How to work out like a roller derby girl

Photo courtesy of David Lewis.

Photo courtesy of David Lewis.

Whenever I consider my identity – who *I* actually am, as a person – there are some attributes that are easy to identify. A writer, a librarian (well, soon-to-be), a wife, a neat freak, a book lover. The only thing that even I have a hard time believing is that I am a  “roller derby girl,” largely because that side of my personality (to some people) clashes so strongly with my more public persona.

But I am truly, inconceivably, some might say unbelievably, a roller derby girl. I never tire of saying that strapping on skates and joining a roller derby league was the best decision I made in my adult life, as its given so much back to me, from a newly-discovered confidence, to a support network that is second to none. And my “roller derby personality” is also very much a part – I’d say an extension – of my real personality: it’s the wry, sarcastic side of me who isn’t afraid to take a hit or say “fuck” – a lot.

It has also whipped me into the best shape of my life, rivaled only by high school (when I had unlimited metabolism). Because while I am a roller derby girl, I am also a person committed to fitness and health. I had a brief hiatus from regular exercise in college, but for 12 years growing up, I played soccer in a big way. Running, summer camps, and cross-training was just a way of life. I love team sports, and I think one of the reasons I had a hard time getting into an exercise routine in college was because I was going it alone. I needed the mental stimulation of a game, the camaraderie of a team, as well as a physical and emotional outlet for my energy and stress.

I also like – almost need – to be in shape. Even though people have always “insisted” that I’m “skinny,” I was self-conscious about my weight and body for a long time. Playing roller derby has been a very empowering experience for me, and for the first time in my life, I feel very comfortable with my body. I think that’s because for the first time, I’m not worried whether I’m “skinny” or “thin,” but rather I feel strong and capable.

But reaching that level of comfort does come with a bit of work, and not all of it happens on the roller derby track. It’s common sense to say this, but to be healthy and fit, one must take care of his or her body, and that includes eating well and exercising on a regular, consistent basis. I say this not to be Captain Obvious, but “Ugh, I don’t understand how you look that way,” is a comment I still hear quite frequently.

Now usually, when people ask me about my weight or appearance, I tend to deflect the conversation because it makes me uncomfortable (and it’s kind of rude). But here, I wanted to share part of the “secret” that keeps me feeling good, including how even you can work out like a roller derby girl. I promise, you don’t need to try every fitness fad that comes on the market to get the body you want. You just need to learn the basics, learn what kind of exercise your body needs, and then work at it.

Obviously, food is a big part of being healthy, but as this is going to be a long post, I’ll save eating healthy for another time. But first, exercising. Here’s what I do:

The Basics

Join a gym … if you can

I’ve worked out more or less on a weekly basis over the years, and most of the time, the frequency was dependent on my schedule. Last year, J and I joined a gym, a move I was initially wary about given the fact that I had just left a full-time job for a part-time gig. However, we were easily able to fit the gym fee into our budget, and it turns out that having a separate place to go and exercise makes all the difference in our motivation to work out. Once you get there, there’s nothing left to do but exercise.

And if you’re worried about fitting the gym into your budget, consider this: if you even spend $5 a day for a crappy lunch at a fast food joint, that’s $25 a week, and $100 a month. If you go to Planet Fitness, you could pay for 10 gym memberships a month with that cash. And hey, you’re cutting out fast food, so double win.

Get your partner involved

Adding to the motivation is J’s and my decision to work out together whenever we can. When it comes to fitness and health, it’s true what they say about getting your partner involved; I live with J, so it’s important that he’s not only on board with my dedication to fitness, but an active participant as well.

Keep your workouts short(er)

When I go to the gym, I don’t believe in long workouts. I mean, if that’s what you want/need to do, then go ahead. But I find that if my workouts are too long, I get bored, and am less motivated to return on a regular basis. I typically aim for 45 minutes, which becomes an hour when you factor in changing times, parking, and getting in/out.

Divide your workouts into zones

I also believe in focusing on different parts of your body during different workouts. For me, that means having an “upper body day,” and a “leg day.” J has a different combination of “A” and “B” workouts that he’s tailored for his body type/workout goals, and so how you choose to organize your workout is up to you. However, splitting up your workout by zones makes the idea of regular exercise more doable. If you’re walking into a gym thinking you need to do everything, you’re  going to feel overwhelmed.

The Workouts

Like I said, I divide my workouts into “upper body” and “leg” days, which means I (ideally) hit up the gym twice a week. If I get there a third day, I focus on cardio. Most of my exercises can be done on machines found at any gym. We belong to an LA Fitness, though I don’t necessarily have a preference.

Important note: I’m not a trainer or a fitness expert. For additional instructions on how to use these machines and properly execute the exercises, check out the thousands of YouTube videos out there, or set up an appointment with a trainer. They’re more than willing to walk you through a basic routine that works for you, and teach you how to use the machines.

Before I start my exercises, though, I always start my gym routine with a half- to full-mile run on the treadmill. It warms up my muscles, gets my heart pumping, and integrates a bit of cardio into my workout. If you can’t run a full half-mile, don’t worry. The beauty of treadmills means you can adjust their speed, so don’t be embarrassed to go as slow as you need. If you need to walk, walk, but gradually work on building up your speed and endurance. If you can easily run a half-mile, set your sights higher. Always challenge yourself, and celebrate every little improvement.

Leg day

During my leg day, I focus heavily on my rear end and thighs, because keeping this part of my body strong keeps me strong for roller derby, and improves my skating. In addition, I’ve never had “chicken legs,” and if I don’t work on my thighs, I get self-conscious about their size. For all these exercises, I do three sets of 10, unless I’m too tired to go beyond 8. Be smart: don’t push yourself into an injury.

  • Squats: J’s taught me to start my leg day with squats because it’s such a total lower-body workout. I like to use the squat bar because it forces you to learn and use proper form, and work on your balance (which is good for your core). Most squat bars are 45 lbs, so you may need to work up to this. The first time I really wanted to do squats, I couldn’t keep the bar balanced on my shoulders; I had to work on my shoulder-strengthening exercises for a few weeks, and then, I made sure J was there to spot me. Now, I can squat 85 lbs without help, and my goal is to eventually squat my body weight. I’m not looking to be a bodybuilder here, but I tell ya what, nothing makes my butt burn more the day after than squats. And for some reason, that feeling is highly satisfying.
  • Leg Press: I love the sitting leg press machine. Make sure you keep proper form, and don’t let your knees lock!
  • Hip Abbductor / Adductor: J calls these machines the “sex machines,” and while they look a little dirty, I love the way they make you feel. If you don’t know, these machines work your inner and outer thighs, and really ladies, what part of us are we more self-conscious of than our inner thighs? Note: This machine is not going to give you a “thigh gap”, because in reality, no amount of dieting or exercising can do this. Women need to stop obsessing over reaching this ridiculous goal. Do your research.
  • Leg Curl: At this point, my legs are screaming, so finishing my sets on the leg curl machine is highly satisfying. It’s an additional exercise for your thighs, and it feels really good.

I used to do three sets of 10 on the leg extension machine, but for some reason, they gave me weird cramps in my thighs. If you can do them, do ‘em. If not, no biggie.

Arm Day

My arm day is a little longer, and that’s because since last summer, one of my major fitness goals is to strengthen my upper body. I’ve always had skinny arms, but I want to be stronger and able to better take care of myself.

  • Shoulder Press: This is my least favorite machine, so I always do it first. If you can only do three sets of 8, don’t feel bad about yourself. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
  • Seated Dips: I love these because they start working on my triceps, an area a lot of women need to address as they age.
  • Seated Bicep Curl: These always make me feel so badass because with each flex, you can see your bicep pop out of your arm. Of course, I can only do 15-20 lbs on this machine, while the muscle dudes behind me have their pins set at, like, 100 lbs. That’s OK, I just pretend I’m cool.
  • Chest Press: I remember the day I finally realized I was doing the chest press machine correctly when I started to actually feel something happening in my chest. Get it grrrrl.
  • Lat Pull: These babies work your back, and I don’t care who you are, everyone wants a sexy, ripped back. My back isn’t “ripped,” but I feel better about it after doing this.
  • Free Weights: Using a combination of 7.5-12.5 lb free weights, I have a simple routine made up of shoulder extensions, arnold presses, bicep curls, and tricep extensions. I’m always the girl at the lightest end of the weight bench, which can be a little intimidating when you’re surrounded by muscle dudes. But you know what, one day I decided I would stop caring, and I haven’t been intimidated since. When I started using free weights years ago (at home), I literally had to use 3 lb weights….THREE POUNDS. I’m very proud of myself for steadily increasing my weight, and I hope to continue to do so in the future.


And finally, I end every workout (legs and arms) with an ab routine. This is a combination of moves I’ve picked up from various places over the years, mostly roller derby practices, but also a roller derby “workout DVD” someone burned me many years ago. Ab routines aren’t going to help you lose all the jiggle in your middle (only cardio and better eating can do that), but they’ll help bring out those muscles when that belly fat begins to melt away. Plus, for athletes, core strength is imperative. Here’s what I do:

  • 30 second plank (on my elbows)
  • 5 v-sits, of 15-20 seconds each, with a 5-10 second rest in between
  • 20 crunch twists with an 8 lb medicine ball
  • 2 30-second side planks, one on each side
  • 1 minute plank (alternating between elbows and arms every 15 seconds)

And then go back down, to another set of side planks, another set of crunch twists, more v-sits, and a final 30-second plank. Who needs crunches anyway?


Like I said, if I can make it to the gym on a third day, it’s usually Saturday mornings, so I stick to cardio. This is mainly because the gym is always so crowded on Saturday mornings, and I hate waiting for machines. With cardio, do what works for you, but really push yourself.

My favorite thing to do is a 45-minute “pyramid-style” interval routine, which involves running, at a certain speed, for a pre-defined length of time. Then I walk for 1-2 minutes. Then, I up the speed and run for another pre-defined length of time. Then I walk again. I try to build up so that I’m running for 10-15 minutes straight, and then step back down again.

THEN, because I like to punish myself, and because I know it’s important for roller derby, I spend the last two minutes of that 45-minute run sprinting at various speeds. For your derby girl, this recreates having to push yourself from skating fast, to sprint skating, during a jam. Roller derby endurance is different from what you need to run a 5K; you need to be able to move from fast, to slow/stopped, to fast, to sprint, easily. Doing my sprints at the end of my cardio routine, when I’m technically the most tired, simulates that experience.

If the weather’s nice, I do think it’s best to do your running outside. However, even when it’s warm, I still like to complete this 45-minute routine on a treadmill because I like having the ability to change my speed and easily time myself. When I run outside, I’m mainly going for distance and working on my general endurance. In reality, I think I’m a slow runner, mainly because I don’t particularly enjoy it. But of all the things one can do when fit, I think the hallmark of good fitness is running, and so when I need to whip myself into shape, I (begrudgingly) lace up my running shoes.

A note: a lot of people choose to do their cardio on elliptical machines, and if that’s your jam, go ahead. For some people, joint or knee problems make running impossible, and so if you need something lower impact, like using the elliptical or a stationary bike, please do so. It’s still cardio. I, however, stopped using the elliptical about six months ago because I felt like it wasn’t doing anything for me anymore.

Do something else

If going to the gym two or three days a week, for 45 minutes to an hour each time, doesn’t seem enough to get you into shape, you’d be right. It’s not enough, and that’s because I firmly believe that you can’t rely solely on a gym to get you into shape. Remember: on top of my gym routine, I’m going to practice two nights  a week. Our roller derby practices involve a lot of intense skating (cardio), and cross-training exercises that intensely work our core and legs. It’s an important and integral part of my total fitness routine.

But you don’t have to join a roller derby league to be in shape (although I would recommend trying it out if you’re curious!). For everyone else, I recommend throwing yourself into any other physical activity that gets you out of the house, and out of the gym. If team sports motivate you, like they do for me, join a recreational league of a sport of your choosing. Remember: you don’t have be good to play; most rec leagues out there are all about having fun, anyway. Also, don’t be afraid to try a new sport! When most women show up to their first roller derby practice, they don’t know what they’re doing – most of them don’t know how to skate (I didn’t!). Most “regular-people” athletes out there are more than willing to teach and train. It may seem scary, but you only live once, right?

If sports aren’t your thing, there’s dozens more activities out there. Fancy races (5Ks, 10Ks, etc) seem to be “the thing” nowadays, and you can even mix it up with color runs or tough mudders. I’m not the biggest fan of long distance running, but I can say there’s nothing more empowering than hearing the cheering fans when you finish your first race. If not running, then jump on a bike, go skiing, pick up boxing … you get my drift.

Integrating “real” activities into your everyday life not only completes your fitness routine, but enriches your life. Instead of spending a Saturday inside, watching Netflix (yet again), turn off the TV and go for a run, or go biking, or go to practice. It’s a simple healthy choice that contributes to better overall health, and a greater sense of well-being.

And last but not least: I know I said I’m not a trainer, nor am I a doctor, but if you’re seriously looking to start exercising, here’s two pieces of advice:

  • Learn how to stretch, and make sure you stretch before and after doing a physical activity. I don’t typically stretch when I first arrive at the gym, but I always do so afterward. And I always stretch before playing roller derby. Not stretching is a recipe for getting hurt.
  • If you haven’t been seriously active in a long time, consider getting  a physical to make sure everything is working correctly. The very last thing you want to do is injure yourself. Again, talk to a trainer if you’re unfamiliar with how things work, or take a class. Don’t be shy about asking for help – you’ll appreciate it later.

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