Low Back Pain

Hello everyone. I’ve been paddling for 3 years now. Thought I was using good technique, very conscious of posture, torso rotation, relation of arms/hands to body etc. About one and a half months ago I slipped a disc in the lower lumbar region which has effectively put my paddling on furlough. When talking to my chiropractor about my paddling technique he told me the low back is not meant to twist and that doing so could indeed cause the problems I’m having. After watching some video of various surfski racers and paying close attention to their technique it appears that their rotation happens more at the hips than at the waist (which I have read in several places is the correct technique, twisting at the waist that is). In asking another chiropractor who is actually a sea kayaker the way he explains proper technique essentially says to twist the spine. I would appreciate any input here. I’m planning to change my technique and work toward rotating at the hips and see if this helps. Thanks all!

2 cents from a n00b

– Last Updated: Nov-12-13 7:31 AM EST –

A lot will disagree, but what others do is not "really" that important. Whatever you do has to work for you. Some people arm-paddle their entire lives and are no worse kayakers for it. And watch Maligiaq paddle - he rotates much less and goes for something called "crunch" - using his abdominal muscles a lot (as far as I understood). Something that works for K1 with knees up position might not work for you. I'm definitely not rotating as much as I could - can't shake arm paddling habit - but I can paddle for 6 hours straight and have no pain in my arms day after. Am I being stupid not putting my energy into learning torso rotation?

Of course, there is optimal technique for paddling when racing a K1 and ignoring it would put you at a disadvantage in a race. If you are not in a race, who cares, as long as your technique fits your body, your needs and your boat?

I agree but…
The obsession with torso rotation if highly overplayed by people who enjoy doing it.

As far as back pain or injuries. Young people and athletes never hurt their backs because they are in condition for the things they do. I screwed up my back once. I learned that I wasn’t exercising my back regularly. I go to a gym and take yoga and never had a problem again.

Kayaking if full of weekend warriors.

Exercise with care
If you do not have underlying back issues (such as Schoerman condition for instance), proper conditioning will go a long way.

If you do have some of these, yoga and exercise will help, but you still need to avoid certain positions and motions as they inevitably lead to the problem recurring. You just need to adapt how you paddle to what your body can do.

Your day job and age will have an effect too. I’ve lived with a problematic back since high school. No amount of exercise will fix what I got. With me I have two areas that act up. Both remind me of themselves every time I overdo it. Exercise helps but does not cure what I got. When I was younger I knew if I strained my lower back, it would take a few days and I would be back in the game. I was very active with all kinds of sports, including a lot of yoga at some points in my life - not a cure all, but helps wdeal with daily stuff. Nowadays for a first time in my life, it takes more days and even long weeks sometimes to recover from back pain, just because I’m over forty… Yes, there is an element of a weekend warrior syndrome involved :slight_smile: but that’s not all, unfortunately.

As for rotation vs. twist: yes, excessive twist is not good to do as a repetitive motion. It could irritate your condition, especially due to poor posture or weak back. Your but should be sliding about. There will always be some twist too, but not excessive. I’ve just accepted the fact that in my surf ski I can rotate more than in my sea kayak, where in turn I rotate more than in my whitewater kayak with its tight outfitting. Forward crunching vs. rotation does work, although it has a more limited range of effectiveness and requires a flat paddle (i.e., not so good for a wing paddle).

What if…?
Perhaps you should, at least until your back is fully recovered, go for less rotation and a higher cadence. It will get you the same speed, firm up your abs and still be good for the catch and power part of the stroke.

Getting the rotation all the way into the hips is a good thing, but I have seen people go to odd relationships with their fit in a cockpit to make it work well, like knees up and away from the thigh braces. Shortening the stroke and making it right within that arc could be easier on your budget than having to rethink your kayak.

torso rotation
Your rotation should include your butt cheeks as well. This is often the case when people use a padded seat and super tight thigh grips. With each stroke your one leg pushes rotating your hip which allows the torso to rotate without twisting the spine.

I’ve experienced some severe back pain a few times in my life and after a particularly bad one that lasted more than a month, I decided to do some exercising to strengthen some of the muscles that keep the back happy. That was before I got into paddling and I believe it has allowed me to do things I never would have thought possible as I’m now into my seventies.

I’m sure there are a whole lot of exercises that would be useful for the back, but mostly what I do is a lot of pushups and situps. I do a few other exercises, but I think those two are the ones that help me the most. I also do a lot of bike riding–don’t know if that helps, but it doesn’t hurt.

Could add comfort in more ways.
Most people hear and read that you pump with your legs as part of your forward stroke. If your hips aren’t moving, the only contribution your leg is making to the stroke is preventing your hips from moving, preventing your butt from twisting in the seat. To actually transfer the power of your leg to the paddle blade, you have to straighten that leg, sliding that hip back, and the opposite hip forward. It doesn’t take a lot of leg pressure, so I find it’s more a matter of starting gently, connecting the movements, and working into it, vs. pushing hard with the legs and forcing it through. Use finesse to find that leg movement, connected to hip movement, connected to a rotating torso, connecting to the paddle blade. Leg pressure that causes no movement does exactly that - it causes no movement.

So in a way, as unfortunate as the circumstances may be, you could find yourself actually becoming a stronger paddler. I’ve said before that pain and injury often lead to better technique. I don’t know how this injury will effect you, but hopefully you’ll come out fine, and find a technique that works for you.

There is a tricky thing to learn, or unlearn, or however you want to look at it. You have been leading, or initiating forward stroke power with your upper body. As far as I’ve figured, with hip movement, you want to initiate the power with your legs. So you start the stroke by straightening that leg and twisting your hips in the seat. You don’t end with the hip motion, you lead with it. And that can take some concentration to get into.

This type of rotation, connecting your legs to the stroke and rotating through the hips, gives a lot of extra power to the stroke if you can do it properly. It’s also a new set of muscles to train. The motion itself takes more energy than moving your arms and shoulders back and forth, so it doesn’t really lend itself to lily-dipping, except for one thing. Even on group paddles, I will work in some leg work, because it keeps the blood flowing and keeps everything comfortable. A stationary butt in the seat for hours will lead to leg and back numbness and soreness for me, and probably for anyone. So I find it incredibly effective for remaining comfortable in the cockpit all day.

I also find it takes a good deal of conditioning for it to become second nature and feel sustainable for longer periods.

The other piece of it is that you have to feel quite comfortable in the cockpit to start allowing your hips to twist more freely. Nothing brings about nervous, stiff, stationary legs, hips, and torso, and brings on arm paddling like rougher water. And nothing slows a groups forward speed like it either. Group members always feel like they haven’t slowed their pace, but the pace doesn’t lie. It takes a high level of comfort in the cockpit to stay loose enough to enable strong forward stroke mechanics.

Three paddlers I paddle with suffer back pain because their hamstrings are too tight. Over time you can increase hamstring flexibility with appropriate exercises.

Interesting that the shoulder girdle
is almost never mentioned as part of the kayak stroke. It’s arm paddling, or torso twisting, or (for flatwater sprint boats and some sea kayakers), a short leg extension driving the hips and everything above, around.

If you sit in a chair with your torso held stationary by the chair back, you see that the shoulder joint can move forward or back (in my case) over six inches. And the muscles accomplishing this are quite strong, and accustomed to doing serious work. The shoulder joints can also be moved up or down, which for canoeists may help adjust the path of the paddle through the water.

I’d be interested to know if writings on kayaking kinesiology have mentioned the use of the shoulders.

My chiropractor kept me going for
10 years until age and genetics caught up with me. If it continues, find an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in backs.

My chiropractor kept me going for
10 years until age and genetics caught up with me. If it continues, find an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in backs.

Some suggestions
Many good suggestions here. I’m neither an orthopedist nor the world’s most technically accomplished paddler, but I do have recurring back pain and I’ve found these things help.

  1. Back and leg stretching exercises. Google-image “exercises back pain” and you’ll hit upon plenty of sites, many with similar regimens. This one is pretty close to the one I do:


    Five minutes every morning, and repeat before or after doing things that are likely to cause back pain – lifting heavy objects, long car rides, kayaking for more than an hour or two. Biking helps, too – keeps the hamstrings loose.

  2. I was initially confused by instructions about torso and hip rotation, as I was trying to power my strokes while consciously rotating the lower body. It wasn’t working until I realized that rotation is a consequence of proper shoulder movement, not the other way around. I was overthinking it. Concentrate instead on holding your paddle out in front of you, forming a more or less square box with your arms and paddle, then swinging it, shoulders and all, left and right broadly across your body. Your torso will naturally follow your shoulders as a result. You’ll be using different muscles and it may take a couple of weeks before it becomes second nature, but once it does you’ll be doing both your back and your elbows a favor.

  3. Alternating foot pressure on the pegs is another thing that follows naturally from proper shoulder movement – since your shoulders are leading the twist in your lower body, your lower body is naturally alternating pressure on the left and right pegs. Again, this isn’t something you really have to think about and consciously make happen – it happens by itself. I didn’t really notice I was even doing this until I started to paddle hard in heavy winds – and I realized how much effort I had been putting through my legs. It’s where much of the power comes from.

  4. You’ll last longer on kayak outings without back pain when your legs are not straight out, but bent a little bit. So check the position of those footpegs, and move them up a notch or two, if necessary.

  5. As Sheryl Sandberg would say, lean in. That is, don’t lean back in your seat like it’s an easy chair (except once in a while to stretch). Be at least straight up, or preferably leaning a little bit forward. It’s true that a well positioned backband will serve you better than a high-backed seat that encourages you to lean back.

This is great!
Thanks everyone for all of the great responses! Much to consider here that I feel will be extremely helpful both in recovery and resuming paddling. Some of this I have begun to suspect (transference of power from the feet all the way up to the shoulders through the hips/torso). Can’t wait to get back out on the water and begin putting this advice to work!

thanks for these posts
My back trouble is supposed to be getting better but it isn’t. The one thing I have found I can do, is paddle a kayak. Sometimes using some rotation and on other days not so much. My problem is getting to the right water launch sites. I can barely walk.

I’ve felt bad about myself for not always using rotation or what I have been told is correct rotation. These posts put me at ease. If I can get on my kayak and paddle and enjoy myself then isn’t that what it is all about!

For any of us folks with issues.

I would disagree with “lead with …”

– Last Updated: Nov-13-13 10:22 AM EST –

I think "leading with the shoulders" can give the wrong idea. You don't "swing around your shoulders" to initiate the movement. Quite the opposite, in fact. Power comes from the core, the shoulders follow. Most accomplished instructors will tell this sequences:


In fact, this is one of the key "circles of power" that a certain well respected coach teaches. Google it.

Your #1 example is a good drill (to keep the "box") in front of you, but let's not misinterpret what the underlying principle is.

It is like this with most sports. Consider Tennis or Golf: you don't lead with your wrist even though it sure may look this way at a cursory glance. You plant your feet to counteract your core's motion, which is then transferred through your arm to whatever you are holding in your hand (paddle, golf club, tennis racket, or just your fist if you are swinging at someone nasty ;)

If you have a disk problem
You most definitely should not be lifting your kayak. Take a break and do appropriate exercises.

Twisting repeatedly and lifting stuff are I feel two of the worst things you can do if your back hurts due to disk problems.

You can do core strengthening and very gentle stretching, and lie down and hang from a high bar every chance you get. You must have a very good sense of what exactly your specific problem is and tailor the exercises to it. Don’t just listed to us here - what’s worked for me might injure you…

When I injured my back recently, most likely due to a bulged disk, if I could not work from home lying on an adjustable bed most of the day, I don’t know how I would have healed it. Rest a lot but keep in mind research shows spending too much time in bed is not the best way - do the right exercises and rest between them properly as rest (while necessary) alone will not help… Hard kayaking with lots of twisting (rough white water with plenty of river surfing for instance) was definitely not the right kind of kayaking for my weak back during recovery. Gentle kayaking was fine. Lifting a 40lb kayak was OK, lifting a 65lb one was not.

some advice

– Last Updated: Nov-13-13 11:13 AM EST –

I had a similar injury coupled with a shoulder injury. I saw the same PT and the same chiro for both. Both were indispensable and both said this was an activity I could resume over time. My chiro actually said if I knew what was good for me, I'd get back to paddling.

I think Kocho said it first but conditioning is key. When my torso is out of shape my back tells me so.

Once I was able to get back into the water (able to carry boat), paddling using my torso helped immensely, not only my back but also my shoulders. People may scoff at torso rotation and using your core for the strength of the stroke, but spreading the tension across all those muscles in the shoulders and back sure is easier on the arms and shouulders.

If you do nothing else, google "dr. cox lower back exercises" - if your chiro hasn't recommended these already then shame on him/her.

The shoulders are not the shoulder
girdle, which includes the collar bones and the scapulae. The muscles which drive those are down in the torso, but should not be confused with the muscles that twist the torso, the spinal column, left or right.

The muscles that twist the torso do not work through as wide a range as those moving the shoulder joints or the arms, and the torso muscles can share the work. Some, like those between the ribs, obviously work only locally.

While I recognize that for Greg Barton, and for sea kayakers who choose to do so, a very full twist of the torso is necessary, twisting the torso is associated with a higher degree of friction or resistance than working the shoulder girdle or bending the arms. It is my opinion that for all-day paddling, an exaggerated torso twist is not efficient.

It might even not be possible to use a high degree of torso twist. When I am kayaking, as when I am canoeing, I’m taking the catch well forward and ending the stroke when my lower hand is about opposite my hip. I’m not using much arm motion once I take the catch. My shoulders are moving back and forth, but not to an extreme degree. As for torso twist, I can feel it come on as soon as the catch is locked into the water, and that twist MUST end relatively early, or else I would be extending the stroke way behind me, which is neither proper nor efficient. There is no way for me to use extensive torso rotation if my paddle mechanics are proper. And that’s a good thing, because it saves energy that would result from working the torso through an extreme range.

I’ll use a boxing analogy.

– Last Updated: Nov-13-13 4:24 PM EST –

No big winding swing to grab the attention of the audience. In tight with the other fighter. Gloves held fairly close to the body. Short, quick movement. Other guy hits the mat.
Where did this power come from in this punch? The guy is on the balls of his feet, and it's initiated from the legs.
Did the fighter have to rotate further to put the strength of more powerful muscles into the punch?
Did his technique have to suffer to use the more powerful muscles?
Could he have punched the guy flat-footed using his arms and shoulders?
Did he have to use the more powerful muscles to drop the guy?
The idea that using your current paddle method, you plant forward, and come out at the hip, so if you use more rotation, you will extend too far, doesn't seem reasonable to me.
First, you have to decide if you care about getting more power or not. So up front, I don't care if someone personally doesn't feel the need for their own personal use.
But it doesn't seem reasonable to suggest that increasing rotation will mess up someone's stroke.
The way I see it, as pointed out by someone above, you are only going to get so much hip movement. So it's as simple as that. Using those powerful leg muscles and rotating though the hips will not cause you to overextend your stroke. There's not enough range of motion there.
What does the coach in the corner of the ring tell his fighter when he comes back from a round of love-tapping his opponent with his arms and shoulders. He reminds his fighter of footwork, tells him to get his legs in position, get on the balls of his feet, and tells him to drive those short punches home with his legs.
The glove still travels the same distance, and stops at the opponents face. It uses bigger energy. It has bigger results.
The paddle still travels the same distance, and comes out of the water at the hip. It uses bigger energy. It has bigger results.
It also has a significant benefit in terms of lower half long-term comfort, even if only used intermittently. So I hate to leave it as only useful for powerful paddling types.
Does this make sense? I guess I've just never looked at anyone paddling that's overextending their stroke, and thought that suggesting less rotation was a good answer. I would point out controlling it from the elbows, then shoulders, then upper torso, while encouraging power and rotation from the legs, hips and lower torso. If someone is inclined to use the more powerful muscles, why discourage it? Why blame overextension of the stroke on the good, powerful stuff?