SUP Paddle Stroke: Land Drills for the Exit
Land Drills for the Exit
In the last three issues of The Catch, we’ve been looking at land drills – what they are, why they are so incredibly useful, and some specific drills for the entry/catch and the pull. In this issue, we’ll look at three land drills relevant to the exit which will help you identify the prime mover muscles, the sequence of their use, and set you up to begin the exit or unloading at the appropriate time in the stroke, use the biggest muscles available, and maximize acceleration off the exit (thus allowing you to carry more speed between strokes).
Before we start, it might be worth looking at common errors associated with the exit. The drills we’re about to look at here will be extremely useful tools in correcting any of these errors and consolidating sound movement patterns typical of an effective exit.
Before looking at the drills themselves, let’s look at the positions that we see good paddlers passing through during the exit.
Different paddlers with distinctive techniques passing through the same positions during the exit
As we’ve seen with the other drills we’ve covered, the world’s top SUP athletes, though all looking like they have unique techniques as they paddle, generally all pass through pretty much identical positions in a few parts of the stroke. We see this at the point where the exit motion starts and finishes. We also see it as they begin the recovery as we’ll see below.
These photos represent the range of movement that our drills are going to address. Some of these photos are from videos I’ve collected of athletes I coach and others I have taken from social media posts of various paddlers, either as still photos or as frames I’ve captured from videos. We’ll start with photos of the “late pull” which is where the exit motion should start and is the position we will start our drills from. We’ll finish with photos of the “exit” and “early recovery”, which show the positions that you should be in at the point at which the blade begins to exit the water and just after the blade exits the water. Our drills will take us through the movements that get us from the first set of photos to the second and third, maximizing acceleration of the board off the exit and board run between strokes.
Late pull photos
Early recovery photos
We can see from the “late pull” photos that the exit begins with the body in the following position:
- Hips as far back as they are going to get in the stroke
- Legs bent as much as they are going to get in the stroke
- Maximum amount of bend at waist in the stroke
- Top hand in approximately in front of the face
- Bottom hand level with and in front of paddling side knee
- Paddle well in front of feet, paddle angle slightly on the negative side of vertical
The “exit” photos show paddlers in the following position:
- Hips have moved forward from the late pull as if they are going to move under the upper body
- Legs have straightened almost back to the degree of bend seen at the catch
- Paddler appears to be standing up straighter
- Top hand is only slightly lower than in late pull
- Bottom hand is above knee (higher than in the late pull)
- Paddling side arm is beginning to bend to initiate the exit of the blade from water
- Paddle is slightly in front of, even with, or just behind feet depending on the paddler
- Blade is at its most negative angle
The “early recovery” photos show paddlers just after they have completed their exit, with the blade out of the water as they begin to move with direct movements towards the next catch:
- Hips have moved more forward and are under upper body, level with or just ahead of the heels
- Body is already in position for the next catch with ankle flexion and forward lean, right from the feet
- Legs are in the same position in terms of ankle and knee flexion as they are at the catch
- Top hand is high, level with or above the head
- Bottom arm is bent and relaxed to facilitate a direct line of paddle movement to the next catch
These positions are seen again and again in top paddlers. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a top paddler that doesn’t appear in similar positions at the end of the pull/beginning of the exit, the exit and early recovery. The fact that I’m only presenting a handful of photos here should in no way suggest that these positions are uncommon. If you browse through social media posts of just about all the top paddlers, you’re sure to see them in these positions in some of the photos they have posted.
These positions represent, more or less, the starting point of the exit, the actual point of blade exit from the water and just after the exit, with the proper exit motion simply connecting the dots between these positions. The drills we’re going to look at will a) help you begin your exit motion correctly and at the right time, leading with the biggest muscles and conserving blade angle as you continue to pull yourself to the paddle, b) teach you to use your glutes and legs to push yourself past the paddle and accelerate your board as you initiate the actual exit of the blade from the water and c) teach you to immediately find the proper body for the next catch right off of your exit. All you will have to do is extend your arms and rotate your upper body forward slightly and you’ll be ready to catch.
Let’s look at the first drill, which simulates the entire exit so you can get an idea of how you should be moving through the exit and which muscles to engage.
Drill 1 – The entire exit
As described in video 1, drill 1 begins in the position in which we see the athletes in the “late pull” photos. This position is basically the position we found ourselves in when we completed the pull land drills. In this position the blade is fully buried with water loaded up and held on the blade face. Hips are as far back as they will travel in the stroke, having finished driving the work against the water gathered on the blade during the pull. The legs are as bent as much they will get in the stroke, having bent to help get the blade deeper into the water. This means that the paddle is at its deepest point in the water here. Finally, bend at the waist is at its maximum, meaning that maximal upper body weight has been loaded onto the paddle. The top hand is approximately level with the face and the bottom hand level with the knee. The blade is still well in front of the feet with the blade angle only slightly on the negative side of vertical. In this position maximal loading, or weight and force, on the paddle has been achieved and it is time to begin to unload in preparation for the exit.
Because the blade is still well in front of the feet, it is still possible to pull yourself to the paddle. However, unlike everything that has happed so far in the stroke, this is not accomplished by “loading” – the process of driving the hips back, bending the legs and increasing body weight being loaded on the blade by bending at the waist. Now the trick is to begin to “unload” weight and, instead of moving the hips backwards to work against the paddle, you want to use the muscles located between your knees and your chest to work against the water loaded on the paddle and pull your hips forward under your body toward the paddle. With good connection derived from holding all the water you’ve gathered on the blade and not letting any slip off, you should have the feeling of something really solid to pull yourself towards.
The purpose of this drill is two-fold. Done before the other drills we’ll look at shortly, it is an introduction to the entire exit motion, to get a feel for it, the muscles involved and their sequence of contraction. Done after the next two drills, it is a chance to put everything together on land so that you’ll be able to execute the motion really effectively on the water.
Get in the position described in video 1. You should be holding the paddle closer to the blade than normal and your top hand should be choked down the paddle shaft. Since you aren’t on the water, you can’t bury your blade. Hence, you’ll have to move your hands to these positions on the paddle to simulate the position they’d be in relative to your body on the water.
Remember, land drills should be performed in front of a full-length mirror if possible. Use the mirror to check your body positioning to make sure you’re in the position described above and seen in the video. Be as precise as you possibly can. Doing drills on land allows this type of precision, so be sure to take advantage of this. The more precise you are here, the better you’ll end up doing your exit on the water.
You’ll want to do this drill on a carpeted surface where you can, with some top hand pressure directed down the paddle shaft, keep the blade “stuck” in this position. You are not pulling the blade to you in this drill, but rather yourself to the paddle and this will give you something to pull against.
Start by creating some flex in the paddle shaft. This should be coming from the big muscles in the center of your body. I like to think of using the muscles between my knees and my chest. Your paddling side arm and lats, in this case, are simply connectors between these big muscles and your paddle, so be sure you are not generating flex in the shaft with them.
At this point of the stroke, the paddle blade is still well in front of your feet so you are still trying to pull yourself to the paddle. For the first part of the exit you’re trying to pull your hips forward towards the paddle and this is what you want to simulate in this drill. Use the load on the paddle to feel your big muscles in the center of your body engage. I really try to feel the muscles of my core engage and try to use them to pull my hips forward underneath my upper body towards the paddle. You’ll notice as you do this that you start to stand up straighter. Be sure that you’re standing up straighter because your hips move forward under your body, not because you are using the small muscles at the base of your back and are leaving your hips stuck out behind you. You’ll notice as your hips move forward that your legs begin to straighten back to their original amount of bend. This can all be seen in video 1.
On the water, because the board is moving past the paddle, once you start to pull your hips towards the paddle, the paddle will quickly end up at your feet rather than in front of them in the position from which this drill starts. Since the paddle is at your feet at this point, you can no longer pull yourself to the paddle. You’re at the paddle already. Now you need to think about pushing yourself past the paddle instead.
Once you start to pull your hips toward the paddle and begin to straighten your legs, you’ll start to feel a little like you are “pole vaulting” yourself past the paddle and are going to fall forward. This is the point where, on the water, the paddle would be at your feet. As you begin to feel this, squeeze your glutes and use them to push your hips the rest of the way underneath your upper body. This will continue to propel you forward past the paddle as you see at the end of video 1. On the water you would now be pushing yourself and your board past the paddle.
This drill ends once you are propelling yourself past the paddle. It is important to note that on the water, as soon as you have started to use your glutes to push your hips all the way under your upper body, you need to begin to use your hands to lift the blade out of the water. The glutes pushing the hips forward actually initiate the exit and this is how your body arrives in the position seen in the “early recovery” photos.
As you do this drill, take care not to try to do it too dynamically. Be somewhat slow and methodical, checking your positioning in the mirror and taking enough time to feel the sequencing of the muscles involved. When you’ve done this 10 times on each side, proceed to drill 2.
Drill 2 – Starting the exit – pulling yourself to the paddle
The exit starts when you begin to start “unloading”. One of the biggest mistakes paddlers make is the failure to begin to immediately “unload” once they’ve finished “loading”. This drill is intended to help you identify when to begin to unload and what it feels like at this point of the stroke. It’s also intended to teach you how to initiate the unloading motion, the muscles you want to use and the sequence of their contraction. It’s basically a deep dive into the very first movement that you did in drill 1.
Start in the same position that you were in to start drill 1. In this instance, you’ll really want to make sure your paddle is not going to slip backwards towards you as you create flex in the paddle shaft. When I do this drill at the gym, I use the edge of the squat platform or aerobic steps, as seen in the video 2, to pull against. The paddle will not move which is perfect because I want to make sure that I am the one that moves towards the paddle.
Create tension in the paddle shaft as you did in drill 1. In this case, instead of attempting the full motion, just feel the muscles in the center of your body engage against the load on your paddle. Keep those muscles engaged against the load, making sure that all the force and energy coming from them is working against that load. If you’re doing this properly, something has to move and, since the paddle is fixed in position, it’s going to be you. Remember, on the water, the paddle is well in front of your feet as you start this motion. There is still a lot of pulling yourself to the paddle left to do at this point in the stroke when you’re actually on your board. Getting better at this offers great benefit on the water, and that is what makes this drill so valuable.
As you create flex in the paddle shaft, you should begin to feel like you are pulling yourself forward towards the paddle. You’ll feel like you’re pulling yourself up onto your toes a little to the point where you feel like you are going to lose your balance forward. Stop just before you lose your balance and “rewind” back to the starting position as seen in video 2. Repeat this process, trying to identify the muscles involved and the sequence of their contraction, and try to find a way to maximize the power that they generate against the load. Repeat for 10 reps and then switch sides. I usually do 3 sets of 10 reps on each side each time I do this drill, which is usually 3 times a week.
In time, this drill will help you seamlessly go from loading to unloading on the water without any lag, with maximal dynamic connection as you do. There is a lot of acceleration to be gained at this point of the stroke by doing this correctly, so you’ll really want to get good at this drill.
Drill 3 – Completing the exit – pushing yourself past the paddle
Just like drill 2 was a deep dive into the first part of the exit motion, drill 3 focusses on the end of the exit. In this case, we want to start in the position described in video 3 or in the description of the “exit” position described above. Here the paddle is at our feet as the board as moved forward towards the paddle as a result of what we’ve done in the first part of the exit. As such, we can no longer pull ourselves to the paddle and instead need to think of pushing ourselves past it.
Because you’ve already pulled your hips under your body a little, they aren’t sticking out as far behind you as they were at the start of drill 2. They’re still behind your upper body, but nowhere near the same degree as they were. You’ll also note that your legs aren’t quite as bent and your top hand is a little lower relative to your face.
Once again, find a way to secure the paddle against something so that it does not move and you can move instead. Remember, when paddling, the idea is to pull ourselves to the paddle and then push ourselves past it, rather than pulling the paddle through the water. So, try to simulate that by doing this drill with a paddle blade that is secured in place.
Create some tension in the paddle shaft causing it to flex. Use the load that you are creating to work against. In this case, rather than using the muscles between your knees and your chest to pull yourself to paddle like in drill 2, think instead about targeting your glutes – the big muscles in your butt. Squeeze them to push your hips forcefully forward all the way under your upper body.
You’ll find that while drill 2 pulled you to the paddle and into a slightly unstable position in which you felt like you might topple forward, drill 3 pushes you past that position and actually propels you forward past the paddle as seen in video 3. You’ll actually need to take a step forward with one foot to avoid falling forward. Also, because it fully brings your hips under your upper body, it helps you find a neutral spine and the body positioning required for the next catch.
This drill represents the last part of both the exit and the entire stroke. This part of the stroke is critical in providing a burst of acceleration off the exit that allows you to carry more speed between strokes. Obviously, this acceleration means that you’ll be going your fastest at the exit and holding more speed during the recovery, but also means that your next catch should be easier as, with more speed, you won’t have as much accelerating to do.
As with drill 2, do this for 10 reps a side for each set and do three sets. It’s a good idea to try to do this drill 3 times a week. It will really help you execute your exit better on the water.
It is important to also note that the motion you’re working on in this drill is the motion that initiates the actual exit of the blade from the water. On the water, you want to leave the blade buried long enough to reap the benefit of the glutes dynamically pushing the hips forward under your upper body. However, as soon as this motion has started, it’s time to lift the blade out of the water. This is explained at the end of video 3. This is difficult to practice while you’re focusing on creating the force necessary to propel yourself forward past the paddle, but it is worth experimenting with separately after doing this drill. You don’t need any resistance on the blade to do this experimenting. You simply want to establish that as soon as you’ve engaged your glutes to push your hips under your upper body, you should begin to lift the blade out of the water. This should put you in the position seen in the “early exit” photos.
Drill 4 – putting it all together
Drill 4 is simply drill 1, repeated. Hence there is no separate video here. After doing 3 sets of 10 on each side for drills 2 and 3, I highly recommend going back to drill 1 and putting the whole motion together again. It will enhance your comfort with the entire exit motion.
Even when you are very familiar with the exit and these drills, you’ll find that you execute drill 1 better after completing drills 2 and 3. They just sharpen your ability to isolate the muscles involved, maximize their recruitment, and optimize the sequence of their contraction.
Have fun with these drills for the exit and adding them to the drills we’ve discussed for the catch and pull. And stay tuned for more useful posts on technique and training in future issues.