How to teach forward stroke

-- Last Updated: Jul-17-05 7:41 PM EST --

I'm pondering why so few paddlers do good rotation from the hips, or any part of the torso for that matter, but especially the hips... lots of good reasons in another thread. Teaching forward stroke is a tough one. IMHO, hasn't gotten enough attention, certainly nowhere near as much as how to teach rolling... and it's arguably much more important.

Notice that I'm proposing to discuss HOW TO TEACH forward stroke, not forward stroke itself, though obviously good form underlies good teaching. But good form is far far from sufficient to insure good teaching.

Anyway, here's a radical proposal for discussion... under many circumstances, it might be better to teach good *catch* practice before tackling torso rotation.


I'm particularly thinking of the chronic back-of-the-pack paddler, the one who is always slowing down the group. They usually have a bad case of arm paddling. But is the arm paddling per se what you want to address first? If you try substituting hip/torso rotation for arms, they may look at you like you are nuts... that's way too hard and uncomfortable, and the payoff is too distant (more efficient stroke;paddle farther witout pooping out; etc).

In fact, the one factor that slows them down the most may be that their pull phase is short and misplaced. It's at the middle of the stroke, out to their side, where body efficiency is poor.

So if you can get them catching well forward and getting the paddle fully buried before the middle of the stroke (the point where the paddle passes front-to-back vertical), they are quickly going to go a lot faster, and may not trail the pack any more. That might also get them well on the way to accepting and embracing good body mechanics in total, and thus make them more open to the holy grail of forward paddling from the whole body, especially the hips.

Make any sense?


That’s why taking lessons …
from a qualfied instuctor is a good idea…

Lets be clear about some things.
The whole question is mostly relevant to people who paddle longer distances in a touring boat or who want to paddle fast for whatever reason. People like me who paddle primarily WW have a set of other more important concerns that interfere with full and complete torso rotation. So, in WW, you need to be tight in your boat for edge control and rolling. That interferes with torso rotation from the hips. But that doesn’t matter since I don’t have to be efficient over the long haul. What is important is short strokes, fast strokes sometimes, and vertical paddle. Within those confines, moderate torso rotation is all that matters.

Get a pro instructor-- absolutely agree!
But we all still find ourselves often called on to help people ahead of or instead of professional instruction – which might not be accessible very quickly. Yes, we should always encourage getting professional instruction even in those cases, but sometimes you (and the paddler in question) would like to get a start right away!

That’s especailly true sometimes with the back-of-the-pack, I’m-so-slow paddler, who often frustrates both themselves and the rest of the group. And, my guess (hope?) is that some simple instruction in where and how to catch properly (up front) can have an immediate and dramatic effect on their speed. In fact, I’ve seen it happen. In fact, it happened to me early in my kayaking career.

So, I’m proposing that, rather than instruction in rotation, to get an immediate and relatively easy effect.


I think the clearest example of ineffectual instruction happens when an instructor tries to teach a student something they don’t necessarily want to learn. This is a significant challenge faced by those that instruct beginners through intermediates regarding the forward stroke and other skills.

As was discussed in the previous thread, effective torso rotation feels awkward to the uninitiated. Much more natural is to just shove the paddle in the water and haul back with the arms. This of course is what new paddlers do when they first get in a boat. Faced with a stroke that is natural versus one that feels awkward, it’s not difficult to understand why most paddlers learn to arm paddle first.

By the time a paddler cares about torso rotation, they may have nearly mastered arm paddling. In order to learn torso rotation the arm-paddler needs to make a leap of faith, throwing away the only stroke they know in favor of some strange movement that they can’t understand, are challenged to perform and may be hard pressed to believe is better.

The degree to which the student is motivated to learn / change their stroke will determine how quickly, if at all, they will learn about torso rotation. Combine this with the fact that there are few everyday applications for the movement of torso rotation among the new paddler population and you have an uphill battle teaching proper stroke mechanics early on. Even among those that have been taught about torso rotation, adoption of the technique is slow until the individual develops a need to be faster / more efficient.

In addition, as was discussed in the other thread, torso rotation is most valuable for high energy paddling (racing, long distance sea kayaking, rough water ocean play). At lower effort, arm-paddling feels easier to many people. I suspect that we all use arms and torso in varying and dynamic combinations, favoring arms at slower speeds / low effort and dial in more torso for higher speed / higher effort applications. New paddlers don’t often have aspirations to be fast or travel far and so are not often motivated to learn proper stroke mechanics. I think the question is not how to teach the forward stoke but how to motivate new paddlers to adopt torso rotation / core paddling in favor of an arms based technique.



Catch as motivator?

– Last Updated: Jul-17-05 9:08 PM EST –

> I think the question is not how to teach the forward stoke
>but how to motivate new paddlers to adopt torso rotation / core paddling in favor of an arms based technique.

Great thought -- at least if you don't prejudge the answer to the "but" part with the "not" part.

But, could proper catch be such a motivator? (a) It might open the paddler's mind to the possibility of benefit in working on their forward stroke at all; (b) it might be a good lead in to torso rotation, thusly...

"Hey, you see how much it helps to catch way forward and pull hard in the sweet part of the stroke, at the beginning...


"Now, how you gonna get a catch far forward?...

"Ummm... lean forward as I do it?...

"Well, that's one way. But then you'll be moving your head forward and backward like a bobblehead. So how about 'leaning with one shoulder', that is, twisting some...

"Hmmm... lemme try.

(I've seen this conversation, and it might work.)


If you can just…
…get them to fully plant the paddle before starting the stroke and quit at their hips would be a good start…

I see what you’re saying and think it’s best for someone to go to a qualified instructor. If they do that, then they want to learn. I see slow paddlers in fast boats and fast paddlers in slow boats and some people are happy just the way they are. It gets interesting after a few miles though…

similar issues . .
. . for those seaking to learn to roll.

Lot’s of sea kayakers go super snug in order to learn to roll and for surf / roughwater work. It’s hard to give up all that control so that hips can rotate.


First, do no harm . . .

– Last Updated: Jul-18-05 6:54 AM EST –

"But, could proper catch be such a motivator? (a) It might open the paddler's mind to the possibility of benefit in working on their forward stroke at all; (b) it might be a good lead in to torso rotation, thusly... "

Possibly - as long as the effect of your informal instruction isn't to replace or postpone formal instruction. Otherwise, isn't there potential for the mentoring to have a detrimental effect? How will you encourage other "mentors" from putting in their two cents and confusing the paddler with too much information?

"help people ahead of or instead of professional instruction" ??

Are you sure you are helping them if the potential effect of your actions is to replace or postpone formal instruction? There's a native american saying encouraging us to "consider the effect of our actions seven generations hence".



Foundation skills vs relearning

For many new paddlers, if they learn that torso rotation is one of THE CORE skills for power, proper technique, and injury prevention and that it is also central to bracing, draw strokes, a strong sweep roll, etc. then neither motivation nor having to relearn an already mastered skill is a problem.

I think Jed and others here have the insight to see that new paddlers learn it from a well explained and then practiced set of skills, then it makes sense to the new paddler and they can incorporate it.

Still, even then, as Jed and others have experienced, what is most important to the new paddler is stability, so arm paddling always feels more stable. Thus is it almost axiomatic that your wish for the student to learn torso rotation needs to be deferred until the student is motivated a year or two later for endurance and speed.

The main way of relearning any strong habit is a fervent wish to improve and the willingness to practice it! We all tend to keep doing things we are OK at rather than those things we are less good at.

And as I said in the other postings, torso rotation, early catch, etc etc are not immediately better feeling. One has to have a big commitment to these things. The rewards are there for those who wish them.

I think that taking a full day or several day intensive is a great way to break inefficient habits as is becoming a part of group of paddlers who regularly practice new things and encourage each other.

Willy nilly instruction

– Last Updated: Jul-18-05 11:20 AM EST –

Well, the fact of the matter is that a lot of folks will not get trained instruction. And even if they do, they could still profit quite a lot from reinforcement and additions from fellow paddlers. After all, they spend a couple of hours in class and then a long time actually practicing, perfecting and using the skills they get introduced to in class.

As for contradictory information, plain wrong information, sub-par teaching technique, etc... point well taken. But frankly, there is quite a bit of that too among trained instructors. I took Greg Barton's fwd stroke class Sunday, and there are at least three significant points where he differed from prior instruction I had received. (BTW, I'm going with Greg on all of them!)

I guess I do have a subtext here as well, and you've heard it from me before. IMHO, the state of the art in *teaching* kayak forward stroke (not the state of the form), is IMHO, rather immature, especially IMHO by comparison with rolling and certainly IMHO with other more established heavily form-based sports like golf and tennis. IMHO, of course.

So the idea of this question is both to advance that teaching art a wee bit, since there are a lot of trained instructors hereabouts (and I may go that way myself in the near future), and also to help the general awareness among all paddlers, since any competent kayaker who paddles on occasion with less comptetent kayakers is also, willy nilly, a teacher. So they may as well be a slightly more informed teacher.

But yes... we should keep recommending that people get competent, trained instructors. You know I believe and practice that.


If you concentrate on 'the catch’
and getting the blade buried in the water, and neglect the torso rotation their arms are just going to get tired sooner (since they are going to want to pull harder against that resistance), but may be a good place to start.

Torso rotation, though, is the key to every stroke - specifcally, it’s the ability of the body to move around from the hips/waist that provides a stronger stroke with less effort.

A teaching option may be to have them place their hands right at the blade (keeps the arms pretty much straight) - promotes a twisting of the body to get the blade in the water; gives the student a feel for the sort of body regions that need to be moving. Or if they are almost there, instruct them to paddle with their eyes closed, getting a feel for the stroke.

People learn different ways - (one of) the instuctors job is to learn how an individual learns.

Re: that’s why taking lessons
and doing so when you FIRST start paddling…not after 5 years when you’ve developed all the wrong pulling with the arms/using the shoulders vs the torso ‘wrong’ techniques.

Perhaps…if there is any one thing buying from a big box place does to harm a kayaker it’s that they help you out the door with a shake and a wave and NO iclination how to paddle correctly.

Perhaps two…If there is one drawback with picking a wide beamed, large cockpit recreational boat as your first kayak is that it is far more likely to contribute to using the pulling stroke/arm-shoulder technique to propell the boat thru the water than the correct technique.

This all comes to you from a guy who “bought from the big box (Galyans)” Bought and paddled a wide large cockpit america the first 5 years" and developed shoulder injuries quite possibly as a result of poor paddling technique…and NOW has to unlearn 5 years of bad habits.

What to do until they are ready…
…for rotation?

… what is most important to the new paddler is stability, so arm paddling always feels more stable.

Thus is it almost axiomatic that your wish for the student to learn torso rotation needs to be deferred until

the student is motivated a year or two later for endurance and speed.

Good point. But what do you do in the meantime… just let them piddle along a mile behind the group and poop out after 5 miles? Hmmm… is this another argument for working first on a good, far forward catch and pulling in the sweet spot of the stroke, even if it’s with the arms?

Fwd Stroke vs. Roll Instruction
The difference is not about immaturity or oversight. It makes perfect sense if you look at the numbers.

Roll is a WW and Sea skill, but a good long distance/fast forward stroke is not of much use to WW/Surf.

There are more WW paddlers. These paddlers are in pockets around the best WW areas and easier to put together classes. They have boats much easier to take to pool sessions too. Most importantly - they need a roll and it’s considered a normal part of the sport. That results in a larger and more motivated audience which equals a much better market for roll instruction.

Sea kayakers are fewer, and more geographically scattered. Sea kayakers benefit from the roll training available largely because of cross pollination with WW community.

It is harder to get groups of sea kayakers together for instruction for anything - and groups are less likely to have members with the same interests as groups of WW paddles do. Of the “sea” kayakers, how many roll, or seriously want to? How many really want to work on forward stroke vs. how many rarely do more than short rec paddles as mostly social events?

Smallest group? Racers.

Crappy market for forward stroke instruction. My hats off to Greg Barton for spreading his wisdom through his classes. Interest is spreading and quality instruction is available.

Biggest factor - a kayak still moves with even the poorest stroke. That means people get by like that and will put off or assume they don’t need instruction on it. It’s perceived as basic and something everyone can do.

In contrast, the boat does not roll with the poorest roll technique! Rolling is perceived as a more advanced skill and something hard to learn.

What are people more likely to pay for?

Funny thing is, the roll should be considered a basic skill - and a good forward stroke and advanced one! It takes much longer to get and more work to maintain.


– Last Updated: Jul-19-05 5:16 AM EST –

I would suggest that the lake practices are the time and place to try to coach someone on their strokes. When you're on a trip, you got what you got and stick along side them. Afterall, you're setting the level of the trip. If's level one/two, you should be expecting folks to not be particularly fast. They are out there to enjoy the paddling and not scrunch their faces learning body rotation.

However, of course, on my one official trip, I got yelled at for getting too far ahead of the group in a head wind (without my noticing it). I think a polite "stay with the group" would have been nice.

I have done show n go, where we had to bracket a slower, less steadier paddler when wind and chop kick up. Just checking and chatting with them while escorting. They don't need to be told that they are struggling. They already know it. They don't need to be hit over the head with "helpful hints" at the point where they are probably already mentally burdened.

There's a time and place...


I meant that metaphorically

– Last Updated: Jul-19-05 5:55 PM EST –

I don't generally expect to teach someone something in the midst of a level 2 paddle and see instant results.

That said, I have seen this technique (stretch the catch zone forward) result in immediate improvement and a gushing of gratitude for the great tip.

Also, many level 2 trips include at least a few minutes of learning. Reentries are often the subject, especially in warmer waters, but I've done the hip rotation thing a couple of times, with mixed success. Actually, it's the mixed-ness of the success that's making me think about other ways to improve the strokes of hard-core arm paddlers, rather than plunging straightaway into full hip-level rotation.

Aside -- one trouble with forward stroke instruction, however, is that it is necessarily a moving affair. You can't just stay in one spot, or even circle around a small area. You need a hundred yards or more, and the instructor needs stay relatively close to the sutdent. So it's tough for one instructor to serve more than one paddler at a time on live forward stroking. Of course, there are always static exercises; there are plenty of good ones, but you still need some moving work.


All good reassons…
… why the art of forward stroke instruction is not as advanced as other things, like rolling. But that doesn’t change the fact – just explains it.

Yes, Greg Barton and Brent Reitz are helping things pretty rapidly in a certain subculture of the kayaking community, and that’s terrific. Meanwhile, I agree with Jed that we still need ways to motivate, trick, swindle, cajole, force, shove, etc the woe-is-me-i’m -so-slow paddlers into actually doing something about their speed, endurance or lack thereof, rather than just complaining about it, at least if they want to paddle with groups to fun places.

Of course, many people prefer complaining in general to doing something about the problem. ;-)))


motivate, trick, swindle, cajole, force?
Why bother? Those who want to will. Those who don’t SHOULD be left behind. Not segregating groups by ability and equipment is crazy if there are actual distance goals and specific skills needed.

Don’t know who’s slow before heading out on trips and getting stuck with them? Bad preparation/organization. Everyone does not need to be included in everything.

Simplest way to unlearn arm paddling is by paddling farther and faster. Distance being key. Arms will not be up to it and torso will have to get into the act. May not teach the purest form, but it does pretty good to ensure folks can get to a level where they’ll keep up with any group pace.

I paddle with groups when I want to socialize. If I want to really paddle, I usually go alone (or enter a race and get reminded how slow I really am!).