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The Bench Pull and Body Row

Among the most common strength training questions I get from paddlers are those about “pulling” exercises.  What exercise that uses a pulling motion is best for paddlers?  Whether you’re new to paddling and want to do some work in the gym to compliment what you’re doing on the water, a serious fitness trainer who is looking for great pulling exercises to compliment your on-water work, or a SUP racer looking for work in the gym to promote improved on-water performance, there is really one pulling exercise the rises above all others for paddlers.   

The bench pull

The most fundamental pulling exercise for anyone who paddles is the bench pull (also known as the bench row).  How important is this exercise to paddlers in sprint canoe and kayak?  Well, it forms the backbone of just about every canoe/kayak athlete's strength training program pretty well the world over.  In fact, many National Teams use bench pull as a performance indicator – a land-based indicator of how fast an athlete is likely to be on the water.  It's by no means the only performance indicator, but the type of strength it builds, and demonstrates if you are testing, is critical to success in the sport.  In fact, it has been pretty well established that to be a medalist at the World Championships or Olympics, a paddler's combined max bench pull and max bench press, divided by body weight needs to be equal to three or greater.  That is (max bench pull + max bench press) / body weight = 3 or greater.

Although SUP is a different paddle discipline, this exercise is equally important.  SUP, after all, is essentially sprint canoe done standing up.  Furthermore, even though SUP paddlers are usually racing 5 km or more instead of 200m, 500m or 1000m like sprint paddlers, strength is just as important.  The fact is that the boards we paddle, even the narrowest and lightest, are still poorly designed for moving through flat water.  It takes a lot of power to accelerate a SUP board at a high-performance level, and a lot of power endurance to do it repeatedly for long races.  Power and power endurance are types of strength that really are most effectively developed on dry land in the gym, so every serious SUP paddler should be doing some strength training homework.   Even in the ocean, where SUP boards are really designed to perform, power is useful.  A good part of downwinding is accelerating to catch waves.  The more you can dig in and move your board when it matters then, all things being equal, the more rides you are going to catch.

If you’re a less serious paddler, the bench pull is still for you.  The exercise will strengthen your lats and the other pulling muscles in your back and strengthen your arms and grip as well.  Even though good SUP technique is more about generating power from your hips, legs and core, strength in your lats, shoulders and arms is essential for stabilizing the paddle in the water and maintaining connection between your hips, legs and core and the water held on your paddle blade.  Developing strength in this area is going to help make you stronger on your paddle, help you develop some power endurance which will make paddling for extended periods easier, and make those muscles more resistant to the risk of paddling related injuries.

So, let's take a look at the exercise.  It's a great exercise for developing the pulling strength essential in a sport like ours where you are pulling yourself past the paddle.  Unlike bent over rowing or rowing with a T-bar, the bench pull is superior because your back is fully supported and so the exercise is much safer for pulling a heavy weight.  Similarly, chin ups and lat pull, while safe and effective, train strength in an overhead pulling motion which is less specific to the paddling motion.


If you train out of a rowing or canoe club their weight room will almost certainly have a bench pull set-up you can use.  If not, you can make your own.

Note the set up in the video.  It’s a tall bench that allows you to lie face down on the bench and fully extend your arms with the barbell in your hands, not touching the ground.  The set-up we have at the canoe club that is seen in the video is a purpose-built bench with stands for the barbell so you can reach the weight and replace it after your set, but you needn't have something as high tech.  For most of my competitive sprint racing career we did this exercise on jury rigged benches of some type: a wooden plank laid across saw horses, a regular weight bench stacked on aerobics steps, etc. The important thing to consider when you are making your homemade bench is to ensure that it can safely take the combined load of both the heaviest person using it AND the heaviest weight that will be lifted.  I'd even add on another 50 lbs. on top of that figure just to provide a suitable margin of safety.

With the weights that world class sprint athletes are tossing around, you need a pretty solidly designed, purpose-built bench.  But for the weights most SUP paddlers are likely using you should be able to throw together something that works effectively and meets the safety standard mentioned above.

To perform the exercise simply lie on the bench on your stomach, grab the barbell and pull up.  To get a full range of motion pull up until the bar hits the bench and then lower the bar until your arms are fully extended.  Strict form means you keep your chest, chin and legs in contact with the bench, however when you start performing the exercise explosively for power you'll probably find your head, shoulders and legs may lift off the bench a little.  I would strongly suggest you do at least a few months of training with strict form and moderate weight before you start doing heavy or explosive reps in order to avoid injury.

You can perform the bench pull at various speeds of contraction to develop different types of pulling strength.  Slow reps (2-3 seconds up, 4-6 seconds down) are great for maximizing the muscles' time under tension and hypertrophy (increase in muscle size). Moderate speed reps (1 second up, 1-2 seconds down) for 10-15 reps are good for developing basic strength.  High reps of 20 to 30 or more done at 1 second up, 1 second down are good for developing strength endurance in your pulling muscles.  Low reps with very heavy weight can be used to develop max pulling strength.  Explosive reps, where you’re pulling the weight up as hard as you can and banging the bench with the bar develop power, and, if you use a lighter weight and do more explosive reps with little rest between sets, power endurance.

You'll find a few months of training this exercise will leave you feeling stronger on your paddle and make holding the paddle when you're tired seem easier.  I believe it is the easiest and safest weight training exercise to develop pulling strength in the direction you pull while paddling.

As great as an exercise as the bench pull is, it still isn’t for everyone.  For many, it is simply too hard to find or create the set-up to do it.  The gym I train at, for example, doesn’t have a purpose-built bench and won’t let me create a set-up of my own on their property. If this is the case don’t despair.  You can get most of the benefits of the bench pull doing an entirely different exercise.  Introducing the body row.  

The body row

The body row has you doing the same pulling motion, except you’re facing the other direction.  Instead of lying face down on a bench and pulling a weight upward, you’re hanging arms extended from a bar with your feet on the ground in front of you and pulling your own body weight upward to the bar.  You’re using the same pulling muscles and actually engaging far more core muscles than in the bench pull as, since you’re not lying on a bench, you have to work to keep your body straight as you pull.

To do the body row, find a horizontal bar that you can comfortably wrap your hands around and that is approximately waist high.  Walk your legs underneath the bar until they are extended in front of you.  Use your core muscles to hold your body straight from your feet to your head as you hang with arms extended from the bar.  Your body will be on an angle determined by the height of the bar from the floor.  If the bar is higher, the angle of your body with the ground will be greater and the reps will be easier.  If the bar is lower, your body angle will be flatter and the reps will be more difficult.  

Maintaining a perfectly straight body, perform a rep by pulling yourself up till your chest touches the bar and then lowering yourself by extending your arms to full extension.  As with the bench pull, you can manipulate the speed of contraction and the reps you perform to work on different types of pulling strength from hypertrophy to power.  Though you are only using your body weight, you can also manipulate the load of each rep by raising or lowering the bar.  Bringing your feet closer to the bar by bending your knees reduces the load as well, with reps getting easier the closer your feet are to your body.  In this case, you should keep your body straight from your knees to your head.  



Body row should be a much easier exercise to do in gyms that don’t have bench pull set ups.  I use the Smith machine to do mine, but you can easily place a barbell on a squat rack as seen in the video.  You’ll find that stations in some fitness trails include low horizontal bars that can be used for body row, and even some kids’ playgrounds have bars where it is possible to do the exercise.  If you have a TRX strap you can easily hang it from any higher bar and use it to do your body rows as well.  

Whether you’re a recreational or serious SUP paddler, strength training is going to offer great benefit – both for your paddling and for your fitness and heath in general.  The bench pull and body row are the safest and most effective pulling exercises a paddler can do.  Incorporating one or both into your gym work will make a noticeable difference in both your strength training and your paddling.  Try incorporating them into your strength training program and see what you think!  

Happy paddling!

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