Thursday 26 November 2015

“Big Picture” Approach to Technique Part 3 – Using Big Muscles and Body Weight

You’ll recall that when I introduced the concept of a “big picture” approach to looking at technique rather than focusing on isolated details of body positions and joint angles, I mentioned using big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles and using body weight whenever possible as two separate elements of this approach. Most of what I’ve covered already in the last couple of posts, which looked at securing the blade and maintaining blade angle, also helps facilitate the use of big muscles and body weight. However there are still a few tips I haven’t shared yet that are really helpful. Let’s consider using big muscles and using your body weight together as these tips are pretty useful for enhancing your ability to do both.

One thing needs to be understood before moving forward with this discussion: if you can’t secure your blade properly and pull yourself by the paddle while maintaining positive blade angle as long as possible, you’re going to have a really hard time engaging your big muscles effectively and getting your body weight onto your paddle. Everything is sort of interconnected, and the idea of finding connection with your blade against the water is sort of foundational to everything else. If you haven’t already read parts 1 and 2 of this series, please go and read them first before proceeding further here.

Get your weight forward at the catch

One of the things I always thought about in my C1 days was getting everything forward in the stroke. I don’t mean just reaching forward, but instead getting into a position where it felt like a notable amount of my body weight was forward, outside my base of support, and on top of the paddle at the catch. As I pulled the stroke I tried to stay on top of the paddle and never really got into what could be considered a “sitting back” position because I was always springing my hips forward at the exit with my upper body following right behind, quickly getting into a position where I’d feel like I could be on top of the paddle at the next catch.

We should be trying to do something similar on our SUP boards. One of the most common mistakes that people make when they’re stand up paddling is that they reach forward by rotating their hips and shoulders and leaning forward at the waist, while at the same time sticking their bum out behind them to counter balance the weight that is going forward. While their upper body is bending forward, they’re lower body looks like it is getting ready to sit down in a chair. The net result of this is that their weight stays balanced over their base of support (which is their feet) and isn’t available to load onto the blade immediately at the catch. No matter how far they end up reaching, they really don’t load the paddle effectively until the blade is closer to their feet and they can comfortably transfer weight from their base of support onto the paddle. While I suppose some weight on the blade is better than nothing, the reality is they’ve left it too late to provide anything that makes a truly effective contribution to moving their board forward.

What you should try to do instead is keep your hips forward as much as you can while you reach, and at the very least keep them over your feet. You’re not just rotating your paddling side hip forward like we’ve talked about in previous discussions, but you’re actually trying to get your hips as a whole forward of your base of support. If you do this, suddenly you’ll find all the rotation that you’ve got from your hips and shoulders is in front of your feet. And any bending you do at the waist is going to put even more of your upper body in front of your base of support as well. You’ll actually feel a little unstable, like you’re going to topple forward right from your feet. However instead of falling forward into the water or face first onto your board, you’re going to be falling onto your paddle, which is just about to enter the water after all the great rotation and bending at the waist you’ve just done.

One of the easiest ways for me to tell if I am doing this well is to feel how much pressure my heels are exerting on the board as I extend towards the catch. I want them to feel like they are floating above the board as I enter the water. Although they’re probably still touching the board it feels like they are actually coming off the board and my weight is shifting onto my toes.

Remember, we’re interested in using our body weight as much as possible in the stroke and using big muscles preferentially over small muscles. Obviously, if we can get our weight forward and outside of our base of support and onto the blade we’ll be using our body weight right from the moment we catch. But how does this facilitate the use of big muscles?

Consider for a minute all of the joints we move in our paddling motion. The hips are the largest and most heavily muscled of all of them. We’ve already established in the last couple of posts that they are essential for effectively pulling yourself by your secured paddle. In fact they initiate both the pulling and the exit phases of the stroke and drive the entire movement. This important role of the hips isn’t unique to the paddling motion. Consider a golf swing, tennis serve or any just about any other sport motion. The hips are absolutely critical. But if they aren’t in proper position to be effectively used when our blade enters the water, how are they going to be able to drive the motion?

You’ll recall that one of the most common mistakes people make is “sitting in a chair” with their hips instead of keeping them forward at the catch. If your hips are forward when your blade enters the water they’re in position to be used immediately to contribute to the pulling motion by un-rotating or thrusting back. But if they’re already back to start with, behind your feet when your blade enters the water because you’re “sitting in a chair”, how can they be engaged to generate force? They aren’t available in this case because they are already where they should be when you finish your pull.

I strongly suggest practicing the “Tippy Toe Drill”, which is drill number seven in “Some Useful Technique Drills for SUP”, to help you learn to get your weight forward at the catch. Find some calm, very flat water to start with so that balance is not an issue. This will make it easier for you feel that moment of instability just before you catch. It will also allow you to feel how the blade supports your body weight and keeps you from falling over as it enters the water. Like riding a bike this drill is easier to perform when your board has a little speed, as it will make it more stable. So get your board moving first and then start doing the drill. Once you’ve really locked into the feeling in flat water you can try it in progressively rougher conditions.

Keep your weight outside the board during the pull

If you’ve done a good job at the catch of really trying to spear the blade into the water with an appropriate, positive blade angle, you’ll find that your shoulders should be “stacked”. In other words, your bottom arm shoulder should be lower and closer to the water than your top arm shoulder. Just rotating your hips and shoulders alone won’t produce stacked shoulders, it’s the effort you make to continue to stretch forward with your paddling side hip and shoulder until the blade tip enters the water that really makes the difference. It causes you to bend at the waist in such way that your paddling side is closer to the water than your top arm side.

If you’ve effectively got your weight forward at the catch like I’ve described above, a good portion of your body weight will already be loaded onto the blade after the catch. What you want to do now is continue to load even more onto the blade in the pull, and the shoulders stacked position helps make that possible.

If you stand in front of a full length mirror and reach forward like you’re trying to spear the paddle into the water properly, you’ll notice that most of your upper body is sort of over the spot where the paddling side rail of your board would be. It certainly isn’t nicely centered between your feet in what would be the middle of your board. Now pick up your paddle and get into the same position, leaning on your paddle as if it were supported in the water. Notice how much of your body weight you can lean onto your paddle and how much more this allows you to engage your upper body and core muscles than when you just cautiously keep your weight centered between your feet.

In the catch you got into an unstable position just before grabbing the water and found that the blade took your body weight. Now you need to see how much more weight you can load on your blade in the pull when you think about getting your weight outside the paddling side rail and onto the paddle.

When you’re paddling this weight should be loaded on the blade from the catch right through the pull to the point where the blade is vertical and just before you start to unload by bringing your hips forward, straightening up and bringing your weight back onto the board. Remember to keep your top hand pressure down the shaft through the unloading process right to the exit.

You can practice getting weight outside the board and onto the blade in the pull by doing the loading drill in "Some Useful Technique Drills for SUP". Getting body weight outside the board and onto the paddle not only helps you generate force from gravity instead of just muscle, but also takes weight off the board making it sit slightly higher in the water. That makes it easier for you to pull it through the water. If you do a good job of accelerating the board off of the exit, it will stay on top the water through the recovery, making the next catch and pull easier. This will translate into increased speed. However you’ll need to experiment to find the optimal amount of weight that you should load onto the paddle. Too much and the stroke can feel heavy and unsustainable for a long race. I find it far easier to get someone to unload a little weight and make their stroke lighter, than it is to get them to load more when they aren’t familiar with what it feels like to have the paddle take their body weight, so don’t worry if you get the feeling of a really heavy, hard to pull stroke while doing this drill. It’s a good thing, and you can always lighten it up later.

Drive your inside knee towards the nose of the board in the pull

This is a little trick I learned in C1 and have applied to SUP. Basically I’m just focusing on my inside knee to help drive my paddling side hip back during the initial stages of the pull.

There is a definite pattern of bending and straightening of your legs when paddling SUP, not unlike what you see kayak paddlers doing or, in a more extreme case, cyclists. As you rotate forward to catch, your paddling side leg is bent more at the knee and your inside leg is straighter. As you catch and begin to pull, your paddling side hip drives the motion by torqueing back which causes your paddling side leg to straighten and inside leg to bend. This cycle repeats itself stroke after stroke.

I’m not sure that thinking of driving my inside knee towards the nose of the board is adding any force to my pull. It feels like it is, but it may just be my imagination. What I can definitely say is that it helps me ensure that my paddling side hip torques back forcefully against the loaded paddle. Thinking of driving my inside knee towards the nose is a great cue to help me engage my hips properly. I’ve also noticed that because I bend my legs to help get the paddle deeper in the water and find more load, it’s a good cue for that as well. If I can’t feel my knee noticeably driving towards the nose of the board it’s a good bet I’m not loading the blade as much as I want to.

Establish a “circle of power” with your paddle

Using big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles means using the muscles of the hips, core, legs, back, chest and shoulders in preference to the smaller muscles of the arms. However you’re going to have to connect the force generated by those big muscles to the paddle somehow and that’s where your arms come in. You should look at them as connecting rods that link the larger muscle groups to the paddle instead of major contributors themselves.

If your arms are going to be effective connectors they have to remain rigid enough to transfer everything to the paddle. If you try to pull with your arms in any way during the pulling phase or let them go slack, there will be a break in transmission of power from the big muscles to the paddle. This is the last thing you want. One thing I’ve always visualized is a “circle of power” that runs from my top hand up my top arm, across my shoulders to the my bottom arm, down my bottom arm to my bottom hand, and then up the paddle shaft to my top hand. I try to imagine it’s a chain that is stretched tight all the way around rather than slack at any point in the circle. While it is imperative that your shoulders and arms be relaxed as much as possible, you need to contract the stabilizing muscles along that chain just enough to keep it rigid. Of course the paddle shaft, being made of carbon fiber, will stay very rigid on its own.

If you can do this you’ll do a very good job of transferring force generated from your big muscles to the paddle, and there won’t be any force lost. The only exception to not flexing your arms while you’re pulling is the slight bend you add to your bottom arm to help save paddle angle towards the end of the pull. But this bending is done gradually and with keeping an intact circle of power in mind. It should in no way diminish your ability to connect your big muscles to the paddle at that point in the stroke.

In the recovery, of course, everything relaxes and the “circle of power” disappears. However as you’re bringing the paddle forward for the next stroke you’re making all the preparatory movements necessary to reestablish it the moment the blade contacts the water.

Try to link every movement to your paddle

There’s a concept in biomechanics called “summation of forces”. Basically it says that the more joints that are involved in a movement, the more total force will be produced because the force generated by one joint is added to that produced by the next and so on. The trick is that the movements have to be performed in the correct sequence and without pauses or gaps that compromise the flow of the movement. When one joint has contributed most of it’s force to a movement, the next joint has to jump in at the correct time to keep the movement going and add its contribution.

Think of sport movements like a baseball pitch or tennis serve. The athlete’s entire body is involved in the motion. If a pitcher could throw a 95 mph fastball without the big windup don’t you think he would? Instead, the only hope he has of throwing that hard is by putting everything he has into it and using every major joint in his body. We’ve got to do the same on our SUP boards. We need to maximize the contribution to our stroke of every muscle crossing every joint.

We all have to find the way to do that which is optimal, and we’ll all do it slightly differently. The stroke is so complex that I have difficulty describing exactly how I link every movement I make to the paddle. What I can say is that I find it a lot easier to be aware of all the little things my body is doing if I can feel some resistance against which it’s working. Loading weight on the blade and using big muscles preferentially over small muscles is a great way to feel more resistance against your paddle. Searching for a paddling motion that is fluid and rhythmical against that resistance is what is key. Unfortunately, sometimes when you work on technique to excess and do a lot of drills you end up with a motion that is a little disjointed and mechanical. You end up working so hard on separate elements of your stroke that you lose sight of how to fit it all together. I want to emphasize the importance of the whole rather than all the component pieces.

As you become more aware of your feel for the water and the muscles which you engage, you should become better at feeling how everything fits together while you’re paddling and how various muscles connect to the paddle. For this reason I don’t advocate doing drills for more than about twenty minutes a session. You’ve got to spend time paddling with flow and focusing on the whole, not just on a bunch of component pieces of your stroke.


In the last three posts we’ve pretty much covered the entire “active” part of the stroke that propels your board forward. I’ve given you lots of tips and ideas that should enhance your force producing movements, your ability to connect them to the paddle, and your ability to connect the paddle to the water. In the last part of this series I’ll look at putting it all together and give you some tips and training ideas that can help you learn to relax while paddling, paddle more fluidly and rhythmically, and maintain board run between strokes.