Perhaps Calgary Roughnecks strength coach Sean Hope-Ross sums it up best when he says, “The days of lacrosse athletes training only for muscular and cardiovascular endurance are gone.” Fitness and strength training are a full-time, year-round proposition for elite athletes, and for National Lacrosse League (NLL) players, the grueling season means keeping up a regimen set forth by pros like Hope-Ross. The indoor league, whose season runs from late November through April into the playoffs in May, features 13 teams across North America.
“The lacrosse athlete must be quick, powerful, and agile,” adds Hope-Ross. “Strength is key. An athlete can never be too strong. The focus needs to broad, with an overall balance of strength, power, speed, flexibility, and aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.”
Sean Holmes, CSCS, YSAS, the owner of Oakville, Ontario-based The Dynamic Athlete and strength coach of the NLL Toronto Rock, concurs, adding that injury prevention is key. “The most important area is always focusing first on reducing the risk of injury while playing,” he notes. “You can be the greatest player in the world but if you are hurt and not in the lineup you aren’t helping your team. Common lacrosse injuries are pulled hamstrings, sprained ankles, and shoulder injuries.”
And just as training methods may vary by sport, even within the lacrosse world different athletes need individualized attention.
“I start with a basic template for all of my lacrosse athletes,” says Hope-Ross. “This includes squats, Bulgarian split squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, pull-ups, bench or chest press, shoulder stability work, core and stabilization training, functional movement and mobility, cardiovascular conditioning, and flexibility. I then make changes to each individual program based on their personal goals, limitations due to injury, access to equipment, etc. For example, I currently have two professional lacrosse players that have chronic back issues. Neither of these athletes have squats or deadlifts in their training programs. Instead, I modify their plan to do work that puts less of a load on their spine. Both of these players do a lot of single leg press, single leg bench squats (like a pistol squat, but less depth), and isolated hamstring work. None of my athletes follow the exact same plan.”
This is the case with Holmes’s work with the Rock as well.
“The programs are very similar for everyone, however they are individualized based on where they train and their training history,” explains Holmes. “For the guys that are local to the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre (TRAC) they run through almost identical programs because I am here to help them with form, set up, et cetera. The programs I design for players not able to train regularly at the TRAC differ based on what they have access to. Some train at a commercial gym, some train in a home gym with less equipment.”
Geoff Snider, who played for the Roughnecks and the Philadelphia Wings for nine years and now runs ELEV8 Lacrosse, knows what it takes to succeed at the highest levels.
“While training my most important elements were strength, explosion, cardiovascular fitness, and general fitness as a means to prevent injury,” he said. “My time spent with … Hope-Ross began upon being traded to the Roughnecks and progressed over the remainder of my professional and international career. Today I still train with Sean five days a week.”
Snider stresses conditioning with his ELEV8 athletes, from the youth levels up to elite players.
“The lacrosse landscape is changing,” he adds. “To participate at the highest levels in North America, student-athletes are having to put in more time, effort, energy, and commitment to their sport. As demand grows for Canadian student-athletes at the collegiate level, the sport continues to grow in North America, opportunities are limited to the most committed, dedicated, and hardest working individuals.”
Both Hope-Ross and Holmes equate lacrosse training with that of football. “Depending on the specific athlete,” explains Hope-Ross, “there is a need for some level of hypertrophy (increased muscle mass) and for maximizing their physical strength.”
“The best way to get strong doesn’t change because you play a different sport,” notes Holmes. “The differences in a program are the small things that are related to the common injuries. As an example in lacrosse hamstring injuries are common, while a hockey player rarely injures their hamstring but tends to have groin pulls or hip flexor issues.”
One challenge that faces NLL strength coaches is that players may live in other cities and not be available for monitoring all week. And although they are professionals, NLL players with other jobs may have their lives get in the way of maintaining their fitness programs, even during the season.
For Holmes, the biggest challenge is accountability. “We can’t really know exactly how often, or how intense the athletes training sessions are,” he says. “Also, it’s designing a program that works for the player and where they train. There is no ideal program, because the best program in the world is useless if the athlete doesn’t have access to equipment that is needed.”
Hope-Ross takes a pragmatic approach, seeing it as just part of the job. “Ideally I would see each of my athletes daily, and train them at my facility,” he explains. “This allows me to tweak their training programs based on what I actually see with regards to their exercise form, performance andenergy level, injuries, etc. When sending a program to one of my athletes to follow who is out of town, we need to be in almost daily contact to make sure that they are getting optimal results.”
The work of Hope-Ross, Holmes and the other trainers and strength coaches is critical in keeping the level of play high across the NLL, the premier professional lacrosse league, founded in 1986, which is experiencing huge growth as the sport continues its ascent.
“I definitely think the biggest change is that the lacrosse athletes today are more dedicated and focused to training than they were 10+ years ago,” notes Hope-Ross. “Training is now a daily routine with a set goal for these athletes, and it wasn’t long ago that only a select group of lacrosse players trained more than twice a week for their sport. Today’s athletes can’t afford to not put in the time in the gym or the track, because the majority of their peers are training hard every single day.”