5 ways you can significantly improve your paddling by improving your upper spine and shoulder mobility, scapula (shoulder blade) control and pulling strength.
We spend more time paddling than we do riding waves, so improving your paddling movement and efficiently can largely affect how many waves you catch, how long you can stay in the water today and how long you can stay in the water 20 years from today.
Shoulder injuries are bar none the most common surf-related chronic injuries for surfers. To improve your shoulder movement and function you need to improve your posture and upper (thoracic spine) mobility first. If you sit at a desk all day, you are bound to have suboptimal posture. Poor posture equals poor joint alignment which equals poor, inefficient range of motion which equals poor, inefficient force production, tissue stress, muscle strain and joint grinding.
A sequence to improving your paddling involves;
Mobility & Joint Health
Trying to force large degrees of joint motion where there is no joint motion to start with, sets up the potential for unhappy, inflamed and sore joints. Your upper spine, shoulder blades and shoulders must be able to move well.
Fitness, Work Capacity, Aerobic and Anaerobic Conditioning (General)
A history of regular, general physical stress that gets your blood pumping through your whole body, elevates your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure is what we need as a very base foundation to being physically competent in the water. Our body needs to be able to deal with physical stress. High repetition strength work, low repetition strength/power work and cross-training to tax whole body energy systems will cover most aerobic and anaerobic bases. Examples of activities that will help build your general work capacity include metabolic weight training, interval/sprint training, walking, swimming, running, cycling, trekking, rock-climbing, bouldering, martial arts, kicking a ball or chasing your kid for an hour.
Aerobic and Anaerobic Strength Training (Specific)
Mastering correct technique, endurance, strength and power in surf-relevant movements such as pull-ups, single arm pulling/rowing, back extensor and postural exercises, deadlifts, middle and lower trapezius strengthening, posterior shoulder strengthening and core training.
The video above demonstrates 5 of my top mobility/strength exercises in helping optimise paddling mechanics.
The shoulder clock targets multiple angles of shoulder mobility and upper spine rotation. You can start with bodyweight alone and progress to holding 1-2kg. The weight helps to mobilise as well as lightly strengthen the moving shoulder by challenging your shoulder stabilisers from multiple angles. Elevating your body so that your arm drapes over the side will increase the mobility and stability demands. Take one slow, full inhalation to bring your arm out to the side, and then exhale to return to the start position. Complete 5-10 reps per side, daily!
2. Prone Overhead Shoulder Hovers
These hovers target strength with your shoulder in flexion and external rotation. This is essentially strength with your arms overhead and with your palms turned upward, as if you are trying to hold water in the palms of your hands. Long time surfers get super strong in their downward pulling strength and internal rotation strength, therefore they need the opposing movements to balance their shoulder muscles. You can progress this by holding a 1-2kg weight in each hand, although bodyweight is typically challenging enough. Complete 10-15 repetitions.
3. Shoulder Hanging for shoulder mobility and scapula control.
Many shoulder issues can be relieved by more shoulder hanging. If you haven’t done any hanging since you were a kid, you may find it difficult to hold your full bodyweight at first, which can be a combination of inadequate shoulder range of motion, poor grip strength and weak shoulders. Use your feet on the ground to partially hold your body weight until you are ready to lift them off the ground. Start with double arm hanging (10-20 seconds) and then work up to single arm hanging (10s +). Achievable goals are 60 second holds for double arm and 15-20 second holds for single arm. Change grips regularly (overhand, underhand, neutral, wide, narrow and crossed over). Get into it daily if you can!
4. Shoulder Shrugs 5 Ways for shoulder blade mobility and control, shoulder joint health and front-to-back, top-to-bottom shoulder strength.
- The first position is on your hands and knees. Aim to keep your head in line with your spine, your abs lifted and your glutes strong. Move your shoulders only, bringing them together and then pushing them apart. Keep the rest of your body completely still.
- Second position is the Cobra – focus on purely moving your shoulders downward and upward. If your lower back feels compromised in this position, you can also use paralettes as shown in the b) version of this movement.
- Third position is Inverted. Aim to have most of your bodyweight over your hands and shoulders. Focus on purely moving your shoulders upward and downward and keeping the rest of your body completely still.
- Fourth position is the Crab – extend your hips upward, keep your lower back flat and lift your chest. Focus on pulling your shoulder blades together and then slowly relaxing them forward, without moving any other part of your body. Remember to keep your hips up.
- Fifth position is Hanging. This is a progression of the previous static hanging exercise. Squeeze your glutes to keep your lower back flat, keep your ribs held down and focus purely on pulling your shoulders downward and relaxing them upward. Keep the rest of your torso solid.
Complete 10 repetitions per position, daily!
5. Pull-Ups for pulling strength and power.
For paddling, you need a great deal of control, strength and power in your major pulling muscles – your lats, upper back and posterior shoulder muscles. Wide grip pull-ups, which target all of these, are a big-bang-for-your-buck exercise to help improve your paddling.
If you need help with these, use a thick elastic/power band under your feet. Keep your shoulders down, chest open, shoulders back and lower back flat as your pull. Think good posture. You can progress to thinner bands, to bodyweight and then to weighted pull-ups. Changing grips to narrow, mid-width, wide, under-hand and over-hand are all useful training options.
For flexible, comprehensive surf strength and conditioning training programs that you can follow from anywhere in the world, with or without any training equipment, head to surfstrengthconditioning.com