There's nothing more frustrating than spending countless hours working toward something, only to realize you haven't made any progress. Actually, there is one thing: spending countless hours working toward something, only to realize you've actually been progressing in the WRONG direction!
In the world of hockey training, crunches, sit-ups, and partner leg throw-downs predominate as the most utilized forms of core training. Bad news for players that were actually hoping to improve their performance through training.
I could write a book on the reasons why these exercises are not only poor choices with regards to performance, but are actually dangerous! In the interest of time, I'll summarize all the arguments against these useless exercises by saying that at no point do you need to rapidly or strongly flex your trunk (think crunch motion) during the game of hockey, and performing these movements over and over reinforce the poor hunched over posture that we spend way too much time in already (sitting at a computer, driving, sitting in a classroom chair, etc.).
To understand how to best train the core, we need to define the core musculature and its function. The core includes ALL of the muscles that attach to the hip. This is an important point. Only training the abdominals inevitably leads to muscular imbalances and leaves opportunities for improved performance untapped. The core musculature includes the abdominals, glutes, hip flexors and rotators, all of which should be trained using functional patterns.
The two primary functions of the core are:
- To create a stable base for extremity (arm and leg) movement
- Create trunk stiffness for efficient force transfer between the lower and upper body
Both of these functions revolve around controlling pelvic/hip movement.
The core needs to be both stable and reactive, and should be trained in that order.
Despite the potentially confusing structure and function of the core, the training is pretty straight forward. To establish a stable core, all hockey players should start with a basic core training circuit involving front planks, side planks, and glute bridges. Once they can hold each position for 3 sets of 30s with perfect form, they should progress to 1-leg variations to add in a rotation component.
This is when things start to get fun. There's nothing stable about the game of hockey. In truth, core stability in an unchallenged environment won't do a whole lot for a hockey player on the ice. The key is to train the core for reactive stability. In other words, the core needs to maintain stability while being exposed to some challenging force. On the ice, this force can from an external source, such as an opposing player, or internally, such as decelerating momentum from a shot. The key to making a core stability exercise a reactive core stability exercise is to add in a perturbation. In general, reactive core exercises involve one athlete trying to maintain a position, while another athlete provides slight challenges to this position in the form of taps or pushes. These exercises are usually performed for time (working up to 30s). A few examples would be:
Side Plank with Perturbation
Athlete sets up in a side plank position with his top hand reaching straight up. Partner lightly taps the athlete's hand, while the athlete resists any movement.
Hockey Stick Partner Perturbation
Athlete stands in an athletic position holding a hockey stick in front of himself. The partner lightly taps the stick in all different directions while the athlete resists any movement.
Overhead Hockey Stick Partner Perturbation
Athlete stands in an athletic position holding a hockey stick straight overhead The partner lightly taps the stick in all different directions while the athlete resists any movement.
The latter two exercises can all be performed from a half-kneeling (lunge position) or tall-kneeling position (kneeling on both knees and getting as tall as possible). To increase the challenge even further, the athlete performing the exercise can close his eyes. This really challenges the body's sensory system.
The next progression is into explosive medicine ball throws, to really train the core force transfer function. Before you transition from resisting movement to creating it, you need to know which areas to move from to maximize force transfer and minimize injury risk. As a general statement, you want to move at the hips and thoracic spine (think moving through your chest area), and minimize ALL movement around the lumbar spine (or low back). This is true for both linear movements (bending forward, backward or side to side), and rotational movements. Once you understand where to move, you're ready to progress to throwing around some medicine balls. My favorite two medicine ball exercises are:
Overhead Floor Slams
Hold a medicine ball directly over your head. Then slam it straight down into the ground in front of your feet as hard as possible. Catch it on the rebound, rapidly return it to the overhead position, then slam it again and again and again.
Side Standing Shot Put
Stand facing perpendicular to the wall. Load the ball in front of your back shoulder with your back elbow raised even with the ball. Drive off your back leg and throw the ball as hard as you can using a punching motion. Catch the ball on the rebound, rapidly return to the start position and throw it again. Switch sides and repeat.
Most medicine ball exercises are best performed between 8 and 12 reps. Any more than that and the movements lose their power.
The final core training progression is to incorporate reactive stability into explosive medicine ball throws. The way to do this is to perform a couple explosive throws, catch the ball and freeze in a position while a partner provides a perturbation. For example, if you were performing the overhead floor slam, you would perform 2-3 reps, then catch the ball and hold it overhead while a partner lightly tapped the ball for 5-10s while you resisted all movement. Then you'd perform 2-3 more slams, and repeat the overhead perturbation, cycling through this process 2-4 times. This type of training will have the maximal carryover to on ice performance, as you're alternating between explosive power and reactive stability.
For hockey players to get the most benefit from their core training, they should begin with basic core stability exercises before progressing to reactive stability exercises. After spending some time working at these, players can advance to explosive medicine ball exercises and then to advanced exercises incorporating explosive movements with reactive stability holds. Following this progression will help guarantee that off-ice core training leads to on-ice improvements in performance.