Try as you might, there’s no denying that any successful roller derby player needs to be fit. Obviously, high-level, competitive players need to be as strong and fast as possible to stay on top of the game, but even recreational skaters are advised to cross-train to prevent injury and improve their overall experience. That’s why I’m very excited about this week’s guest blogger – the fit and fierce Booty Quake from Roller Derby Athletics is here to give us a primer on strength training for roller derby.
Strength Training for Roller Derby
by Booty Quake
Think of your general physical fitness like a pyramid. Basic muscular control – the ability to stand upright, walk, and even run a few steps are like the base of that pyramid. Next comes stamina – the ability of the body to process oxygen and energy to keep you moving. Each subsequent layer of the pyramid builds upon the one before – adding strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, balance, agility, and finally accuracy.
A top-of-the-pyramid example would be catching a baseball in mid-air and throwing it across the diamond to home plate in one motion. Or, put into derby terms, executing an apex jump: taking off and landing in bounds, avoiding a block, and finishing with a spin move. It combines all the elements of fitness and requires great coordination and accuracy.
Naturally, we all want to be that skater that can do the fancy apex jumps and spin-o-ramas, but we can’t very well build the top level of our athletic pyramid without first building each layer in order. For roller derby athletes, this starts with strength training. Don’t worry! Building strong muscles doesn’t necessarily require pumping iron at a gym; simple bodyweight exercises can have a meaningful impact too. If it improves your muscles’ ability to do their job – it counts!
Training without added resistance is a great starting point, and will help build stability, balance, and muscle stamina to improve your skating. Here are some key bodyweight exercises that you can work on without any equipment to improve your strength for roller derby.
Lower Body: Squats, Lunges (front, side and backwards), Good Mornings, Sumo Squats (standing in “second position”, knees out over toes), Calf Raises
Upper Body/Core: Push-ups, Bicycle Sit-ups, Planks & Side Planks.
If you’re newer to skating and strength training, you will benefit from doing combinations of these exercises for 30-60 minutes twice per week.
If you want to take your bodyweight workouts to the next level without adding weight or equipment, you can increase the number of repetitions, move from regular squats to single-leg squats, add chair step-ups, do single leg calf raises, sustain your planks for longer, and introduce a stability ball (aka physio ball) to your core work.
What’s next? When you are starting to get used to these exercises and can perform them with optimal form, you can continue to use them regularly to maintain your fitness. To step things up, start to introduce plyometric training (basically, jumping!), and/or progress to adding resistance to your strength training routine.
At some point in your strength development, you will become strong enough that bodyweight exercises are no longer challenging. In order to keep improving your performance on the track, you’ll want to add resistance. There are many options available, from resistance bands/tubing to weight machines to free weights. The choices can be daunting if you haven’t spent much time in the gym. Just remember, once upon a time, you put your skates on and came to a roller derby practice for the very first time, not knowing what might happen next, so I know you’ve got it in you to conquer the unknown!
Resistance Bands: Affordable, portable and versatile, these can be a great introduction to strength training, or a useful option when traveling. You can work a wide variety of upper body muscles with bands or tubing, as well as some of the stabilizer muscles of your legs. A quick YouTube search will yield a lifetime’s worth of instructional videos. However, bands are not as useful as other resistance training options for helping to develop the big skating muscles of your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves.
Strength Training Machines: Most gyms are full of weight machines – various pads, handles, cables, and bars you can push, pull, or curl. These machines provide a full body’s worth of exercises, and make it relatively easy to perform the movements with good form since the movements are quite controlled. They are good for getting your feet wet at the gym; however, ultimately I recommend doing as much work as possible with free weights.
Free Weights: Dumbbells, barbells, and other apparatus like chin-up bars or rings – these provide limitless possibilities for training. You are probably familiar with some of the classic exercises, like bicep curls or squats, but the variations and combinations go on and on. To begin with, you can simply add weight to the exercises you’ve been doing bodyweight only – such as squats, lunges, etc. If you have been doing a lot of push-ups as your primary upper body exercise, it’s time to add pulling exercises to balance things out: bent over rows, seated rows, pull ups/chin-ups and so on.
To progress, I suggest following a training plan designed for athletes, not some ‘get a smaller butt’ thing you’ll find in most women’s fitness magazines. A good place to start could be Roller Derby Athletics’ StrideBuilder program, which is designed for roller derby players looking to improve their strength for skating. Alternatively, you could search online for hockey or football training regimens. Cut the suggested workouts in half for the first week or two, to avoid injury or over-training, and build up from there.
Am I Doing It Right?
One of the main questions athletes have is, “How heavy and how many?” Ultimately, to build strength for roller derby, you should lift a weight that is heavy enough to be very difficult after 8-12 repetitions. (Some programs or experts will say 5-8, some will say 10-12.) Exceptions to this rule generally include core work and calf exercises, which are better worked at higher reps/lower weight – somewhere around 20 reps. Most programs will have you repeat each exercise for two or three “sets” of those reps, with a rest in between.
If you’re just beginning with weighted strength training, I recommend starting with less weight and higher reps, perhaps 15-20 reps for two sets. After a couple of sessions, start to increase the weight and reduce the reps. This will help you to safely and quickly increase to your target weight while avoiding too much soreness, and reducing the chance of injury. You’ll want to keep track of all this work you’re doing, and I will go into more detail about recording your training below.
Safety Tips to Get You Started
- Always warm up first before you begin strength training. This should include three to five minutes of something light to get your heart rate up (try jogging, jumping jacks, or a stationary bike), followed by a dynamic warm-up sequence to get your joints moving through their range of motion. Here’s an example of a dynamic warm-up you can use before any training.
- Have someone instruct you on the optimal form, and give you some feedback on your body positioning. Most gyms will provide a free orientation or training session to new people. If you have a question about a new exercise, most gyms will be happy to have a trainer spend five minutes with you to make sure you’re performing it safely! For some general training form rules of thumb, check out this “Proper Form” pre-hab video.
- When lifting weight, start each exercise with a warm-up set of 5-8 repetitions. It could be bodyweight only, or just the bar, or a weight that’s about half your target weight for the exercise. This will get your brain and your muscles talking to one another, and get you prepped for a safe working-weight set.
- Try to organize your workouts with balance. If you train your quads one day, you’ll need to ensure you also train your hamstrings on the same day or another day.
Record and Break Records
A slow and steady approach to ramping up your output for each exercise is critical for reducing the likelihood of injury or overtraining. However, failing to increase your intensity when you’re ready will leave you on the dreaded plateau. To avoid this, use a training diary to record each workout so that you can adjust and continue to increase your training volume (either by increasing weight or number of reps/sets) as you get stronger. Recording your workouts will help remind you where to start your weight and reps, and give you an idea of when to increase. Personally, I use good old pen and paper for this, using a small notebook that fits in my pocket. I find most mobile fitness apps are clunky to use and usually not well suited for athletes. Feel free to find the method that works best for you.
Strength training is a sneaky little devil. Without realizing how much stronger you’re getting, you’ll suddenly discover that it’s easier to push that wall forward, accelerate to get to the front of the pack, and dig in for a strong block that would have eluded you a month or two earlier. You might not look much different, and you might not feel much different, but your teammates – and especially, your opponents – will definitely notice!
Booty Quake (#8) has been playing and coaching roller derby since 2007. Effective off-skate training and an extensive sports background (NCAA Division 1 Rowing, among others) have had a major impact on Booty’s own success in derby, and she has helped thousands of athletes around the world on that journey too. Booty, aka Carla Smith, loves using her knowledge to help other skaters grow. Roller Derby Athletics is her vehicle to bring this knowledge and skill to the wider derby community.
Booty played for the Terminal City Rollergirls in Vancouver for seven years, and she is currently a free agent with Toronto Roller Derby. She is hard at work designing her new StrideBooster training program for elite roller derby athletes, coming in August 2015.
P.S. I’ve got LOADS more tips for you to help improve your game. Download my FREE ebook “Lulu’s Top Ten Roller Derby Tips” right here!