Photo: Weyo

How To Build Core Strength for Paddling

The act of paddling can look like it requires supreme arm strength alone.

But anyone who’s dug in their paddle for any distance knows that it comes from the core. Your trunk is the root of all handling and propulsion power—regardless of your choice of craft, whether it’s a whitewater kayak, tripping canoe, or standup paddleboard. Your core muscles, including your hips and back, stabilize the body and make your strokes more efficient. And more fun, too (energy saved means less focus on fatigue). Conditioning your core is one of the most effective ways to both enhance your paddling adventures and reduce the risk of chronic or overuse injuries. 

Why Build Core Strength?

Proper stroke technique (across paddling disciplines) starts from the core: leaning forward to reach for water, and keeping a more forward, active paddling position while twisting the torso to drive strokes. If your core is not strong or ready for it, your arms will overcompensate and tire quickly. As will your back. Core strength reduces that stress load on the arms, back (and even legs), while increasing balance. The result is a more powerful and efficient stroke.

Going out paddling will, of course, engage the right core muscles. If the timing and season don’t cooperate, however, a dry-land strength and conditioning routine done at home can offer an ideal way to strengthen the back, abdominal, and hip muscles. After a dedicated training block of 4 to 6 weeks, you’ll notice improved core muscles and be ready to go farther and feel better on the water. 

How To Build Core Strength

To complete these recommended core strengthening workouts, you’ll need kettlebells or dumbbells and some space. Start with the general warm-up, then move into the core-specific warm-up. Alternate the two workout circuits, completing one or both each week with at least 24 to 48 hours of rest in between.

Tips: 

  • Start easy with lighter weights and lower reps and slowly build volume as the stress decreases.
  • Increase the length of aerobic exercise in the warm-up to build endurance.
  • Stay hydrated during the workout to reduce fatigue on muscles, and fuel immediately after to aid recovery. 
  • End all workouts with gentle stretching and foam rolling of tight muscles. 

General Warm-up

Before any strength training exercises, start with easy aerobic exercise to get the blood flooding. This warm-up also improves cardiovascular endurance, and the amount of time can increase as training progresses. Start with 10 minutes of aerobic activity at an easy effort. Then, depending on your preference and fitness, try running, walking, or using a stationary bike or a rowing machine. Slowly increase the amount of time up to 20 or 30 minutes if you want to incorporate cardio training into your core routine. 

Photo: Paul

Core-Specific Warm-up

Once your blood is flowing, engage the core muscles with a more specific warm-up. Complete 2-3 sets of these exercises as a circuit and keep moving throughout. 

Plank March

Slowly bend at the hips until your hands reach the ground. Walk the hands out to a plank position, engaging the core to keep the body in a straight line. Lift one hand off the ground, touch the opposite shoulder and return it to the ground. Alternate five times with each side and then walk back up to a standing position. Repeat 5 times.

Bear Crawl

Start with both hands and feet on the ground with an elevated and flat back. Walk, or bear crawl, moving opposite hand and foot forward with each step. Alternate each side for 20 total steps. 

Leg Swings

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and balancing with one hand on a wall. Keeping one leg stationary, slightly bend the other leg and gently swing forward and backward, hinging at the hip. Repeat with the other leg. Next, face the wall. Swing each leg across the body laterally, opening at the hips. Start gently with all leg swings and slowly increase the range of motion as the muscles loosen up. Swing each side 10 times in both positions. 

Shoulder Pass-Throughs

To complete shoulder pass-throughs or dislocates, you’ll need a strap, straight bar or PVC pipe (though a long, straight-shaft touring or SUP paddle will work in a pinch). Hold the bar (or paddle shaft) with a wide overhand grip keeping the elbows straight. Keep the feet together and core engaged. Slowly lift the bar over the head and as far back as your flexibility will allow, keeping the shoulders straight and returning the bar to your front. Repeat 10 times.

Core Workout 1

These conditioning exercises are designed to be a circuit. Complete each exercise and rest for 2 to 3 minutes for two to three sets total. 

Suitcase Carry

Place one kettlebell at your side on the ground with plenty of space in front to walk. Pick the weight up with one hand, bending and extending at the hips and knees and keeping a tight and engaged core, like a deadlift. Walk 20 steps forward, slowly turn and walk back to the starting point. Repeat the carry with the opposite side.

Back Extension

Lock your heels in the back extension machine and lower your body face down to 45 degrees over the pad, hinging at the hips. With your hands behind your head, lift your torso, extend the back, and make a straight line with the entire body. Move slowly and do not over-extend. Return to the relaxed 45-degree position and repeat, moving continuously.  

If you don’t have access to a back extension machine, the Superman exercise is an excellent at-home alternative. First, lie face-down on the ground with arms outstretched. Next, lift your arms, head, and legs off the ground, with only the torso in contact with the floor. Hold this position for one second and then return to rest. 

Volume: Repeat 10 times for one set.

Kettlebell Swings

The kettlebell swing is a full-body strength move that targets the core while improving balance and posture, which will help you maintain an active forward paddling position. Start with a lightweight kettlebell until you master the exercise. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with the kettlebell on the floor in front of the feet. Bend slightly at the hips keeping the back flat and core engaged. Swing the kettlebell to eye level and back through the legs keeping the hips and core engaged. Volume: 10 reps per set, starting with a lighter weight to learn the movement, then slowly increasing the weight. 

Core Workout 2

These conditioning exercises should be completed as a circuit. Complete each exercise and rest for 2 to 3 minutes for two to three sets total. 

Farmer Carry

Start with two kettlebells on the ground at each side with plenty of room to walk. Pick the weight up in each hand, bending and extending at the hips and knees and keeping a tight and engaged core, like a deadlift. Walk 20 steps forward, slowly turn and walk back to the starting point, setting the weight down.

Volume: One lap is one set. 

Back Extension (or Superman alternative)

Same as outlined in Core Workout 1.

Volume: Repeat 10 times per set.

Turkish Get-up

The Turkish Get-up, or TGU, is a full-body conditioning exercise that builds core strength and balance—plus serious shoulder stability that you’ll be thankful for with your first high brace. You can perform the TGU (a functional exercise where you progressively move from laying down to standing with a weighted hand extended straight up) using either a kettlebell or dumbbell. 

Volume: 5 reps on each side, alternating for a total of 10 in a set. Start with a bodyweight TGU (no weights) to learn the movement, then slowly add weight. Increase weight in small increments, making each set slightly heavier. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.