Shoulder Tips

Photo: Chris Totten

By Kim Russell

Paddlers are pre-disposed to shoulder injuries. Whether upside down, paddling forward, or bracing, there is a significant amount of torque on the shoulder joint at any one time. With this in mind, it is important to consider shoulder anatomy when paddling.

The shoulder joint is what is known as a ball-and-socket joint in which the ball of the humerus sits in a socket created by the glenoid fossa of the scapula—so where the arm fits into the shoulder. The shoulder blade is the location of various muscle attachments: your rotator cuff muscles, deltoid and teres minor and major muscles. Beyond the shoulder blade, there are many muscles, including the biceps brachii and triceps that attach to the humerus and affect overall shoulder strength. These muscles collectively give strength and stability to the shoulder joint.

With proper body mechanics paddlers can avoid shoulder injury. Here are five savvy shoulder tips to hone the paddle stroke and reduce shoulder injuries.

Hold your paddle properly
When holding your paddle, place your hands shoulder width apart on the paddle shaft. While maintaining a firm grip on your paddle shaft, avoid "clenching" your paddle. "Clenching" can lead to inefficient paddle strokes, tendonitis, and further injury.

The Paddler's Box
The paddler's box may be traced from the paddle, up both arms to the shoulders and across the chest. The paddler's box moves with you as you rotate your torso, and it is generally important to stay within the box as you paddle. Be wary of movements where you extend your arms above or to the right, left, or forward out of the paddler's box, such as high bracing. These movements put your shoulders in compromising positions, leaving them open to injury, and should generally be avoided.

Maintain Proper Posture in your Paddler's Box
Throughout your paddle stroke, try to maintain a vertical posture. Sit up tall, keep your shoulders down and back, and keep your head stable, resisting the bobble-head temptation. Proper posture will allow you to stay centered in your kayak as well as allow maximum torso rotation through proper body mechanics. Proper body mechanics means more efficient strokes and less stress on the shoulders.

Use your Torso
When paddling, keep your arms in a slightly bent position, and focus on generating power using your upper back and torso rather than your arms. To do this, rotate your torso right and left as you paddle, initiating each movement at the shoulder blades.

Visualize each arm to be a link between your back and paddle. Focus on pinching your shoulder blades together as if you were squeezing an orange between them, then initiating your stroke as you allow your torso to rotate. Be sure to keep your hands in line with your shoulders, and well within your "Paddler's Box" as you do so. Visualize always keeping the center of the paddle shaft in line with the center of your chest or PFD zipper. Using this technique, at the end of the day, your upper back and torso should feel the work, not your arms.

Helpful hint: If I'm looking for full power, I tap my feet with each stroke. Right foot on the gas pedal with I take a stroke on the right, and vice-versa.

Look where you want to go
Just like driving, skiing, or mountain biking, look where you want to go and your kayak will naturally follow. You'll notice paddle strokes will be more fluid, and movements will be easier.

Now it's time to practice, practice, practice!

Kim Russell has a B.S. in human physiology and is both a full-time exercise specialist and professional whitewater paddler of over seven years. She has won the Western Whitewater Championship Series from 2010-2013 and Wind River Festival from 2010-2013, and has also won the Northwest Creeking Competition from 2009-2013.

For more information on Russell and for similar articles visit her website:

You can also connect with Russell through Instagram @kimannrussell

Shoulder Tips

Photo: Chris Totten