If you were to walk in on one of Zach Parise's off-ice workouts, you might think you had stumbled into a grotesque science experiment.
The Minnesota Wild winger might be down in a squat position for five straight minutes, sweat pouring from his face while multiple electrodes attached to his body send shockwaves through his muscles. No treadmill running. No cardio at all actually. Just plenty of Parise holding a position—a Squat, a Lunge, a Wall Sit—for agonizing amounts of time, all while hooked up to an electrode machine known as the "ARP POV Sport."
Parise is one of dozens of NHL players who swear by this unique style of training. Others include Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and T.J. Oshie. The method is the brainchild of Jay Schroeder, a kinesiologist and the owner of EVO UltraFit.
Schroeder's system is extremely unorthodox compared to traditional athletic training, but according to elite athletes like Parise, it also produces results unlike anything else.
The origins of Schroeder's training system date back more than 30 years. After Schroeder suffered a severe motorcycle accident that left him with a broken neck and back, doctors told him he would probably never walk again. While he was bedridden, Schroeder began poring over translated Soviet training journals, which helped him understand that for centuries, human performance has largely been about the same goal—moving at high velocity in a bio-mechanically efficient position and staying injury-free.
Eventually, Schroeder rehabbed and trained himself back to full health. He began formulating his own training system designed to allow humans to achieve maximum performance, incorporating aspects of different programs from throughout history (and the Eastern Bloc countries, in particular). He called it "evolutionary training"—and over time, it's been shortened to EVO.
Today, the EVO system is a finely tuned program that caters to the specific needs of each individual who follows it. From the company's website: "Evolutionary training is a system of high intensity to supra-intensity (high speed, high load, high volume) training routines which target specific physiological traits: those associated with efficient athletic and/or human performance. These training routines are arranged according to their importance for the specific individual being trained. Once entering the EVO System, the athlete/client proceeds in a specific order through each of these traits as his or her physiology indicates."
The system is indeed complex, but for many athletes—especially NHL players—an important aspect is a steady diet of "iso-extreme" exercises. These involve holding a position for roughly five minutes straight with no breaks. It may at first look like an extremely long-duration isometric exercise (isometric exercises are defined as "pitting one muscle or part of the body against another or against an immovable object in a strong but motionless action"), they're actually very, very slow concentric movements. A concentric muscle contraction increases tension on a muscle as it shortens. Think of the upward motion of a Squat—that's the concentric phase of the exercise.
As Schroeder explained to fitness expert Ben Greenfield on the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast, "It's not an isometric at all—it's an extremely, extremely, extremely, extremely slow concentric. There are some very interesting things that happen when you move extremely, extremely, extremely, extremely—I don't know how many 'extremelys' I need to put on there—slow. It's continuous movement—if you stop during [it], we have to start all over again. But the interesting thing that happens when you move extremely slow is that everything that happens to support that inside is moving at high velocity. Because the control it takes to move at these extremely slow speeds is the same control needed to move at high speeds. The mistakes you make during iso-extreme are actually the same mistakes you'll make when you're moving at high speed. We get out of position. When we're out of position, muscles shorten, because they're doing a job they're not designed to do. They can't be fed properly by the energy systems, or at least in the order the energy systems are supposed to work. So we create what's called compensation—patterns of movement that aren't normal."
If such exercises sound brutally difficult, it's because they are. Oshie told The Chicago Tribune that he nearly quit the program after his first two weeks due to its brutal intensity. And these are professional hockey players were talking about—some of the toughest dudes on earth. Along with the "iso-extreme" exercises, the EVO system can also require athletes to rapidly fire muscles during exercises by repeatedly "catching" a dumbbell or barbell from various positions. Such exercises can be seen in this video featuring former NFL quarterback Mike Kafka:
But the true centerpiece of the system is the ARP POV Sport, a "revolutionary, electrical stimulation device" designed by Schroeder and his partner, Denis Thompson. According to them, it has "specifications and characteristics that are not found in any conventional, neuromuscular electrical stimulator." For one, a "patented background waveform" is designed to penetrate more easily through skin and fatty tissue, allowing for a deeper penetration of the direct current. Schroeder says the machine is capable of sending stimuli to the brain at a rate of 245 times per second.
Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) has been around a long time. It's simply the act of eliciting a muscle contraction with electrical impulses. The roots of using EMS for sports performance go back to the 1960s, when Soviet sport scientists began using it to elicit greater strength gains from their athletes.
Here's how it works:
Electrodes are attached to the skin close to the targeted muscle groups. Once activated, the EMS begins to stimulate muscle contractions. When muscles contract, nitric oxide is activated in the bloodstream, which naturally causes the blood vessels to open up and increases the efficiency of oxygenated blood flow to the muscles. This helps the muscles flush out waste and deoxygenated blood and take in nourishment and nutrients quicker and more efficiently. The waveform produced by the ARP POV Sport is said to create "minimal protective muscle contractions," which allows for full range of motion during training. This is important, because the EVO system makes extensive use of the machine during training. The cords that connect the electrodes to the ARP are quite long, allowing an athlete to move freely while staying connected to the machine. Here, Toews demonstrates a plyometric exercise while hooked up to the ARP POV Sport:
"It's very noticeable. There's different frequencies and pulses and intensities that you can turn this machine to," Parise told STACK. "For example, while you're holding a Squat or a Lunge or a Wall Sit, this machine is also contracting your quads and your hamstrings at a really intense level. It makes it really, really hard." The idea is that the application of the ARP POV Sport not only makes the exercises themselves more efficient, but it allows an athlete to train and recover simultaneously. One version of the ARP is designed for use during training, while another is designed for use during non-training hours. Both only weigh a few pounds and can easily fit into a backpack. Many of the NHL players who follow the EVO system are attached to one of these ARPs for much of the day. Oshie has stated he's typically hooked up to one for roughly 12 hours each day. It's also not unusual for EVO athletes to sleep with the machine attached to them.
It all sounds unusual, but star athletes wouldn't be buying into Schroeder's program if it didn't produce results. It took Parise some time to wrap his head around the system, but he was an instant believer when he saw the world of good it did for him on the ice.
"It's so different than the traditional style of training. Going into a season of hockey without doing any cardio? It was hard for me to wrap my head around that," Parise said. "[After my first offseason with Schroeder], I went out and had my best career season ever. I was like, I'm all in. I'm sold. That's all I needed." Parise, along with many of the other athletes who train with EVO UltraFit (which has locations in Minnesota and Arizona), remain in contact with Schroeder throughout their season via text message. Schroeder lets each individual know what to do each day, and Parise follows the routine religiously. "It's a year-round thing," Parise says. "It's broken down really well."
Exactly how did Parise feel different after buying into the EVO system? "I felt like my body reacted quicker. My muscles turned on quicker. Physically, you always hear people talking about the ebbs and flows and peaks and valleys of a season. Consistently, I felt that my highs were higher and I did not have those valleys. I didn't have those times when I felt fatigued for two weeks and couldn't snap out of it. I felt fresh from the beginning of the season to the end. That's why I'm a big believer in what we're doing. I feel fresh and it's game 75. I feel like it's game 10," Parise said.
Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhorn/National Hockey League/Getty Images
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