One of the most important things you can do in paddle sports is train strength. While this is especially true in sprint racing, it is no less important in distance racing like Chattajack. Whether you’re chosen craft is a kayak, surfski, outrigger, prone paddleboard or a SUP, strength is important. It’s relatively easy to address, really just requiring time, and pays huge dividends on the water.
In any paddle craft, the idea is to secure your blade in the water and pull yourself past the planted paddle. Advanced paddlers will realize that in fact you’re actually pulling yourself to the paddle and then pushing yourself past it. You’ve got to move your own body weight and that of the craft you’re on, and you’ve got to overcome the resistance of the water interacting with the craft you’re paddling. Some of the craft we paddle are really inefficiently designed when it comes to moving through flat water (think of a wide SUP board) so you really need strength to do this, and you’re going to have to do it again and again and again for 4 hours or more in a race like Chattajack. This means you need strength endurance.
It doesn’t do you any good to body build. Huge muscles aren’t necessarily going to help you. Muscle is very dense and weighs a lot. If you’re too big you’re going to weigh too much and you’re going to have to work harder to pull that weight along throughout the entire race. It’s better to be strong with more reasonably sized muscles, meaning you have a greater strength to weight ratio.
The other problem with bodybuilding is that big muscles aren’t necessarily specialized muscles. You want muscles that are optimized for paddling. And you don’t want to carry muscles that you won’t be using much.
Not only do you want muscles that have adapted to the paddling motion, you want muscles that are optimized to work dynamically against the water you’ve gathered on your blade. Power is defined as strength measured against time. It takes the speed of muscle contraction into account. You want to be able to paddle with powerful muscle contractions for extended periods of time, so really what you’re looking for is power endurance – the ability to contract muscles dynamically against the water gathered on your blade stroke after stroke after stroke – for as long as 8 hours or more.
I am a firm believer that while you can get stronger for the paddling motion by paddling, you can build far more strength and power in the gym. Then it is just a question of learning how to use that strength optimally on your paddle craft. That’s where technique comes into play. However if you don’t spend time doing your homework in the gym you won’t be as strong on your paddle, and you won’t end up going as fast. You’ll also end up risking injury, as muscles and connective tissue that have been made stronger in the gym are far more resistant to injury on the water.
Build a strength or power reserve
Imagine that your max lift on a bench pull (lie prone on a flat bench and, from arms straight, pull the weight up until it touches the underside of the bench) is 100 lbs. Imagine your training partner’s is 150 lbs. Now imagine that the maximum load on the blade that you pull every stroke is 30 lbs. (in other words a stroke is equivalent to lifting 30 lbs. with your paddle). If your max pull in the gym is 100 lbs. you’re pulling a little more than a 1/3 of your max every stroke. Your training partner, however, is only pulling 1/5 of his max each stroke. Who do you think is going to be able to pull hard longer, the person pulling 1/3 or only 1/5 of their max?
Clearly the person pulling a lower percentage of their max each stroke should be able to pull hard for longer as each stroke is easier. This is what is known as a strength reserve and the greater your strength reserve, the longer you should be able to paddle hard for, technique being equal.
You can train various types of strength in the gym
If you’re doing strength training regularly in the gym you’ll know that you can control a number of different variables to change or alter the training effect. Among them are:
Number of repetitions
Number of sets
Order of exercises
Number of exercises
Speed of contraction (or speed that exercise is performed at)
Rest between sets
Training different types of strength is as easy as manipulating some or all of these variables. For example:
Basic strength – this is the type of strength you generally do at the beginning of a strength training cycle or the beginning of a land-based training phase. The objective is to develop a strength base and prepare muscles and connective tissue for more complex strength training in future training blocks. Generally we’re speaking about 3 to 4 sets of 15 reps performed at moderate speed with 90 seconds to 2 minutes between sets. Weight used allows you to complete each set without reaching failure. Imagine finishing each set with one or two more reps left in you.
Hypertrophy – this is strength training performed with the objective of building muscle mass. While generally not the goal of training for paddle sports (we’re interested in a high strength to body weight ratio, not large muscle size), some paddlers can stand to gain some muscle mass – they just can gain the strength they need without it. Hypertrophy training generally consists of 3 or more sets of 10 to 15 reps performed at a slow, controlled speed. You can take as long as 5 seconds in the eccentric (down) phase and 3 seconds in the concentric (up) phase. The idea is to maximize time the muscles are under tension. This type of strength, if needed, is generally performed early in the off-season after a block of basic strength.
Sub-max and max strength – these types of strength involve lifting heavier weights to increase the load on muscles. Sub-max strength is generally 8 to 10 reps while max strength is generally 3 to 6 reps. This type of lifting requires the recruitment of far more individual fibers within each muscle and you gain strength not only by increasing muscle size to a degree but more importantly by learning how to recruit more of the available fibers within the muscles used. This type of strength is useful for developing a strength reserve and for developing the neuromuscular pathways in muscles that are also used for paddling. Because of the greater load placed on the nervous system in this type of training, there is an increased amount of rest between sets. There is no speed requirement to these lifts. It’s more about the weight you’re moving than the speed you’re moving it at.
Power – like sub-max and max strength, training power involves using a heavier weight, but it needs to be a weight you can move explosively at speed. Power is defined as strength as a function of time. It’s all about explosive, dynamic contractions. Hence training power involves rapid, explosive lifts in the concentric phase. This type of lifting places an even greater demand on the nervous system and requires more rest – as much as 3 to 5 minutes between sets. Volume (number of sets and reps) is lower in this type of training, and generally you’re doing fewer exercises and focusing on compound exercises (exercises that use more than one joint) that train large muscle groups. This training is very useful for paddle sports as when we’re on the water it’s all about forceful, dynamic strokes to move your boat or board quickly. Generally you start to train power after a phase of sub-max or max strength.
Strength endurance – involves doing high reps with lower weight that more closely resembles the type of load on the muscles we experience while paddling. Exercises are performed at a moderate speed. The idea is to train the muscles to perform against a load repeatedly without excessive fatigue. Reps are in the 20 to 30 or more range for anywhere from 4 or more sets.
Power endurance – like power, involves the weight being lifted as a function of time. Contractions are fast and explosive at more than one per second if possible. Weight used is lighter and reps are high in the 30 or more range. This training is intended to help you develop the ability to paddle dynamically for extended periods of time like you want to do when racing.
Circuit training – this is a type of training particularly useful for strength and power endurance in which you complete one exercise and move immediately to the next exercise with no rest. You can choose order the exercises such that you alternate the muscle groups used or do all of the exercises for one muscle group before moving to the next muscle group. This can have a large impact on the type of endurance you’re training and the degree to which lactic acid becomes a factor. Again, doing this type of training involves production of energy in the muscle cells in the same fashion and at a similar rate as that required for paddling.
Build strength into your periodized plan
Just as a periodized plan for all the paddling training and land-based cardio work you do has a huge impact on the effectiveness of your training, so it does as well for strength. The order in which you put the various components of strength training together can have a huge impact on the degree of success you’ll experience.
Furthermore, adjusting the load so that it progressively increases with built-in, regular, periods of rest can have a huge impact on the gains that you’ll make. So when you’re making your periodized year plan, you’ll want to make sure that you include strength in your thinking.
Strength training is a huge part of high performance paddling. And even those that choose to take a more recreational approach to what they do on the water can benefit from time in the gym. Preparing muscles and connective tissue in the gym for the load that they’ll face on the water helps prevent injury and make paddling easier and more enjoyable. It also helps those paddlers intent on high performance hit the water with muscles ready to work optimally in the task of moving the board forward. If you’re concerned at all about performance, you’ll want to engage in some kind of strength training program.
Developing a program of your own can be fun and rewarding, particularly as you chart your progress and keep track of your improvement. However for those that find it intimidating there are lots of resources available that can help you. At Paddle Monster, we’ve gone out of our way to develop a comprehensive and highly effective strength training program for all paddle sport athletes by hiring Chris Chapman, strength coach for Canada’s Olympic Canoe/Kayak Team. He’s set up a periodized program for the entire year, and we’ve compiled instructional videos of well over 100 of his exercises in our video library. So if you recognize the importance of strength training in your Chattajack preparation but don’t quite feel confident enough to develop your own program, give Paddle Monster a try. The strength you gain on Chris’ program will make a big difference this October.