Here is yet another reference to a Tim Ferriss Concept, this one from the Four Hour Body. I continue to learn things with regards to hockey development, or my life…and I can hear one of his sayings resonating in my head from a book I read 4 years ago. “Everything popular is wrong” was ringing in my head as I realized that one of the most common skating technique cues was something that was really messing me up. Here we go…
“Bend Your Knees”
Ya, I’ll go ahead and tackle this one. I’ve taken a shot at the forward arm swing, and now I’m gonna tell you that knee bend doesn’t matter. Well actually, I’ll tell you that knee bend does matter…but more is not better.
If you go back and look at old games, you’ll very rarely see players with a deep knee bend. They may look hunched over, but that is due to hip flexion. Hip flexion is the angle between your upper leg and your torso. If you look at clips of speed skaters, you also rarely see a deep knee bend, but rather a deep level of hip flexion to allow their torso to come forward.
We got mixed up, somewhere…
The same well known power skating school that I beat up upon (but honourably leave unnamed) preaches the idea of at least a 90 degree knee bend and an upper body angle of 50 degrees. Why? I have no clue. It seems like they arbitrarily thought that both of those angles were ideal. Or maybe they did some research. Who knows, but both cues have trickled down, and many power skating coaches now use those cues.
NHL – What works? What do we see?
Let’s take a look at Toews. This guy is absolutely nowhere near the upper body angle recommended by power skating coaches. How much knee bend does he have? Not much. What he does have is hip flexion. He hinges at the hips and sticks his butt back to maintain balance.
Crosby, Ovechkin, Kane, Benn, Tavares, Datsyuk – all have different levels of knee bend depending on their bodies. But all have good hip flexion and less knee flexion than you think.
By having straighter knees, and more hip flexion, the body is in a more balance position. This allows the skater to generate force more quickly from their support leg with their hip. Meanwhile, a more flexed knee needs to travel back behind the body before being able to generate forward force from the hip. With a deep knee flexion, the leg can generate force, but with the knee extensors (quadriceps). The hips (glutes) are much more powerful than the quads at generating force.
Straighter knees allows the musculature of the lower leg to be recruited earlier. For example, researchers at the fine University of British Columbia found that soleus is recruited when the knee is in a bent position and that both the soleus and gastrocnemius are recruited in an extended knee position. So having the leg straighter has the lower leg in a more advantageous force producing situation. Also, with the knees straighter, the hips have to sit back to compensate, putting them in a more advantageous force production situation. When both knees are highly flexed, in order to extend the leg behind the body, the skater either knees other wordly flexible hip flexors (which, when tight impede hip extension), or they compensate by generating force laterally or not at all. Less knee flexion allows the legs to extend more directly behind the body.
When a skater has more hip flexion and less knee flexion, they can shift their balance by subtly moving their hips forward and back. When a skater has more knee flexion, they have to use larger ankle movements to shift their balance forward and back. The ankles, being further away from the centre of the body provide less leverage and are therefore not optimal for shifting body weight, but are instead useful for locomotion. So a larger knee bend shifts the responsibility of weight shifting to the ankles, which are not ideal for the task. Meanwhile, being in hip flexion allows the responsibility of weight shifts to originate closer to the body’s centre.
I had a teammate comment that he thought I got too low and got stuck on railroad tracks too often. He was right. I thought, because I had been told, that my strength as a skater came from my knee bend. But this knee bend actually made it more difficult for me to change direction.
Why we went wrong:
Very easy for someone without expertise to do, we confuse what we think we see with what is actually going on. We see deep levels of hip flexion from a speed skater, or a skater who looks strong, and we think its knee bend, because we don’t actually know very much about hip flexion of hip hinging. We describe what we know, and we know knee bend.
Making the adjustment
If you’re buying what I’m saying, experiment with skating with less knee bend. Make sure to compensate for less knee bend by sticking your bum further back. Make sure to also keep your ribcage down when you’re skating. Don’t eliminate knee bend, but play with a more extended position. Let your hip hinge dictate your knee bend. Pay attention to the ease with which you can generate force. If you find yourself in a position that’s easier to generate force, try that position out for a bit. Also, pay attention to how your stick handling and shooting improves or doesn’t with less knee bend, more hip hinge and a bit more forward torso angle.
If you know that you already have deep knee flexion, try sticking your butt further behind you and up, keeping your spine neutral. If you know that you don’t have knee flexion and your coaches are telling you to bend them more: politely nod, ignore them, practice the hip hinge, work on sticking your butt further behind you while skating.
If a skater cannot hip hinge correctly (flex the hips while maintaining neutral spine), this whole article will not help them. The skater who cannot hip hinge should first learn how to do so before attempting to improve any other aspect of their game.
“Bend your knees” is not an effective cue to teach an effective skating stride. It may cause a skater to emphasize knee bend over hip hinge. Hip hinge is a primary consideration for skating speed, power and balance, and knee bend is a secondary consideration.
Too deep of knee flexion leads to suboptimal force production angles
Too deep of knee flexion leads to less balance and control while skating dynamically
Learning to Hip Hinge is crucial for skaters
Applying the Hip Hinge to the skating stride will result in more speed, balance, puck control and improved shooting
Do not eliminate knee bend. Rather experiment with different levels to see what works for you. More knee bend is not better!
For one of my classes, I had to write a piece on the biomechanics and physiological requirements for an effective skating stride. It is full of technical jargon, but if you’re interested in what I think about the skating stride, give it a read! Post any questions for clarification in the comments section.