Rubi Doom and ElaStomp are both Roller Derby athletes who compete in the Canberra Roller Derby League as well as nationally. Despite their separate team alliances (Rubi plays for the Black n’ Blue Belles and Stomp’s on the Surly Griffins) they’ve been training with me as a pair for a couple of years. They’ve made stellar progress in that time despite both having a flair for creatively injuring themselves while on skates. In recent times other members of their league have begun to join them for their sessions.
For today’s column I’m going to break down the structure of the strength and conditioning sessions that they do with me. Hopefully I can use this to get across some broader points about how basic training science can be applied to specific athletic goals. I’m going to take you through exactly what they do in the gym; but first, a little context.
What even Derby?
Roller Derby is a contact sport played on a hard surface. Contact and force come at the athletes’ body from every direction while the athlete herself is also moving. As a result the risk of injury is high and so resistance/resilience to injury has to be central to an athlete’s training goals. It is a skill-intensive sport that requires offensive and defensive movement to be integrated three-dimensionally. This is best achieved by working with experienced roller derby coaches as many times a week as is physically sustainable.
A gym-based strength and conditioning program allows Rubi and Stomp to put their sports-specific physique together efficiently and safely, so that when they attend derby training they can focus 100% on their skills (as opposed to trying to service skills and fitness at the same time). Rubi and Stomp have patiently increased their work rate capacity over a sustained period, which now allows them to safely train more often while maximising the results of each individual session.
What even sport?
The first step in breaking down any sport is to examine the energy systems used.
Roller Derby bouts comprise two 30 minute halves, a duration that demands a strong aerobic base. However, these halves are further segmented into intense 2-minute periods known as jams, and athletes will be strategically subbed in and out of jams across the length of the games. Jams are the basic unit of roller derby action and they are predominantly anaerobic in nature. Anaerobic fitness is the key fitness for a derby athlete. Of course there will be moments of skilled contact and surge that require the phosphate system too, but it is most useful to think of roller derby as an anaerobic sport.
These basic facts inform our general structure for Rubi and Stomps’ training which is as follows:
Two 40-minute gym sessions a week
The technical demands of their sport mean that Rubi and Stomp need to be spending the vast majority of their training time working on their specific derby skills through drills and scrimmage. They need to be as fresh as possible in their body and minds when they train, they can’t afford to be depleted from their gym workouts. Two gym sessions a week allows for structured gains and forces me to be as efficient as possible in my programming. Keeping the sessions to 40 minutes in length means that we can push the body where it needs to go while staying in an optimal zone for fast recovery.
Strength as a priority
For at least two thirds of our training year the focus of our sessions will be on increasing strength rather than peaking our energy systems. This is because strength gains have more flow-on benefit than any other aspect of training besides skill. These flow-on benefits include:
- Increased resistance/resilience to injury
- Increased ability to recruit force and power
- Safer/more effective movement and body balance
Being stronger also makes you effectively fitter across all of the energy systems. The stronger you are the less fitness you need to complete any one physical action. As Rubi and Stomp have become steadily stronger it takes less and less time for them to peak their fitness for competition. This is a far more effective system than if we built their anaerobic system purely through anaerobic training.
Twice a year Rubi and Stomp nominate a particular bout date to ‘peak’ for. We work towards these dates and program carefully to create the best possible chance that they will be at their fittest and strongest on that date. Rubi and Stomp have been steadily increasing strength and maintain a base level of anaerobic fitness through their derby trainings so we are able to peak their anaerobic system with no more than seven weeks notice. The seven weeks comprise six weeks of training plus a deload/rest week right before the comp. This period starts with less specific conditioning work and becomes more and more specific to the duration and intensity of derby jams the closer we get to Bout Day. The deload is absolutely essential as the body needs to rest for all of the physical adaptations to complete themselves.
Of course Rubi and Stomp’s general fitness is on a steady increase over time, so each peak is higher than the previous one. That said, the human body is a non-linear system and it’s important to cycle your training. Trying to get better at everything all the time would be in ignorance of how the human body works.
The structure of their gym sessions is as follows:
- Core Lift
- Conditioning Circuit
I’m going to take you through Ruby and Stomp’s typical session by explaining the steps in turn:
A structured warm-up has the following aims:
- Achieving the blood flow and joint lubrication required to exercise safely
- Promoting activation in all of the bodies muscle groups, with special emphasis on any muscle groups which might be relatively weak or inactive
- Practicing the movement patterns that will be featured in the main body of the workout
All of Rubi and Stomp’s warm-up exercises are based around the movement and muscle activation required in their sport- namely hip and leg drive, engaged scapula, instinctive joint alignment, well-developed stabilisers and a strong posterior chain. They use free weights for the warm-up (either kettlebells or sandbags). Their current warm-up includes swings, rows, push presses, floor presses, squats and windmills. Rubi and Stomp have relatively balanced physiques but if at any stage a muscle group or set of stabilizers needs more attention then we adjust the range of exercises. Often bodyweight exercises can be the most effective for targeting specific muscle activation.
We do 10 reps of each exercise with minimal rest in between, the whole warm-up takes several minutes. Form has to be exact for every repetition, the warm-up is a great place to build technique. Rubi and Stomp’s warm-up weights have steadily increased over time, but lifting heavy weight is not the focus of the warm-up.
Or ‘plyos’ for short. These are exercises in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time, and in which a muscle moves from extension to contraction in an explosive manner. The training benefits include:
- Training the physical response required for fast and powerful movements
- Activating and training the phosphate energy system
- Preparing the nervous system for intense work
- Training skilled movements in a low-rep context that allows for the refinement of form
Plyos occur in sets of between 10-15 seconds at a time, with 90 second rests in between. This keeps the work within the phosphate energy system, the energy system we use for maximal power. For most exercises this will mean sets of two to three reps at a time.
Rubi and Stomp rotate between a small pool of simple but efficient plyos including box jumps, explosive push-ups and cleans (with a kettlebell or bag). The low rep ranges allow them space to push for height, range of motion and heavier weight without the risk of sloppy technique or over-training. Rubi and Stomp work to a conservative minimum of five plyo sets but anywhere up to eight sets can be useful for training purposes (after that you’ve blown out the envelope for maintaining explosiveness).
Rubi and Stomp train one core lift per session. When we talk about the ‘core’ lift we’re referring to the part of the session where our physical exertion will peak. These lifts are compound barbell exercises that represent maximum physical benefit relative to time spent. Traditional core lifts include the squat, deadlift, bench press, standing press, clean and jerk and snatch, as well as variations thereof. The core lifts listed, while all technique heavy, can be mastered to a useful standard in a few months (with the exception of the clean and jerk and snatch, which are among the most technical movements ever devised by man and are arguably better used as a sport unto themselves).
Rubi and Stomp have space for two core lifts in their week, so they have one focused around the upper-body and one focused around the lower-body. Note that I say ‘focused around’ since every core lift should be a full-body compound move when performed correctly.
At the moment Rubi and Stomp’s core lifts are the Front Box Squat and the Barbell Push Press. The front box squat is a variation of the squat that regulates many of the major form cues – including posture, depth and core activation – without as much conscious effort as other variations. The barbell push press is the least technically challenging of all the core lifts. While neither of these lifts are ‘easy’ I’ve chosen them to allow Rubi and Stomp to focus on attacking heavy weight with confidence. Once this confidence is sky-high then it may well be appropriate to switch back to more technically demanding versions of the lifts.
Each core lift set is made up of between one and five reps, the optimal range for building strength. In simple terms, the lower the reps are the higher the weight will be. We cycle through the rep ranges so that the total number of kilos lifted increases steadily over time (not every session!) This is the surest measure of increased strength. Between five and eight sets will be performed, the programming for reps and sets is governed by Prilepins’ Chart.
I set a strict time limit for the core lift, only one minutes rest between sets. This slightly limits the amount of weight that can be lifted per session, which removes any risk of recovery problems. Moving through the sets quickly creates a comfort level with the activity of heavy weightlifting and that confidence begets heavier lifts. If a particularly heavy weight is being attempted on the last couple of sets we lengthen the rest to two minutes. Note that Rubi and Stomp are only able to move through heavy sets quickly because of the long period of time they’ve spent mastering the technique.
In this last part of the session Rubi and Stomp perform a range of exercises that build muscle mass and target specific muscle groups that need to be strengthened (pretty much all of them). The set-up at Elements is minimal so we use free weight and bodyweight exercises, but conventional ‘machine’ exercises such as leg press and hack squats can be useful for this purpose too.
Rubi and Stomp’s regular array of circuit exercises include variations of squats, rows, deadlifts, presses, good mornings, lunges, pull-aparts, front raises and sit-ups. These are all selected for their efficiency at building functional strength. When we’re in a strength cycle the reps are performed slow and steady at weights which promote focus on technique. When training towards an anaerobic peak they only use exercises that they can perform correctly with speed and intensity. For example, in a strength-focused circuit Rubi and Stomp will often have barbell deadlifts as an exercise, which they are well-practiced and good at, but I would never have them do that exercise under huff-and-puff fatigue.
The circuit is easily adjusted to focus on whichever energy system we need to be training at the time. The exercise choice is less important than how hard Rubi and Stomp are working and for how long. Conditioning rounds are always less than 6 minutes and are often only 30 seconds in length. Everything in the circuit is measured in time rather than number of reps. If the exercise choice and round length is correct then the required physical exertion will happen regardless of how many reps are performed. Ask Rubi and Stomp if you don’t believe me!
After that it’s cool-down time on the rower, right about the 40-minute mark.
Every aspect of Rubi and Stomps sporting performance has improved dramatically in the last couple of years, but for me the coolest part is seeing how much harder they are to injure than they used to be. I’m only one member of a large team that has facilitated that and full credit goes to Rubi and Stomp themselves for their consistent attendance and patient attitude, particularly in the face of my constant bad jokes.