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Making the Most of Your Gym Sessions

I had intended this month’s Fitness for Paddling post to introduce you to an endurance circuit that we used to do back in the day when I was training for canoe.  Unfortunately, I’m down with Covid as I am writing this and so am not able to get into the gym to video the exercises.  Stay tuned for that in the January issue of The Catch.  In the meantime, let’s look at the variables we can manipulate in the gym to address different strength training outcomes.  It’s possible to do far more with your trips to the gym that most people do, particularly if you’re hoping to use your gym time to support your paddling.  

You can accomplish more in the gym than most people think

Unless you’re an athlete following a strength program designed by a knowledgeable coach or trainer, it’s likely that your trips to the gym are limited in scope.  Most people you see training at the gym aren’t using their memberships to their full potential.  If I look around the gym I go to, I see a bunch of people who are all doing more or less the same thing.  There’s a lot of “conventional wisdom” in fitness and strength training that leaves people in gyms training “very conventionally”.  They all tend to be doing the same exercises, at the same speed, with the same amount of rest between sets.  Sure, there’s some people doing squats or deadlifts of 1 to 3 reps over in one corner, but most are doing sets of 6 to 15 reps and then sitting on the bench or machine looking at their phones between sets.  Seriously.  I’m not even sure they can tell you what they are trying to accomplish in any specific terms other than “getting stronger”, “getting cut”, or “getting bigger”.  With just a little knowledge and creativity, these people could be accomplishing so much more. 

Manipulate strength training variables to achieve different outcomes from your workout

There are a lot of variables that you can manipulate when you walk into the gym and begin to exercise.  Let’s take a second to consider them:

  • The exercises you choose to do
  • The order in which you do the exercises
  • The number of sets you do of each exercise
  • The number of reps you do in each set
  • The speed at which you perform each rep (speed of contraction)
  • The resistance (weight) you use
  • The rest between sets

Clearly, doing 4 sets of 30 reps of largely upper body exercises with light weight at faster than one rep/second is going to have an entirely different training effect than doing 3 sets of 6 reps of primarily lower body exercises with very heavy weight.  In fact, how we choose to manipulate these variables determines exactly what the outcome of our training session will be.  Obviously, there are a lot of permutations and combinations when it comes to how we can put all these variables together.   Let’s take a look at some different examples, the resulting training outcomes, and why those outcomes might be useful for paddlers.  

Basic strength

“Basic strength” is what I call your typical 3-4 sets of 15 reps workout.  I generally do this work at the beginning of the off season as a launching pad to prepare for more specialized paddling related strength work in weeks and months ahead.  I’ve also used it for strength maintenance during the paddling season.  Typically, this work consists of:

  • 3-4 sets
  • 15 reps
  • 7-10 exercises
  • Speed of contraction: moderate, approx. 1 sec concentric (up) phase and 1 sec eccentric (down) phase
  • Sets do not go to failure (1 or 2 reps left in the tank)
  • Order of exercises: compound exercises (exercises using more than one joint) first, largest muscle groups first, alternating muscle groups (push, pull, legs, core)
  • Complete one exercise before moving to next or super set opposing muscle groups
  • Rest: 1-2 min

This training begins to build strength at the beginning of the off-season or helps to maintain strength during the competitive season.  It also helps prepare connective tissue for heavier and/or more explosive lifts in the weeks ahead.  

This training is representative of what you see many doing in a typical gym and is relatively “unspecialized” in terms of building higher level, paddling specific, strength. From the perspective of those training for solely for fitness, this is a great approach to take for strength training as it is safe and sort of hits the mark between strength and endurance.  However, if this is all you ever do when you go to the gym you’ll get bored pretty quickly and your body’s response to this training will lessen over time as it adapts to the stimulus this work generates.  You’ll get much more out of your trips to the gym by varying your work and including some other types of training like those detailed below.


Hypertrophy training is intended to develop muscle size by increasing the cross-sectional area of muscle fibers.  The stimulus for this type of development comes from maximizing the “time under tension” of the muscles involved, hence the mode of contraction is typically slow.  As such, the weights used are usually considerably lighter than those used in basic strength and sub-max strength.

This work has limited value for paddle athletes who already have sufficient muscle mass.  The idea for these paddlers should be to increase specific strength-related abilities of the muscles rather than increase mass and body weight.  However, for younger athletes who are growing or for those athletes who lack sufficient mass upon which abilities like max strength and power can be built, hypertrophy can have value.  Typically, hypertrophy work consists of:

  • 3-5 sets
  • 12-15 reps
  • 6-10 exercises
  • Speed of contraction: slow, controlled.  2-3 sec concentric and 3-5 sec eccentric
  • Order of exercises: compound exercises, large muscle groups first.  Can group exercises using the same muscle groups together (ex, all push, all pull, all legs, all core) or alternate muscle groups. 
  • Complete one exercise before moving to the next or do circuit style within one muscle group
  • Rest: 2-3 min

Sub-max strength

Sub-max strength work sees lifts which use heavier weight for fewer reps, typically 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.  Depending on the individual, the weight used might be 70-85% of max (hence the term “sub-max” strength).  For many SUP paddlers, especially older athletes who may no longer feel capable or comfortable doing max lifts (like me), this may be the “heaviest” strength workout they do.  A complete training phase of this type of work should develop a strong foundation of strength for most SUP racers.  This work is foundational for those that will move on to work developing max strength or power.   Typically, this work consists of:

  • 3-4 sets
  • 8-10 reps
  • 7-10 exercises
  • Speed of contraction: a3pprox. 1-2 sec concentric, 1 sec eccentric
  • Failure towards reps 8, 9, 10 of last set
  • Order of exercises: Compound exercises first, large muscle groups first, alternate muscle groups (push, pull, legs, core) 
  • Complete one exercise before moving to the next or super set with opposing muscle group
  • Rest: 2-3 min

Max strength

Max strength work consists of work in the 3-6 rep range.  While true “max” lifts are 1 rep maximums, these are usually confined only to testing, with training being done in the 3-6 rep range.  The idea in this work is to increase maximum strength by training the nervous system to recruit a maximal number of available muscle fibers to lifts.  This neuromuscular ability will be foundational to power work that follows in the training program’s progression.  

This work is often best left to younger athletes, higher level athletes, or experienced strength trainers.  Typically, older athletes preparing for endurance races don’t really need to do this type of work and can better spend their time doing more sub-max work or moving on to power or power endurance work sooner.  Spotters are a must for safe lifting in most exercises.  

Typically, max strength work consists of:

  • 3-5 sets
  • 3-6 reps
  • 3-6 exercises
  • Speed of contraction: 1-2 sec concentric and eccentric.  
  • Failure towards reps 8, 9, 10 of last couple of sets
  • Order of exercises: compound exercises first, large muscle groups first, alternate muscle groups (push, pull, legs, core)
  • Complete one exercise before moving to the next or super set with opposing muscle group
  • Rest: 3-5 min


By definition, power is an expression of work as a function of time.  Hence, in power training the objective isn’t just to move the given weight, but to move it quickly.  This work builds on abilities developed in sub-max and max strength training.  Because the lifts are more explosive, the weights used are usually a little lighter than in sub-max and max strength training.  This work is extremely useful in sport training, as most sports, including paddling, require that the sport specific movements be completed explosively.  This training helps develop the explosiveness essential in sprinting but that has a place in distance racing as well.  Typically, power work consists of:

  • 3-5 sets
  • 5-10 reps
  • 5-6 exercises
  • Speed of contraction:  As fast as possible concentric, controlled 1 sec eccentric
  • Ideally speed is maintained for all reps in a set.  You do not reach failure
  • Order of exercises: Compound exercises first, large muscle groups first.  Alternate muscle groups (push, pull, legs, core)
  • Complete one exercise before moving to the next or super set with opposing muscle group
  • Rest: 3-5 min

Power endurance

Power endurance is simply one’s ability to exert power, repeatedly, over extended periods of time.  It’s the single most important strength ability for paddlers racing distance events, and, for that matter, even 200m sprints as these athletes are taking well over 60 strokes in these races.  If, through our strength training, we can develop the ability to exert considerable amounts of power, sustainably, for long periods of time we have exactly what we need to be a successful paddler racer.  All we then need is great connection and sound technique so we can use that power endurance effectively and efficiently to pull ourselves through the water, and the aerobic fitness necessary to meet the oxygen demands of the muscles generating the power.

So, if power endurance is the most important type of strength for paddling, why spend time training the other types of strength mentioned above?  The answer is simple.  These other types of strength are foundational.  We’re more likely to develop a high level of power endurance if we’ve spent some time developing these other types of strength first, sequentially, in a periodized training program.  

Power endurance work typically consists of high-volume reps performed explosively.  Power endurance work looks something like this:

  • 4-5 sets or “rounds” if performed as a circuit
  • 20-40 reps or 30 to 120 seconds
  • 6-12 exercises
  • Speed of contraction: faster than 1 rep/sec.  You should try to maintain this pace for all the reps in a set.  You should not reach failure
  • Order of exercises: alternating muscle groups or grouping by muscle group. 
  • Can complete one exercise before moving to the next, super set with opposing muscle group or do in circuit fashion, completing 1 set/exercise and moving from exercise to exercise 
  • Rest: minimal rest <1 min to no rest in circuits

In my experience when training canoe for three Olympics, power endurance circuits were the most valuable strength training I did.  We typically did 10 exercises, for 20-30 reps and 4-5 rounds with no rest between exercises and 3 minutes of running between each round, or, we did 10 exercises for 4 rounds of 40 seconds on, 20 seconds rest.  These circuits could take anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes and those done with no rest had a very high aerobic training effect as well.  

So what type of training should you do?

SUP, being a full body paddling discipline, requires strength and power in the upper body, legs and core so you have a nearly unlimited number of exercises to choose from when designing your workouts.  

It’s a good idea to train big muscle groups in compound exercises (exercises that involve more than one joint, for example bench press, bench pull or squats).  However, exercises that target smaller muscles crossing only one joint are important as well (for example, shoulder exercises like lateral raises).  

As far as the type of training goes, it really depends on what you are training for.  Are you working in the gym to train for SUP racing goals?  Or, are you in the gym simply for fitness, as an alternative to paddling or to be more prepared for your fitness paddling next season?

If you’re a serious racer, it’s be a really good idea to work through phases of each of the types of strength described above, with each phase lasting approximately six weeks.  If you’re someone who paddles for fitness and goes to the gym for the same reason, you needn’t be concerned with all of the types of training described above.  I’d probably divide my work between basic strength, sub-max and power endurance work.  This combination is going to give you all the strength you need, help you with your endurance (and even provide some additional aerobic training in circuits) and help with your body composition by increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing body fat.

Look for a power endurance circuit in the January issue of  The Catch

In January’s issue I’ll share a power endurance circuit that is sure to challenge everyone.  I’ll include detailed instructions and videos of each exercise and I’ll set it up so that people can do it at the level which best matches their current level of fitness.  Not only should this circuit be a valuable part of every paddler’s training for development of power endurance, but it also will augment everyone’s aerobic training.  Moreover, because it is really hard, it’ll make those who do it tough as hell.  Something to look forward to!

Happy training!


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