Paddle Healthy: Bulletproof Back Part II

Lower back pain can be miserable to deal with and manage. Standup paddling can make it even worse because of the twisting and bending of the upper body. But when your stroke technique is sound and you’re using correctly-sized equipment, you can paddle pain-free.

Last week we looked at “pre-hab” land exercises to keep your lower back healthy. This week, PaddleFit’s Brody Welte covers some very simple and easily implemented tips to help your lower back while on the water. —Phil White

Get Paddle Length Right

First, let’s talk equipment. Having a properly sized paddle can make a world of difference. Paddlefit’s trainers have found that a paddle that’s too long can cause shoulder issues, and a paddle that’s too short can cause back issues. Double whammy! Here’s a simple way to size your paddle effectively, and avoid both issues:

Starting point for sizing a paddle:

When you’re standing straight, your shoulders are square with the ground and you’re reaching up with one arm, your paddle should come up to your palm. For most paddlers the length of your reach (and so your ideal paddle length) will be your height plus 8” to 14”, depending on your anatomy. Make sure that you’re not stretching your arm too high– it should be a comfortable reach.

Now that you have your paddle sized correctly, let’s dive into the basic mechanics of a quality stroke. Most of you have witnessed some of the top paddlers and have seen a lot of different stroke techniques. What we’ll deal with are some basic proper body mechanics that will help you stay healthy.

Waist Bend, Not Back Bend
First, the waist bend is very important to generating power, but if done wrong, it can be a source of lower back pain and damage. The key to a proper waist bend is (shocker!) to actually bend at the waist! This sounds obvious, but a lot of paddlers actually bend at the lower back instead, creating issues in the lumbar spine.


Bending incorrectly at the lower back.

Bending properly at the waist.

When you properly bend at the waist you are keeping the spinal vertebrae aligned, which protects your back.

The next potential issue is rotation of your spine during the stroke. When you rotate, it is essential that your back be straight, for the same reason, as we want a waist bend instead of a back bend.


Improper rotation, spine is not straight.

Proper rotation, with straight spine.

Ideally, the waist bend and spine rotation happen simultaneously in a fluid stroke. Here’s a drill to help you with waist bend and spine rotation that can be performed both on land and on your board:

The Reach and Grab Drill
On land, start by choking down on your paddle by placing your bottom hand lower on the shaft and taking your top hand off the handle and placing it lower on the shaft.

Now extend your arms out in front of you like you’re getting ready to paddle.

Simultaneously bend at the waist, rotate your spine and set your paddle on the ground.

Pause for a second and then return to the starting position.

Make sure that your paddle is perpendicular to the ground.
Perform 15 of these and then switch sides and perform 15 more.

Once you feel comfortable on land, go ahead and perform this drill on your board. But this time, grip the paddle like you normally would and set your blade completely in the water.

Once again, make sure your paddle is perpendicular to the water.
Perform 15 reps on each side.

This is a great way to properly introduce waist bend and rotation into your stroke without actually paddling. Once you’re comfortable with this motion, go ahead and incorporate it into your stroke. Only paddle at about 50% effort until your stroke feels normal and then slowly increase your power. Also, don’t force your rotation or waist bend— this should be a relaxed motion.

If you’re having trouble keeping your back straight during the waist bend or rotation, don’t despair. Instead, check out the flexibility and strengthening exercises in Part 3, coming soon.

For Bulletproof Back: Part I, click here.
For Bulletproof Back: Part III, click here.
Click here for more Paddle Healthy.

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  • Tom

    Thanks. This is a great series, but I don’t understand what is meant in the paddle length section, by “For most paddlers the height will be between 8” and 14” depending on your anatomy.”

  • Phil White

    Tom, it means that for most paddlers, the ideal paddle shaft length will be their height + 8″ to 14″ (depending on arm length, shoulder mobility and other individual factors). We’ll re-word this to make it clearer. Thanks for your feedback and please recommend any future topics you’d like to see in the Paddle Healthy section.

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