From the surf zone to the race course, applying the principles of leverage will improve your standup paddling in every discipline. Photo courtesy of Casi Rynkowski
From the surf zone to the race course, applying the principles of leverage will improve your standup paddling in every discipline. Photo courtesy of Casi Rynkowski

Step Up Your SUP Stroke: The Art of Applying Leverage

by Casi Rynkowski

"Leverage" is likely not the first term that comes to mind when you think about fitness and sports performance. Without leverage, however, you can't achieve any of the typical fitness objectives, such as power, strength, or speed. In fact, leverage is relevant to all basic movements we make.

Archimedes once said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." That statement—a basic explanation of how leverage is created—is mechanical in nature, but it can be translated into human terms.

The human body is made up of many parts that can act as levers; and successful athletes know how to isolate and utilize them.

A lever is a rigid structure that pivots on a fulcrum to overcome a resistive force. Similarly, our skeleton and muscles work together to provide mechanical advantage. Think of your bones as levers, with your joints functioning as fulcrums. Muscles contract or elongate, applying force to move your bones as they pivot on the joint. We can even combine multiple levers within our bodies to construct a larger lever, simply by contracting groups of muscles and effectively connecting portions of our bodies to function as integrated components. You can't move without this type of levered power.

The human body is made up of many parts that can act as levers; and successful athletes know how to isolate and utilize them. They also know how to use their entire body as a single elongated lever. As a paddleboarder, you can gain significant advantages by learning how to do this, too. Your paddling technique will improve (as will your overall performance) and you'll be more likely to avoid injury.  

By applying the principles of leverage to your stroke, you can significantly increase your paddling efficiency and overall speed. Photo courtesy of Casi Rynkowski

Leverage and strength

Building strength upon a powerful base is key for performance and injury prevention, especially if you participate in sports such as paddling that put your body in a "long lever" position, where you synchronize and engage muscles and joints from your toes to your neck.

Weightlifting exercises like the bench press or seated bicep curls cannot prepare your body for this type of workload, since they are "short lever" actions that isolate muscle groups. Long-lever exercises or body-weight isometrics, on the other hand, can build a strong foundation for this type of movement.

Take the front shoulder raise, for example. To lift the weight with straight arms you must leverage your body, which forces you to use your core and back muscles to maintain good posture. Additionally, smaller muscles that stabilize the shoulder chip in to complete the movement. Stabilizing muscles are not so involved in moving your body as they are in supporting it.  They are often active for long periods of time during activity. Many athletes don’t think enough about strengthening their stabilizer muscles until it's too late, when they're injured and in physical therapy.

Bodyweight isometric exercises that require the use of arms and legs to hold the body in a static position are another way of using leverage to build a strong base. The iron cross in gymnastics (arms straight out on either side, grasping a set of rings) and V-sits are two hallmark bodyweight isometric moves.  These types of exercises require stabilizer muscles to stay engaged for elongated periods of time.  Activating this type of body control strengthens stabilizer muscles and it can take your athletic performance to the next level. It can also help to keep you injury-free.

Cross training with sports that involved the use of leverage and stabilizing muscles is a good way to take your paddling to the next level. Photo courtesy of Casi Rynkowski

Leverage and Balance

Your entire body can be used as a long lever, but only if you're properly balanced.  Rock climbers understand this.  They use four points of contact to place their bodies into position and shift their weight into balance on either side of a hold. Body awareness is crucial to their success.  

Paddleboarders use their paddle as a lever, but they cannot apply the necessary force to it without first being balanced. Creating balance requires standing in a stable position and contracting your stabilizer muscles—core, quads and glutes—while applying force through your feet to the board and to the lever through your arms.  

Tuning in to the feeling of engaging certain muscle groups, individually and together, helps the brain understand the mechanics of effective paddling.

Synchronizing stabilizer muscles and levers makes it all work. In fact, a paddleboarder is most in balance while in motion, since the paddle provides an additional point of contact with the water. Knowing how to gain balance by harnessing leverage can help you become a more efficient paddler.

Efficient paddling: the art of combining balance, power and leverage. Photo courtesy of Casi Rynkowski

Leverage and Power

Power—the ability to exert force in a short time (think each paddling stroke)—is an important component of athletic performance.  Harnessing this force involves pulling together the concepts of strength, balance, and leverage (sound familiar?) and combining it with a properly positioned body. That ultimately assists in the transfer of force to your mechanical lever, the paddle. Ever try to paddle a board while standing straight and relaxed?  The board won't go far. That's because the force that is applied to the paddle can be increased simply by changing one or more of the above components. Knowing how to pull these all together is the key to maximizing power, and doing so requires constant practice using leverage. Elite paddlers do all of these things simultaneously and without thinking.

It helps to slow down movements and change positions while taking note of where strain is being applied or relieved, as well as the outcome of each adjustment.

Applying the concept of leverage—both mechanical and with movement—requires body awareness. Tuning in to the feeling of engaging certain muscle groups, individually and together, helps the brain understand the mechanics of effective paddling. It helps to slow down movements and change positions while taking note of where strain is being applied or relieved, as well as the outcome of each adjustment. That may not be part of your normal plan when you walk into the gym, but it should be. Taking the time to do this type of self-analysis in a controlled environment means it will be more easily transferred to an interactive environment, like when you're on the water paddling. Training with like-movements is also important, but keeping your training varied helps to develop better body awareness and instill those second nature reactions that allow you to, in the words of Archimedes, "Rise above oneself and grasp the world."

Now, go apply that leverage! –CR

See also

How to Paddle Your SUP in a Straight Line

Building the Perfect Stroke

More Skills