Paddle Healthy: Reducing Shoulder Stress With Dave Kalama

When it comes to SUP training and racing, there are several joints and body parts that can suffer from overuse injuries, including knees, wrists and back. But the number one complaint we hear about from fellow paddlers is sore shoulders.
To help you get your rotator cuffs ready for the water, we caught up with legendary Hawaiian waterman Dave Kalama. As well as being from one of Hawaii’s revered families, joining Laird Hamilton in pioneering tow-in surfing and popularizing SUP, Kalama is still a force on the race circuit, finishing just seconds behind Connor Baxter in the record-setting Molokai-2-Oahu race in July.
In this installment of Paddle Healthy, we’ll cover Kalama’s paddling technique tips to reduce stress on the shoulders. —Phil White

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

1. Paddle Relaxed
Enrollees at the Kalama Kamp might be surprised by one of the first things Kalama shows them at the SUP clinic, which has to do with water but is firmly on dry land.
“I take a glass of water and put it on a table,” Kalama says. “Then I pick it up like you normally would – with a relaxed arm, hand and shoulder, normal range of motion – and take a drink. Next, I pick it up again with everything tensed, muscles flexed, like how 90 percent of new paddlers grip their paddles. The water starts to shake in the glass, I have limited range of motion, and it’s a lot harder than it needs to be.”
Using this illustration, Kalama busts the myth that your muscles need to be tense to be working. “If you relax your muscles during each stroke, you’ll greatly reduce shoulder stress and fatigue,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

2. Reach!
Another mistake newbie paddlers make is not extending their stroke enough, or going to the other extreme in moving the blade so far forward that they’re not generating any power on the pull. Both can put undue stress on the shoulders. Here’s Kalama’s advice for a long, efficient stroke that doesn’t overemphasize the joint:
“Extend the paddle as far forward as you can while keeping your balance centered over your feet, so that you can engage your whole body and pull yourself forward,” he says. “Adding even just half an inch to each stroke might not seem like a lot, but over thousands of strokes it’ll make a big difference.”

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

3. Stack your Shoulders
Lack of alignment between your shoulders is a major stressor on the joint, as tension is distributed unevenly. You can remedy this by stacking the shoulders during each stroke:
“If you put a stick between your shoulders when your shoulders are stacked correctly, it should be almost parallel to the paddle as you move it up and down during the power phase of your stroke,” Kalama says.

Check back soon for Part 2.

For more Paddle Healthy articles, click here.

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  • ariana

    Great tips. I wish there was a picture showing the stick visual for the third technique.

  • Brad Altemeyer

    I read this, and thought Wow- that’s very similar advice that we use with swimmers (I’m a USA Swimming Coach) -Shoulders are important joints- Thanks! Relaxed Efficient Strokes are a great way to improve speed, and improve comfort too.

  • Guest

    Thanks for your comments Brad and Ariana. Are there other fitness and/or nutrition topics you’d like me to cover on I welcome your suggestions.

  • Phil White

    Thanks Brad. Are there any other fitness or nutrition topics you’d like me to explore in the coming weeks on

  • John

    A must read for all paddlers, experienced or not.

  • John

    Great tips on correct form I learned from Dave at Kalama Kamp.

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  • water-ratt

    Is it too much to ask that our paddling professionals model safe behavior?
    We’ve had 4 fatal drownings in the past month; a leash and/or lifejacket would have saved them.

  • Darren

    The problem I have is that my feet ‘go to sleep’. I try to take a less flat footed position as often as possible, but it is still a problem. I was wondering if I should wear some type of water shoes with more arch support or something? Any ideas?

  • rainepaddler

    how can you stack the shoulders without compromising the length of the torso by twisting? Do you mean stacking the hands?

  • Rahim

    What does he mean by stacked?

  • kimo

    Stacked means your shoulders are lined up. Imagine a skewer through your shoulders… or better yet imagine your arms open as if your pretending to be an airplane. your body should look like the letter “t” now twist at the hips right or left. keep twisting till your arms are parallel with the rail of the board, or parallel’ish, depends on how agile you are. this is obviously exaggerated but you should get the idea. if not u guys need lessons from Hawaiians! This is standard paddling technique

  • kimo

    Stack the shoulders! brah, your hips gonna twist, that’s how u get more reach rather then standing with shoulders square. yes u gonna be little bit off balance but, that’s how we do it

  • Cameron Carlin

    I have the same problem. I believe it is caused by the calf muscles tightening and not letting enough circulation. I tried padding and shoes but that did not help. After I tore both my Achilles tendons it got a little better. Stretching helps and it is usually my left foot that starts off having issues. After you get in better shape it takes longer to affect you. Also, the harder I paddle the faster the numbness comes.

  • Sharon Ilstrup

    Not sure how long you have been paddling…I had the same issue with my feet falling asleep…or sometimes, just my toes, when I first started paddling. Now that I paddle fairly consistently, my feet don’t fall asleep. The difference is that my feet are relaxed and I’m not ‘gripping’ the board with my toes, like I used to. I also make sure to move around on my board, go up on the balls of my feets, bring my toes towards my shins to stretch and keep the circulation moving. I do this while I’m paddling…one foot at a time. Wiggle those toes too. Walking around the board helps a ton as well. I have a normal arch but I imagine someone with flat arches would have to move their feet around a lot more to keep em happy and awake. :)

  • Pete Champion

    I think he means shoulder alignment relative to the paddle shaft at a given point.

  • Martin Edmonds

    That’s pretty case by case though… A life jacket in the surf can do more harm than good and a leash on flat water is just ridiculous unless you’re a noob.

  • Rahim

    Thanks Pete

  • Rahim

    Thanks Kimo. This is when your holding the paddle and reaching it forward to enter the water?

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  • rocon

    It’s never ridiculous to wear a leash in flat water, and it actually IS ridiculous to associate those who wear a leash in flatwater as a noob. Conditions can change extremely fast in most areas and for all intensive purposes, your SUP is your life jacket. It’s never a bad idea to wear a leash and many of the best paddlers in the world make a habit of wearing one whenever they go out.

  • Jeff Warren

    i have dystonia so at most times its impossible for me to get muscles to relax.But paddling takes my mind off of the things in life that eat at me on constantly.I also enjoy the weekend races we have here through out the summer.

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