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Using Kettlebells in Professional Hockey

December 4, 2011 03:00 PM

 SeanSkahan article
I have been using kettlebells within my team’s training program in some capacity during the past 2 years. During that time, we have incorporated the Swing and the Get Up. We have also used a kettlebell as a substitute for a dumbbell during other exercises such as 1-Arm/1-Leg Modified Straight Leg Deadlifts and Slideboard Split Squats. I really felt comfortable using kettlebells in my program after reading and watching some really good instructional books and DVD’s on proper kettlebell usage, but what I learned from my recent RKC experience is that I needed to change some of my coaching cues and clean up some technical flaws, not only in my own training, but also and more importantly, within my players’ program.
The Swing
My team has always performed variations of Olympic lifts in our strength and conditioning program. Whether it is a Hang Clean, Hang Snatch, Dumbbell Snatch, or a Push Jerk, these movements are familiar with my athletes. There is no question in my mind that there are benefits to Olympic lifting for a hockey player. I believe power development is crucial for hockey players of any age.
The Swing has become a welcome addition to the menu of explosive lifts. It is a ballistic lift where we are using maximum power of the posterior chain to accelerate the kettlebell with proper technique. Hockey players spend an enormous amount of time with their spines, hips, knees, and ankles in flexion. Whether they are playing the sport, or sitting in their lockers, at home, on the plane or the bus, hockey players are always in a shortened position. The Swing helps us get full hip extension more efficiently so that we can help lengthen the muscles that can become shortened from prolonged flexion.
The Swing can also serve as an evaluation tool for those who have difficulty extending their hips. If we have players who can’t seem to get their hips to full extension at the end range of the Swing, we immediately go back to our glute activation exercises. Although we do spend a good amount of time performing exercises to prevent "Gluteal Amnesia", the Swing can give us a better indication of who may need additional work. With Glute activation exercises and a lot of time spent stretching out their hip flexors; we feel we can get good results from our Swings.
The swing is used as a power exercise or as a conditioning tool. As a power exercise, we do 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps. We also use it as a conditioning tool for those who may be injured and may not be necessarily cleared to skate. An example of this may be a player who has sustained an injury to a hand, wrist, or shoulder. We simply do 1-arm Swings with the good limb. We use the Swing in this situation for reps in the 20-30 range. We may also use a heart rate monitor to help monitor our rest periods so that the rest periods are similar to what they may be in a hockey game. Depending on the player and the role on the team, we have them recover until they reach a certain heart rate and then start their next set of swings.
The Get Up
As a Strength and Conditioning coach in a team sport setting, I admit I was hesitant about the Get Up when I first started to learn about it. I viewed it as an exercise that would be too difficult to implement in my coaching situation, as it looked like an exercise that seemed too complicated to teach to a large group of athletes. (We have 23 players on our hockey team).
I first learned and practiced the Get Up at a Perform Better 1 Day Seminar in Los Angeles a few years back. To say that I was humbled by an 8k kettlebell is an understatement. Dr. Mark Cheng, Senior RKC, was my instructor during the hands-on portion of the seminar. I was coached by him through all of the 7 steps of the Kalos Sthenos method. In my short time spent with Dr. Cheng, I realized that this was an exercise where proper form was critical. Dr. Cheng was critiquing my every move as I tried to do a Get Up successfully. This was the first time that I realized that our players probably needed to be doing the Get Up. I felt that this was a total body exercise that would be beneficial for our team. What I found valuable during this experience was that performing the Get Up with less than adequate technique really exposes the athlete to issues such as weakness and tightness to some of the muscles that are involved in the lift.
Another resource that I have found helpful in learning the Get Up is Kettlebells From the Ground Up by the previously mentioned Dr. Mark Cheng, with Gray Cook and Brett Jones, Master RKC. This is a great manual that outlines the 7 steps of the Get Up in a specific way. One of the quotes from Dr. Cheng in the manual is
"The Turkish Get Up serves as a fundamental movement primer, a corrective exercise, a conditioning system, and a movement screen. It is a useful tool to both detect and address movement pattern asymmetries and weaknesses."
I agree with him 100%. An all-purpose strength and stability exercise that is a corrective exercise and a movement screen at the same time? After learning this movement provides such valuable feedback about a hockey player, it was a given that I would incorporate the Get Up.
In our off-season training program, we have progressions for the Get Up, which are incorporated twice per week. We do the prescribed progression during each of the 3-week phases of the program as part of our workouts on days 1 and 3. We start the off-season with phase 1 of the Get Up and are performing full Get Ups by the end. We also use Get Up progressions during the in-season phase. At the beginning of the season, we start with Get Up to Elbow. Like the off-season, we will spend about 3-5 weeks on different phases of the Get Up, doing the full Get Up with a month or so left in the season.
The Goblet Squat
The Goblet Squat has become a really good in-season lift for us. In the last few years, I have moved away from loading my players’ spines through other double-leg squatting exercises such as the Back Squat and Front Squat. The risk vs. reward benefit of these lifts simply doesn’t make sense to me as a Strength and Conditioning Coach in a professional sport setting. What the Goblet Squat allows us to do is get a really good double-leg strengthening exercise done in a safe and effective manner. What I really like about the Goblet Squat is the consistency amongst the team. I have honestly not seen too many Goblet Squats done poorly. However, I can’t say that about Back Squats.
The Overhead Press
Developing shoulder strength and stability is an absolute must in a strength and conditioning program for hockey. Like the kettlebell lifts, the Overhead Press has been another great addition to our program. In fact, I think that the kettlebell press is better than the dumbbell press. It just feels like a more natural movement pattern. Also, when you focus on using tension to provide a better base of support (learned at the RKC), the press becomes much more than a shoulder exercise.
Progressing from kneeling position, to a half-kneel position, to a lunge position, and then to a standing position is key. This is done so that our players can get stronger in each pattern, which will also help with players who may have demonstrated asymmetries in the In-Line Lunge pattern of the FMS.
An example of our 2011-2012 In-Season Phase 1 training:
Day 1
Day 2
SIDE BRIDGE- 2x5 ea. (:10 HOLD)
YTWL- 3x10ea.
My thoughts on the Snatch
In my own training, I really love the kettlebell snatch as a conditioning tool. I actually feel it would be great tool for hockey players as well, as it provides high velocity hip extension over and over again. However, what I don’t like about the snatch is that it really tears up the hands. I think back to my RKC prep and how I tore my hands apart when I was doing my high rep range snatches earlier on in my training. I can’t afford to have my players hurt their hands during the training process. However, if a player has learned how to do them properly and takes care of his hands, I wouldn’t hesitate at all. Until then, I will save the Snatch for my own training.
The kettlebell has been a great addition to our program. Like any other implement that we use, it has its place in the training program, and I strongly feel that kettlebell training has contributed to our teams’ overall durability and performance.

Sean Skahan, RKC, CSCS, is in his 10th season as the Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Anaheim Ducks. He has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach since 1998. During that time he has worked with several athletes who are now playing in the NHL, NFL, and MLB. His articles can be found on his blog and at