Notes from the Coach: Using Arms as Connectors
Over the last several weeks in Notes from the Coach we’ve discussed drills for basic paddling technique and steering. I’d like to begin to look at some more advanced concepts in coming weeks and today would like to discuss the concept of “using your arms as connectors” in order to maximize connection and the contribution to the stroke from your big muscles.
Before we start, I’d suggest watching the following videos:
Moving the Board Forward
Our board moves forward to the degree that we’re able to reach forward with our paddle, secure it in the water so it basically doesn’t move, and then pull ourselves by it. If we’re good at making the blade secure in the water it feels like it’s “stuck” in the water in front of us. That allows us to pull ourselves by the paddle maximally rather than pull the paddle through the water towards us. Because of this feeling of water loaded on the blade, the stroke should feel harder to pull than if we just pull the blade through the water towards us with shallow, disconnected and noisy strokes
If we can work dynamically against that feeling of load that a blade that is secured in the water provides us, our board will accelerate quickly, will gain speed and will be relatively easy to maintain at speed for a sustained period of time. However in order to do that it takes strength to generate that dynamic power.
If we’re trying to bring strength to bear, we know that the easiest way to do that is to use the biggest muscles available. These are the muscles we find in the center of our body – the muscles of our core and the muscles that cross the hip joint – as well as our legs, back, and shoulders. None of these muscle groups are in close proximity to the paddle.
The muscles of our arms are small by comparison. Though they are in close proximity to the paddle, they can contribute comparatively little to the task of pulling our board by the secured paddle. They generate relatively little power and fatigue quickly.
Our Arms as “Connectors”
If our arms are comparatively weak and tire quickly they’re inefficient for providing the power to pull our board past the paddle. We need to find a way to engage the biggest, strongest and most fatigue resistant muscle groups in our body against the water loaded on our paddle blade. If we’re going to do that we have to connect them to the paddle through our arms. We don’t want to use our arms themselves, instead we want to use them as connectors which link our biggest power generating muscle groups to the loaded paddle.
Applying this Concept – “The Circle of Power”
Using our arms as connectors is easiest to do if we visualize them as part of a “circle of connectedness” or “circle of power”.
Image a circle of relatively heavy chain, where each link is welded to the next, forming a rigid circle. Now imagine your bottom (or paddling side) arm, your paddling side shoulder across to your top shoulder, your top arm and your paddle shaft being analogous to that welded circle of chain. Imagine your arms and shoulders being “toned” rather than “rigid or “tense” as we don’t want any unnecessary tension in our muscles. But consider how this circle, similar to the circle of welded chain, is strong throughout its entire length with no weak links.
Now imagine how forces generated by muscles closer than your arms to the center of your body, like those in your back, core, hips and legs can be transferred through that circle of “toned” muscle in your arms and shoulders to the paddle blade.
In comparison, consider what happens to a circle of chain laying flat on the ground in which the links are not welded together. Try picking it up. It does not maintain its shape, but instead collapses into a pile of chain links. Imagine your arms behaving like this un-welded chain. Bending your arms at the elbows collapses the circle of connectedness, creating weak links that are not unlike the un-welded links of chain.
While the welded chain is essentially something that is rigid through which you could transfer energy or power, there is no possible way to transfer energy or power in a similar fashion with the un-welded chain. Similarly, when we break the circle of power that exists from the paddle, up one arm, across the shoulders, down the other arm and back to the paddle we lose the ability to effectively transfer energy or power from our big muscles to our paddle blade.
When paddling, it is not so important whether our arms are bent or straight. To a degree this is a matter of personal preference. What matters more is that during the power-generating portion of the stroke, where the blade is in the water, we maintain tone in that “circle or power”. Collapsing on our top arm at the elbow diminishes connection of the paddle against the water and our big muscles to the paddle. Bending our bottom arm during the pulling phase means that connection between our big muscles and the loaded paddle is diminished. Our biceps will be trying to pick up the slack for those now unconnected big muscles, but they are totally incapable of matching the power output or endurance of the bigger muscles.
Once our blade is in the water we want to avoid bending our arms at the elbows or wrists. Doing so only serves to reduce our ability to connect our big muscles to our loaded paddle.
The exception to this is that slightly and slowly bending the bottom arm at the elbow in the late stages of the pull can help us maintain a blade angle closer to vertical than otherwise, and this can help us achieve a more effective exit. However I’ll discuss this slight and slowly developing bend that still allows for effective linkage of big muscles to the loaded paddle in a future edition of Notes from the Coach.
Give it a try
Pick up your paddle on land and take some time to visualize the circle of power. Experiment with it using your paddle. Simulate the load you feel on the water by leaning on your paddle in positions similar to those you find yourself in on your board. Play with the feeling of “toned” arms and the circle of power and feel how you can engage your biggest muscles against the paddle. Then bend your arms at the elbows while you’re leaning on your paddle and notice how, as you do so, the circle is broken and connection between your biggest muscles and the paddle is lost.
Effectively using the “Circle of Power” is an important way to ensure connection between your biggest muscles and the water. Think about it as you paddle, trying to keep your circle solid with as little tension in your arms and shoulders as possible. You’ll find it makes your paddling more effective and your stroke better connected.