How To Strength Train For Kayaking | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
Kayakers on the ocean Photo: Ontario Tourism

Sport scientist and performance coach Matty Graham gives you six exercises to help you strength train for kayaking

This is the first installment of a series on strength training for kayaking by New Zealand-based sports scientist and performance coach Matty Graham. 

Smart strength training for big benefits in kayaking performance 

There are many ways of improving kayaking performance. The obvious one that most paddlers go to first is simply paddling more. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the gains from this alone are limited and you quickly run out of time unless you are a professional athlete. One mode of training that most paddlers neglect or struggle to do well is strength training in the gym or at home. Smart strength training can have a huge impact on kayaking performance.

Whether you are a competitive paddler training for your next race, looking for adventure in whitewater or love the freedom of touring, you can improve your paddling experience with strength training. A well planned strength training plan will help you paddle faster, paddle longer, protect you from injury, allow you to get more out of yourself or just enjoy the journey more by not being as fatigued by the demands of paddling. Strength training can improve your performance in the kayak in two primary ways, directly and indirectly.

Helping your muscles generate more force while kayaking 

Direct improvements to your paddling come from an increase in the muscles' ability to generate more force. This force production comes as a result of increases in muscle fiber size and neural activation. Force production - or how hard you pull on the paddle- is a key component of the power production equation, Power = f*v, where f is force and v is velocity or how fast you pull your paddle (aka stroke rate). By increasing either of these factors you can increase power and therefore your boat speed. While you are not always paddling at your max power, having greater power production capacity also means you can power your boat up faster to catch that wave, make that eddy or get yourself out of a sticky situation.

Using strength training to become more resilient to injury while kayaking 

On the other hand, indirect improvements in the kayak from strength training come from improved core control, joint stability, and ligament and tendon strength, all of which make a paddler more resilient to injury. When a paddler has higher injury resilience they are able to train harder on the water and manage a higher training load which will result in increased  performance. As a side note, improved core control can also have a direct impact on performance through improved transfer of power and maintaining good paddling technique longer as you start to fatigue.

While it is not black and white in terms of when you get direct and indirect performance improvements, generally indirect performance gains come in the early phases of training and you will be able to build your direct performance gains off this sounds platform in the future. The type of training required to obtain the direct performance gains is more advanced and demanding than the training required to obtain the indirect improvements. Regardless of ability, all paddlers can and should be doing some low level strength work to get these indirect performance gains.

The nature of paddle sports and the modern lifestyle leaves many paddlers with some really tight and strong muscle groups (outlined in red below) and others that become weak and stretched (outlined in green). While there are hundreds of different exercises and plans you could do in the gym, for 95% of paddlers the best place they can put their attention initially is on strengthening these green areas while stretching and mobilizing the red areas. If you can do this then you will be taking a large step in the right direction.

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Focus points for kayak strength training

The pectoral muscles become extremely tight with training and life in general. So paddlers should focus special attention on this area with their stretching and mobilization. 

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Ensure that your elbow is slightly below your shoulder. Keep your back braced for a more effective stretch. Don't 'arch.'

Because the strong pectoral muscle group is pulling the shoulders forward, the muscles of the upper back are under constant tension. This prolonged tension causes the muscles to atrophy (decrease in size) and 'creep' (lengthening of the muscle fiber). This then leads to the muscles becoming weak and inactive. With this in mind your focus needs to be on performing pulling exercises such as the bent over row, bench pull and cable or seated rows to strengthen this area.

Matty Graham Paddle Strong

Always maintain a straight lower back and strong core to protect lower back. Pull the bar up the line of your quads, but not touching. Finish with the bar pulled into your belly button.

Due to the kyphotic rounding of the shoulders, forward  head posture and inactivity of many of the key core stabilisers, the erector muscles of the spine have to work overtime to keep it stable. This can lead to lower back pain and restricted movement, particularly rotation. Your strength training should focus on developing the surrounding core musculature to take some of this load off.

Matty Graham Paddle Strong

Maintain a straight back and neutral head position. Face the way the ball is travelling to maintain neutral head position. Rotate from side to side in a controlled movement. 

The 'core' is the key link between the upper and lower body. For paddlers it is critical for the transfer of power and stability. While the rectus abdominis ('six pack') is often well developed in paddlers, the more important, deep core stabilisers are typically inactive and overpowered by the more dominant rectus abdominis. Your attention should be focused on the development of these deep abdominal muscles to develop their activation and control.

Matty Graham Paddle Strong

Lay on your back with both legs in the air at a 90° angle. Lower one leg slowly to the ground, stop when you start to feel your lower back lifting off the ground and return your leg to the start position and repeat with the opposite leg. Focus on pushing your lower back to the ground by squeezing your abs. 

The seated position and leg drive involved in kayaking coupled with prolonged sitting in day-to-day life means that paddler's hip flexors become very strong and tight. This often leads to lower back pain and the feeling of tight hamstrings due to a tilted pelvis. Focused stretching of the hip flexors can go a long way towards minimizing these issues.

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Matty Graham Paddle Strong

When you are stretching hips or quads, squeeze your glutes for a more effective stretch. Try to maintain a neutral back position. If you lean back too far you will not get an effective stretch. You can shift your weight around slightly to target different areas.

The muscles that form the gluteal complex and the hamstrings often become inactive and weak in kayakers. This affects postural control as well as the power generation and transfer. Spending some time on developing the activation of these goes a long way.

Matty Graham Paddle Strong

Start with your feet on a Swiss Ball (SB) and your hips up off the ground. From this position activate your hamstrings and curl the ball in towards your butt. Focus on keeping your hips stable throughout the movement. 

During this introductory strength phase select a weight that you can comfortably lift for eight to ten repetitions while holding good form at a controlled speed, for three to four sets. This will allow the rapid development of your strength, technique and stimulate some muscle growth in those weak green areas.

If you are new to strength training, then in the beginning, one session per week is going to be enough to see improvements. As your training progresses and your body adapts, increasing to two to three session per week will be required for you to continue getting optimal improvements.

Now that you have the knowledge, get into the gym and start your base strength development. This needs to be performed for six to eight weeks so your body develops the correct technique, structure and movement patterns to make the training that you will perform in your next training phase as effective as possible.

Make sure you get your free preview of the Paddle Strong training package here for more information about how you can use strength training to achieve your paddling goals. If you have questions for Matty Graham you can find his contact info here



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