“Skate Hard, Turn Left” Syndrome is real. You may have never heard of it before (because I kind of just pulled that name out of my ass) but I guarantee you that you are feeling the effects. And the longer you skate, the worse it will get.
What I call “SHTL” Syndrome is really a complicated combination of imbalances that occur within your body, sometimes structural and sometimes muscular, that are a result of the asymmetrical nature of the sport we play. This syndrome can be exacerbated by things like prior injuries — for example, I’ve had 2 different and significant issues with my right knee which adds to it’s already weaker status when compared to my left leg — and general inactivity — like I’ve been sitting at a computer all day typing this up.
The underlying problem of SHTL Syndrome is glute imbalance. Your gluteal muscles are the primary extensor muscles of your hip (or they should be) which means that when you are pushing against the floor through your skate, you are using your glutes (or you should be). But the glutes are surprisingly hard to activate. In our everyday lives (sans skating) we maximally contract most of our muscles at various times during the day. Think about when you sit up out of bed first thing in the morning. You just activated your abdominals. Think about when you pull open that sticky drawer in your kitchen. You just activated your biceps. There are a ton of everyday movements that activate most of our major muscles. But not the glutes.
The glutes are hard to engage. And even once they are engaged, they can quickly turn off due to any of the reasons listed above. Like the world’s biggest introvert at a party. Like me at a party.
The fact of the matter is, even if you have the world’s most tuned in glutes, every time you go to practice you’re spending a huge portion of your time working on strengthening only one. (It’s the left one. If you didn’t know.) In the era of backwards blocking and bridge backs, skating hard and turning left is still what we do a majority of the time. Which means it’s still what you do a majority of the time at practice.
Teams and leagues that try to counteract this by spending time practicing drills or scrimmaging in the non-derby direction (i.e. Skate Hard, Turn Right) are on the right track. But unless your team spends an equal amount of time in the non-derby direction — which I doubt they do because you don’t play in that direction — then you’re still creating a growing strength imbalance at every practice.
I can’t tell you if you activate your glutes properly. I can’t tell you if SHTL Syndrome has functionally changed the structural tilt of your pelvis (which happens, by the way). I can’t tell you if you have other structural issues that need to be addressed in order to get your glutes fully activated. But what I can tell you is this: If you play roller derby, you have a gluteal strength imbalance.
You probably always will and that’s probably okay. The issue I see with most derby skaters — the issue I saw with myself — is that the imbalance gets so large that it starts to cause other problems.
What are some ways to address this issue in your cross training?
1. Let your weaker side dictate your workout sets/reps.
Whenever you’re doing single leg movements or unilateral movements in your strength training or cross training program, start on your weaker side. Choose the weight that best fits your weaker side for the allotted number of reps and use that same weight on the strong side. If you’re looking at rep ranges of bodyweight exercises, count the number of reps you can do on your weak side and only do that many on your strong side as well. You may find (like I did) that 6 pistol squats on your right side nearly kills you, but you could easily bang out 10 or more on your left side. DON’T DO IT! You’re trying to close your strength gap, not increase it!
If you suffer from a severe imbalance, you might also consider doing half the reps on your strong side that you do on your weak side until the weaker side starts to catch up. This is one of the fastest ways to fix the imbalance, but can be hard to stick to. Because it feels strange. Like you’re neglecting the leg that’s been treating you right this whole time.
2. Schedule prehab exercises for your weaker side only.
Create a prehab program that you can tack on to a full workout or that you can complete on an active rest day that focuses solely on your weak side glute. Remember that your strong side is getting stronger every time that you practice, so giving your weak side it’s own special workout time makes sense. (This is specifically an in-season suggestion. If you are not practicing, you shouldn’t neglect your strong side.)
Isometric contractions are a great way to get that lazy glute turned on.
- Start from a standing position, balance on your strong leg, and kick your weak leg back by contracting the weak side glute. Make sure that your hips stay level and your lower back doesn’t arch. Hold for 3 seconds, release, and repeat for a total of 10.
- Start from a seated position, press down with your weak leg into the chair by contracting your weak side glute. Make sure your hips stay level and your lower back doesn’t arch. Hold for 3 seconds, release, and repeat for a total of 10.
- Lying face down, bend your weak side knee until it is at a 90 degree angle and the bottom of your foot is facing the ceiling. Kick your foot up toward the ceiling by contracting your weak side glute. Make sure your hips stay level and your lower back doesn’t arch. Hold for 3 seconds, release, and repeat for a total of 10.
You may find that this feels useless at first. It’s probably because your brain and your butt are disconnected. (I bet you never thought you’d read that sentence.) Part of these isometric contractions is getting your muscle and mind connected so that the glute becomes more active all the time.
Once that connection has been made and the isometric contractions become easier, you can move onto dynamic movements for your weaker side.
- 2 sets of 10 reps, side-lying leg raises
- 2 sets of 10 reps, side-lying clamshells
- 2 sets of 10 reps, donkey kicks
- 2 sets of 10 reps, single-leg glute bridge
Again, keep your focus on the weak side. Your strong side is getting a lot of work at practice!
3. Load your bilateral movements carefully and keep your head in the game.
Love bilateral movement (squats, deadlifts, etc.)? You can still do them, but you want to make sure you’re choosing loads that challenge your weaker side, but don’t turn it off. You have to practice being present when you do this. Keep your brain concentrating on what your muscles are doing. If you can’t feel your weak side glute contracting, then you need to rethink your weight selection.
4. Get thee to a Physical Therapist
I am not a Physical Therapist, so the recommendations above are generalized ways to help you unwind from all the skating hard and turning left. I highly recommend that you go get a movement assessment and overall evaluation from a Physical Therapist. They will be able to tell you what kind of imbalance you have, what might be causing it, and give you a targeted program to fix it. PTs also have a large array of helpful tools that can add to the prehab of your weaker side (foam rollers, bands, manual manipulation) and give you some ideas of how to keep your sides equalized.
I had huge gluteal imbalances that my PT diagnosed the first time I showed up in her office. I also had a structural issue where one side of my pelvis was tilted further forward than the other (a surprisingly common side effect of SHTL Syndrome) which caused one hip bone to sit higher. A couple quick appointments and some soft tissue mobilization work, paired with my individualized plan diminished the strength imbalance and also got rid of some weird nagging issues I didn’t realize were connected. This is why PTs are so important.
If you are really into glute imbalances and/or getting amazing, strong glutes you can read the inspiration for this post here. It was written by Bret Contreras who is known as the “Glute Guy” for very good reason.
Are your glutes turned on?
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