FACE OFF: Inside Fitness Magazine sits down with one of the NHL’s best Strength and Conditioning Coaches, Matt Nichol

A rare and in-depth look at how some of today’s top players stay in shape!
As Told to Michelle Shaw of Inside Fitness Magazine by Matt Nichol
With summer over and the Fall season now officially upon us here in Canada, the eyes and attention of the sporting world shift their focus to the one sport that identifies us as a Nation, and has put us on the map all over the world, hockey! And in our never ending quest to bring you the best of the best when it comes to sport centered training, we’re proud to present this exclusive interview with the best strength and conditioning coach in the hockey biz, Matt Nichol! The former strength and conditioning coach for the storied Toronto Maple Leafs franchise and for Team Canada, Matt now runs a booming private practice that boasts an all-star studded NHL client list that includes the likes of Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak and Mats Sundin. Bottom line: Matt is the go-to trainer NHL hockey players seek out when they need to up their game. Here, Matt shares his strength, conditioning and training principles that we’re sure are going to benefit all readers!

Inside Fitness Magazine: Matt, first off, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. To get going here, we’re going to first start with a little bit about your background. Were you an athlete in high school/university and if so, what sports did you participate in?
Matt Nichol: Growing up I competed in a variety of sports, pretty much everything besides hockey. I swam competitively, played football, basketball, soccer, rugby, did track and field at the varsity level, and competed in power lifting; but football was definitely the sport I excelled at most. I attended McGill University for my undergraduate degree where I was a member of the football and track and field teams respectively. While completing my Masters Degree in Kinesiology at York University I also played, and coached football.

IFM: Do you think being an athlete yourself has helped when it comes to the training other athletes? If so, how?
Matt Nichol: Absolutely. I think at the very least, every strength coach should have trained for some type of athletic event in their lifetime. I don’t know how you can truly appreciate or empathize with what is involved in high level athletic training if you have never really done any yourself. I think that your success in the sport of your choice is less relevant, but I think the fact that you have pushed yourself to achieve a goal through intense physical training makes your more adept to helping others to do the same.

IFM: Though you work with top athletes from all the major sports, you are best known for your work with hockey players, given your past as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs for 7 years and for Team Canada’s gold medal run at the World Cup of Hockey in 2004. What is it about hockey, per say, that drew you in from a training perspective, more so than other sports?
Matt Nichol: From a strength and conditioning coaching perspective, hockey is one of the most exciting sports to prepare an athlete for because it requires so many different physical abilities. Hockey players need to be strong, powerful, fast, agile and supremely well conditioned. Hockey is also a collision sport, so the players must be prepared to give, or receive contact; often without time to adjust or brace themselves. When you add to the equation the fact that they are playing their sport on a sheet of ice while standing on metal blades that are a couple of millimeters, thick you really have covered the full spectrum of trainable physical attributes.

IFM: Well put Matt. Do the metabolic, strength and endurance requirements for hockey make strength and conditioning for the sport more important than for, say, a sport like baseball or tennis?
Matt Nichol: I think so. Much like baseball or tennis, hockey is a skill sport and above all else it requires a high level of specific technical ability (stick-handling, skating, passing, shooting), however, the one area that differentiates hockey the most from the two other sports mentioned is the element of contact, and the amount and variety of movement that is required. Baseball requires even higher levels of specific skill, but less overall fitness. Tennis requires an extremely high level of fitness, but the movements occur in a much more limited space, and there is obviously no physical contact.

IFM: When you are working with a hockey player from a training perspective, what do you ultimately hope to achieve; what is, or are, your main goal(s)?
Matt Nichol: This is highly individualized. I have young players that are looking to break into the league and earn a spot any way that they can. I have older players who are looking to maximize their health and longevity, and to hold on for one more contract. I have players who consult with me for nutritional advice and who are looking to gain size, and others who are looking to get leaner. I have a lot of players who see me just for re-hab. All of their goals are essentially the same; to maximize their potential, and to be the most successful player that they can be … but the route that each player takes can be vastly different.

IFM: What percentage of your strength and conditioning for hockey is done off ice (dry land training), as opposed to actually on the ice, if any?
Matt Nichol: This is also very specific to the individual, and also specific with respect to the time of year. With my younger players, or players who did not get a sufficient amount of ice time during the previous season, we will focus more on the technical aspects of their game. With my more veteran players, or players who have just come off of a long season (or play-off run), or play an exceptionally high number of minutes, re-hab of the numerous injuries sustained during the season and subsequently maintaining/improving strength become the focus. In the first half of the off-season we probably spend 80-90% of the training time off of the ice. As the summer progresses, we transition to our specific preparation phase where we are on the ice 70-80% of the time, and in the gym 20-30% of the time.

IFM: On that note, how do your training techniques differ on-season, versus off-season?
Matt Nichol: Off-season training is completely different from in-season training. Off-season is more science-based, whereas in-season is more art. In-season training is directed more towards maintaining, or optimizing health, whereas off-season training is directed more towards personal development and increasing overall levels of strength, speed, fitness, etc. This is not to suggest that these qualities cannot be targeted in-season, it’s just that there is a much lower capacity for off-ice training, in general, due to the demands of the NHL schedule.

IFM: Of the various components of training, be it strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, etc., which do you feel is, or are, the most important to target for hockey players, and why?
Matt Nichol: I hate to sound like a broken record here, but once again, this is highly individualized. Being able to bench press 400 pounds is irrelevant if you can’t skate. Having a VO2 of 65 is irrelevant if you are slow and weak. It’s important for hockey players to be well rounded athletes.

IFM: How much of reliance do you have on traditional weight training, using dumbbells, barbells and the like?
Matt Nichol: I use whatever works. My private gym has very few machines (cables, a glute-ham raise, a gastroc calf raise, a reverse hyperextension machine), but we have nearly 500 pounds of medicine balls (in increments from four pounds to 20 pounds), dumbbells ranging from two pounds to 160 pounds, more than 3,000 pounds of plates and a variety of bars … so I guess you could say that I still believe in lifting weights!

Inside Fitness: Do you make use some of the newer training innovations like kettle bells, the TRX® suspension trainer, bands, plyo balls, etc.? If so, how?
Matt Nichol: I make use of everything. Different types of equipment elicit different adaptations and keep training interesting and challenging. Some of my NHL players have been training with me for as long as 10 years and they have already heard all of my jokes and can finish all of my sentence. I like to incorporate new toys to keep them guessing! Medicine balls and bands are an exception to this, whereby they are not used for variety, but are a staple in my training and always have been. We probably incorporate both into every training day, in some capacity or another.

IFM: Do you find that the athletes you train are internally driven, or is part of your role to act as motivator? If so, what sort of motivational techniques have you used with success?
Matt Nichol: I am very fortunate in that I have been successful enough, or at least have been doing this long enough that I do not need to advertise my services. My clients are generated through word of mouth referrals and I turn away more clients than I accept. All of my athletes are internally driven, or they would not be with me. Not all of them are equally driven, and some will occasionally need a hug or a kick in the ass, but for the most part, I need to do very little in this department. If you need your trainer to motivate you to want to be better, then you’re probably not going to go far in today’s game.

IFM: Switching gears here a little bit, you’ll often hear the notion that so and so hockey player has to ‘bulk up’ to play at the NHL level. Have you ever come across that with one of your clients and if so, what sort of techniques did you adopt to help with the weight gain process, without compromising performance (i.e. speed)?
Matt Nichol: This is a very common problem amongst younger players and one that I deal with regularly. From my own personal experience, I have found it harder to gain weight than to lose weight. Most of the time people who need to lose body fat just need to be honest with themselves, and stop eating/drinking all of the stuff they know they shouldn’t be consuming, and start consistently eating well. Gaining weight often takes more discipline with respect to meal timing and meal frequency. When you are trying to gain “functional bodyweight” you need to eat every three hours, you can never skip breakfast, and absolutely never screw up your workout supplement regimen. Years ago when I worked with a large number of football players, I had some players preparing for the NFL combine who would wake-up in the middle of the night to have a protein shake. I no longer think this is a healthy idea, but it demonstrates the level of commitment that you have to have to meal frequency in order to gain weight.

IFM: That’s a nice little segway into the importance of nutrition. What sort of a diet do you recommend for hockey players to follow, in terms of macronutrient ratios, and do you have any secret hockey super foods?
Matt Nichol: There really aren’t any secrets. Most of the principles of nutrition that I teach my players are the same ones that were taught to me by my Mom. In fact; I wish that most of my players would be as health conscious with their diets as she was! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, a growing boy needs to eat, always eat your veggies, slow down and chew your food and don’t eat too many sweets; these strategies are all key. I also believe in a concept called Metabolic Typing, which is a nutritional protocol based on the concept of biochemical individuality (a fancy way of saying that no two people are the same biochemically). So, that in mind, there is no such thing as a one-size fits all diet … despite what many of the Internet nutrition gurus would have you believe! In general, the following recommendations are common amongst all of my athletes:

• Choose organic foods whenever possible
• Consume some form of protein with every meal
• Don’t be afraid of fat – olive oil, fish oil, nuts, seeds and even saturated fat from organic sources are an integral part of a healthy diet
• Consume some type of green leafy vegetable with every meal
• Eat more vegetables of any kind in general
• Drink more water between meals and less during meals
• Don’t screw up your supplementation regimen

IFM: How does the diet differ on-season, versus off-season?
Matt Nichol: In general, I am much more strict with my off-season nutritional recommendations. Superstition, habits and the like are not a factor, so I don’t have to worry about a player missing out on his “lucky” chicken parm that he thinks helps him score goals!

IFM: Can you tell us a little bit about your line, Biosteel?
Matt Nichol: I was the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs for nearly 8 years. Before that job though I worked in the nutritional supplement industry as the assistant to one of the world’s foremost sports supplement formulators. I learned a lot about the industry during this time. When I took my job with the Leafs I quickly gained a reputation as “The Supplement Guy” and most of the players on the team (and many players around the league) would ask for advice. I decided at that time to take matters into my own hands and began producing all of the supplements that the Leafs used. The products were a huge hit with the players because they were safe and because they actually worked! When I began working privately again in 2009 I had enough of a demand for my products from a variety of players around the NHL and in some of the other professional leagues (NFL, CFL, NBA) that it warranted me taking my business to the next level … and thus Biosteel was born. For the past two years I streamlined my line down to one very specific product, which is the “Biosteel HPSD.” This product has been wildly popular with the athletes that have been using it. Biosteel HPSD is an amino acid and electrolyte replacement drink. I formulated the product to address the following issues:

– Energy without stimulants
– Increased Endurance
– Decreased Fatigue
– Hydration
– Maintenance of lean body mass
– Mitigating the effects of cortisol

Our company philosophy is simple; provide drug free athletes with the safest and most effective nutritional supplements available. If we can’t make a product that is better than anything currently available on the market then we won’t bother making it all. We will have an entire line of products that will be available to our professional athletes soon. I could go on and on all day about the highlights and benefits of the products, but obviously I am biased on the subject.

IFM: We’re getting close here to the end Matt. Thanks for hanging in there with us; you’re delivering some great answers that our readers will love! Any words of advice for an up and coming hockey player in terms of off-ice strength and conditioning?
Matt Nichol: Quality before quantity. This applies to strength training and to conditioning. Nobody cares how much weight you can lift improperly or dangerously, and there is no benefit to being the strongest guy watching the game from the physiotherapy room. Likewise, nobody cares how long you can skate slowly for. When doing your conditioning, build speed and power first … and then improve your ability to sustain that speed and power.

IFM: And, finally, on that note, what can the average trainer take from your methods to help them achieve their goal(s)?
Matt Nichol: #1,“Build from the Inside Out.” While I used to use this slogan 12 years ago referring to the importance of ‘core” training (which is still true!) I now use this to refer to the importance of proper nutrition and lifestyle habits. You can’t out-train a lousy diet or an imbalanced lifestyle. And # 2, “Unrealistic Expectations.” A lot of gym trainers that I see are over-worked, over-stressed and under-nourished. They then compound this problem by attempting to train like an NHL player or UFC champion, which often leads to burnout and/or injury. You need to take a long term approach to fitness; there are no secret short-cuts. Consistency is the most important component of any fitness regimen.