Before I get started on this article I want to ask you where it hurts. During the third period of a game what is aching? My guess is that more than 50% of you have an aching back as the game goes on. Many hockey players come to the gym and ask for some exercises to strengthen their back because it gets fatigued and sore as the game goes on.
Although some players may have weakness in their back extensors, more often this discomfort is related to muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalance in hockey players may also result in sore or tight hips. The most common muscle imbalance in hockey players is tightness in the hip flexors. Hip flexors are the muscles in the front of the hip you can see them in action if you stand tall and lift your foot off the floor bringing your knee up in front of your body. There are a couple of hip flexors that have slightly different actions, but we won’t worry about that right now.
Although being a hockey player contributes to this muscle imbalance, it is not the only cause. Think about your daily life. Are you a student? Do you work in an office? If you spend a good portion of your day in a seated position, you are sitting with your hips in a flexed (or bent) position. This places the muscles in a shortened position. Then we leave school or work and hit the ice where we skate from a nice low athletic position with the hips and knees flexed. Since our body only learns by reinforcement, if you put your hip flexors in a shortened position for the majority of the day, then they will take that shortened position to be the normal resting position.
I hope you understand how we get an imbalance of flexibility in the hip flexors. Now let’s look at why that is important. One of the hip flexors attaches just below the knee and to the front of the hip bone. Another hip flexor attaches to the thigh and the anterior aspect of the lumbar spine. So if the hip flexors are tight they pull the athlete into a hyper-extended position in the lower back. Next consider the skating stride where you are trying to take your hip into more extension as you stride which will try to pull the hockey player into even more low back hyperextension.
Now to complicate things a little bit think about your back position as you play, your preferred position is likely skating with a flat or slightly rounded lower back. Can you now see how this muscle imbalance can create a tug-of-war between the hips and the lower back? This tug-of-war creates your feelings of discomfort in the most vulnerable link. I want to make sure you understand that this is not just about your back feeling tired or your hips feeling tight. Without doing something to improve muscle imbalances in hockey players, you are just waiting for your next injury to occur.
To improve your hip flexibility there are two very easy stretches to do. Make sure you do both because they target the two different hip flexors in a specific way.
Half Kneeling Hip Flexor
- Kneel on one knee with the other foot flat on the floor in front of your body (the front knee should be bent to 90 degrees, not more).
- Stay tall in your torso; do not lean forward at the hips as this will negate the stretch.
- Maintain your tall torso position and push your hips forward while tucking your butt underneath a little bit. If you have trouble feeling the stretch try flexing the muscles in your butt.
- You should feel this stretch in the front of your hip.
- You may add a sidebend to increase the stretch slightly. If your left knee is on the floor then try side-bending your torso to the right.
Hip Flexor & Quad
- Set up exactly as described above.
- If your left knee is on the floor, you will reach back and grab your left ankle with your left hand and bring your heel up toward your butt (just like you are doing a quadriceps stretch).
- Maintain your tall torso position.
- You will feel this more in the front of your thigh.
Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and complete two repetitions on each side. Make sure you do both variations of this stretch, they target different areas. Incorporate these two flexibility exercises into your daily training and reduce some of your muscle imbalances. This small investment of time will help improve your skating stride and reduce the stress on your hip and lower back.