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Gary Roberts Performance
November 27, 2023
The value of grip strength has been debated in the hockey world for decades.
We're willing to bet that there is a homemade wrist roller somewhere at your house, your parent's house, or your grandparent's house.
You know the 8-inch piece of an old KOHO shaft with a hole drilled through the middle. A skate lace is fed through the hole and tied off. Lying next to it is probably a few old rusty plates that look like they came out of the first-ever plate mold from sometime just after the iron age.
We had one or two of those in the garage and the basement that we would use after shooting pucks but do they improve our shot?
That's not to say that grip strength isn't hugely valuable for hockey players; it certainly is. Your wrists and forearms are necessary to transfer energy through the body, the stick, and eventually into the puck.
But, the three sets of ten with the old KOHO will not be the difference maker between loafing in a muffin or ripping pucks into the back of the net.
If it's not your wrists, what body parts contribute to a harder shot?
Lots of things, but the primary drivers are the legs and hips, core musculature, and the necessary mobility through your pelvis and thoracic spine.
An improved shot is highly correlated to your strength and power and the ability to express that ability through coordinated movement. So it's lots of things, not one aspect.
Even if you were to pick a single body part that contributes to shot speed, wrist strength would not make the list. A study out of Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, assessed shot speed. It found that grip strength did not significantly correlate to improved shot speed (1). In contrast, upper body strength and power did – although we imagine that pales compared to the lower body musculature.
So if not for improving your shot, why else would you train your grip?
Fortunately - for most of us – hockey is not just a shooting contest, and having a solid grip can aid in several other areas.
Be careful spending too much time on grip work during the season. It can be pretty tiring and affect your feel come game time.
Hockey is full of shoulder issues.
If you haven't experienced a substantial upper-body injury yourself, you know someone who has left a game as a result. It's almost unavoidable, and we see it nightly in the NHL. High speeds with violent contact, especially in extended positions, is a recipe for injury.
Even more common than being taken out of a game is dealing with lingering issues night after night. This is the case at all levels – especially us old guys - and where grip strength can have benefits both on and off the ice.
The shoulder is a very complex joint. Injuries are often multi-factorial - caused by multiple things - but most chronic shoulder issues generally result from poor shoulder blade positioning and muscle activation. We can use grip strength to help mitigate and correct these imbalances.
There are two primary aspects at play.
Irradiation: This strength concept refers to how one muscle, working hard, can recruit neighbouring muscles and increase the overall strength. Try a simple handshake exercise to illustrate the concept of irradiation. Start by shaking someone's hand, squeezing as hard as you can. Note what level of pressure you can apply. Then, squeeze your glutes as hard as possible while simultaneously squeezing their hand. You will notice an increase in grip strength.
The same concept applies to the shoulder, improving grip strength will have upstream effects and better aid in recruiting the muscles that create shoulder stability. (2)
Muscle Activation Redistribution: When dealing with shoulder impingement, the front of our shoulder (deltoids) muscles are overpowering our rotator cuff and pulling the ball of the shoulder forward and into a painful position. Grip work helps to activate the Rotator Cuff – Irradiation – while also decreasing the deltoid activation. This will cause a shift in shoulder position that is not only better for you to compete for pucks but alos pain-free. (3)
Winning battles for the puck makes you a huge asset for your team and although much of the competing is done with your body having a strong grip on your stick is hugely important. It's one of the biggest differences we notice between junior and pro players. Players at the top levels are heavy on their stick and can win battles for pucks. It's worth noting if you're looking to level up your game.
A strong grip is also crucial for inside the face-off dot. Winning face-offs makes you an asset for your team, and having a solid grip can make the difference between ripping that puck back to your team or losing a game.
Improving your grip strength – in addition to the rest of your body – can help you lift, resist, and fight for loose pucks in every area on the ice.
Grip strength may not contribute directly to your shot, but strength certainly does, and grip strength can help increase your overall strength levels and muscle recruitment.
This is a personal antidote but worth sharing. A few years ago, we switched most of the Trapbars in the gym to thick grip handles. The first couple of weeks were rough. Players kept dropping the weight mid-set, and as coaches, we took some abuse.
But, after that adjustment period, something happened that we didn't expect. The overall load went up, and the player's mechanics looked cleaner. It turns out it's pretty tough to lift a thick grip bar without squeezing as hard as possible. That action would, in turn, increase neural drive and core activation, allowing them to push harder through the lift.
The same thing is true for upper body exercises. After working grip and instructing the players to squeeze the bar or dumbbell when lifting, they were better able to handle the load.
Would a Gary Roberts article be complete without at least one fighting reference?
Rhetorical question – we all know the answer is no.
Although we don't condone fighting, it can happen, and having enough knowledge and skill to defend yourself and stay safe is essential.
In some ways, hockey fights are more similar to judo than boxing as the jersey provides a leverage point to both throw strikes and defend. Even if your intention is not to throw any punches, a firm grip on the other team's jersey can save you from taking any damage and allow you t control your opponent's positioning.
Even if you never plan on being involved in a fight, hockey is an emotional game, and things can happen. It's better to be prepared and able to defend yourself than be caught in a situation and unsure what to do.
Rec League Longevity
At the end of the day, we all end up in the same place - pick-up games and rec leagues. But, if playing hockey well into your later years is your goal, then off-ice training is a MUST.
You can't afford to neglect it as you age, and grip strength is well researched as a biomarker for health. A study out of Campbell University validated the below claims in 2019 related to grip strength.
"[Grip strength is a]…predictive biomarker of specific outcomes such as generalized strength and function, bone mineral density, fractures, and falls, nutritional status, disease status and comorbidity load, cognition, depression, and sleep, hospital-related variables, and mortality."
Spending some extra time on your grip is a small price to pay to live a longer, fuller life spent on the ice with friends.
What grip work should I do?
Now that we've discussed why grip strength is essential for hockey players, how do we develop it?
There are a few different classifications of grip training that we utilize.
Crush – Often what we think about when we discuss gripping.
Pinch – Ability to pinch and hold objects.
Hang – The ability to hang and support your body.
Extend – The opposing muscles to all of our grip work must also be trained. No one wants to be an alligator, strong bite but no strength once their jaw is shut tight.
Dividing grip training into those four categories and making sure you hit them each week is an easy way to check off the grip training boxes.
One important thing to mention is that gripping an object in a static position is an isometric exercise, and the size of the object will dictate what position you are increasing your strength in. We vary the size of implements to promote grip strength in multiple positions.
Below are 7 of our favourite exercises for improving grip strength.
Bottoms Up KB Press
At the end of the day, a strong grip is an asset on and off the ice.
Incorporating these exercises into your routine during the off-season or at the end of a workout can be a game-changer. As with all exercises build up slowly, your forearms and hands can be quite sore if you're training grip for the first time and your stick can feel like a 2x4 chopping at pucks.
Adler S, Beckers D, and Buck M. PNF in Practice: An Illustrated Guide. Berlin: Springer, 2000.
Sporrong H, Palmerud G, Herberts P. Influences of handgrip on shoulder muscle activity. Eur J Appl Physiol Occupat Physiol 71: 485–492, 1995
Bohannon RW. Grip Strength: An Indispensable Biomarker For Older Adults. Clin Interv Aging. 2019;14:1681-1691. Published 2019 Oct 1. doi:10.2147/CIA.S194543