Strength training is well documented as a means of developing athleticism, power and performance potential in a range of sports.
This article will be looking at the impact that it can have on field hockey performance, how it can mitigate the risk of certain injuries and which boxes we need to tick in our training programme.
The guidelines in this article are purely for reference and are not intended to be used as a substitute for a well designed, personalised training programme from a qualified strength and conditioning practitioner. Please seek out a professional whenever completing a strength training programme.
What is strength training?
Strength training may be defined as a means of training which involves the use of resistance to stimulate increases in muscular force production capabilities. There are an incredibly broad number of ways in which strength training can be applied which is beyond the scope of this article, however some applications of strength training may include free weights resistance training, isometric strength exercises and the use of resistance machines.
The adaptations that strength training can lead to include hypertrophy of muscle fibres, increased force production, increased tendon stiffness, increased rate of force production and neural adaptations. All of these have a specific purpose, caused by a specific stimulus which I wrote more about here.
How can strength training impact field hockey performance?
Field hockey places specific demands on the body which are unique to the sport, and therefore it is important that we address these in a well designed training plan. Injuries are something that everyone wants to avoid, and having clarity around the common injury sites in the sport helps us determine where we can begin to make an impact through a training plan.
The most common injury site is the lower limb (60-70% of all field hockey injuries), with the ankle being the most frequently injured joint, typically involving some degree of inversion mechanism. Furthermore, hamstring, knee, adductor and lower back injuries are commonly reported, as are contact injuries to the face and torso.
With this in mind, we can already see how strength at the ankle is vital if we are to offset the risk of inversion related ankle sprains typically caused by unplanned changes of direction and getting into and out of low positions. We know from research that poor peak dorsiflexion torque scores are associated with increased incidence of ankle sprains in female field hockey players, and this gives us some insight into the types of exercises which may safeguard against ankle sprains in this demographic.
For example, calf raises and landing based tasks, as well as isolated strength of the tibialis anterior may all contribute to reduced risk at this injury site.
Furthermore, given that the lower limb is the predominant injury area for field hockey players, developing maximal strength of the lower limb is vital if we are to not only keep athletes fit and healthy, but also increase their performance potential.
General or specific?
Each sport possesses specific demands which need to be addressed, but general physical attributes also play an important part in all round athletic performance. A key principle to understand is that of overload v specificity. If something is highly specific, it is extremely difficult to overload this task, whereas if we want to overload an athlete it is hard to make it specific.
This makes sense, as an athlete is likely very accustomed to the specific movements of their sport, and therefore trying to recreate these in the gym is not only potentially dangerous but also a little short-sighted. If we want to overload the body, we need to understand that the body adapts based on what the tissue experiences, and not what the movement looks like.
True specificity is determined by dynamic correspondence, which includes the amount of force, the direction of force, the muscles involved, the time to peak force and onset of force amongst other factors. The kinetics (forces), not kinematics (movements) are probably more indicative of exercise specificity, although both elements are important.
In regards to field hockey, we should therefore seek to develop a solid foundation of general strength, capacity and conditioning before concerning ourselves with the ‘specific’ nature of the exercises we are completing. To reiterate, the body only knows what stress it is experiencing at a tissue level, and therefore what an exercise looks like is less important than the degree to which we are overloading it.
Long story short, we need to address some basic questions first such as ‘can the athlete move competently through a range of basic exercises?’ and ‘is the athlete capable of producing large amounts of force?’ before worrying about the specifics of the exercises. Once an athlete has developed these underpinning qualities, then it becomes more logical to begin adding a layer of specificity to the movements and exercises, but that requires its own article!
How often should I complete strength training?
The question of how often typically depends on the training age of the athlete, their current goals and what the stimulus we are talking about is. In the case of a young athlete, even one session per week will see steady progress if their training age (how many years they have trained for) is low enough. For most athletes however, two strength sessions per week allows for sufficient frequency of stimulus to enable progress in strength in a sustainable, appropriate manner.
As with all things, some is good, more is better, and a lot is dangerous. During the off-season, it may be appropriate to increase to three or even four strength sessions in the week, but this is entirely dependent on the individual, their age, level of competence and training experience.
As a rule of thumb, two strength sessions per week is appropriate for most athletes. The content of these sessions will of course look very different for a young athlete compared to a senior international. If you have any questions about this, please do get in touch.
Which exercises should I include?
Given that the sport is characterised by repeated sprints, frequent high speed changes in direction and low positions of flexion, it is important that programmes for field hockey players address the ‘hybrid’ nature of the sport.
Athletes need the speed and power to accelerate quickly to win foot races to the ball, the strength to get into and out of low positions effectively and safely, and the capacity to do this over and over again without putting unnecessary stresses on the body including the lower back.
Given all that we’ve addressed so far in this article, strength training programmes for field hockey players should include elements of plyometrics, heavy lower strength training, upper body strength training and exercises that develop capacity of the hamstring, adductor, calf and trunk muscles.
Plyometrics are a fantastic stimulus for the body enabling us to increase our elasticity, rate of force development and speed. We should progress from higher volume, lower intensity versions to begin with, to more intensive exercises over time to enable (amongst other tissues) the tendons to progressively adapt. Exercises such as pogo jumps, hurdle hops/jumps and A skips encourage a short ground contact time (GCT) and stiffness of the ankle on contact with the floor. One small caveat is that true plyometrics typically involve GCTs <250ms, but for the simplicity of this article we will include jumps, which often involve longer GCTs, in this category too. It is difficult to provide exact prescriptions for set/rep parameters given the broad continuum that plyometrics exist on and the lack of context, but as a rule of thumb keep these low volume and high quality with plenty of rest in between sets.
Lower body strength exercises should form the bedrock of a well designed strength training programme for field hockey players. The more force we can produce and reduce in the lower body, the better we will be able to get into and out of low shapes, accelerate quickly and (more importantly) decelerate quickly as we experience more high speed decelerations than accelerations in the sport.
The argument around single leg v double leg exercises is needlessly divisive. Irrespective of the sport being played, a simple rule to follow is to do both! They both play an important role in all round physical preparation, so cycle through variations on both a single leg and double leg. Single leg exercises do however provide the additional benefit of the ‘bilateral deficit’ phenomenon, as well as being a great way to achieve some additional adductor loading which is important for the sport of field hockey in which this is a common injury area.
Exercises for the lower body can be broadly put into two categories - squat and hinge. Squat exercises include rear foot elevated split squats, back squats, split squats, and front squats. Hinge exercises include deadlifts, romanian deadlifts, single leg deadlifts and trap bar deadlifts. This is determined broadly speaking by whether they are a ‘knee/quad dominant’ movement or a ‘hip/glute dominant’ movement, although it is a little more complicated than that but I won’t go into it for now! For the sake of simplicity, aim to include one exercise from the squat and one exercise from the hinge categories in a training session.
Upper body strength exercises are important for keeping your shoulders robust, as well as getting you strong for contests for the ball and when trying to physically compete with the opposition in close quarters. The best way to develop upper body strength is through multi-joint exercises which enable us to produce more force over a number of joints! We can categorise these as ‘push’ and ‘pull’ exercises. Push exercises can be horizontal or vertical in nature, and include chest press, overhead press, push-ups and push press. Pull exercises fall into the same two categories and include inverted rows, chin-ups, single arm rows and pulldowns. Aim to include one push and one pull in each training session.
Hamstring exercises are vital to keep this muscle robust, strong and to reduce injury risk given that it is a frequently injured area for field hockey players. Again we can further break hamstring exercises down into knee flexion and hip extension categories, as the hamstring plays two roles in the lower limb. It’s primary role is that of a knee flexor, but it also plays a secondary role supporting hip extension. Hip extension exercises include hamstring curls, nordics and swiss ball curls, banded curls, whilst hip extension exercises include hip hinges (which we’ve already addressed earlier) and more specifically bridges and single leg bridges. Based on what you’ve picked in your ‘hinge’ category, include a complementary exercise. For example if you’re completing a barbell romanian deadlift in the main part of your strength session, you could include some single leg curls or bridges to give the hamstring a different, complementary stimulus.
Calf exercises (including the soleus) are super important for field hockey players as the ankle is the number one risk site. The calf and the soleus make up the ‘triceps surae’, a group of muscles which mesh together at the heel to insert into the achilles tendon. They play an important role in producing large amounts of force whilst running, and also help stabilise the ankle in athletic movements. To specifically target the calf (gastrocnemius), straight leg calf raises can be used, as well as straight leg calf isometrics. To target the soleus, seated calf raises are an excellent choice. Both muscle groups are slow twitch in nature and have a high force potential, so plenty of volume is needed to overload them. Aim to include at least one calf exercise in your training session.
Trunk exercises are the final piece of the puzzle, and are vital for protecting the lower back from injury. The lower back gets put into all kinds of compromised positions during field hockey, so the ability to tolerate these training stresses is very important indeed! The trunk is a slightly vague term we use to describe the muscles which stabilise the spine but can be more broadly used to include a large array of muscles which are found between the shoulders and the hips.
A simple way to break the trunk down is to think of it as having four segments - the anterior segment, the lateral segments (left and right) and the posterior segment. Exercises which target the anterior segment include leg lower variations, plank variations, isometric holds and crunches. Lateral segment exercises include side plank variations, copenhagens (a fantastic adductor exercise primarily) and isometric holds. The posterior portion (lower back) is loaded a lot during heavy multi-joint exercises and may therefore not need a huge amount more, however isometric exercises are useful additions to help bulletproof the back from injury.
The trunk muscles can withstand an enormous amount of loading owing to their involvement in posture and spinal stability on a daily basis. You can therefore complete plenty of reps, up to around 10 minutes of work or 200-250 reps at a time, but build up gradually.
An example training session
Now that we’ve gone through the various aspects of a strength training programme, here is a template training session that would tick all of the boxes outlined above and would form an effective, targetted (not specific!) training session.
Just to reiterate that this is an out of context, generic training session which is not designed to be used beyond clarifying how all the parts of the puzzle can be put together. Please see professional guidance whenever you begin a strength training programme.
Movement prep - hip, ankle and thoracic mobility focus as well as soft tissue work on tight areas of the body
Plyometrics - pogo jumps (10 reps), single leg hops (5 reps per side)
Lower body strength - split squat (5 reps per side) and barbell RDL (6-8 reps)
Upper body strength - chest press (8 reps) and single arm rows (8 reps per side)
Hamstring - single leg bridges (15 reps per side)
Calf - single leg calf raises (15-20 reps per side)
Trunk - 10 minutes of leg lowers, side plank variations, isometric holds and crunches
N.B. sets not included, but typically 2-4 sets would be appropriate for the major exercises whilst 2-3 sets for the accessory (hamstring/calf) exercises would be appropriate.
Strength training can be seen as a means to stimulate adaptations in the body that increase an athlete’s tolerance to training stresses, whilst impacting performance. In a field hockey sense, this means recognising the risks, deciding how to address these in a well-designed programme, and ensuring that the reasons behind any exercise inclusion are clarified.
In a highly tactically determined sport like field hockey, keeping players robust to tolerate the training demands of the week enables them to complete more on pitch training which ultimately allows them to develop the necessary technical and tactical skills to increase their chances of winning.
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