Strategy. Team Dynamic. Heart. Mental toughness.
These are some of the intangibles that can help set your team apart from your opponents on bout day. But as an individual, what can you do to be at your best to support your team?
To be successful as a team on the track, each athlete needs to do her part to arrive on game day without significant injuries, well recovered from her most recent training session, and with enough strength, stamina, power, and coordination to outmatch her opponents.
Thanks to our good friend The Internet, there are essentially endless options for workouts, stretches, exercises, and programs that you could follow in hopes of improving your skills and results on your skates; however, so few of these are actually relevant to our unique sport.
I have scoured training regimes for downhill skiing, hockey, speed skating and football, and consulted with certified yoga instructors, chiropractors, physiotherapists and massage therapists to consolidate all the noise into what I believe are the definitive top ten exercises for roller derby athletes. These are the ten movements that, if you did nothing else for off-skate training, would give you a completely solid base of stability, strength, and flexibility to arrive healthy and fit to each bout.
Even if you don’t have a ton of time for cross-training, or access to weights and equipment, doing these simple but effective movements can help make you unstoppable out there.
Hey – did you hear? This top ten list appears in the upcoming book Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby, by Em Dash, aka Margot Atwell. I highly recommend it, for newbies and veterans alike!
#10 – Lunge Stretch
This move and its variations will stretch your psoas (pronounce it “so as”) and other hip flexors – those hard-working muscles that bring your knee to your chest, and which we spend our whole lives shortening by sitting a lot, and by spending hours each week in derby stance.
Why you need it: Every modern human who is seated for much of the work day needs these stretches. As athletes, we can’t afford this hip tightness to persist as it will begin to have trickle-down effects on other muscular-skeletal structures, in particular the low back.
When to do it: After every practice or workout; several times a day if you work at a desk.
#9 – TFL/Hamstring Stretch
I like to call the TFL the Starbucks muscle, because it sounds like a drink you might order there: “a tall Tensa Fascia Latté, please.” Actually, it’s Tensor Fasciae Latae, and it’s a muscle connected to your IT band and hip, on the outside of your upper thigh. It works to stabilize your pelvis, and rotate your leg outward, a motion we use with every skating stride.
Why you need it: When the TFL gets tight it likes to keep it secret – you don’t realize you’ve got some major dysfunction until someone gets in there with massage, and suddenly you realize you’ve got a problem! Hamstrings you’ve probably heard of – they’re the big meaty muscle at the back of your thighs, responsible for bringing your heel toward your butt. Hamstrings are very tight in most of the general population. Tightness in the hammies can contribute to the low back pain many skaters experience doing pace line or endurance skating drills.
When to do it: this is a really nice cool down stretch after any practice or workout. Best to do this one when your muscles are already warm.
#8 – One foot balance
This move is the skater’s holy grail, marrying foot and ankle strengthening with proprioception (awareness of your body in space, for example, the ability to climb stairs without looking down at each step). I don’t have the words to convey to you how easy you’re going to think this is, and how challenging it is in real life, once you close your eyes!
Why you need it: This exercise will strengthen all of the small stabilizer muscles in your lower leg, and improve your balance.
When to do it: a few times a week, any time and place where it wouldn’t be socially weird to take your shoes off. (If you want more stability and proprioception training ideas, check out my Stability Pre-Hab video too.)
#7 – Deadlift
Don’t be intimidated by weights. Yes, the deadlift is an Olympic and bodybuilding lift, so that might make it seem scary. And yes, there are incorrect ways of doing it, which could lead to injury, which is scary. But there are ways to benefit from modifications of the traditional deadlift, and also to practice it without any equipment at all.
Why you need it: the traditional deadlift works your full “posterior chain” – all the muscles running up the back side of your legs and body, including your core. It’s great for developing full body strength and power.
When to do it: twice a week, when well warmed up, during strength training. If lifting heavy, avoid doing these immediately before or after practice, for best results.
- Romanian deadlifts — start at the top, keep legs straight as you hinge, only lower the bar to just past knees, use less weight compared to your traditional deadlift weight.
- One-leg deadlifts – without weight to train balance and get used to the movement, or use a kettlebell or dumbbell in the opposite hand to supporting leg. Let your ‘free’ leg hang behind you as you hinge.
- No-weight – Also called “good mornings” – basically a Romanian deadlift without weight.
#6 – Bicycle Sit-Up
Beat it, crunches! This exercise is infinitely more functional and relevant to life, and to derby, because it strengthens the front and side of your trunk, and promotes balance and length at the same time.
Why you need it: for harder hits, better balance, and to support your core for other more intense full-body exercises.
When to do it: before or after practice, or add on to any workout. Try for 30 slow reps alternating sides (so 15 each side), 3-5 times a week. You can definitely do more if you want – there is very little risk of overtraining your core – just try to balance it out with something to work your low back.
#5 – Lunge
Here’s another gem that hits many muscles simultaneously, in one deliciously burn-y move.
Why you need it: Two words. Knee stability. Plus a host of other good things like foot and ankle strength, power development, and strengthening your glutes. There are easily a dozen variations you can do to the basic lunge movement – feel free to switch things up, and to do your lunges in different orientations (forward, backward, side, 45 degrees, etc). I’ve chosen a foward lean-over lunge variation to share with you below.
When to do it: Walking lunges are a great warmup before any workout or practice. You could do unweighted lunge work several days a week without ill effects, to the tune of 10-30 reps per side. Weighted lunges, or the more plyometric types like lunge jumps (aka scissor jumps, switch lunges), are best saved for an after-practice team conditioning session, or a dedicated strength or plyo workout day.
#4 – Plank
You didn’t think you’d get away with not doing planks, did you??
Why you need it: full body strength, stability, and stamina, particularly for your core, but also recruiting from your quads, glutes, back and shoulders. Kapow! Side planks also hit your obliques and abductors/adductors, and can help identify and fix side-to-side strength imbalances.
When to do it: any time at all! You can plank without a warmup, or tack 30-90 seconds of planking on to the end of any training session. Always be challenging yourself to do the hardest variation you can manage.
#3 – Push-Up
The world’s greatest full body exercise? I’ll vote for that. Push-ups take all the strength required and trained from planks, and add a dynamic upper body strengthening piece that will get your heart rate going while you get stronger. Many women find their upper body strength isn’t developed enough to do many (or any) push-ups with good form. Keep practicing your planks from the push-up position, and use the push-up modifications to build up your chest, shoulders and arms and progress into full push-ups.
Why you need it: for strong bracing while blocking! For hard hits, and stability to resist them! For stamina to fight through an impenetrable wall of blockers! What’s not to love?
When to do it: 3-5 days a week. I love knocking off a few push-ups first thing in the morning, but you can do them before or after practice, during strength training, or as part of a high intensity interval workout too!
#2 – Squat
Have you ever heard someone tell you to get lower? If you said no, I don’t believe you. Squats are essential to derby stance, and the mechanism of rising up from the bottom position of the squat is what provides acceleration and explosive power in all our on-skate movements.
Why you need it: for leg and core strength. Squats primarily work your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, but also involve the muscles of your feet and calves, and your core. Strengthening all of these muscle groups will make you a more powerful, stable, and LOW skater.
When to do it: after warming up. Bodyweight squats can be done at high repetitions (20+, multiple sets) several times a week. Plyometric versions (squat jumps) should be lower volume, 2-3 times a week. Standard powerlifting squats with a barbell can be done 2 times a week with high weight and low volume. Don’t forget to try single-leg squats – a great way to increase strength without adding any equipment.
And finally… the number one exercise for roller derby athletes is…
#1 – Glute bridge!
Here’s a little known fact: most skaters underutilize their gluteal muscles. This goes for skating, and also in daily life. We think of ourselves, and our healthy skater bubble-butts, as having really strong booty muscles, but when tested in isolation, it is often clear that the muscles of our backsides are not firing when they should. This causes tons of dysfunction, as other muscle groups are forced to overcompensate (it’s also a huge contributor to low back pain during long skating drills).
Why you need it: glute bridges will help you to both “wake up” lazy muscles (gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius, primarily), and strengthen them. Building a stronger booty will make your stride and push much more powerful, and supports virtually every movement you’ll ever want to make on skates (or in every day life, for that matter…). Can you tell that I’m excited about everyone getting a stronger butt?!
When to do it: spend 60s before every practice, and before any training session, to get your glutes engaged and ready to do their job! Like hip flexor stretches above, you can throw in some glute bridges any time the mood strikes you for some butt-flexing. Progress your way through the modifications until you’re comfortable with the most challenging ones, on one leg.
It’s hard to whittle “All-Of-The-Things” down to just ten movements, and I’m sure you’ll find you’ve got a favourite exercise that ought to be here! These exercises only scratch the surface of some of our higher level derby skills, like agility and endurance. Nevertheless they will support a healthy, balanced fitness base. They’ll help you reduce injuries and chronic pain, and build the foundations for the explosive athleticism you admire in your favourite celebrity skaters.
(Hint: you can find quite a few variations on these moves in Roller Derby Athletics’ BasicsBuilder workout series, which is completely free).
So, which exercises did I miss? Which ones are new to you, and which ones do you already do religiously? Let me know what you think of this top ten list of roller derby fitness moves in the comments below!
xo, Booty Quake
PS: get over a hundred instructional exercise videos like these in the palm of your hand with Roller Derby Athletics’ Fitness App and training memberships. Better yet, we’ll tell ya when and how many of each one to do, to help you reach your goals :)