Tony Greco Q&A: Claude Giroux’s long-time trainer takes us inside what makes the Flyers captain tick

By: Alexander Appleyard

A lot has changed for Philadelphia Flyers talisman Claude Giroux since he was 17 years old. Undrafted in the OHL, underestimated by scouts, just a blip on the radar amongst the thousands of young hockey players every year who are trying to make the leap to play in the CHL. Now he is the Flyers captain and one of the best players in the league with a resume that puts him on track for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But one thing that has not changed over the last 14 years is his offseason trainer. Ever since 2005 Giroux has come back to his adopted hometown of Ottawa to work out with Tony Greco. Greco’s background is in martial arts. A fifth degree black belt in karate who won an IAKSA Kickboxing Gold Medal for Canada in 1995, who after that triumph was inspired to train athletes, so he transitioned into personal training.

I spoke to Tony about his long-term relationship with Giroux, covering how he trains, how he has developed, and just what it is that makes him stand out even amongst other high-end athletes in the best hockey league on earth.

You have been working with Claude since summer 2005. How were you introduced, and how did you come to start working together?

One of the local scouts here in Ottawa brought three guys to me. He brought me Paul Byron, he brought me this guy Simon Lacroix (who was a teammate of Giroux for the Cumberland Grads and later a 2007 7th round Islanders draft pick), and he brought me Claude Giroux. He said about Byron, “You know, this guy’s a maybe, he has a chance”, he said about Lacroix, “He needs a lot of work but I wouldn’t count him out”, and he said, “this guy Claude Giroux, he’s got the skill, he definitely has potential, if he can get the work ethic… you know, he might have a good chance”.

When you started working with him he was 17 years old, undrafted in the OHL, hadn’t yet played a QMJHL game or attended even a CHL camp, and had recently overcome mono. But what were his strengths already at that age?

His strength was… he’s got fire. He hates to lose. And it’s funny because every work-out he would treat it like that. Sometimes I even had to slow him down and say “hey look, let’s work on the form”, because he just had so much drive. On the ice… it’s tough to teach his skills, you either have it or you don’t – you can get better at it – but I think you are just born with that vision, seeing the puck and where it is going to be… I think a lot of players just have that. But it’s the fire, and the perseverance, and the drive that I think a lot of players lack. And that’s what he had.

But that’s one of his strengths, that he just gets through obstacles that hinder most people’s positive growth. He perseveres, he knows how to get through it. That’s tough to teach.

If you remember back to that first summer, he had not had a CHL camp yet, what were the main focuses over that summer in terms of getting him ready for the next season and the step up in level from the CJHL to QMJHL?

The main emphasis – as I kept telling him –  “look, we’re going to train movements here”. Most trainers, what they do is the standard compound strength movements, and that’s really good, but what we do is train different tempos, so what we’ll do is train three types of tempo. The eccentric temple of muscle movement, the isometric, and the concentric. So what we did is, during those first few weeks, show him how to really remodel that muscle tissue, and really learn how to work with the weights to prevent injury, and build a lot of muscle fiber that becomes more dense. And then what happened is, after those two weeks, we got into isometric mode, where we start from a holding position and push the weight really fast. So what that does is creates – I call it “brain-food” – it trains the athlete to only go quick, explosive, faster. And that’s what we’ve been doing, and that foundation I think has kept him pretty injury-free. That was the main focus back then, to create a really strong foundation so we can give him a lot of years in the NHL. Like my goal now is to help him extend his career for another eight years, and be healthy, that’s what I’m striving towards.

Did he have the NHL in mind back then? Obviously he was undrafted in the OHL. Or was it simply a desire to play in the CHL, or just as high a level as he could?

I don’t think he did (have the NHL in mind)… because I used to get in his head and say “look, one day you’re going to be in the NHL, you’re going to be a captain”. And I think it’s funny, and one of the reasons the relationship between him and me has gotten even better, because of what I saw, I saw the kid had just something that most people didn’t have.

You know, those kids that just have that edge, just something about them. Always there on time, having that fire in his eyes, always ready for the workout, that is really tough to teach. So as a strength coach it fires me up… “you’re going to be a captain someday, you’re going to be this…”, we laugh about these things now. Imagine, if we’d have wrote this stuff down 14 years ago?! Yet this is a reality right now! But I think once he started to do really well in the QMJHL for Gatineau Olympiques, when he had that great 112 point season (in 2006-07, after being drafted) then the next year he was even more focused. He started to see that progress after his second year in the QMJHL, and said, “hey, you know what, I’ve worked really hard and have a real shot at this, because everybody tells me that and I feel it.” So then he started to believe it.

His progress on ice from summer 2005 to summer 2006, and getting drafted in the first round, was obviously immense. Did that correlate well with the progress he was making off the ice? In terms of strength gains, fitness gains?

Yeh! It was unbelievable, because he had the confidence… the skill was always there, but with the work ethic – at that age when they are so young – maybe they don’t understand it as much. These days it’s almost like “you have no choice but to work-out” because the game has got so fast. But back then, I think he got ahead because he was training so quick and explosive, that once he started to feel that on the ice, that he wasn’t tired, with his skill, well… the stats don’t lie! He was just the talk of the town, like “Who is this kid? And why wasn’t he drafted in the OHL?!” So he really saw the difference. Even the coach at the time – Benoit Groulx – said “man, this kid, his speed, his strength…” it was like night-and-day. Then he started to see the progress, and to understand that working out is a big part of his game. And that’s why today he is first at the gym, the lead dog… I have a few other NHL guys there and they look up to him because, yeh, he is the lead-dog, he hates to lose, he does the extra work. It’s unbelievable, it really is, when you see this guy work.

Over your 14 year relationship how has Claude actually changed as a person, and also in regards to his training?

I think that every athlete goes through the high of being like “a superstar” and stuff like that, and having a little bit of an attitude I guess when you are 17, 18, 19, you’re first drafted to the NHL… but he’s just such a humble guy now. He is so relaxed, really focused… and just never says a negative thing. And I am really big on a positive attitude, he just always has something positive, and is really good at changing a negative into a positive. Like, if it is, “ah, that was pretty good but we could have been better”, he will be “well at least we got better and we are here.” He knows how to redirect and deflect phrases and attitudes, that really makes him a true leader. He is really mature, and an amazing Dad by the way. Just a humble guy, will sign every autograph. He gets people that will come in all the time, and he’s always posing for pictures, he never says no, and that goes a long way for an athlete. I’ve worked with a lot of these guys and some people are just… they don’t have that same attitude. But he’s a true gentleman and has come a long way.

How much does knowing each other for so long as well help in regards to training now? From both sides, you knowing what he’s capable of doing and him trusting you?

Yeh, that’s a big one. For instance every year I talk to Chris Osmond who’s the Flyers strength and conditioning coach, and ask how did Claude do. And he’ll say “oh, he was top on the ice and he crushed the workouts in the gym.” Now he knows what we are doing, he can put more effort on doing it even stronger and faster. So let’s say we’re doing 315 lb squats, because over the years I’ve worked with him, I know that once I give that eye contact and communicate and say “Claude, I’m putting on 25 lbs”, he’s already prepared because he knows exactly how to do the technique. So you can almost take the injury prevention out, because he knows how to do it properly, and can then emphasize and put more effort into having the weight “scare him” so he is lifting enough weight that he can really get the power out of it. And I always tell him, “listen, Claude, if this weight doesn’t scare you, then you’re not lifting enough!” And he gets it, because the form is perfect.

We train three tempos. It is called triphasic training. The guys who do it are Cal Dietz, and Ben Peterson, who was fitness director for the Flyers, he actually showed me a lot of stuff, and I mixed it up with a lot of my training, with “French contrast” from a French sports scientist called Gilles Cometti, who studied how to make athletes a lot faster, and I mixed that in as we get closer to the season. Like these last three weeks, we were doing that kind of training, so we were going from like a heavy squat, and then we would go to a lighter weight doing plyometric training, and then assisted band-jumps. So what you are trying to do is shock the nervous system, so the athlete produces more force and power output on the ice.

And how has his training regime changed from the early days until now? Is it a matter of more weight or has it changed in terms of the construction of the schedule?

Oh, it’s changed. With tempos, it’s changed. For instance, with plyometrics, fast, speed… we keep it to 10 seconds, no more than that, when back in the day people used to be doing one minute 30, 45, but it’s like, “Hey, look, if you can do faster than 10 seconds you should be in the Olympics racing Usain Bolt”, because if I tell you to go as fast as you can, after 10 seconds you’re going to start to come down, so what’s the purpose, right?

With the plyometrics, it’s the velocity, the way you push the weights. I mean, people used to do 12-15 reps, a lot of volume, we keep it now to five, because it’s like “how fast can you push it?”. You know, on the ice it’s all first step take-off and then your gone. It’s not like three, four, five steps, it’s one, two, and boom, you’re done. The game has changed to be so fast, so our reps are at most five reps at 82% of your one-rep max, because after five repetitions… it’s not that you can’t do more, but you’re losing the velocity and the speed. So that is why we keep the tempo and the reps a lot lower, so that’s changed a lot.

We also do a lot of post-strength conditioning at the end. People used to do cardio then weights, but we never, ever do that, we usually do a lot of the strength-based compound movements. So we’ve been including a lot more of that, whereas before they never used to do that, so we went back to building that pillar strength. With hockey players like Giroux their primary muscles are their glutes, their quads, their hamstrings, so we’re building that up, because during the year they lose a little bit of strength, so it’s important that during the off-season we build it back up again.

I’ve also been giving some in-season programs to keep furthering strength bases, obviously not the same weight they are pushing in the off-season, but that way I’ve changed the pre-game routine of a lot of the players I work with.

A lot of people play with a soccer ball, and do some drills… now that’s cool, but what about if you went in the weight room and did five reps of 55% of your one-rep max, then some quick plyometric jumps, and then the ladder. Now you’re furthering your strength base, getting your nervous system to react quickly, and that it how your game situation is going to be. I’ve also told a lot of these guys that during the warm-ups to not go so fast, because when you are doing the warm-up, I mean, let’s face it, you are expanding your energy, and if you’re a guy who plays 20 minutes a night, somebody like Claude Giroux, what is the point of doing the warm-up fast? Save your energy for the game. So now you’ll see a lot of these guys just throwing pucks, working on their hand-speed and technique. But it’s not like they are doing those figure-eights, and going around too fast. Save your energy for the game, because every single minute counts!

You need to train for the game, not train for the beach! Claude Giroux… not that he can’t run a half-marathon, he’d do okay, but that’s not what he trains for. He trains like zero-fifteen, max effort, and then coasting from 16-45 seconds. And then he’s off the ice, and then he recuperates, and then he goes back on. But while he is on the ice you are going to get max output out of him, and I know that when he gets to the bench, he can have 15 seconds rest and have a fully charged battery.

Giroux obviously had a core injury over the 2015-16 seaon. Was there any difference in the 2016 off-season with that injury and how hard he was able to train? And did that affect his training?

I don’t think it affected his training… I know ever since he had the surgery he came back and did a little bit of rehab. But now I think he is more powerful, stronger. I know there was a lot of flak back in Philly and people saying “he’s on his way down”… but since then he has crushed his weights, seems like he has almost doubled in strength! He seems more explosive. I mean, he had 102 points… second in the league. It’s a pretty good league, but I don’t think he got the notoriety he deserved. Not that it bothers him! But I was trying to boost his ego and say “Claude, I know your not that kind of guy, but you got 102 points!” If there were probably another few games I think he could have surpassed McDavid. I think he should have got a lot more recognition for that.

I think he is going to have an amazing year this year. He seems more relaxed now his baby boy Gavin is here. He feels amazing on the ice. He usually doesn’t tell me that, but he’s said “I feel great”, and that is a big thing. He is so eager to get going. He went to Philadelphia this past weekend, did all this testing, got off a plane, went to the rink, did the on-ice stuff, then flew back to Ottawa to train, then left Tuesday 10th. I spoke to him yesterday and he’s in Philly now and ready to go!

Does his training regime change from offseason to in-season?

It does change. He does his own kind of stuff in-season in terms of what the Flyers give him. But a lot of it is the same type of thing. Players do different routines (in offseason) because they have different trainers. But when they are part of the team there is a set regimen, but Claude does his own little things that work on top of what the team gives him. They change, because they don’t lift as heavy – for sure – and the plyometrics are not as long, because it is not a “whole” workout, it’s about the performance on the ice. But they do that now to further that strength base and continue with speed.

What are Claude’s favourite exercises and least favourite?

I think the ones he looks forward to doing are squats and the hex-bar. He can feel the power, pulling, pushing. More lower body push. The ones he probably dreads doing are the finishers! Sprints, pulling sleds… but he is competitive… I think any athlete, not just him, doesn’t like doing them, because at the end of the workout, when you’re tired and gotta get back up, that’s what gets the fire in him. So what we do is play AC/DC to get him fired up! Crank AC/DC up… that seems to light a fire in his eyes and he seems rejuvenated again. Over the years I think I’ve listened to more AC/DC than the biggest AC/DC fans!

Claude spoke a few years ago about the mental side of things. How when he was younger he was slightly lazy, and then became more committed. So what was the process of that like?

I used to have a lot of talks with Claude. I said, “You have so many thoughts in your head, I know you are a competitive guy, if you wake up every time in the morning and go to the rink, you are hard on yourself and want to win so badly. Well, you have a choice to make, because that affects your behavior, because if you go in their mad, you are going to have that tension.”

Now he’s really good at instilling the positive. He knows that there are challenges. That is the biggest thing I have seen with him. He understands now that… like this year… he’s expecting a challenge, the pressure, the fans and all that. But he’s already prepared for it. He’s already mentally there. Whereas that used to be harder to get from him. But now he’s so mentally prepared and knows how to deal with it.

Claude is obviously famed for his love of cheesesteaks and has said his favorite food is poutine. But given his training regime, his diet must be pretty fine-tuned. How does he fuel himself?

That is huge. He has been so good. And Ryanne, his wife, she prepares great meals for him – she’s very healthy – and she knows how healthy and how important food is as fuel. So he has really made some amazing choices. I am sure he still has his favorite cheesesteak or some poutine, but now… I see it, salmon, fresh fish, lots of greens because he has bought into the lifestyle. I think he is feeling it too from a perspective of the way he looks, the way he feels, the muscle he has put on. He has put on a lot of muscle. He is almost 200lbs… which is amazing. You can see in pictures, he looks pretty thick!

In all the years of training with him, what’s the most impressed he has ever left you?

Well, I think this year has probably been the best year that I’ve seen him… and the reason why I say that is because… I’m big on strength, because when you are stronger you can become faster. I’ve seen his explosiveness transition from that. With the weights, he’s gotten way stronger, and his explosiveness and speed, to be able to land on a dime, and take off from a dime, I see that in training. But you can see it through the years, his stability and balance have gotten better. But this year… it’s going to be hard to top this.

Claude wants to win a cup. I know too with Alain Vigneault – who actually trained with us in the summer here! He wants to do one thing, and that’s win. Alain has said, “I’m here for the next five years, and I want to win a cup, that’s why I am here.”

Claude really makes training a priority. Even leading up to having his son Gavin, he was so committed, he spent so much time here. This was the longest he has trained (over summer). In other summers he has gone to team Canada etc… maybe three years ago was the last time we had training for this long. He spent a lot of time here and cares about making himself better, and making the team win. He’s told me that, and that’s what he wants to do, to win for the team.

All photos via Matthew Perry

You can follow Alexander Appleyard on Twitter @avappleyard

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