Tuesday, January 4, 2011

SUP Paddle Technique Part 2 - The three ingredients of a powerful stroke by Robert Stehlik

Breaking down the Power Phase, part two of the paddle technique series. 

The proof's in the pudding:  My thinking is that if someone is fast and winning races, they must be doing something right, so I developed my technique by watching and listening to the fastest paddlers and trying to emulate what they are doing.   This paddle technique series is my attempt to share what I have learned and break it down into easy to follow steps. 

First, some recommended reading:
Good technique starts with a good paddle, it's impossible to have good technique with a paddle that is too short, for example.  So if you are not sure you have the right paddle, read part one first:
Choosing the right Paddle

A stand up paddle stroke can be broken down into these main phases:  Reach, Catch, Power, Release, Recover.
Dave Kalama breaks down these steps and the Tahitian style paddle technique very well on his blog.  If you have not read his technique posts yet, you should:

Each step of the stroke is important and needs to be practiced.  Good reach and catch are important before applying the power so they really should come first but for this post I will just focus on the power phase, where the pedal hits the metal.  I have found an effective way of teaching a more powerful stroke is by breaking down the power phase into three basic components or ingredients, which I call PUSH, TWIST, LEAN.

4th of July Race finish, photo: Reid Inouye

Each paddler develops their own individual technique and I can often identify a friend paddling in the distance by the stroke long before I'm close enough to recognize any features.   Despite different styles, I think every good paddler uses a combination of the "three ingredients".
Beginners often paddle by pulling the paddle with the lower arm.  This is probably the least efficient way to paddle and will tire the arms quickly.  Pulling with the lower arm bent is not an ingredient of a powerful stroke.  The bottom arm should stay straight throughout the power phase. The lower hand acts as the fulcrum (rotation) point of the paddle.  The only time the lower arm should bend is to lift the paddle out of the water for the recovery. (To visualize this motion, I like Dave's image of pulling a sword out of it's sheath while the top hand twists a door knob to feather the blade).  
Note: I have noticed that some fast paddlers like Kai Lenny sometimes use the bottom arm to pull the blade at the end of the stroke when leaning far forward, but for most of us, this is not an efficient way to power the paddle.
Kai Lenny using twist, lean push AND lower arm pull at the end of the power phase.
Pic: Stand Up World Series / RonanGladu.com  

To learn how to combine the "three ingredients" for maximum power, we will first look at and practice each ingredient in isolation before combining them.  My friend Evan shot a short video where I demonstrate the three ingredients on the paddle simulator in our shop.  If the description is confusing, please watch the video at the bottom of the page and it will hopefully make sense.  If you are still having a hard time, please stop by the Blue Planet shop for a paddle simulator demonstration or come to one of our monthly clinic/ demo days where we have advanced paddle technique clinics (all free).

1) First ingredient: PUSH:
 This is basically using your top arm to push the paddle out in front of you. Try to do this motion in isolation while keeping your shoulders square, staying upright, and keeping the bottom arm straight. It's like you are punching your hand forward from in front of your face. By bending the top arm, you increase the forward reach and by pushing with your top arm you can do quick strokes that work well when you want to accelerate quickly, like when catching a wave or getting on a bump. The downside is that if you use only the triceps in your arms to power yourself your arms will tire quickly.

2) The second ingredient: TWIST: 
 To practice this, keep both arms straight through the stroke and stay upright, using only a twisting motion to move the paddle. Rotate your hip and shoulder forward to reach, then unwind with the shoulders following the hips. This twisting motion should be where most of the power in your stroke comes from, using the muscles in your back and core to propel yourself forward.
3) The third ingredient: LEAN
 A word of caution: if you have lower back problems, you will want to go easy on the lean until your your back gets stronger. To isolate the lean, keep both arms straight and keep your hips and shoulders square. Straighten your body for the reach, then use your body weight and abs to lean on the paddle by bending at the waist. If you watch some of the most powerful paddlers (like Danny Ching, Chuck Patterson, Aaron Napoleon) you will notice that they lean heavily on their paddle during the stroke and often end the stroke with their upper body at an almost 90 degree angle to the legs. By pushing the blade down into deeper water during the stroke, it is also able to reach more "new still water" (as my swim coach likes to call it), giving it more grab. The lean engages your core and as you are leaning forward, you are pushing down with your top hand and using gravity to "fall" onto your paddle. If you are doing it right, your abs should feel like you are doing a crunch with every stoke.
Danny Ching is really leaning into the stroke, note that even though he is taking a very long stroke, the blade  will still release in front of his feet due to his forward lean.
Here is a frame grab of Danny Ching at the end of his power phase during the last Battle of the Paddle race.  Please note that pulling the paddle this far back works on a displacement hull but won't be effective on a planing hull (like a surf SUP) as the paddle angle starts to pull the board down into the water.  Notice too, that despite pulling the paddle way back, the blade is still in front of his feet because the upper body is leaning far forward.  This is another advantage of the LEAN, you can lengthen the stoke without pulling past your feet.

Here is a picture of Jaime Mitchell (from futures fins blog). note how he is upright during the reach, he is not leaning into the reach, the forward lean starts after the catch and pushes the paddle down during the power phase.

The LEAN adds power to the stroke but also brings the stroke further back and the recovery takes longer.   Dave Kalama proved that the quick, shorter, Tahitian style stroke which uses more of the PUSH and TWIST than the LEAN, is very efficient in downwind conditions and longer races like the Molokai challenge.

Here is the video shot by Evan Leong of standuppaddlesurf.net demonstrating the the three ingedients on the SUP simulator at Blue Planet Surf Shop (sorry, the quality is not the best):

In long distance paddling it is good to have several power sources to rely on.  For example, you can use the push for a quick burst of acceleration, then rest your arms by using more twist and lean.  I recommend practicing and perfecting these three ingredients in isolation, then try to combine them in different ways to find your own "secret sauce".

Links to the paddle technique series posts:
Paddle Technique Part 0: Introduction to SUP
Paddle Technique Part 1: Choosing the Right Paddle
Paddle Technique Part 2: The Three Ingredients of a Powerful Stroke
Paddle Technique Part 3: Stacking the Shoulders
Paddle Technique Part 4: Reach and Catch
Paddle Technique Part 5: Recovery, Paddle Length and Grip
Paddle Technique Part 6: Turning the Board
Paddle Technique Part 7: Catching Waves

Robert Stehlik

Additional resources:
If you are looking for more help with your paddle technique, you may want to check out the training program that Wet Feet is putting together in Honolulu, which I will be involved with: http://www.wetfeethawaii.com/default.asp?id=22

I have also put together the Paddle Core Trainer, a SUP simulator kit for home use that is great for working on your technique on the days you can't get on the water.  It comes with an instructional DVD that will help with your stroke and stoke:  http://www.paddlecoretrainer.com/

at the 2009 BOP photo: Phil Rainey

Alex Nix paddles
flatwater training.  photo: Alex Nix


  1. thanks for always sharing your knowledge..you teach good stuff that most people wouldn't want to share, but you share the mana! thanks robert

  2. Thanks for the post. Anyway I will further check this out on the same place! Paddle Boards HQ

  3. Always a great learning tool to have exercises for learning a skill broken into its components.


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