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Torso strength is at the core of paddling power... pardon the pun.
Not everyone has the time or the desire to spend hours in the gym on machines that target the abdominal muscles, lower back, upper legs and shoulders. That's why I love these four “do anywhere” exercises for strengthening your core muscles.
But before I show these to you, it's important to understand why the muscles in your torso are so important to kayak anglers and paddlers in general. Most beginning paddlers will intuitively paddle with poor form: with their arms. I did. It took the skill of a paddling instructor to reverse the bad habits I had developed. To better understand proper paddling form, why it matters to kayak anglers and how to achieve torso rotation, watch this video on Paddling Skills for Kayak Anglers.
So now that you have watched it and are properly motivated to strengthen your torso muscle groups, here are some great exercises that you can do almost anywhere: at work with the office door closed, in your living room or at an actual gym. I happened to do these while I was at a playground with my kids.
I learned how to do these while in physical therapy from a neck vertebrae injury. For the side plank, lay on your side, with your elbow and forearm perpendicular to the rest of your body. Lift your body up off the ground and hold the entire length of your body as straight and rigid as possible. Hold that position. Your body will want to sag in the middle as you fatigue. Hold it as long as you can on each side.
For planks, do the same thing with both elbows on the ground, and your forearms parallel with your body. I currently hold position on each of these three exercises for 90 seconds each. I had to work up to it, holding my body completely straight for 30 seconds twice, then 30 seconds three times, then 45 seconds twice, then 90 seconds without a break. Planks and side planks will show you muscles that you never knew existed.
I recall doing these abdominal muscle burners in high school football practice. Lay on your back with your toes pointing skyward. Lift your feet 6 inches off the ground and hold them as long as you can. I wont say how long I hold it, but will say that you should set a goal and increase it as you gain strength. For a variation, try separating your feet once they are elevated, then bring them back together. It will work different parts of your lower abdominal muscles and upper thigh.
This exercise requires some sort of elevated hand held support, and some creativity finding it. I've used two adjacent desks at work, a counter top and an island counter in my kitchen, and in this example part of the jungle gym at the local park. The goal is to do as many of these as possible in one shot, but some people find that their starting point is something less than one full lowering of their body and return to the top. If that's the case for you, only go half way down until you develop more strength. Start by grasping the two surfaces with your hands, then lift your legs off the ground, bending slightly at the knee to allow room to lower yourself without your toes touching the ground. Lower slowly until your hands are almost to your mid chest, then push upward to a straight armed position and repeat as many times as you can.
From this same elevated, straight armed, dangling body position, lift your knees upward toward your chest as far as you can and repeat as many times as you can. For a variation that better mimics the torso rotation used to paddle a kayak, bring your knees up to the left and right with alternating repetitions.
None of these exercises are meant to be easy. They aren't. But they will make you stronger, allowing you to cover more water, more rapidly. They will give you the kind of paddling burst speed to power through a strong head wind, a class three rapid, or a particularly nasty set of breaking waves. Couple them with appropriate cardiovascular exercise and your days on the water will feature more fishing than paddling. And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it?
Wishing you more time with your line in the water.
Regional Pro Staff Director
Wilderness Systems Kayaks