At some point, every young derby player has to take off her skates. You may convince your roommates to let you practice turning toe stops in the kitchen, or your employer that you’ll be much more efficient travelling between cubicles on eight wheels, or to get your significant other to let you wear them to bed (he likes to keep his feet outside of the covers anyway! What’s it matter to him?) But no, really. You do need to take them off. You have to cross train.
Cross training is any exercise you do that’s not skating. It has two main purposes: to get you stronger at the things you need help with, and to counter any imbalances that might come along because of your all-derby-all-the-time regimen.
The best cross training will pinpoint areas where you lack as a skater and develop them further—whether that means strength training to make yourself a more solid blocker, doing cardiovascular work to give you the endurance to get through an entire practice or scrimmage, or even doing more recovery-focused work like foam rolling, yoga, or Pilates to help your body respond better to the tough workouts it faces.
Over the next few posts, I’m going to tell you about the different types of cross-training a derby gal should do: strength, cardiovascular, flexibility, balance, and agility. And don’t worry—while having access to a gym is great, many of your goals can be accomplished at home or in public spaces.
For today, let’s start off with strength training.
I love strength training. Love it. If I could spoon an Olympic barbell in bed with me at night, I would.
Strength training comes in all sorts of forms—classes that involve rainbow-colored weights, heavy-lifting like Crossfit, uber-precise tiny movements like Pilates, plain old nautilus machines, suspension training that borders on S&M… You get the idea.
For most people starting in derby (your goals will likely change as you progress, which I’ll cover in a minute), two main issues come up with muscle strength: endurance and joint stability. Endurance comes into play (ha! pun!) when you first start trying to hold derby stance, which is essentially like you’re sitting without a chair. Now imagine doing that for two hours.
Mmm, thigh burn.
My inner geek wants to get into the biomechanics of what’s going on when your muscles get tired, but that’s really another blog post, another time. The long and short of it is that you’re going to work on strengthening both your quadriceps (those big muscles on the front of your legs that burn like crazy when you’re skating) and the muscles that make your hips and ankles happy (which, incidentally, often get tired and just stop working, making your knees go in all kinds of weird directions and your back hurt, and a variety of other uncomfortable ailments.) Coaches will tell you to work on your wall squats and bodyweight squats to get the quads stronger, which are a great place to start.
That said, many of us are “quad dominant,” which means our quadriceps are a fair amount stronger than the rest of our leg muscles; focusing only on exercises that strengthen the quads will cause the knees and hips to get thrown out of alignment and lead to knee and back pain. I don’t know about you, but I have enough issues that make me feel like an old lady (ie, my 9pm bedtime) that additional aches and pains aren’t on my bucket list for becoming a grown-up.
Other useful areas to train:
The butt is composed of a variety of muscles with multiple functions, including extending your hips (like when you’re standing straight up), abducting the legs (kicking your leg out to the side, like when you’re skating), and internally and externally rotating the legs (like when you plow stop or skate sideways in a Mohawk position). Proper butt function is necessary for balance and pain-free knees, since a lot of our leg’s movements (or lack thereof) are actually controlled at the hip.
For exercises to help isolate those buns of steel, try out hip bridges and clams.
For bridges, just lie on your back with your knees bent at about a ninety-degree angle and feet flat on the ground. Squeeze your tush to lift your hips off the ground, and hold.
For clams, lie on your side with your legs bent at a ninety degree angle, your feet on top of one another. Your knees should be slightly in front of you, with your feet in line with your bum. Open and close your knees while keeping your feet together, not letting your hips rock back and forth.
First off: STOP WITH THE GODDARN CRUNCHES ALREADY.
The best way to understand your core is to understand that it includes ALL the muscles that control he spine. We often think of that as just the abs, but the term “core” really refers to the various abdominus muscles, low back muscles, hip muscles, upper back, and chest muscles. Crunches and sit-ups focus on the rectus abdominus, the thin sheet of muscle on the front of your body that flexes the spine forward. (The six-pack muscles) In derby, we need to concern ourselves a lot less with bending forward through our midsection and more with keeping everything strong and stable with occasional rotational movement, which means focusing on the bigger inner muscles, known as the transverse abdominus and the inner and external obliques.
Good starter exercises for your core include planks and side planks.
Hold those positions as long as you can. The stick figure looks uncomfortable because they’re not pleasant. Sorry. You still need to do them.
I’m also a huge fan of V-Sits, which teach your body to stabilize the core while your body is bent at the hips… much like when you’re in derby. That exercise looks kind of like this:
Once again, hold as long as you can, keeping your shoulders back, so you don’t turn into Quasimodo. The Hunchback of Notre Dame = not fantastic at derby.
You can hold a ball and twist from side to side, which is also helpful for when you start weaving around the track and whipping your teammates.
The Upper Back
Good posture takes a little more than remembering to stand up straight. Freshmeat and veteran skaters alike often find themselves hunching over as they skate, leading to lower back pain. Although it’s good to remember to keep your shoulders back, your muscles will fatigue eventually and no amount of mindfulness will keep your posture perfect. Instead, you really have to work on strengthening your upper back muscles.
My two favorite no-equipment exercises are Scapular Pushups and Wall Slides, both of which are deceptively simple.
Scapular pushups are a bit of a misnomer—you don’t actually bend your arms to push yourself off the ground. Instead, while holding a plank on your hands, you squeeze your shoulder blades together for a couple seconds. Then, you try to spread them as far apart as you can (it’ll feel like you’re trying to push the ground away from you to do this). Repeat 10 to 15 times. You can make it easier by going on your knees. You should feel the muscles between your shoulder blades after.
Thanks, Friendly Neighborhood Shirtless Guy, for illustrating the technique better than my stick figures could. (And by “Friendly Neighborhood,” I mean “Google Image Search.”)
Wall slides involve standing by a wall with your knees slightly bent, so your hips and shoulders are against the wall and there’s a slight curve in your lower back. Bring your arms up beside you, like you’re being held up. Now, keeping your elbows, wrists and hands pressed firmly against the wall, straighten your arms overhead. Try not to hunch your shoulders or arch your lower back. Then, pull your arms down, so your elbows squeeze against your sides—once again, keeping your elbows, wrists and hands pressed against the wall. Repeat 10 to 15 times. If it’s insanely difficult and you feel it between your shoulder blades, you’re doing it right; if it feels really easy, you’re probably not keeping everything against the wall; if you just feel your neck, then you need to work on pulling your shoulders down as you extend your arms overhead.
(Note that the fact that these stick figures have enormous heads and next to no shoulders makes showing this exercise kind of hard. You want your arms to be as parallel to one another as possible when you extend them overhead.)
As you get stronger and into more advanced derby, you’ll find that working on your overall strength and how much you can move will be helpful for pushing folks around and being pushed around on the track.
In general, try to strength train two to three days per week, for a minimum of thirty minutes. Our bodies actually build muscle and strength AFTER our workouts, when the muscles repair themselves, so give yourself a day off in between strength workouts (or work different muscles) so that your body can have adequate time to get stronger.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll cover other sorts of cross-training that will help you become a better derby player, including cardiovascular fitness, flexibility training, agility drills, and balance work. Hooray for fitness!