How do strength and conditioning coaches build beasts in the off-season? Like head coaching strategies, their summer training methods vary from one player to the next.
At any given time in the summer, Matt Nichol has three or four of his 16 NHL clients working out at his gym in Toronto. They’re a mixed bag of stars, mid-range players and guys on the cusp. Each is as unique as the other, and no two train the same. Take this quartet of Nichol’s, for example: Mike Cammalleri is 5-foot-9, 190 pounds and built like a brick. Wayne Simmonds is lean and lanky at 6-foot-2 and 183. Hal Gill is a small mountain at 6-foot-7 and 243. And then there’s Chris Stewart, who at 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds could easily pass for a linebacker. “You couldn’t have four more different body types,” said Nichol, who also trains Tyler Seguin and Michael Del Zotto. “They can’t all do the same exercises.”
In a league in which teams take turns copycatting trends (see Kings, Los Angeles for the latest), there’s no single blueprint trainers follow when building an NHL player over the off-season. In this business, there are no shortcuts, for players or trainers. Those cool looking, cookie-cutter programs on YouTube, they’re a freeway to failure for an NHLer that’ll drive him straight to the minor leagues. In the training world, NHLers aren’t built like houses by copying the same design and applying it to every player. Nichol and other strength and conditioning coaches are in the business of individualized architecture – carefully crafting personalized programs for each client. “In the weight room, it’s individual-specific,” Nichol said. “A guy like Mike Cammalleri might come in here and squat 450 pounds. Other guys will never ever do a squat under my watch, ever, because they’re just not built to do that.” Cammalleri lifts the equivalent of a grand piano or an empty garbage dumpster, because his build lets him maintain perfect posture, which is crucial for executing the exercise properly. Players whose builds aren’t fit for squats (or any exercise, for that matter) just construct their foundations differently, according to genetics. In the case of squats, they simply focus more on deadlifts, front squats and single-leg exercises to increase their strength. “The exercise is irrelevant,” Nichol said. “If a player isn’t good at a certain exercise, that shouldn’t limit anyone from developing their strength. You can just pick a different exercise that’s more suitable for them and away you go.” In another part of the city, Andy O’Brien is busy managing programs for his 20 NHL clients, which include Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares and, of course, Sidney Crosby. Some train with him at his gym, O’Brien Sport. Others he oversees by travelling to them monthly. Every one requires a personalized approach. “I’ve always been a fan of talking to the athlete and finding out more about what it’s going to take for them to get to that next level to be successful, trying to interpret the physicality behind that,” O’Brien said. “If it’s a certain type of player who isn’t being successful because they’re not making enough plays, I’d want to know why that is, what some of the physical reasons are for that and then dial that in specifically instead of just saying let’s just go train hard and get bigger, stronger, faster and better in the generic sense.” O’Brien puts a premium on a player’s position when designing his programs, because a first-line center has a different role to play from, say, a shutdown defenseman or a bottom-six penalty killer or an enforcer. But it goes further than that. Styles differ between guys playing in the same position, even between Norris Trophy-winning defensemen. “I’ve heard a lot about Erik Karlsson who does gymnastics and track-and-field type movements, but doesn’t really lift weights in the summer,” he said. “He’s obviously very successful. But there might be certain things that are suited for him because he’s that type of player. Whereas a guy like Zdeno Chara, that may not work for him. He obviously plays a completely different type of game, so his approach is completely different.” Ben Prentiss takes a somewhat different tack to training at his private gym in Connecticut, BodyTuning. For him, position is nearly irrelevant. “In my world, between defensemen and forwards, centers and right wings, there’s very little, if any, difference in terms of the workouts,” he said. “Scientifically speaking, there is no difference.” Instead, what matters more to Prentiss is minutes. He tailors every player’s workouts, in large part, based on how much ice time he’s expected to play per game. And, of course, that differs widely. His NHL clients range from Martin St-Louis and Jonathan Quick, to Max Pacioretty and James van Riemsdyk, to Nathan Gerbe and Colton Orr. “Colton Orr needs more strength, because he’s only playing four to seven minutes a game,” Prentiss said. “He’s got to know how to sit on the bench for 10 minutes at a time and make the one shift he has count, especially if he’s going to fight. Whereas Marty St-Louis is on the ice every 90 seconds to two minutes, so he has to train differently.” All this variance among trainers isn’t to suggest there’s no overlap among them, and they don’t get so obsessed with specifics that they lose sight of the overall picture. Hip mobility and ankle flexibility are two areas every player works on, and core training is a staple in any workout. Injuries and the length of a player’s off-season are two other factors every strength and conditioning coach must also weigh when designing a client’s program. Crosby and Quick dealt with wrist injuries that shortened their off-seasons, which meant their respective trainers, O’Brien and Prentiss, had to compress their programs into weeks instead of months. Just like coaches, trainers have different techniques, systems and styles they use, and no one way is the gold standard by which all others follow. It’s a matter of finding the right fit for both player and trainer. “If you get all the strength and conditioning coaches in a room and have them lay out their philosophies, you’d see quite a bit of difference,” O’Brien said. “Every player is slightly different, and there won’t be one methodology that will work for every player.”