Paddle Healthy: Building Lower Body Power
Many standup paddlers focus on long distance training and the ability to keep going mile after mile. This certainly is an important component of an intentional training plan, but whether you’re still doing a lot of slow, long distance paddling or mixing in more intense on-the-water sessions like the intervals pro Danny Ching does, you can’t neglect land-based strength training.
In Paddle Healthy, we’ve covered various ways to boost upper body strength and strengthen your core, whether it’s your first stroke or your thousandth. Now, we’re turning our attention to compound exercises that build leg power, as well as strengthening supporting tissues throughout your body. As a wise old strength and conditioning coach said, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe,” meaning that if your legs are weak and unstable, you won’t be able to generate the force needed for optimal performance in any activity. Try working the following exercises into your routine at least twice a week. As with all other exercises, make sure you get the form down first before adding more weight, speed, and reps. Also, find a training partner who knows what they’re doing to make sure you’re performing these movements correctly. Then, get at it! —Phil White
When we talked to Dave Kalama, he told us that he often does hundreds of lunges across the beach as a central part of his equipment-free workout that he can do anywhere. Even if you’re not doing them in sand like Kalama, lunges enable you to work major muscle groups through full hip extension. As any veteran paddler knows, generating power through the hips is essential to an efficient and strong stroke.
How to do it: Keeping your core braced and head facing straight ahead to ensure correct spinal alignment, take a big step forward, with your lead foot straight. Once the front foot is planted, bend drop your torso as you lower the rear knee to the ground. Keeping your core locked in, push your torso back up, and repeat with the other leg.
Sets/reps: With lunges, keep going as long as you can with correct form, like Kalama does, for three sets. For weighted and overhead varieties, aim to take 6 to 12 steps per leg, for 3 to 5 sets.
Make it more challenging: Make your lunges more challenging by holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms straight down by your sides. To tax your core more, hold a weight plate overhead with arms locked out throughout the movement. You can also add an explosive element by turning the lunge into a plyometric exercise, jumping off the floor with each stride.
Form tip: Many of us are tempted to duck the lead foot out, but that’s bad mechanics so don’t do it! Also, make sure you’re striding out far enough so your lead knee doesn’t go past your toes, which can lead to soft tissue damage.
The squat is the king of lower body exercises, building ground-up strength and power. It also offers almost endless variations, which allow you to target the quads, hamstrings, and other major muscle groups of the lower body in different ways. Before we jump into some of these variations, let’s figure out a correct body weight or “air squat.”
How to do it (air squat): Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with your toes pointed straight ahead, or just slightly out. Squeeze your butt and screw your feet into the ground as if they were on spinning dinner plates. This creates a stable arch. Next, lift both arms out in front of you with thumbs turned up. Then, keeping your feet screwed into the ground and your core tight, lower your body straight down as low as it will go, forcing your knees out. Maintaining external rotation through the hips, stand back up.
How to do it (back squat): Once you can perform 10 air squats with good form, try a back squat with a bar (without added weight). To do it, place a bar in a squat rack at shoulder height. Step under the bar to assume the starting position above, with the bar resting across your traps, then grip it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Screw your hands into the bar (like you’re trying to break it), so that your upper back is in a stable position and lats are engaged. Step out from the rack so you’re in the squat starting position, then follow the air squat steps. Re-rack the bar when you’re done.
Sets/reps: For strength, do 5 sets of 5 reps. To build muscular endurance, aim for 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. It should be difficult to get your last couple of reps. If not, add more weight!
Make it more challenging: Just adding weight and reps to a back squat will be enough for most people. However, you can also try the front squat, which is the foundation for the Olympic lifts. The overhead squat is usually very difficult for most beginners as it exposes restrictions in the shoulders, hips and just about everywhere else. But, like the overhead lunge, it also offers great benefits in core strength and brings the upper body more into play.
Form Tip: Coaches traditionally had their athletes duck their feet out to extreme angles during the squat. The problem is that this causes you to lose external rotation and, therefore, the ability to develop torque through the hips. Make sure you keep your feet either pointed straight ahead or just slightly outward when you’re squatting.
There’s no better way to jump into plyometrics (pun intended) than to add box jumps to your workout. Make sure you start with a lower box or bench for the first few sessions, so your muscles and nervous system can get used to the stress of take off and landing.
How to do it: To get started, get into the air squat starting position. Instead of squatting all the way down to parallel or below, go a quarter of the ways, and then, keeping your head up and core tight, swing both arms behind you. Jump up onto the box or bench, landing as softly as you can on the balls of your feet. Then, lightly touch your heels to the ground as you drive your feet into the ground and force your knees out. Step down and repeat.
Sets/reps: For lower boxes, 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps is fine. When you start to go higher (we recommend not exceeding a box height of 30 inches for guys and 24 inches for girls unless you’re an advanced athlete), shoot for 3 sets of 10.
Make it more challenging: You can improve speed and lower leg power by focusing on the eccentric contraction required in depth jumps. To do it, stand on a box or bench and gently drop to the ground, landing with feet straight on the balls of your feet. As your heels lightly “kiss” the floor, immediately explode upwards, swinging your arms above your head. Step back up onto the box, and repeat. As this exercise stresses the lower legs more than box jumps, lower your reps and be aware of tightness in your Achilles and. As with any exercise, stop if you feel pain.
Form tip: In CrossFit and other intense workout programs, some coaches encourage their athletes to jump down from the box or bench to add intensity. This is too much for most beginner to intermediate athletes, particularly those with tight Achilles tendons. Step down between each rep instead. Also, per the squat tip above, take off and land with your feet as straight as possible, with your feet screwed into the ground and knees shoved out.