Courtesy of Point Park University

Exclusive: Bjorkqvist ‘hungrier than ever,’ says trainer

Kasper Bjorkqvist is a specimen.

That's the word that both assistant GM Bill Guerin and director of player development Scott Young have used on multiple occasions to describe Bjorkqvist, and it's because of Bjorkqvist's exceptional fitness level.

According to Guerin, Bjorkqvist has "broken almost every strength and conditioning record that we have in Pittsburgh, with the big team.”

The "big team." That's the NHL club, not just the group of prospects. For someone to beat Kris Letang in anything fitness-related is notable, but almost every record? Broken by a 21-year-old prospect? That's remarkable.

I had to speak with Yunus Barisik, Bjorkqvist's trainer, who runs Next Level Hockey Training based in Bjorkqvist's hometown of Espoo, Finland.

Bjorkqvist was introduced to Barisik in 2015, when Bjorkqvist was playing junior hockey for the Espoo Blues U20 team in Finland, where Barisik was the strength and conditioning coach. That 2015-16 season was Bjorkqvist's breakout year. He was named the league's top forward and top player overall, and finished No. 2 in league scoring with 28 goals and 38 assists in 45 games. He represented Finland in the World Junior Championship that year, winning gold on home ice in Helsinki. In June, the Penguins drafted Bjorkqvist in the second round, No. 61 overall.

"He had a great season, and basically his game took a big jump thanks to his off-ice training, that's what he told me," Barisik recalled to me. "He had a high buy-in from that, from the success he had that year, and he has been training with me ever since. This is our fifth summer training together."

Providence College listed Bjorkqvist at 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds this season, an increase from his listed weight of 198 pounds when he was drafted in 2016.

Barisik says that Bjorkqvist's exceptional fitness is a product of three things. The first is that Bjorkqvist is "genetically very gifted." He gains strength and builds muscle easier than other people do. The second factor is just having the right habits and tools in his training with Barisik, and sticking with those habits over five years. The third factor is Bjorkqvist's drive.

"He's one of the most competitive guys I have ever met," said Barisik. "He wants to win every activity, whether it is strength-wise at the gym, or a sprint race or a conditioning drill.

Barisik looks to give Bjorkqvist the tools and exercises in the gym to have explosive skating on the ice. He broke down the exercises into different categories.

"The first one, you need to be strong to be fast and explosive," he said. "That first category is our main barbell strength work, like our squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and so on. These are basically free weight exercises that you can load heavy and build that foundation of lower body strength."

The amount of weight Bjorkqvist hip thrusts is what originally caught my attention this offseason. When I shared videos of his workouts on June 15, he was hip thrusting 440 pounds. Three weeks later? 528 pounds.

In the third clip in this video from 2017, Bjorkqvist can be seen deadlifting 530 pounds:

Barisik said that in those exercises he's looking to build a "good foundation of basic strength. ... If you're lacking that basic strength, it's going to be very hard for you to be explosive because you don't have any strength to generate the power."

"Second we do Olympic lifts, which are very fast barbell movements," Barisik said. "Our go-to exercise in this category is a power clean. Kasper can power clean over 300 pounds with very good technique, and that's a lot of weight for a hockey player."

This video is from last summer, and shows Bjorkqvist with 303 pounds.

"The third thing we do is jumps, which help with first-step quickness and change-of-direction speed," Barisik said. "We also do sprints, which also help with acceleration, being explosive and changing directions quickly."

Bjorkqvist had surgery on his left shoulder earlier in the offseason, so he hasn't been able to do all of his usual exercises just yet. That's why there has been more of a focus on the lower-body workouts, like in those hip thrust videos. Bjorkqvist hasn't been cleared by doctors yet to lift weights on his left side, but that isn't holding him back.

"Our approach to rehab is even if one of your limbs is out of play for the time being, you still have three healthy limbs," Barisik said. "Upper-body wise, we did a lot of single-arm work on his healthy side so he wouldn't lose upper-body strength or size during this period when one side was out of play."

Barisik said that even with Bjorkqvist rehabbing his shoulder, "he has never been this strong this early in the offseason."

Since Barisik has witnessed Bjorkqvist's abilities and growth firsthand for years, he says that he's not surprised to hear people in the Penguins' front office rave about Bjorkqvist's abilities and records. Bjorkqvist didn't come to Barisik in 2015 as the "specimen" he is now, though.

"When we started training together back in 2015, Kasper was power cleaning only 110 pounds for five reps," Barisik recalled. "He started light because he hadn't really lifted weights before, so we had to make sure his technique would be on point for heavier loads in the future. Fast forward from 2015 to 2018, last summer, he power cleaned 275 pounds for five reps. That's a huge jump in just a few summers.

"People look at him now and hear the fitness records he's breaking, and people assume that he has always been like that. But the assumption is false, because he wasn't very strong in the beginning. That's a huge testament to the type of athlete he is, because he made big leaps in his physical development through sheer work. It wasn't handed to him on a silver platter.

"He worked his ass off, and even today, he's hungrier than ever because he knows he's got to work to get to that next level to play in the NHL."

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