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The Forward Stroke

I am having a bit of a problem with it. After watching many Youtube videos and reading many articles, I knew that torso rotation is essential to good technique. I attempted to utilize it, and found that I can move my boat at a very good speed, both all-out and when cruising.

The more I paddle, however, I noticed that I probably am not rotating my torso as much as I should, and I am certainly not holding my arms in a box (my elbows come past my body). I endeavored, therefore, to really rotate myself, so that, when keeping my head aligned with my body, my field of vision was about 120 degrees. I also kept my arms in a box.

It did no good. I just became dizzy from moving my head so much, I tracked very badly, and I did not go as fast as when I used poor form. Not only this, but my arms were more tired from holding the paddle in the same position than they were if I used my poor technique.

I suppose that practice makes perfect and all that, but is there anything wrong with letting my elbows past myself?

(I only really kayak on relatively small lakes with waves only 6-8 inches high. I don't think that I am at risk for shoulder injuries.)


  • new muscles
    I think it's another thing you have to get in shape for, or work your way up to. It's all about perfecting technique that allows you to apply the most power. Your arms got more tired holding them in a different position because you're using new muscles at a higher level. If you paddle often enough to get those muscles in shape, that part will be fine. Other than that, you're right, practice makes perfect. You were slower and not tracking straight, so it's obvious enough that good technique wasn't there.
    Bent elbows don't cause shoulder injury. Having your shoulder rolled back with your arm extended straight is where you really put stress on the shoulders. So be careful not to substitute rolling your shoulder back in its joint while rolling the opposite shoulder forward in its joint as a substitute for actual torso rotation. If your shoulder is rolled back, you would be better off with a bent elbow than with a straight arm as far as shoulder injury is concerned.
  • Welcome to the club.
    I have been paddling a kayak for over fifteen years and cannot rotate properly.
    No matter how I tried, it was just too uncomfortable.
    I seemed to be able to do it fairly decent on my right side, but not on my left.
    I finally gave up and have been a happy paddler with a poor stroke ever since.
    The plus side, is I have great upper arm strength now.

    Good luck,

    Jack L
  • Videos and DVDs
    I strongly recommend the Brent Reitz Forward Stroke Clinic Sea Kayaking DVD. It is easy to get confused and over analyze things given the amount of information, both good and bad, that is out there. The Reitz DVD is clear and what he says is correct. You don't need anything else. Having said that there is no reason for your arms to get more tired if you are rotating properly. Put your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your belly. Rotate counter clockwise. Does your left hand move? If not, you are shoulder rotating and your arms will get tired. Repeat the rotation only this time push with your left leg to move your belly around. That is torso rotation.
  • Options
    second Brent Reitz dvd
    also OP your head should not be swiveling which is making you dizzy.

    You keep your head facing forward while your shoulders and torso pivot. So you can see where you're going ;)
  • Good tracking can also depend on
    the length of your kayak along with your height, weight, etc. variables.
    So many folks get caught up in their desire/need for speed that one can miss the beauty of nature and a good physical workout.
    Just go and enjoy.
  • Suggestions
    -- Last Updated: Jun-05-13 11:29 AM EST --

    Move the torso, leave the head looking where you are going.

    Pedal with your feet to help get the hips into it, frees up the lower back a bit. Push forward on the right pedal (or foot if you have simplified with solid bulkhead blocks) when paddling on the right, left when pulling back with the left paddle. Also keeps hamstrings and hip parts that tend to want to stiffen up moving.

    Try starting the paddle in the water further forward and making the stroke shorter. A good forward stroke that ends a little early is better than anything that pulls the paddle too far back. If you want to get more speed, increase cadence with short strokes rather than lengthening the stroke.

    Recognize that unless you are a perfect paddler and/or 20 years old, one side is probably going to rotate better than the other. Or maybe you can be if you have never left the yoga studio. So you probably will have some correction going on here and there regardless of your best efforts.

  • Push
    If you assume the paddlers box and concentrate on pushing with the high hand while maintaining the box, you can't help rotating a little. The opposite hand will pull without thinking about it. It might take a lot of paddling where you have to fixate on the pushing hand, before it all feels natural, but in time you'll be glad you did.

    Some will say that your pulling hand really shouldn't be pulling at all and should be just a pivot point, but I think that depends on your pace.

    I had a very experienced instructor try to demonstrate the proper forward stroke. I realize he exaggerated the movements, but even so, I've never seen anyone use that form. For me, it all has to flow and not be jerky.
  • forward stroke drills
    1. paddle with straight arms. get ALL your paddle movement from body rotation
    2. pause then aim at the water and stab the paddle in while still rotated
    3. keep the center of the paddle centered on your chest.
    4. keep the top hand level as it comes across and drive it across as if you are pushing open a big door.
    Getting the blade in early and FULLY before pulling usually makes the biggest difference in efficiency. Most people pull too early and end up with a very short stroke that ends too late.
    Not sure why your head is turning side to side. Quit watching your paddle and look straight ahead.
    In my sea kayak I tend to paddle with my knees off the braces and back not touching the back band. Being all locked in is nice for really rough conditions but limits your leg drive and core rotation.
  • No dizzy head
    -- Last Updated: Jun-05-13 12:40 PM EST --

    Look where you're going but don't stiffen up. Loosen up so that the upper body moves independently of the lower body; you'll need that for real torso rotation. By upper body, I mean above the hips--not just up from the chest.

    Brent Reitz and Ben Lawry DVDs are both good places to start, but for me it took live coaching to finally break the bad habits. Also, realize improvement is a constant process (does not end after coaching or after a certain amount of time), checking mechanics every paddle.

    At least now, it's a case of looking for smaller things instead of major problems. More importantly, I can evaluate it myself because I know what "doing it right" feels like. For example, sometimes I find that the boat is veering very slightly to the right in the absence of wind or current. I immediately know that I'm not rotating *quite* enough on my right side. It's an easy fix for sure, but I have to realize why what's happening is happening.

    (The veering could also be caused by other things, including differing amounts of foot push, but from experience I know it's usually a matter of a tiny bit underrotation on the right side. And I do mean tiny. Once I fix it, though, it feels like the boat and I are flying.)

    In other words, study the DVDs but expect that coaching will be part of the solution, if you have long-ingrained bad habits. They take diligence to correct but it is NOT impossible, though some of the comments I've heard imply it is.

  • stroke
    Don't over think this. People have variable physiques. There are many ways to get the job done.
  • slightly different stance
    I take a slightly different stance - do what is comfortable and lets you move your boat for the distances you paddle. I paddle with some advanced paddlers, and on the whole, few have good form. The true torso rotation and leg pushing is mostly only used by the racers. Can't recall a time I saw recreational paddlers (or even expedition paddlers) do it. At most they "shoulder rotate", not torso rotate.

    What was really eye opening to me was the video clip in one of the This Is The Sea videos where they paddled with Paul Caffyn, the first person to circumnavigate Australia. He is an arm paddler - with no torso rotation at all. We are all taught that we must torso rotate, or the small muscles in our arms will get too tired. Didn't seem to bother him.

    So I think the better early goal is to work toward shoulder rotation, rather than full on torso rotation. Keep the arms from bending much, set up a good box of space in front of you (the beach ball or pizza box), and have your shoulders move (so those larger muscles get involved) rather than using the arm muscles. There is very little actual torso rotation in this, more your shoulders moving forward and backward. This will help you move away from arm paddling, but isn't as much of a leap as going to the difficult full on torso rotation. And if you do get this, and you do want that full on racing torso rotation stroke, it is a much smaller leap.

    But if you don't get this and still arm paddle, don't fret. If it worked for a lap of Australia, it would definitely work for a lap of the local pond.
  • Um...
    How would you tell if an expedition paddler was pedaling, short of asking them?

    Racers often have quite high and visible knee action, and the visual clues on their action tend to be quite strong. For sea kayakers like myself, using probably less measured effort and likely a slower cadence than a racer, in boats with often lower decks - I can't figure out how you would be able to tell for sure.

    FWIW, I haven't had a forward stroke class or section of training in a few years now at least where pedaling has not been mentioned. I assume that the coaches who are telling the class to do it are doing it themselves.
  • Full Torso Rotation is Not Hard
    And it is not done only by racers. Like any paddling skill that is not natural at the start it takes time to develop. But if you practice and do so consistently you will eventually do it automatically and never return to arm paddling. The one thing that is hardest for people to do, in my experience, is to not bend the lower arm. It should be in a relaxed, straight position until the paddle is lifted out. The top hand should travel across the bow at about eye level and should add push to the stroke. If you do both these things you will find rotation comes more naturally. Beware of people who tell you the paddle blade goes in at the toes and travels in a straight line close to the kayak. It does go in at the toes but travels gradually away from the side of the kayak. That happens automatically if you keep the lower arm straight.
  • Ditto that.
    Find what works for you and stick with it.

    Several years ago there was a regular poster here who was a very fast paddler and had exquisite form. He came out to San Diego on a trip a few of us here went paddling with him. He spent about a half hour with a constant critique of my paddling technique it was apparently driving him crazy that I was not finishing my strokes properly. After about an hour of this I excused my self and took off from the group. This "expert" is no longer kayaking and has never done an expedition or paddled anyplace but his home harbor in flat water. So my advice would be don't worry so much about achieving perfection, but find what works for your body -and get some instruction from some good live teachers, learning by video is a lot different than paddling in rough water and wind.
  • if you're really interested
    in improving your technique, video tape your paddling,and have a good coach look at what you're doing, and then begin improving one thing at a time.

  • lookm for rotation
    How would you tell if they are pedaling (pushing with their feet)?
    Even in a touring boat, you could see it in their body. If they are pushing with their feet, their lower body will be turning some (a hip shift). If you don't see any lower body motion, then they are not pushing (much, if at all) with their feet.

    Now, I can see how my post might be read as saying that torso rotation shouldn't be a goal. If that if what you read, that is mot what I meant. Competitive racers and the like have an absolutely need for it. Going for long distances, it very likely would be very useful. But if you aren't in these categories and you try and it isn't coming that easily, don't sweat it that much. That is more what I am trying to say.
  • Doubtful about it being easy to see
    I first questioned your comment because of your saying that you hadn't tended to see expedition paddlers pedaling. But for example in our winter pod, everyone is. As for many training groups I have been in. My experience cannot be so uncommon. We are not elite paddlers. My best guess is that you are seeing more of it than you can recognize.

    But - and I think this is where the break is - by the time you have someone in a dry suit, a layer or two underneath and a PFD, in a neo deck skirt, it is going to be very difficult to spot lower body movement unless someone is sticking way up out of the cockpit and has prodigious action in their middle part. I have low decks on my boats, but by the time I am loaded up with those layers at 5'4" in height no one is going to be able to tell if the lower part is pedaling. The only visible evidence will be the quality of my torso rotation overall.

    In summer, with also warm water, in more form fitting clothes, maybe. But in the northern part of the country, that is not the majority of the year.
  • Forget Rotation And Try Using GPE
    Or your body weight as a power source. This is how I've paddled for the past 10 years after injuring my back, and rotation only aggravated the condition. Simply paddle as you normally do, but instead of rotating and pushing with your legs, just drop your weight onto the blade and see how effortless paddling can be. Yes, free effortless power or GPE (gravitational potential energy) is always available in considerable abundance. Save your back and energy, so you can paddle for hours without fatigue, and go much faster than those paddlers rotating their paddles like windmills on the water.
  • Tell that to Oscar Chalupsky n.m.
  • Why?
    Does he have a sore back?
  • GPE?
    Isn't that more work?

    If the potential energy is equal to the work required to lift the object, aren't you doing a lot more lifting? It's less on the way down, sure, but what about the way back up?
  • interesting
    Would you be able to post a clip of your technique in action? - I have difficulty visualizing it
  • Potential energy is a state function
    you only get out what you put in - 0 sum gain. How does this help anything?
  • Arm-paddling gets the job done
    Just not as well.

    Most people, including me, started off arm-paddling. It will result in forward motion, yes. I guess you could stop right there and be contented. But the OP asked about improving his technique.
  • I use 3 ways of paddling
    -- Last Updated: Jun-06-13 1:40 PM EST --

    One is the "traditional" wing technique (regardless of weather I use a wing, greenland, or a euro paddle). Paddle starts at the boat and swings out and back. Works best with a wing paddle or a greenland paddle. Works OK with some euro paddles. Top arm moves sideways parallel to the horizon, crossing the center line quite a bit as the stroke progresses. Exit of the paddle is early. Similar to the race stroke for short sprint races. Strong leg drive, not much twist but a lot of rotation. Generally, for longer distances I relax some of the components a bit but the overall form remains the same. It requires good shape and a fast boat to have a satisfactory experience with this technique. But it gives the most top speed and power for me.

    Another is a forward "crunch" technique, usually use that with my greenland paddle and alternate with the wing stroke to change what muscles I use. Less rotation, some body twist, power comes from the crunch forward.

    Third I mainly use for white water with a short euro paddle. That uses some rotation and body twist. Powerful leg drive but not a long one so there is very little lower torso rotation. There is also some crunch component. The blade stays very close to and parallel to the boat all the time (white water boats don't like it when you have the paddle way to the side - they turn). Exit is very early (no dragging the blade behind the hip).


    Many touring sea kayak paddlers seem to use a mild form of the third technque the most. Rotation there is not huge (butt barely slides on the seat, if at all), leg drive is there but not exagerated (short and not too powerful), pulling arm tends to bend, pushing arm does not cross the bow much and stays lower than chin level through most of the stroke (going down towards the end), etc. There is some upper body twist, but not much.

    This is just an easy stroke to maintain for a long time with a euro blade, as long as you are not pushing your speed limits. When you want to put in a burst of power, you revert to what I described above for my third option (you will tighten-up your form and lift your front arm, make it cross the bow at chin level, exit the water with the paddle early, more powerful leg drive, perhaps a bit of but sliding, etc.)


    Here is an interesting thread with plenty of videos on forward stroke: http://www.surfski.info/forum/2-announcements/17076-forward-stroke-comments.html

  • What kind of seat and back band?
    A low, loose back band (more like a hip band)--or none at all--allow freer rotation. A slippery seat surface also helps.

    It sounds like you haven't "felt" what torso rotation is, but your backband and seat types might be making it harder to achieve.
  • Thanks for posting that link
    "For experienced paddlers, technique training can be done just by controlling the workout a little more, staying conscious of your blade placement, hip rotation, etc."

    Nice to read that his emphases apply to non-racing paddling as well as racing. Also the emphasis on flatwater work for technique refinement. I've always felt it was necessary even though not sufficient.
  • since I first saw myself
    Since I first saw myself paddling on video with a go pro about a year and a half ago, I've really been trying to put some focus on removing the "crunch" component from my forward stroke, although I'm not sure we're talking about exactly the same thing, but probably similar. I've noticed others doing it since noticing myself. The interesting thing is that I starting focusing on eliminating it for two reasons - to encourage better rotation (appeared and feels to me I was substituting one for the other), and I feel it's healthier for my back. So my feeling was that it was just a formed bad habit. Not sure if there's truly sound reasoning behind it, but I seem to have consistently slowly eliminated a little back soreness that seemed to be developing at times. I'm figuring the constant twisting for hours on end with a straight, somewhat properly aligned spine is helping over a habit of twisting for hours on end with my spine in something of a somewhat bent position from incorporating a sort of crunch motion habit. Seems to feel better & better over time?
    I don't know if it's truly bad habit or a good enough substitute, but my experience tends towards the bad habit side of things. Who knows? It hasn't been a quick habit to break, but hopefully I'll keep getting closer as long as it feels healthy.
  • Yes, I Agree, For 30 Years, Oscar
    Has been my paddling hero and inspiration, and I'll always remember him and his brother Herman using flat "euro" blades to beat all the elite paddlers, including Olympians that were all using wing paddles in the 1989 BANKOH Molokai Kayak Challenge. All I'm suggesting is an alternative to the three principles of paddling: rotation, rotation and rotation.

    Simply drop your body weight on the blade at the "catch" and feel the boat accelerate forward. No additional effort from your muscles are necessary, other than the reset for the next stroke. Adopting this technique has enable me to extend my water time from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Trust me, it isn't fun to be 2 miles out at sea when your back goes out.
  • In kayak, torso rotation is a bigger
    issue, but if you look at real-life, good paddlers, not at Greg Barton, you may find that they're moving smartly along without exaggerated rotation.

    It seems not to occur to torso rotation proponents that:

    a.) there is a good bit of frictional energy loss in exaggerated torso rotation.

    b.) if the arms and shoulders are used correctly, exaggerated rotation is not needed.

    What is needed is a firm pulse of torso rotation, combined with appropriately limited arm action, right after the catch, and continuing until the lower hand nears the hip. You don't want to keep rotating the torso as long as you can, because well before that, you should have extracted the blade.

    Shorter, firm torso twisting, shorter, firm arm action, getting the work done in front of the hip. It's the same basic approach in canoe paddling and kayaking.
  • Sorry No, But Do Check Out Videos
    Of elite outrigger and SUP paddlers that appear to have adopted this technique.
  • Maybe Half?
  • True, But this Technique Packs a Bonus
    Of being able to use half the effort. And when coupled with a lightweight shaft with a bit of flex, you gain an additional bonus of EPS or elastic potential energy.
  • Yes, but ...
    for a different reason. The amount of force you can apply to the paddle is maximal at the beginning of the stroke and declines shortly after that. That is just a function of how our bodies are constructed. So you want to extract the paddle just after the maximal force if you want to go as fast as possible. But for typical sea kayaking you can use a longer stroke so long as you do not bend your lower arm, keep rotating, keep the paddle vertical, and slice the paddle out to the side. That period of lesser effort but not increased effort from lifting water provides a short recovery period.
  • Options
    Different strokes for different folks
    I paddle with a lot of groups being a member of an active kayak club. Wings, euros, GPs - some have taken stroke courses, some not etc. We all seem to travel along at the same efficiency and speed - all arrive at our lunch stop together and nobody seems to have any great advantages. Stronger people can just paddle stronger. No doubt, if you are training for serious racing, then proven methods will work better but... you need to be in great shape to use an extreme body rotation like racers do. Big muscles take big energy to operate. Personally, I feel your body will adapt to a very efficient stroke for you with regular use and not a lot of distortion. You can be conscious about incorporating more torso rotation as it pleases you but you described the frustration with that very well in you initial post. I also feel having a few different strokes and varying them can give muscles a break during longer paddles. Most important - enjoy yourself.
  • posts
    Kocho and g2d. Those were great posts. This illuminates the strength of this web-site. Lots of good info from experienced paddlers.
  • Probably the best post here !
    Well said.
    I whole heartedly agree

    Jack L
  • Technique is king
    Improving technique often yields more dramatic gains than improving fitness or strength, although all are important if you want to perform at your best.

    I view forward stroke technique as a lifetime goal. If you work at it you improve each year. If you don't, you don't. A big torso rotation needs time to learn -- both mentally and physically.

    I try to rotate all the way to the bottom of the seat, not only on races but also on expeditions. The longer you sit in the cockpit the more important it is that you have good posture and mechanics, otherwise you are just setting yourself up for discomfort or injury.

    The key, IMO, is to learn the fundamentals and then apply them to your physique. We all have physical issues and that might prevent you from making some movements, such as an extreme rotation or lifting the paddle vertically. It's not always easy to find the wisdom to know what limitations you must accept and which ones you can conquer (such as limited or poor motion caused by poor flexibility, strength, etc). I see a lot of paddlers who are very inflexible; a lot of common problems can be addressed by a good stretching or Yoga program.

    Club paddles are not a good gauge of technique, IMO. A group will (usually) travel at the rate of the weakest link. Races give a better view of performance, but are distorted, because the goals of a racer are not usually the same as a long-distance paddler. That said, even an expedition paddler can grow tremendously as a paddler through racing, as well as other skill-intense activities like whitewater and surf kayaking.

    Greg Stamer
  • Great Post! (NM)
  • Sorry, no free lunch
    Not even a 1/2 off lunch.

    You can put your entire body weight onto the blade but you have to use muscles to oppose that force and transfer the work to forward motion. Maybe some OC and SUP paddlers get more use out of the big trunk muscles by using GPE as a visual but the muscles are still doing work.
  • post
    OK OK. Stamer's post was all right. But not as good as Kocho's !!!!
  • Thank you all!
    All of the responses were wonderful!

    I do seem to be "shoulder rotating," and I will try to incorporate the torso more.
    I use a rec-style kayak with a full seat, so I will be consious of that when I attempt to rotate by setting the back rest lower.
    It is true that one of my biggest problems is bending my lower arms.

    I have gone out once since the original post, and I agree that it will take a while to gradually adjust my form. I did notice a slight improvement, however!

    Thanks again.
  • I don't entirely agree with that. When
    I paddle for cruising in a kayak, I don't change the spectrum of my force application. I just ease it up. I ease the catch a bit, and I ease the rest a bit.

    Actually, without focus and practice, it's easy to lose the firm catch, and to fall into yanking the paddle thereafter. I wish the most force did occur immediately after the catch. As in competition rowing and sculling, something devoutly to be wished, but not at all easy to achieve.

    With a very long torso from hip joint to shoulder joint, I am wedded to a high angle style. I have to yield to those who *can* use a lower angle stroke, where pulling longer through the stroke makes sense.
  • Only The Water Opposes the Force
    Which is simultaneously transmitted to move the canoe.
  • But you have to pick yourself back up
    ... in order to do it again.

    I think that's what is meant by "no free lunch" in this context.
  • Mine was certainly longer ;)
    -- Last Updated: Jun-07-13 4:47 PM EST --

    But I put my money on Greg's advice, if I had to bet :) I'm a newbie compared to many other folks here who posted good stuff...

  • "Not a lot of distortion" is key.
    An efficient distribution of effort across various parts of the body.
  • So Really,
    How much of an effort is that? Not very taxing compared to pushing 100% with your muscles against the water. It doesn't hurt to paddle with a little help from GPE.
  • I'm Sorry, But I Missed Your Question
    About the elbows and I must say no! There is nothing wrong about the elbows passing yourself, for they only indicate the distance traveled as you pivot past your paddle blade. Most paddlers short change themselves by prematurely exiting their blades before deriving the full benefits of the stroke.
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