than you have ever been used to.
You’re probably not going to have the best hockey season this year. This is a lot of change and a lot to take on all by yourself.
But, next year rolls around. Now you’re comfortable in your new city, you have a lot of new friends, you are used to your teammates now and know how they play and you’re also used to the travelling schedule now.
You may not have actually changed at all physically, but your performance is going to increase drastically this year compared to your last year just because now you’re more comfortable and confident. This plays directly into your agility.
The more confident and comfortable you are out there in a game setting, you more agile you will appear regardless of your physical fitness.
Now let’s get to what everybody really came here for, the physical aspect to agility development.
First and foremost I have to say to you guys that as a professional strength and conditioning coach my job is to provide you guys with the best information in order to improve your game, whether that information is boring or not. I don’t post blogs to make headlines, I post blogs to get results.
Which is why I am going to tell you that the absolute #1 thing you can do to improve your agility is to simply play the game. There is no getting around this. Playing the game of hockey is as sport specific as it possibly gets and the more comfortable and confident you can be out there expressing your skills on the ice the more agile you will be. Period.
Nothing in the gym or off the ice can outweigh the benefits of this.
Getting lots of ice time, scrimmaging at practice and putting some time on the old pond with the boy’s plays into your favor here.
What else can we do for agility?
I think it’s important to define how agility works in the body first to properly understand how we can program for it and why some exercises are better than others.
Agility is essentially a hockey player’s ability to effectively absorb and redirect forces. Played out in real life, this includes things like high velocity direction change, explosive starting speed, exploding into different planes of movement and deceleration.
Looking at the above examples, the one overwhelming thing they all have in common from a physiological perspective is their association with relative strength. That is, how strong you are in relation to your body weight.
If two men both weigh 180lbs and yet one is stronger than the other, this is an example of an increased relative strength.
Knowing that agility is how efficiently and how quickly our bodies can absorb and redirect force, we can also say that agility is the demonstration of an eccentric to concentric contraction, or a load to explode action.
How agile you are, depends on how fast your body can go from an eccentric (load) to concentric (explode) muscle contraction.
A huge part of this is relative strength, but another part of it is power. Specifically, the amortization phase.
Relative strength ties in here because the stronger you are in relation to your body weight, the more control you have over your body in movement. Take the example of two men who are 180lbs, one can squat 400lbs and the other can squat 200lbs.
The one who can squat 400lbs will have much more control of his body in deceleration and high velocity direction change simply because he is strong enough to overcome the forces that he is presenting upon himself during the game. Whereas the weaker opponent will be more likely to succumb to momentum issues trying to perform similar tasks.
Additionally, relative strength plays into your explosive starting speed as a man who can squat 400lbs who is 180lbs will be much better able to press down on the ice and propel himself forward with more force than somebody who can only squat 200lbs. Giving the stronger opponent both a quicker start and a greater stride length.
Some of my absolute favorite exercises towards the improvement of relative strength in my hockey athletes include:
• Barbell squat variations
• Deadlift variations
• Split squat variations
• Pull up / chin up variations
• Dip variations
• Weighted sled pulls
• Row variations
• Jump variations
• Sprint variations
• Weighted carries
Now, digging a little deeper into the above mentioned amortization phase for power development. The amortization phase is essentially the measurement of the time spent in between the eccentric and concentric muscle contraction.
The moment in between the eccentric and concentric contraction is the amortization phase
This concept is crucial to optimal power development (and therefore optimal agility development) as there is a direct correlation between time spent in the phase vs. a decreased power output.
Meaning the longer you spend in the transition phase, the more and more power you lose from that stretch shortening cycle. Just picture yourself going for a standing vertical jump, your body’s natural inclination is to load and explode very quickly. We never extend the loading period.
Because we’ll get a weaker jump.
Picture this out on the ice. Imagine if you had to spend time and load your whole lower body anytime you wanted to change direction or explode into a different plane of movement? No, it doesn’t work like that. It takes too long and on top of taking too long you actually lose power output.
The quick load and explode takes advantage of the stretch shortening cycle within the muscle in that you build up a type of “elastic” energy in the muscle and use it to rebound and explode. If we’re thinking about ways we can physically develop greater agility, we definitely should also be looking here.
In order to maximize true agility we need to train the body to take full advantage of the stretch / shortening cycle. To do this, we need to decrease the length of the amortization phase as much as possible because the longer the amortization phase lasts, the less elastic energy and power output we are able to express through that movement.
Some of my favorite exercises for power development that improve this area of agility include:
• Olympic lifts
• Medicine ball throw variations
• Jump variations
• Plyometric exercises
• Low load sled work
• Low load band/chain work
• Reactive training
For more information on power and the many roles it plays into hockey performance, be sure to check out my hockey power blog post.
Moving on from here we now know the mental aspects behind agility, what makes people agile from a physical perspective and how relative strength, amortization phase’s and power development play into this.
So what else can we do?
Well, let’s have a look at the pure definition of agility:
1. Agility: Agility is the ability to be quick and graceful. You might have agility on the basketball court or in the courtroom, or even with your gaming remote. The noun agility can be used for both mental and physical skills in speed and grace.
Quick and graceful. Sounds about right. Hockey players who have a high level of agility make highly explosive accurate movement appear almost effortless. You know, kind of like female gymnasts! (Alright I’m done)
A big part of this is simply how these hockey players actually move.
What can both positively and negatively affect these movement patterns in an athlete?
Mobility and structural balance.
These two components are quite unforgiving. Take mobility for example, if you’re tight in certain areas of your body that are restricting optimal movement patterns then no matter what you do you’re not moving with the correct technique to get the greatest result and the greatest energy economy.
This means that no matter how mentally agile, relatively strong, or how powerful you are, if you’re tight you’re not going to be able to properly execute the techniques that would allow you to express this strength and power in agile movement.
Simply put, if you’re not mobile you’re not moving right and if you’re not moving right you’re definitely not agile.
That sounds pretty bad right? But turn this around for a second.
This means for you guys reading this out there who currently are tight in the hips, lower body, calf and Achilles tendon that just relieving these tightness’s alone without any further training can increase your agility.
That’s some powerful stuff right there. If you aren’t allowing your body to move without restriction then how can you expect to meaningfully improve your agility?
These same principals also apply to structural balance within the athlete. By structural balance I mean an athlete should have equal strength levels from left to right, and from the upper body to the lower body.
If you’re one side totally dominates your other side, you’re not moving right. Additionally, hockey players are notorious for structurally imbalanced lower bodies due to the mechanics of skating. Alleviating these issues creates a quick increase in many physical qualities, agility being one of them.
For some much greater detail on these two extremely important aspects, check out my two blog posts on structural balance and mobility in my Hockey Correction series.
I think it’s important we revisit a component of strength development that is heavily tied into your agility out on the ice, which is your core strength and stability.
The body’s ability to effectively absorb and redirect forces relies heavily on how well your core is developed from the inside out, meaning both your inner and outer core chains need to be well-developed to optimize these forces in your favor.
All power and forces are created from the ground up, but it is your core that allows you to maximally express this force output effectively and safely. The core is both transmitting all this force you are outputting, let’s say into a body check, but also at the same time stabilizing your spine and pelvis to prevent injury.
You can think about a strong person with a weak core like shooting a cannon out of a canoe. You simply have too much power for your body to handle so it will either go one of two ways:
1. You will get injured
2. Your neurological system will limit the amount of muscle fiber recruitment it will allow you to use as a safety mechanism to protect the body
Either way, not optimal for agility which is dependent on this type of explosive force.
Read this line twice:
Your core strength is allowing your relative strength to express itself in multi-planar motion.
Yes relative strength is huge, but relative strength is limited by core strength in that you don’t want to be that cannon in the canoe. You need to be in a strong, stable battleship that isn’t going anywhere when you fire a shot off.
I highly recommend you check out my core training blog post where I discuss this at length, but here are some of my favorite exercises for core development that are going to impact your agility.
• Side planks
• RKC planks
• Low back extension iso-holds
• Ab wheel rollouts
• Dead bug
Anterior core chain:
• Ab wheel roll out
• Variations of explosive medicine ball throws
• Hanging leg raise
• Anti-rotation weighted sled pull
• Plank with alternating leg lifts
• Stir the pot
Posterior core chain:
• Hip thrusts
• Deadlift variations
• Stiff legged deadlifts
• Sled drag variations
• Row variations
• Low back extensions
• Low back extension iso-holds
• Explosive medicine ball throw variations
As you can see from what I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post, agility is the intersection of so many qualities at play. One cannot really just say “Hey Dan, what’s your best agility workout?” because this entirely resides on you and your current situation.
This is because agility requires many very individualistic components. You have to first look at yourself and say “Ok, agility requires total body relative strength, mobility, power, good body composition, structural balance and a well-developed core”
From here you need to ask yourself which area has the greatest room for improvement and then you have your personal answer. I cannot give a blanket answer here because some people may need power where others may need relative strength. Maybe somebody else is totally tightened up in the lower body. Whichever one currently has the most room for improvement is going to be your personal “Best agility workout”
One thing that can disguise itself as strong agility is good conditioning, which makes it worth a mention here. Even if you’re totally mobile, have great structural balance and everything else we have discussed here; if you gas out early in the game you’re agility is going to appear terrible. Even though it may not be at a fundamental level.
Whereas another guy who may technically have less of these qualities than you but has a great gas tank even in the 3rd period is going to appear much more agile than you simply because he is better conditioned.
Don’t let conditioning ruin your game, come in shape and allow your body to express what it has the ability to do.
What NOT To Do For Hockey Agility Training
Finally, since we have talked about so many “Do’s” when it comes to agility I think it’s also important we cover some “Don’ts”. The most popular of the “Don’ts” include:
• The overuse of unstable equipment (Swiss balls, BOSU balls, balance boards, etc)
• The use of ladder, dot and cone drills
I have hammered these two “Don’ts” in the past through mentioning them in several blog posts and also writing a blog post all on its own dedicated to why I believe this type of training is counter-productive towards hockey so I am going to keep this explanation quite straight forward and directed at agility since it is the main topic but for more information, feel free to check out my blog on the topic titled “Hockey training on unstable surfaces?”
The two most deep rooted training principals in sports science theory are specificity and overload and training on an unstable surface lacks both of these. It is a very far cry to try and deem unstable surface training functional or specific to hockey performance.
When are you ever unstable like that on the ice? Why would you need to train it like that?
All movement in hockey occurs because the athletes are moving, not the surface they are playing on. So unless you plan on playing hockey during earthquakes, it becomes difficult to make the connection between the two.
But now that we know agility absolutely requires large relative strength levels we are shooting ourselves in the foot trying to squat on a ball. Anytime you incorporate unstable surfaces you sacrifice both how much weight you are capable of using plus the speed at which you are able to move that weight.
Think about that for a second. We just decreased the weight so we are directly limiting our relative strength training, but not only that, we are moving slower!
You don’t train slow to move fast. You need to move fast in order to recruit the high threshold motor units responsible for explosive movement. This really makes no sense from a physiological perspective, this is honestly like you guys going outside and playing basketball and telling me you’re working on your slap shot.
It’s definitely not specific, and it definitely lacks progressive overload as you can only do so much on a ball.
How many people do you see squat 400lbs on a ball? Zero.
How many people do you see squat 400lbs on the ground? All the time.
If you had to put money on it, who do you think is going to be harder to knock off the puck on the ice and is going to have more explosive movement, the guy who squats 135lbs on a ball or the guy who squats 400lbs on solid ground?
Seems pretty straight forward.
Additionally, since we are also moving much slower it’s highly likely these athletes are increasing the amortization phase length as well creating another problem. If you move slow and train with low weight you’re going to be weak and if you’re weak you’re not fast or agile.
As far as the ladder and cone drills, they also lack specificity and overload.
When do you ever move like this on the ice?
When does a hockey player ever need this type of stride frequency? Never.
Also once you get good with the ladder, how do you introduce overload from here?
Agility is all about swift and graceful movement in unpredictable environments. Cone drills and ladder drills are pre-determined movement patterns. You can’t really say it’s a true function of athletic agility if you know exactly what you’re doing beforehand. You simply execute the pre-determined movement and then you’re done. This doesn’t replicate a hockey game situation from a mental or physical perspective.
This is why I feel your time would be much better spent either strength training or getting a scrimmage together with your teammates/buddies. At least in the gym we can replicate the kinetic segments, muscle actions, intensities and energy systems required for each athlete’s position out on the ice and train them effectively. Ladder and cone drills do none of this.
Is doing unstable surface training and cone drills the worst thing in the world?
No of course not. But when really dissecting hockey and looking at what will have the greatest amount of carryover to your on-ice performance these methods fall pretty low on the list.
Again, it’s my job as a coach to simply provide you guys with what works whether it looks cool on Instagram or not. I look at the sport of hockey and all its demands and match up what I feel are the most effective ways in which to train athletes into a high level of performance. This means creating a hierarchy of performance training methods and weighing the cost/benefit analysis.
If this athlete can only train 4-5x a week, like most everybody out there, then I feel their time could be better spent doing different tasks.
So what does the broad picture of agility really look like then?
Well, here are the primary components:
• Mental agility
• Relative strength
• Core strength + stability
• Structural balance
• Good body composition
Hockey Agility Training Recap:
Overall, there is nothing too shocking about agility once it’s explained and laid out. A hockey athlete looking to improve their agility should have a good periodized yearly training structure both during the season and in the offseason, which encompasses hypertrophy (within the realm of specificity of course), strength, power, lots of ice time and some mobility work. Provided your training systems are created well, the structural balance work should be incorporated right into the strength, power and hypertrophy work.
Last but not least, an athlete with a poor body composition is an athlete who is not agile. Good nutrition should be a focus year round regardless of the goal.
If you’re ready to take your hockey game to the next level, including improving your speed and agility check out our Hockey Training Programs.