Addressing Paddling Back Pain

I just finished Stuart McGill’s “Back Mechanic” (2017), a dense but rewarding read for someone with intermittent back pain that is exacerbated by paddling. McGill has published 200+ articles on “spine biomechanics” and served as the therapist of last resort for hundreds of athletes and dignitaries.

The good news is that some causes of back pain can be remedied with “back hygiene,” and the book offers detailed guidance for self-diagnosis and treatment of those conditions.

The bad news is he warns that “… any type of weighted single arm cable pull [exercise] creates twisting forces that impose inordinate loads on your spine,” which is analogous to what we do, stroke by stroke, when paddling. Then he adds that toughing out back pain may precipitate arthritic damage to the spine that cannot be self-treated.

What to do? With the guidance offered, I have diagnosed the apparent cause of my pain, started the back hygiene practices, and revised my modest off-season upper body workout to put less strain on the spine. Next paddling season, I will be cutting the speed some to reduce the power requirements, taking more breaks for back stretches that can be done while seated in the yak, and hoping to go the distance without pain.

Here are a few additional notes prompted by the first 11 responses to this post:

  • The author identifies a few back symptoms that should send one to a physician and some others that probably indicate problems that his self-assessment and treatment guidelines will not correct–such as constant pain or sciatica pain extending below the knee.
  • Backs vary, not all are equally strong and flexible, and their inherent robustness declines during later the decades of life.
  • Back pain, even just that of the lower back, can be caused by many different things, and because of that, there is no treatment that will work for most people, and treatments that help for one cause sometimes exacerbate the pain and damage from other causes.
  • With that caveat, he says brisk walking and three specific core exercises often help. Look on YouTube for the “McGill Big Three.”

Disclosure: I have no connection to McGill or his organization. He is a self-promoter but the PubMed index to the medical literature lists 112 of his research publications. If anyone knows of a back rehab expert with a more science-based approach, please let us know. Have any of you carefully tried his suggestions for several months, and, if so, with what results?

I tough out back pain every day with some legal chemical support. Diagnosis is arthritic stenosis. Paddling makes it feel better.
Not disagreeing with the expert, just my experience.

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Tighten up your core and it will help your back.
Good paddling uses abs and back muscles.
Sitting in a kayak has always been hard for me so I quit paddling them.
Canoes allow more moving around and have handy seats.
A drift boat allows easy standing, moving and staying loose. My old guy boat of choice. Good for multiple dogs and multiple days.

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Try a Greenland paddle if you can borrow one that is a decent size for you (10 or 20 cm shorter than you usual standard paddle. I only have back discomfort when I use a non- GP. I use low narrow back bands instead of high seat backs and sit up pretty straight with my shoulders down – use the same position when sitting at my desk, even for hours. I never contact the back of my desk chair when seated. Also, when paddling, I alternately drive with each leg against the footpegs with each stroke to develop stroke energy through my legs and abs instead of with my upper body.

I do a lot of muscle isolation exercises to strengthen the girdles of flesh that surround and support my joints and spine. These are mostly routines I learned in dance training and martial arts. Easy to do even when sitting on the couch reading or watching TV, or while driving a car.

At 71 and with osteoporosis I still can paddle for hours (kayak or canoe) without back pain. I do have occasional hip pain but that only happens when I have neglected keeping my piriformis stretched.

My lower back is sore today, only paddled 5 miles, it was the take out carry to the campsite that did me in. I treated it with a cold pbr and will follow that up with more boating today. If it really gets sore I take some ibeenboating (ibuprofen).

First thing you need is a proper medical diagnosis.

I’ve had back problems since I was 17. I have managed to do a lot the last 50 plus years thank God. I could hardly get a doctor to see me back then. Doctors thought I was trying to beat the draft.

I’ve had my days or weeks but no I can’t complain considering what they said I feel like a miracle. I feel best when I work or paddle and stay loosened up.

I’m no big doctor guy but some are great and all I have met my entire life with my parents and friends have been great.

If I didn’t go for check-up I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be typing this or been in the end stages.

I know a few who self diagnosed and it cost them their life. One was back related.

The best thing I have found for lower back and hip pains is to do the forearm plank religiously.

Rest your forearms on your friendly yoga mat and straighten you legs to create a plank the length of your body. When you get to being able to hold it for 2 minutes you have regained a lot of the strength you once had.

I am fortunate that after 2 car wrecks ( neither my fault or avoidable) that the kayak I have has what is basically a beach chair and with my life vest on it actually helps relieve my back pain for about 4 hours of paddling before it starts creeping back in.

All 3 of my boats are like that. 2 have Wilderness Phase 3 seats and the Stellar has the most supportive of the 3.
I have to be pulled , or fall, out after a couple of hours in the boat and can’t walk without support for several steps. But, it’s worth it!


I had back pain, not sure how related it was to kayaking. Ten sessions at my wife’s chiro left me feeling great when I left but pain started to return on the drive home. My only recourse with chiro was go in for another session.

Doctor issued an Rx for PT so insurance covered most of it. PT worked great and unlike chiro you can actually work on improving at home. Plank was only one of the exercises I ended up with. Didn’t really know what “core” meant before the PT.

I spent some time in the hospital with lower back problems and I still do the core exercises that I learned during PT. In my experience a little bit of regular core exercise prevents back pain from paddling and also helps with many normal activities like standing up.

Kevburg, when I owned an Chevy S-10, I needed a lumbar support pad or my back would hurt after a 30 minure drive. Chiropractor fixed problem and I was careful to use chairs with good back support. Iced back when I felt issue returning.