Speed is one of the most important skills in hockey. For Michael Grabner, it’s the key to his survival in the NHL.
But contrary to what you might think, the New York Rangers winger doesn’t spend hours upon hours on the ice to increase his speed. In fact, he finds the best way to get fast and stay fast is by taking off his skates and getting into the gym.
“In Austria, we don't really skate in the beginning of summer—there's no ice there,” says Grabner, an Austria native and one of the fastest players in the league—if not the fastest. “So I’m always in the gym doing a lot of work instead. That’s where my lower-body power comes in. You need it to stay explosive, stay fast.”
Grabner, it seems, is something of a mad scientist in the gym. Sure, he uses traditional moves: deadlifts, squats, core exercises, spin bikes, and dumbbells. But with a routine that is anything but, the 6'1", 185-lb speedster will try nearly anything in his training to see if it works. It doesn’t matter how hard an exercise is, what discipline it comes from, whether he saw it on Instagram, or if he picked it up from a teammate—Grabner will give it a shot.
“Over years, I've switched my training a lot," he says. "I don't just do the same thing over and over every time,” Grabner says. “I try to switch it up every day, because then you can get bored pretty quick. I try to look at different stuff. I see people and trainers on Instagram, different exercises. I can tell if it's a move for me or if it's something I'd rather not do. I think that’s the biggest thing for people going to the gym—they get a program, do the same program every day—I get bored of that."
Grabner doesn’t just use Instagram for research. His profile shows off a body that’s been honed to get fast and dominate the ice—he has a super-cut six-pack, as well as powerful neck, chest, and biceps. He also uses the social media platform to share some of the moves he’s trying out in the gym. In one case, the winger used a cone-jumping drill this offseason to help power his legs, and he’s incorporated different types of jump movements to build lower-body strength.
“As a faster player, I’m always trying to stay explosive,” says Grabner. “Whether it’s a box jump, long jump, or the cone jump, those are pretty good exercises for speed."
Speed has always been a part of Grabner’s game, from his days in junior hockey and the Austrian Hockey League to his first full season in the NHL. Then with the Islanders, Grabner showed off the ability to race past defenders to put the puck the net—which he did 34 times. A major impact on keeping his speed there? Hammering on his core in the gym.
"I usually do core training before every workout,” Grabner says. “When I do core, I feel like my whole body gets warmed up. It's such a big muscle group in your body and so important for speed. When you see sprinters, they always have pretty good core muscles.”
The New York Rangers are hoping the winger can inject some of that big-play ability and explosiveness into their offense alongside stars like Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, and Chris Kreider. Grabner has previously won the NHL’s fastest skater event at the All-Star game, and he'll now try to use that speed to help the Rangers try to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in over two decades.
Grabner spoke with Men’s Fitness about his no-holds-barred style of training, why his speed is so important, and why he's gotten past his habit of eating “anything” he wanted when he was younger.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What's your daily workout like? How often are you training in the gym?
MICHAEL GRABNER: Once I start working out in the summer, I do twice a week lower body, twice a week upper body, and then I do some bike rides too. On a Monday, I'll get to the gym, do a warm up, and then do different stuff, like core and some quick stretching. Then I usually do a fifteen to twenty minute core circuit, different exercises. I also do stuff when I see something interesting, like on Instagram or something. I like to work out in general—I couldn't picture myself not working out even if I weren't playing hockey.
How do you decide on your routine? How have you built your training program over the years?
I do the programs that the teams gave me [Grabner has played for the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks] and then I mix some of my own stuff in there. That's what I like about when I play for different teams, because everyone has a different philosophy, a different program. Over the years, you get to kind of see what you like more, circuit training or heavy weights. So I think that helped keep me from getting used to the same program each time I work out.
With my program, the first couple weeks are more about getting back into working out heavy, but then you add more circuits, like four exercises at a time, to the plan. Once you start more heavy weights, trying to gain some muscle and get stronger, I focused on either squats or deadlifts, but you only do four or five exercises, as heavy as you can go with that exercise. Then I did another two circuits, four exercises each.
What are some of the exercises in the gym that help you most on the ice, that translate into speed for you on the ice?
I do a lot of jumping. I always do some explosive exercises and a set of squats. So you can do five reps of heavy squats, and then right after you do it, six jumps or whatever, do that over the hurdles, and that gets things going. You just squat down, pause, and jump. Try to make it as explosive as possible, and try to get off the ground as quick as you can. I'm pretty good at jumping, so I try to put the hurdles as high as they go to get a little more challenge. I do leg raises, leg lifts, biking—last year I didn't really bike much, but over the summer I did a lot of bike rides again. I really liked it. I worked a lot on the spin bikes. I used to do a lot more partner work with my friends when I was younger, like for agility, or where a guy holds two tennis balls in one of each hand, and he drops it and you run towards that ball and try to catch it before it bounces twice, stuff like that.
What types of exercises do you do for your core?
One day I'll do more sit-ups and work on a mat, and another day I'll do more cable work, things like side chops or cross-body chops. When I hold a hockey stick, my lower body is still fairly twisted. So I try to work at different angles of my core. And, of course, you work your core pretty well when you're doing shorter sprints, like 20- or 30-yard stuff. I feel like that helps improve your strength in the core.
What’s the best training advice you’ve received in your career?
You've got to listen to your body. Obviously, as you get older your body changes. The best advice is to listen to your body to see how it feels when you try things. Because I’m getting older, I can’t do as much weight on a deadlift that I use to four or five years ago. I would rather do less weight and make sure I get the right form. Once you get tired at six, seven, eight reps, then injuries can happen. I think every day is different. Some mornings I don't feel as explosive, but I try to see how the body reacts to that program or the exercises.
What is your nutrition like? What are some of your favorite foods to have while supporting your training?
I probably shouldn't say this, but I never used to look at nutrition much early in my career [laughs]. When I was younger, I could eat three chocolate cakes every night and I wouldn't gain a pound. Now, when you get older, like I said, you learn stuff. I knew I could eat anything when I was younger, but it didn't necessarily help me. It didn't make me heavier, but it didn't give me as much energy as other foods would. Now I look a lot more for nutrition. In Toronto last year, and here now, they have a cook here for breakfast, lunch and stuff. So you get really good foods. I personally try to stay away from gluten now, and that's obviously been discussed a lot. I usually eat a lot of fish, chicken, and rice. In the mornings I usually have four or five eggs and some oatmeal.
I've been looking to cut out the sweets more. After my workouts or skates, I’ll have a shake or something, like protein mixed with carbs. It's the same thing as working out—you've got to see how your body reacts, how you feel when you eat certain foods or whatever it is, see what your body does.
What do you like to do in your off time, when you’re away from the game?
I like to golf. A lot of hockey players like to golf. So I try and go out with my friends as much as a I can. I have two kids, so when I’m home I try to spend a lot of time with them. I’m usually gone before they wake up and do my workouts in the morning, but after that I try and spend as much time as I can.
What are your expectations for yourself this season and for the Rangers?
It was always tough to play against the Rangers when I was with other teams. Obviously we have a great goalie in Henrik Lundqvist and expectations are always high here—we want to win. That’s the goal from top to bottom. We have a lot of great players and I’m trying to fit in, play my role. It will probably be a lot in the penalty kill, which I like to play, and I want to help out as much as I can. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to get into the playoffs and play for the Stanley Cup while we’re here.
What advice do you have for younger players when it comes to training and playing hockey?
You’ve got to try stuff and see what feels good to you, explore a bit of themselves in the process. When you’re a younger kid, you have a lot of people talking to you and nowadays, fitness has become such a big thing, so a lot of people have different ideas telling them what to do. So it’s important to listen to your body and it’s tough to figure out what’s best. Ten years ago, it was just weights, bench and squats, and now people and teams are looking more into different philosophies. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way really, but you need to figure out what type of player you are and then work on what you need to do. Have fun with it, too.