Strength Standards: My Love Letter to NRG

I’m back from Beach Brawl, and had the chance to watch some incredible derby.  One team that really stood out – and has been standing out in the WFTDA for a while now – was Nashville.  It wasn’t just their level of play that was impressive, it was their commitment to athleticism.   Not only do they have a well-developed off-skates plan, they also make the time after every bout to cool down together, making sure to keep their bodies and minds right for the next bout.   As we grow together as a sport, I’m sure that our off-skates training will become more and more formalized.  For now, it was  awesome (and informative) to see a team on the rise committed to all aspects of their development.


It got me thinking about a workshop that I attended with Dan John this past March.  He talked a lot about strength standards and systems.  As Dan comes from a throwing background, he spoke about the very minimums that elite throwers should have –  a 400lb bench press, a 450lb squat, a 300lb clean and a 250lb snatch, and that’s before you even look at their sport-specific numbers.

Conventional athletic strength training programs look at the requirements of sport performance and ask which qualities the sport needs? Fat loss? Hypertrophy and size? Cardio? Power? Agility? Leverage? Tactics and strategy? Joint mobility? Balance? Skill?

Programmers and strength coaches measure the number of qualities needed and calculate the maximum and minimum performance in those skills that would make you a qualified athlete in the sport.  In developing strength programs, Dan John says the impact of any given activity should be clear, it should be on the path to your goal, and should help you achieve your goal.  We know from about a zillion peer-reviewed studies that lifting weights improves performance.  If you have a system to determine which lifts and skills are important, it makes developing a weight-training program simple.

“If it is important, do it every day, if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.” – Dan Gable, Olympic Gold Medalist in Wrestling


A Canadian Olympic bobsledder needs a minimum 2.5sec 15m dash, a 4.4s 30m dash, a 2.3m standing long jump, an 11m underhand med ball throw, a 75kg power clean, and a 90kg front squat – and those are your ideal minimums.

NFL players run the combine – 40 yard dash (2014’s best time: 4.24s), max rep 225lb bench press (49 reps was 2014’s max), vertical jump, broad jump, cone drills which test their ability to change direction at high speeds, and shuttle runs testing lateral quickness and explosion.

The NHL combine includes body composition and fitness, testing wingspan, body fat, grip strength, hand-eye coordination, power output, VO2 max , as well as upper body push (2012 best – 333lb) and pull (312lb), bench press (150lbs/max reps) (167), max push-ups (52), seated 4kg med ball throw (253), standing long jump (119″), vertical jump (32.5).

Sure, we’ve got the WFTDA minimums on our skates, but do we ever test our strength off-skates?  And if we were to do so, what would our benchmarks be?

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If we break derby down into its component skills, we’ve got speed, agility, balance, and the ability to withstand impact.  How would we test those skills with a focus on strength and fitness?

Would a 40 yard dash test speed and explosiveness?  Would a vertical jump test translate well into a jammer’s ability to juke?  Would shuttle runs test our ability to quickly change direction across the track?  Would a max squat be a good predictor of impact resistance in derby stance?  I don’t purport to have the answers, but I think we need to be asking the questions.

Historically, women have been drawn to derby because of its low barriers to entry.  No athletic background?  Don’t know how to skate?  No worries!  We’ll teach you!  And that’s worked for a while.  Now with the first wave of juniors coming up into adult play, the time to raise the bar is fast approaching.

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And, if we’re honest, the bar has already been raised for those teams competing at the highest level.  You can’t get by without cross-training anymore.  You can’t move poorly in life and well on skates.  You can’t play super-competitive derby and be in poor shape.   The best teams are the ones with comprehensive fitness plans and strong skaters (both on and off their skates).  The most desirable skaters are the ones who possess not only skating skill and drive, but resilience and resistance to injury – and that’s the stuff that basic strength gives you.

Setting strength standards wouldn’t necessarily exclude skaters who don’t meet the minimums, it would just guide them to the most appropriate level of play for their current skill and physical condition – just like our on-skates minimums do.  While they seem tough, combines give athletes transferable skills and easily measurable benchmarks.  They give leagues direction in the supplementary training programs that should be used.  Yes, every club uses different drills and progressions to get there, but the basics are the same – if you’re a football player, you need to be able to jump, run, change direction, and press heavy weights (presumably so that you can move them out of your way on the field).

This is why I was (and continue to be) so impressed with Nashville – they’ve clearly given thought to the basics, and are developing their off-skates programming around what’s important, and leaving out what’s not.

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How about your league?  How do you structure your off-skates training?  Have you given thought as to how your training outside of derby impacts how you perform on skates?  Should we have standards to meet both on and off-skates and what would those look like?

For my part, I think that as derby grows, so too must our commitment to athleticism, and our interest in developing systems and standards that keep our skaters safe, strong, and skating.

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