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 SUP Power Endurance and Aerobic Fitness Circuit Training

Back when I was training in canoe we trained extremely hard.  It wasn’t unusual in the winter, when frozen off the water, to run five to six times per week, swim two to three times, do strength work four times and then some indoor paddling in a special “paddle pool” one to two times.  The idea was, since we were frozen off the water for a couple of months, to simply become the fittest, strongest athletes we could over the course of the winter, knowing that that fitness would make everything easier when we got back on the water in the spring.  

All of the work was important and there were no shortcuts.  You couldn’t pick and choose the work you liked, you had to do all of it.  But, when I reflect back on it, I think of all the work we did, the most important was the circuit training we did twice as week as part of our strength work.  

The circuits we did were hard.  Essentially it was 55 minutes of high-level aerobic work done with weights.  If you multiply the weight used by the number of reps done, I would be approaching 50 tons of weight moved in one workout with each rep done as fast as possible and no rest between exercises.  Moreover, after completing the circuit it was not unusual to jump in the pool and do a 1-hour swim workout. 

Since we launched Paddle Monster I’ve hesitated to ask athletes to do this type of circuit knowing how hard it is.  However, after reflecting on just how valuable these circuits were, I’ve recently added them to the Paddle Monster program and have received nothing but positive feedback so far.

The value of circuit training

I’ve said before that there are really three pillars to performance in paddle sports:

  • Aerobic fitness
  • Strength (primarily power endurance)
  • Technique

If you’re going to be world class in any paddle sport, you’ve got to be among the best in the world in each of these areas.  If you’re looking to improve your performance, a significant improvement in any one of these areas should yield a substantial gain.  If you can improve in every area, a significant enhancement in performance is almost guaranteed.

Different types of training address these pillars in different ways.  Activities like running, swimming, cross-country skiing and cycling all address aerobic fitness.  The type of traditional strength work you see most people doing in the gym address the various components of strength required for paddling like basic strength, hypertrophy, sub-max and max strength, power and power endurance. 

Technique is best addressed on the water, and I have written about how paddling machines really aren’t beneficial for developing high-level paddling technique.  If you can’t paddle you’re really better off focusing on strength and aerobic development.   

Some training activities address multiple aspects of paddling-related fitness.  Obviously, paddling can address all three of these pillars of performance depending on how the work is done.  However, as far as land-based work goes, there is really no better way to address aerobic fitness and power endurance simultaneously than circuit training.  Depending on how long the circuit takes, the speed at which the exercises are performed, the amount of rest between exercises and the exercises chosen, a circuit can be the most valuable piece of training you do, providing you with high quality aerobic and power endurance work in the same workout.  With busy schedules, who doesn’t want to address both of these pillars at the same time?

Beyond that, circuit training is hard.  If you’re going to do a long circuit that can take upwards of 50 minutes, maintaining the tempo at which you do your reps for the entire time, you’ve to be tough.  Of all the work we did back in the day, these circuits were the single most demanding session mentally and really made everything else we did seem easy.  

The paddler’s power endurance circuit

The circuit we did back in the '80s consisted of 5 rounds of 30 reps in 10 exercises. As we were paddling sprint canoe which was done out of a high kneel position, almost all of our exercises were directed at our upper body and core rather than our legs.  Here is the exact circuit we did:

  1. Bench press
  2. Bench pull
  3. Push ups
  4. Triceps extension (standing, bent over, with barbell behind back)
  5. Sit ups
  6. Upright rowing
  7. Clean and press
  8. Straight arm pullover
  9. Biceps curls
  10. Dumbbell Flys
  11. Approx. 3 min track run (5 laps of the gym’s indoor track)

However, since this is 2023 and most of those reading this are stand up paddlers, I would suggest changing some of the exercises to better address the SUP paddle stroke – namely by adding some leg work.  With that in mind, I am going to introduce the circuit as being 12 exercises arranged in the order of push, pull, legs, and core which will repeat three times in each round.  After introducing and describing the exercises, we’ll look at how to perform the circuit and consider things like tempo, rest, how many rounds, etc.  

Exercise 1 – Bench Press

Most paddlers are familiar with bench press.  It’s one of the most common exercises performed for good reason.  First, it is a compound exercise (using more than one joint) and engages the largest pushing muscles in the upper body. It bears a high level of relevance for most sports that require upper body strength and even in those that don’t, is a good exercise for measuring one’s ability to generate power.  

Start by lying flat on the bench with your feet on the floor as seen in video 1.  Try to keep your bum, back and head on the bench.  Lift the weight off the rack and lower it down, under control, until your arms are bent at 90 degrees or less and then press up to full extension and repeat.  For this circuit it is not necessary to touch the bar to your chest.  

Video 1

Exercise 2 – Bench Pull

Bench pull is probably the most fundamental strength exercise performed by sprint canoe-kayak paddlers in their strength training.  I did a full description of this exercise and its value in a previous issue of The Catch.  The problem with bench pull is that, unlike bench press, the bench needed to perform it is a relatively rare piece of equipment in most gyms.  So, unless you do your strength in a home gym and build your own, you may have to substitute the bench pull with another pulling exercise.  

Most gyms have some sort of seated pulling machine that has some type of chest support as shown in video 2.  This allows you to lean into the support and keep your chest in contact with it as you pull, similar to the way you would lying on a bench.  This is important as it helps you isolate your pulling muscles and avoid using your low back.  This helps minimize the risk of injury to your sacroiliac joint which can happen if you start pulling by leaning back at the waist.  If you are using a seated rowing machine without this type of chest support please be extra careful that you do not lean backward as you pull to minimize the risk of injury.  

Pull from arms at full reach till the bar hits the bench if doing bench pull or till your hands are close to your chest if using a machine.  Often the weight stack hits the top of the track it slides on at this point so think of trying to use the full range through which the weight stack can travel.  Let the weight back out till your arms are at full extension before beginning the next rep.

Video 2

Exercise number 3 – Squat Jumps

Squat jumps are a great exercise for training legs for stand-up paddlers.  If you look at a properly performed exit in a SUP stroke, you can see how legs are engaged in a similar manner to doing a portion of a squat.  Adding a jump and then quiet, controlled landing to each rep increases both the power output in each rep and the proprioception involved in landing.  This proprioception is an important part of balance and stability in SUP paddling so, if you can heighten the sensitivity of the proprioceptors in your lower legs and feet by doing this exercise, you’re training your body’s capacity for improved balance on your board.  

Start with your hands on your hips in a squat position as seen in video 3, then straighten your legs as explosively as you can and jump, absorbing the landing so it is quiet and controlled and bending your legs to full squat as you land.  

Video 3

Exercise 4 – Side Bends

This exercise is fantastic for the external obliques which are part of the core muscles you use not just for stability but for pulling in your stroke.  

Hold a weight plate, dumbbell or kettle bell in your hand as seen in video 4.  Lean to the side, lowering the weight closer to the floor and crunching your rib cage and your hips together.  Then use the oblique muscles on the opposite side to pull your torso back up until you are standing straight again.  Do not pass straight and lean to the opposite side.  When finished the reps of one side, switch sides and do the same number of reps on the other.  

Video 4

Exercise 5 – Push Ups

Push ups are the body weight only version of bench press, using the same muscles through almost the identical motion but adding in core muscles to stabilize and maintain a straight body from head to toe.  

Start in a prone position with arms at full extension as seen in video 5.  Bend your arms, lowering your body till your arms are bent 90 degrees or more and your chest is close to the ground. Your chest does not have to touch the ground.  Then push with both arms back to full extension.  Try to keep as straight a line as possible from your feet, up your body to the top of your head.  

Video 5

Exercise 6 – Body Row

Body row is the body weight only version of the bench pull, and like the bench pull it can be challenging to find a place to do this exercise.  Most gyms have a squat rack or Smith machine like that seen in video 6.  Set the bar at approximately waist level, then slide your lower body under the bar till you are hanging from the bar as shown in the video with your body as straight as possible. 

Start with arms at full extension and then pull up till your chest almost touches the bar, then lower back down to full extension.  

This exercise can be made easier by raising the bar or more difficult by lowering the bar so that your body is flatter as you begin your pull.  You can also make it easier by bending your legs and bringing your feet in a little closer to the bar.  

Video 6

Exercise 7 – Split Squat Jumps

Split squat jumps work the same muscle groups as squat jumps but add in the element of doing lunges.  As you’re counting reps on one side only, you’ll end up taking a little longer to complete this exercise each round because you’ll be doing twice as many jumps.  As with squat jumps, the jumping and landing make this a plyometric exercise with all the benefits that come with it for power and proprioception.  

Try to make sure that your front foot is far enough forward on each jump so that you land and squat with the front leg bent 90 degrees at the knee as seen in video 7.  Any less and you’re putting undue strain on your patellar tendon.  Hands on hips helps add another element of balance as you’re doing these.  

Video 7

Exercise 8 – V-Tucks

V-tucks are a good exercise for your abdominal muscles and hip flexors.  Sit on the floor or a bench as seen in video 8.  I suggest holding that V-sit position for a moment to find some stability, and then begin the exercise by tucking your knees towards your chest as you see in the video.  The idea is to maintain consistency and control in your body movements and with your V-sit.  The fact that your butt is the only part of your body that is supported makes this exercise more challenging than simple sit-ups or crunches. 

Video 8

Exercise 9 – Clean and Press

Clean and press adds elements of legs and core to the pressing motion, but we’ll call it a press exercise in this case as we’ve got some other leg and core exercises on our list.  Because there are so many muscles being used in this exercise you are going to find that this one is a real lung burner and you’re going to see your heart rate really spike.  Doing this exercise so soon after split squat jumps makes it even harder.  

Pick the bar up off the floor, bending your legs as you do so you don’t have to bend excessively at the waist.  Try to keep a straight back from your head to your hips.  Use your legs and hips to help lift the weight to your shoulders as seen in video 9, before pressing weight over your head.  Then, lower the weight in the reverse motion, bending your legs as you approach the floor to avoid undue pressure on your low back.  It is not necessary to put the weight back on the floor every rep.  I go down to a few inches above the floor as you can see in the video.  A good point of reference, since your feet should be about the same distance apart as your hands are on the bar, is to feel your knees press lightly against your forearms at the bottom of each rep.  

This is an exercise where many people end up using too much weight.  Because it seems easy at first, people tend to overestimate the weight they can use.  You’ll know if the weight is too heavy if you are not able to maintain the tempo you start with for all of reps or from round to round. 

Video 9

Exercise 10 – Lat Pull Down

Lat pull down is one of the most common pulling exercises and is essentially the same as chin ups but, because you can adjust the weight, it allows you to be able to do 30 reps or more at the speed you desire.  Very few athletes are able to do this with chin ups.  

This exercise works the pulling muscles in the back and arms and is highly relevant to paddling.  Sit on the bench as seen in video 10 and reach up to grab the bar.  Without leaning back as you pull, pull the bar down to your chin and then extend your arms to full extension as the bar rises again.  Make a real effort to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the bottom of each rep as the bar nears your chin.  This helps strengthen your rhomboids, which helps encourage good posture with shoulders back and chest out.

This can be a difficult exercise to do at the same tempo as the other exercises.  Make sure you use a weight that allows you to do this at a similarly fast tempo and maintain that tempo for all the reps through all the rounds.  

Video 10

Exercise 11 – Skating Motion

This exercise uses the legs and but in a more lateral sense.  As with the other leg exercises, this is a plyometric exercise with jumping and quiet, controlled landings so you’ll be developing both power endurance and proprioception as you do this exercise and ultimately equipping your body with the tools it needs for enhanced stability on your board.  

Because you’re using your legs and using them explosively, this exercise is another one that will see heart rate climb a little higher.  

Start with your weight on one leg as seen in video 11.  Jump laterally towards the opposite leg and make a quiet and controlled landing on your other foot, with the foot you’ve just jumped off of crossing behind the foot you’ve just landed on.  Then repeat that motion in the other direction, jumping off the opposite foot.  Count the reps on one side only, similar to what you did in split squat jumps.  

Video 11

Exercise 12 – Seated Medicine Ball Rotations

The last exercise has you sitting in a V-sit position similar to in V-tucks.  Pick up the medicine ball in both hands as seen in video 12 and left it up enough so it will clear your legs as you rotate towards the other side.  Lower the ball towards the floor without touching it, then repeat this motion in the opposite direction.  

This exercise is fantastic for abdominal and oblique muscles, both of which are extremely important to good paddling. 

As with all exercises which alternate sides, count the reps on one side only.  

Video 12

Doing the circuit

Now that you know the exercises, here are the instructions and some tips for completing the circuit.

  • Before starting the circuit for the first time, I strongly suggest experimenting with each exercise and the weight you’re going to use.  The biggest mistake you can make is using too much weight.  Test out both your command of the motion in each exercise and the weight you’ve selected.  Can you do the exercise properly?  Can you do the required number of reps without the tempo changing or slowing down?  Can you imagine yourself maintaining this tempo through every round?  
  • These circuits should be completed with reps performed at 1 rep/sec or faster.  The videos will give you a good idea of the tempo required.  The biggest mistake made when doing these circuits is using too much weight.  You want to be able to maintain the tempo you start with, both within a set and from round to round.  It’s better to use a weight that is light the first few times you do it and maintain tempo rather than try to increase the weight too soon.
  • There is no rest between exercises.  You should be moving from exercise to exercise as fast as you can.  I’m literally running from exercise to exercise when I really get going in these circuits. 
  • Complete one exercise, then move to the next, the next, and the next after that.  When you have completed all the exercises, you’ve completed one “round”.  Start round two at the first exercise and work your way through all the exercises again.  
  • At the completion of each round, do 3 minutes of cardio.  When I used to do this circuit back in my canoe days, we trained in a gym with an indoor track.  We’d complete a round and then run 5 laps of the indoor track which took about 3 minutes.  Since I no longer have access to that gym, I hop on an exercise bike for 3 minutes between rounds.
  • Heart rate in the between rounds cardio should be equivalent to the average HR in each round.  If your HR peaks in clean and press and is lowest in V-tucks, for example, aim for a HR in the cardio that is the median between the two.  
  • Novice trainers should start with 2 rounds of this circuit aiming for 15 reps. More advanced trainers should start with 3 rounds.  Do not start with more.  If you’re doing this properly, you’ll find it is hard at 2 or 3 rounds.  After a completing a couple of circuits, try increasing the number of reps to 30.  When you can do all 2 or 3 rounds identically, maintaining a high tempo throughout, you can add another round.  Once you’ve mastered 4 rounds without seeing a decline in tempo you can add a 5th round.  Five rounds of 30 reps with the 3 minutes of cardio should take approximately 55 minutes for someone who is doing it quickly.  It’s a lot of power endurance and aerobic work and it is hard.  Don’t underestimate how hard it is.  Respect the work and build up to 5 rounds gradually.
  • Ideally, advanced trainers should follow up the circuit with approximately 30 minutes of level 2 cardio immediately after.  I used to swim 55 minutes steady, level 2 to 3, immediately after each circuit.  However, doing the circuit without the additional cardio is far better than not doing the circuit at all.  It provides a unique blend of power endurance and cardio that cannot be found in another land-based workout.  
  • Do this circuit up to two times/week in additional to two additional, more traditional, strength workouts.  This will give you a total of 4 strength workouts each week, meaning you’ll have to double up two of the sessions on back to back days.  A good schedule would look something like this:
    • Monday:  strength (sub-max, max or power)
    • Wednesday:  circuit
    • Friday: strength (sub-max, max or power)
    • Saturday: circuit
  • After doing 30 reps for 6 to 8 weeks, try reducing the reps to 20 and increasing the weight.  Again, do not increase the weight to the point where you cannot maintain the one rep/sec or faster tempo.  Start with 3 rounds of this and build up to a maximum of 4 rounds.  Despite the lower number of reps and fewer rounds, you’ll actually find this harder, both on your muscles and aerobically, because of the heavier load.  
  • In exercises where you are using body weight, you can adjust how you do the exercises to make them more difficult and add load:
    • Squat jumps:  hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms extended by your side.  Make sure you keep your back straight with your head over your hips.
    • Push ups:  Elevate your legs, putting more weight over your shoulders.  Putting your feet on a bench is perfect.  Additionally, try lifting one leg off the bench so that you have only three points of contact – two hands and one foot.  This will add more core work to each rep.  Change which foot you’re lifting half way.
    • Body row:  Lower the bar one level on the squat rack or Smith machine.  This will make your body more horizontal as you do the exercise, which makes it considerably more difficult.
    • Split squat jumps:  hold a dumbbell in each hand as in squat jumps.
    • V-tucks:  hold a medicine ball or weight plate in both hands with arms outstretched.  You don’t have to add much to make this exercise considerably more difficult, so add a little at a time.  
    • Skating motion:  hold a medicine ball in your hands, close to your chest, as you perform your reps.  
  • You can manipulate this basic circuit format in various ways to change things up but provide a similar training effect:
    • Change the order of exercises:  you can make things considerably more difficult and increase lactate production (good for training lactate tolerance) by changing the grouping of exercises from push, pull, legs, core to push, push, push, pull, pull, pull, legs, legs, legs, etc.
    • Change the exercises:  you can replace any of these exercises with other push, pull, legs or core exercises.  Just make sure that it is possible to do the exercise at a dynamic one rep/sec or faster tempo. 
    • Instead of counting reps, go by time.  For example, instead of doing 5 rounds of 30 reps, try 5 rounds of 40 seconds on, 20 seconds rest.  The additional rest will make things marginally less aerobic but might allow you to use a little more weight.  
    • If, at any point, when attempting a circuit, you feel chest pain, are unusually short of breath, dizzy or light headed, you should immediately stop.  It takes time to adjust to new training modalities, and this type of work is sufficiently different to what most people are used to that it can place more demand on your cardiovascular system than other, more familiar types of work.  I am convinced that just about everyone can do circuit training safely, however give yourself some time to get used to it before you really push things too hard.  

Circuit training done in the format described here is hard.  You’re training power endurance and your aerobic ability simultaneously.  But you’re also training your mental toughness.  It takes a tremendous amount of focus and commitment to maintain an aggressive tempo from exercise to exercise and from round to round for a full 5 rounds.  Fifty-five minutes is a long time to stay locked in for in something like this.  Trust me, if you end up doing this twice a week it starts to make other work seem easy.  And, better still, it’s going to make paddling seem a little easier when you get back on water in the spring or up your paddling load in the competitive season. 

I’m certain, should you decide to try this type or work, you will find it challenging, rewarding and useful and that it will make a definite difference in your paddling fitness.  

Happy training!

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