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.

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 :wink:

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.


– 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.

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.

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.

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.