From ballet to layups: My surprising workout with an NHL trainer
Matt Nichol is a veteran strength and conditioning coach who works with such NHL players as Taylor Hall, Mike Cammalleri, Tyler Seguin and Wayne Simmonds. He is also a former nutritionist and conditioning coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs who is now an independent trainer and the co-founder of BioSteel, a Canadian sports hydration and nutrition company.
So, I accepted his invitation to an event for journalists and sports-minded women that was meant to lend some fitness advice while also promoting the brand. In August, some of the journalists among us had watched Nichol lead a large group of NHL players through field workouts during one of BioSteel's popular off-season training camps at St. Michael's College in Toronto.
Here was a chance to try many of those same exercises in a gymnasium at BioSteel Centre, the Toronto Raptors'$2 68,000-square-foot state-of-the-art practice facility. While I was eager to push heavy sleds and lift weights as the hockey players often do with Nichol, those activities weren't part of our workout.
Many of us already lift weights anyway, and there's more to training an NHL player than strength and power, Nichol pointed out.
We were in for a workout that would use very little equipment, one that his pro athletes also find hones focus, visual awareness and decision-making acumen when they're competing. But the biggest benefit to us – some athletic women who just enjoy working out – was moving the body in dynamic ways.
"Getting strong is the easy part I think," Nichol said. "If I was training you three or four times each week, we would definitely get in the weight room.
"But when I have you for just one workout, I want to do some things you're not likely doing in your gym workouts, things you probably haven't done in years."
Keep your warmup dynamic
The group of some 20 women began running laps around the gym – much as the hockey players had done that morning. Nichol quickly tossed a medicine ball into the mix and asked each of us to pass it backward to the person running behind us. He kept adding more medicine balls to the drill, so that we were constantly on the lookout for the next ball as we ran.
Anyone who found herself at a break in the circle with no one behind her within tossing distance had to sprint to the beginning of the line to keep the ball in action.
"As an athlete, you need to be always present in the moment, and when you're just jogging, you can quickly be mentally disengaged from what you're doing," Nichol said. "But when you add in medicine balls, you have to be constantly aware. Just like on the ice, when you have to have your wits about you all the time."
The dynamic warmup continued with such things as stretches, lunges, walkouts and planks. A series of running drills – such as jogging backward and then turning to break into a sprint – tuned our spatial awareness. We skipped and ran the carioca – a fun twisting, cross-stepping footwork drill some of us did years ago, while warming up with our soccer or field hockey teammates.
"If you add just five minutes of those movement-based warmup drills to your regular gym workouts, you will feel remarkably better a month or two from now, because it stimulates the brain and hormonal system and it just feels good," Nichol said. "When I demonstrate the skips, bounding and carioca – it feels like having a double espresso."
Zone in on agility
Next, Nichol set up four water bottles on the floor and numbered them – one at each corner of a large square. Each woman stepped into the centre of the square one by one, and was asked to listen and react to his voice commands. He hollered out numbers quickly, and we leapt in all directions to touch the correct bottles. Often he would try misdirecting us by motioning toward a different bottle than his voice was commanding.
"Agility is critical in my sport, and so is focus," said Olympic trampoline gold medalist Rosie MacLennan, who was training with the women that day. "In that drill, we were being told one thing but directed to something else. I liked it, because in my sport, it's so important to be able to home in on what you need to focus on and tune out everything else that is coming your way."
Nichol further explained the benefit of the drill.
"I don't like typical pylon skating or running drills because the athlete can anticipate where the pylons are and where he or she needs to go," he said. "That's nonsense, because the puck isn't always going to a specific spot in a hockey game. The player needs to work on watching and reacting quickly to the action. You're doing everything that my pro athletes do here, and while your goals might be different than theirs, you can still train like an athlete does with a fun drill that challenges your muscles with new movement patterns."
Sharpen your reaction time
Keeping with the reaction-time theme, another of Nichol's drills had the women tasked with chasing a very bouncy, lumpy-shaped object called a reaction ball – a staple of many elite athlete workouts. Because the palm-shaped six-sided rubber ball is not round, it skips off in unpredictable ways. Nichol stood behind each athlete and tossed the ball over her shoulder. Just as he did with his NHL players, he asked us to locate the ball with our eyes, lurch after it and grab the odd-shaped object as quickly as possible.
"This one is all about decision skills," Nichol said. "Your eyes are open and you're in an athletic position reacting and making fast decisions. Similarly, I make my goalies play squash, forcing them to be body aware and know where you are at all times, making fast decisions."
The workout – which lasted about 90 minutes – wrapped up with a number of basketball-related exercises. One was a three-player drill which many of us had done back in our high-school basketball days. The trio of women in each group had to weave throughout one another across the floor quickly in tandem, making crisp, rapid passes as we ran, then conclude by making a layup.
"When we tried this basketball weaving drill with my NHL players, we had collisions, finger-pointing, and chirping – it was a disaster," Nichol said with a hearty laugh.
Bottom line? Don't get comfortable
Nichol stresses that muscles are highly adaptable so if you want to get them to grow and change, you have to expose them to stimulus they haven't already mastered. That doesn't just mean adding more weight and more reps.
"I like to push my players outside their comfort zone by having them do a variety of different things, even basketball, ballet or gymnastics," he said. "Their bodies are fatigued by an activity, and then I'm asking them to do something with speed and precision – like make a layup. That's good for their training."
Rachel Brady is a reporter with Globe Sports.