The Best Exercises and Technique Tips for Stand-Up Paddling

Pete Williams July 11, 2011

Dave Kalama showing off his paddle techinque.

The fast-growing sport of stand-up paddle boarding is a phenomenal core workout that’s also a fun way to spend time on the water. The hip and shoulder rotation required to plant the paddle vertically and uncoil the hips, and thus move the board forward, is no different than the movement used to swing a golf club, tennis racket, or baseball bat. The difference, of course, is that the paddler is operating on an unstable surface—the water—in effect making the board a giant BOSU ball.


“That’s one of the beauties of the sport,” says Dave Kalama, one of the sport’s leading ambassadors. “It engages your entire body, from the end of your toes fighting for balance to your head concentrating on all of the movements you need to stay on the board.”

Big-wave surfers Kalama and Laird Hamilton weren’t thinking that far ahead back in 1996 when they showed up for a photo shoot in Maui on a calm day with little surf. Kalama pulled some canoe paddles out of his truck and the two paddled around standing up on surfboards, just as ancient Hawaiian watermen did hundreds of years ago. The following day, Hamilton had some longer paddles made. Fifteen years later, SUP is soaring in popularity as a workout routine, sport, and fun way to spend a few hours on the water.

“It’s accessible to everyone, just like skiing or riding a bike, that almost anyone can do,” says Kalama, who travels the world giving four-day “Kalama Kamps” with fellow SUP gurus Brody Welte and John Denney. Just as golfers are forever tinkering with their stroke, stand-up paddlers seek to make their stroke more efficient. Here’s how:

1. Reach, Reach, Reach

Newcomers to the sport assume the paddle must travel the length of the board. Actually, 80 percent of the power comes from where the paddle enters the water to where it should exit—at your feet. That makes it essential to reach out as far as possible. “Getting that extra reach is like a delivering a soft jab at the end to get that extra extension,” Kalama says. “The more you reach forward with the shoulder, the more muscles you recruit. Reach is the most important thing in creating a good stroke that’s powerful and gets a lot of speed.”

2. Keep the Top Hand Up

How do you know you’ve taken the paddle too far back? Check the position of your top hand. The back of your hand should be constantly near eye level. If you’ve taken the paddle beyond your feet, the top hand will drop. Newcomers to the sport feel like they should be driving back further, but they’re just wasting energy. By taking the paddle out at your feet, you’ll keep the top hand up. “It’s very natural to feel that as long as your muscles are engaged and you’re pulling that you’re working,” Kalama says. “And if you’re working, you’re moving or doing something. But if you’re going to expend the energy, you might as well do so in the most effective way.”

3. Pull Yourself to the Paddle

Though stand-up paddlers might not have the same follow-through as swimmers, they do want a similar catch. The idea is to keep the paddle vertical and pull your body to the paddle using the hips—not the paddle to your body with your arms. “When you pull the hips forward, the board accelerates and you get a second of glide,” Kalama says. “Think about it. If you’re sitting on the ground and someone gives you a hand to get up, you don’t just pull with your hand and leave your hips on the ground. You pull your entire body up, including your hips, so that when you get to an upright position you’re centered over your feet. You’re reaching forward and pulling yourself up constantly.”

4. Rotate to the Beach

If you’re paddling parallel to shore, someone on the beach should be able to see anything printed on the back of your shirt if you’re getting proper hip and shoulder rotation. “You want to create that potential energy in that twist so you can take advantage of it in unwinding it and releasing it,” Kalama says. “Depending on what side you’re paddling on, you should show either your chest or back to the beach.”

5. Squat, Chop, and Roll

The split squat rotational chop closely mimics being on the board by forcing you to maintain a stable base and good posture while you work with resistance, says Core Performance specialist Anthony Slater. Plus, you’ll build leg strength. Click here for a video demonstration. Another great move that will help you paddle efficiently, says Slater, is Stability Ball Rollouts. This move engages your abs while your arms reach overhead—closely mimicking the way your top hand reaches forward to start each stroke. It also teaches you to initiate with your core to maximize stroke efficiency. Click here for a video demonstration.

Northern SUP

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