For more than 15 seasons, Darryl Nelson has been a fixture at one of USA Hockey’s most successful programs. As the strength and conditioning coach at the National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Michigan, Nelson has worked with many of the country’s very best players during their teenage years, including future NHL and Team USA stars. We recently caught up with Nelson – who worked at Mike Boyle’s fabled program in Winchester before joining the NTDP – about five go-to off-ice workouts and why they can be so effective for a developing hockey player.
"The benefit, obviously, is general upper body strength. Most of the problems we tend to see with shoulder injuries are results of people being so oriented toward the front of their body – whether it’s bench press [during workouts] or everyday activity. With your posture while driving or being on your laptop, you tend to be rounding forward a lot, so, the more pulling and back exercises you can do, the more symmetry we’re giving those people. We tend to see a lot less shoulder pain in people who are strong in doing exercises like pull-ups.
"A good, high-end number of pull-ups for a high school male would be 20 with an overhand grip. For a high school female, usually we do testing with chin-ups with an underhand group, I’d say a junior or senior, if she could do 8-10 chin-ups, that would be very good strength.
"Pull-ups are a staple of ours at the NTDP, and all kinds of guys have been up in that 15-20 or 20-plus range. Recently, guys like Dylan Larkin and Jack Eichel.
“Eichel was really powerful. His vertical jump was always in the 30-35, 36-inch range. His standing long jump was well over 100 inches; really, really powerful. Dylan Larkin was in that same range."
"One-legged squats are great. What we’re really looking at, with skating or with running, are one-leg activities. You’re always pushing with one leg and hip, while the other leg and hip is recovering. A squat with two legs has a very limited carryover to athletics because you never push with both legs at the same time when you skate.
"When you look at the whole function of the hip and core musculature, and the way you stabilize your lower back when you push, it’s completely different when you’re standing on two legs. The sequence of muscles firing and all those things happening in and around your hip joint, your pelvis and your torso are completely different when you stand on one leg. One-leg squatting is going to translate much more to skating, power, speed and explosive ability on the ice."
"It’s like a military press, but you’re half-kneeling on one knee. Picture putting my right knee on the floor and I step forward with my left leg. With my right knee on the floor, I have, preferably, a kettlebell, or a dumbbell, in my right hand – right knee down and the right hand does the press straight up over my head. Essentially, it’s a military press on one knee.
"There are several advantages. A lot of people, when they overhead press, they stand up, or, if they’re on two knees, they cheat by bending their hips and their lower back, so their form gets real sloppy. What we’re looking at there is a risk for back injury. So, if I put them on one knee, it makes it far more likely they’re going to keep their back in a safe position.
"The SLDL is a straight-leg deadlift. A lot of people call them Romanian deadlifts. Basically, it’s a pattern where you’re hinging at your hip and you’re not really flexing or bending at your knee a lot, unlike your squat. So, a straight-leg or Romanian deadlift, but it’s done only one on one foot. Again, we’re looking at the all the same extremity function that we talked about with the one-legged squat. If I were standing on my left foot, I would have the weight in my right hand. So, again, that contralateral opposite pattern. A lot more musculature has to work in order to maintain a stable core and straight back.
"And I’m really picky about back position. When people pick the weights up off the rack or off the floor, that’s where a lot of them get injured. They do the exercise correctly but they don’t think about how to pick up the weight. That’s a big part of reducing injury and reducing risk in a strength-training program – being mindful of your back position at all times.
"That’s the significance of having mirrors in a weight room. We don’t use mirrors for guys to look at themselves with their shirts off. The mirror is to get feedback on their posture.
"For the most part, your head should be in line with your spine. One tool we’ve used is if you take something like a hockey stick or a broomstick and you have someone bend forward with the stick on his or her spine. It should be touching the back of their head, between your shoulder blades and also their lower back. In order to maintain flat position, you have to have those three points of contact.
"At the beginning, it might be more difficult, but as you start lifting more weight, you’re more powerful when your spine is in a neutral position."
"This sounds old school because people don’t carry suitcases anymore. I would prefer a kettlebell, but a heavy dumbbell would work, or you can get these handles that you can load with weights. Again, it’s an asymmetrical loading. I pick a kettlebell up that’s fairly heavy with my right hand and walk, say, for 20 or 30 yards. And I’m trying to use my hips and torso to stabilize my spine. I can’t be leaning over. I have to be upright. My shoulders should be back and parallel with the floor, and the kettlebell should be off my side a little. It’s going to require my obliques, abdominal muscles and hips to fire and work hard to stabilize that load because it’s only on one side."
What not to do ...
"The biggest problem I see right now is that we have too many people doing the types of programs that are endurance and high-fatigue oriented, and they don’t really develop power because there’s too much fatigue and you can't lift heavy enough weight. A good strength training program involves relatively heavy weights with long rest intervals between sets."
"Some places have, like, a dominator board, and they say, 'This guy can do this many pull-ups,' or he can bench press this much weight or squat this much weight, and they get their name on the board. But there are certain body types that are more conducive to lifting heavy weights – generally people with short arms and short legs. Being obsessed with your numbers is really going to be a detriment when you start comparing because they’re working at the wrong things and could have a high risk of injury."
What is a good time in a player’s life to start taking on more weight work?
"I would say it’s really of paramount importance, especially for teenagers as they get older. You get the idea from the American Development Model; it's the window of trainability and the opportunity to make the biggest gains in things.
"Stickhandling and shooting and hockey sense, those are the most trainable before adolescence, so, from 8 to 12, that’s prime time. Once a guy gets to be 16 or 17, after he’s had his adolescent growth spurt and is almost to his adult size, his ability to get better at those things is diminished. Likewise, for a little kid, the ability to build strength and power and muscle mass and bone density is really limited. It’s not that trainable, but, anywhere from six to 18 months after the adolescent growth spurt – so, for boys, that’s starting at about 15 or 16 – strength and power and building bone density and muscle mass are the most trainable things.
"For a high school team or a midget team or a junior team to not have a strength training program is basically like mailing it in because you're not training the thing that’s most trainable at that stage."