Heels Elevated Bilateral Squatting?

Got a lot of engagement with various coaches on Twitter with this thought the other day. Though I am not a huge proponent of excessive loading of the bilateral squat (back/front squat) I do think it’s important to be able to perform the squat pattern well as it is a basic, fundamental movement pattern.

Heels Elevated Twitter Post

As a coach I think you should always be asking yourself if you like the way the any movement looks and I typically don’t love the way the squat movement looks. One of our most important jobs is to improve movement efficiency and with the heels elevated I almost find that the movement immediately looks better, for two big reasons;

  1. the biggest reason, the heel elevation essentially gives the athlete more ankle mobility
  2. elevating the heels gives the athlete an anterior weight shift that allows them to ‘sit back’ in the movement.

Beyond this, it’s important to be in tune and understand the group you are coaching – we know hockey athletes will typically present ankle mobility issues because they skate in a boot that eliminates most all ankle movement – so why would we try to jam a square peg into a round hole.

In-Season Off-Ice Conditioning

“If you get hurt in the training process, your training process is terrible.” – Mike Boyle

Dilemma: coach wants to give the team the day off from skating but still wants to perform a somewhat intense conditioning session.

Solution: Assault Bikes

The first question most people would ask is ‘Why biking and not running or using the slideboard?’ This is a reasonable and fair question, and the answer lies in having a solid understanding of the sport you are dealing with. You have to have a ‘why’ for what you are doing.

Anyone working with the ice hockey population is probably well aware of the effects that playing hockey has on an athletes body. Hockey players live in a flexed hip position, placing excessive both concentric and isometric stress on the hips and quads while skating. Then they sit on the bench between shifts in a flexed hip position. Then they sit in the locker room between periods in a flexed hip position. The same goes for the time they spend sitting in class, driving a car, and watching television. Many skate year-round. Hockey players literally live in a flexed hip position.

Taylor Hall

Because of this, running may be an issue and cause hip flexor strains if performed in-season. Though I am a huge advocate of performing exercises year-round that ask a hockey athlete to get into full hip extension (sled marching, 1-leg DL, slideboard leg curl, bridging variations), asking a hockey player to sprint and aggressively perform hip extension is probably a disaster waiting to happen. Don’t be shocked if you find yourself with a handful of hip flexor strains following the sprint based conditioning session.

***As a side note, we do run in the off-season, starting with tempo runs to build an aerobic conditioning base, work on sprint mechanics, and slowly get them into hip extension in a less-aggressive way then sprinting. We eventually and slowly work our way into sprinting when some of the postural issues that result from a long hockey season have been ironed out a little. Again, there is a ‘why’ to everything we are doing – nothing is left for chance, there is a logical, well thought-out process to everything we do***

Remember, you as a coach need to adapt the strength & conditioning program to the athlete/sport – the athlete/sport should not be trying to adapt to your strength & conditioning program.

I had to ask myself what is the easiest and safest effective way we can accomplish what it is that we want to accomplish? Is there a way to do this and make sure no one gets hurt? The answer is a clear yes, utilizing the Assault bike.

The Assault Bike allows the hockey athlete to essentially ‘save’ their hip flexors – on a bike you just push down while spinning, a position where the your hip flexors don’t have to do any substantial work. The result is a solid conditioning session without any glaring injury concerns.

As far as the slideboard goes the answer is simple; they skate and perform that same movement pattern over and over and over while on the ice in practice and during game – that bucket is so full that it’s overflowing! Don’t continue to fill full buckets, fill the empty bucket and get the athletes doing something different (as long as it’s safe like biking in this case) to try to create balance. Over-performing the same movement pattern time and time again is a great way for someone to get injured via an overuse injury.

The moral of the story is that you have a ‘Why’ for both everything you do as well as everything that you don’t do. The primary goal of a training program is to keep players in the game with improved performance coming second. Could we have jumped on the ice and conditioned, ran, or done slideboard work and hypothetically elicited a better conditioning effect? Maybe, maybe not. But a healthy player is always better then an unhealthy player, every single time. The bike allowed us to condition hard and live to fight another day.

Goals of the Ice Hockey Off-Season

It could be said, and rightly so, that hockey players are made in the off-season. The success that a player has during the season can in many cases be traced back to the work they put in as the season ended in the spring and the long summer months leading into the fall pre-season.

Whether you are an older, advanced hockey player or a young up and coming player, here are a handful of goals any good off-ice training program will have in order to have you playing at an optimal level come September/October.

Restore Balance
Due in large part to the long season spent on the ice, players typically have developed a handful of postural and muscular imbalances that need to be addressed. Anyone who works with the hockey population can rattle these areas off in an instant. Any type of physical assessment, whether it be the Functional Movement Screen or any other screening tools that you use, can quickly bring some of these issues to your attention. Typically, a handful of these issues you will find are;

• Lack of shoulder mobility
• Lack of hip mobility
• Lack of ankle mobility
• Tight hip flexors
• Weak glutes
• Over-worked/strained groins

Think about the position a hockey player finds themselves in all the time; hunched over in a flexed hip posture. Players are not only in this position on the ice, but when sitting on the bench, sitting in the locker room, and on the bus going to and from games. It’s no wonder they have so many predictable issues.

Taylor Hall

Though any well thought out off-ice program should be performing it year round, spending ample time focusing on mobility exercises that target areas prone to imbalanced and stiffness needs to be a top priority. Movements like V-Stance T-Spine, Floor Slides, Quadruped Adductor Rock, Spiderman variations, and Ankle mobility exercises are highly recommended on a daily basis to keep athletes moving well and efficiently.

In addition to making mobility a priority, a well designed strength program can help to improve many of these issues, and probably in a relatively short time. In addition to making mobility a priority, it is critical that early in the off-season hockey athletes pay special attention to uni-lateral strength training in order to help ‘balance’ an athlete out. This leads right into the second point.
Get Stronger
Not to say it is impossible to get stronger during the in-season period, cause it isn’t,  but the off-season is obviously the time that the most gains in strength will be seen. And it doesn’t have to be and probably shouldn’t be very complicated. Our basic menu of exercises are made up of the following…

• RFE Split Squat
• 1-Leg Squat and Dead Lift
• Trap Bar Dead Lift
• Chin Up
• Bench Press
• Row’s
• Anti-Extension and Anti-Rotation Core work

RFE Split SQ

During the off-season we spend a lot of time lifting and lifting heavy. Our rep ranges we rarely get above 8 reps (they may at times) for a strength exercises and will generally stay between 3-8 reps.

We also spend a ton of time getting strong on one leg. Beyond the fact that skating/hockey is a sport played on one leg, training on one leg helps to balance out some of the postural/muscular imbalanced previous discussed. Getting strong (preferably on one leg) will correct a lot of potential issues and also go a long way in keeping a hockey player healthy in the upcoming season. Just don’t be afraid to load them up!
Develop Speed/Power/Explosiveness
When young athletes walk into the weight room it is somewhat easy to get them more powerful – simply getting stronger on the basic lifts is going to accomplish the goal of increasing power and/or explosiveness.

However, as athletes get older and become stronger simply increasing max strength will contribute less and less to improving explosiveness. At some point, building a bigger bench press or a bigger squat will do very little when it comes to developing a more explosive athlete. There becomes a point where strong enough is strong enough, otherwise powerlifters would be some of the best team sport athletes in the world.

This is why placing an emphasis of movements that have the potential to increase power, increase explosiveness, increase speed need to be a part of the program. Keep it simple when it comes to developing power with exercises/movements like;

• Olympic Lifts/Variations
• Linear Speed Development
• Lateral Speed Development
• Jumps/Plyo’s
• Med Ball Throws
• Sled Work

Currently we have played around with pairing many of these power movements together in order to have our athletes working through what we would consider a ‘power’ block. After our warm up period, we will have a power period that looks something like this;

• Sled or Speed Development
• Med Ball
• Med Ball
• Plyo/Jump

Our thought process is that pairing these exercises in a sequence like this allows us to train all these qualities but also supply enough time to rest between each individual movement. I am not 100% sold on this, but it is what we tried in this previous off-season.

Improve Conditioning
One of the places that I think most off-ice programs miss the boat is conditioning – or the lack of conditioning in the off-season. Being strong is great. Being powerful is great. But you need to have the ability to express that strength and power over the course of a hockey game – you need to be in great shape and focus on conditioning year round.

Hockey is an alactic-aerobic sport, meaning an athlete needs to perform high intensity efforts for a short period of time followed by lower intensity intervals. As a result, the off-ice conditioning program needs to revolve around high intensity intervals followed by low intensity (rest) periods. Things like…

• Tempo Runs: great for slowly building the aerobic system
• Shuttle Runs: high velocity sprints along with change of direction
• Slideboard Work: conditioning in the frontal plane along with conditioning the groin for the rigors of a long hockey season

Additionally, not getting out of shape is probably the easiest way to get into shape.

Minimize Time On Ice
Though it may be unpopular with most players, getting off the ice in the off-season is one of the best things a hockey player can do for themselves. As previously mentioned, summer is the only time when the hockey player can correct some of the muscular and postural issues that occur as a result of a long season. Getting off the ice is the only way that these issues can be fixed.

As a side note, this hip flexed rounded over posture is the reason the majority of our conditioning consists of some type of running in the off-season. Getting players out of hip flexion and into hip extension is vital. In an ideal world we would spend very little time on a bike in the off-season.

Additionally, from a psychological standpoint, getting off the ice and spending some time doing other things will only help when the season rolls back around. Getting off the ice, feeling better physically, feeling rejuvenated mentally, will lead to an excited and motivated player once they hit the ice in the pre-season.