How far does a paddler need to lean forward with their trunk to get a long pull? How much lean is needed for a strong pull? Probably not as much as you’d think.
Why Armpit to Gunnel Doesn’t Help
What propels the boat? The paddlers.
How do paddlers propel the boat? They use their paddles.
Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the paddle blade is the business end. Skillful paddlers can impart both great work and control to their paddle blade as it moves through the water. Remember that work is defined as force over a distance. Pulling the paddle faster through the water requires greater force. The limits of human arthrokinematics and equipment leverage along with a paddlers physical strength determine some max value for work. It probably looks like a bell-curve. A paddler is only as strong as they are at that moment, but paddling technique has everything to do with paddling efficiency to reach the peak of that bell curve.
If you’re thinking of paddling from the perspective of how a paddle interacts with the water, the goal becomes how to move your body in a way that applies max leverage to the paddle through some optimum amount of paddle travel/displacement. Several things happen when a paddler leans all the way down to the gunnel:
– They lose reach at the paddle blade resulting in a shorter pull. While it’s true that full lean to the gunnel may put the outside/bottom hand at its farthest forward distance from the bench, it doesn’t mean the same for the paddle blade (the business end). Full lean takes away from our spinal mobility. When your joints are taken to a maximum range in one direction, it becomes more and more difficult to move in other directions. In this case, full trunk flexion takes away from rotation. Try sitting in a chair, leaning forward and rotating your trunk to either side (don’t hurt yourself). Now sit up straight and rotate in place. You can probably rotate farther sitting up than curled over. Decreased trunk rotation during the reach puts both hands at a similar distance from the bench, making a more vertical paddle angle on the entry, cutting actual reach at the paddle blade.
– They have less strength. Leaning forward fully during the reach puts most muscles used in paddling on full or very stretched position. Glut max, hamstrings, lumbar extensors, lat dorsi, teres major, deltoids, rhomboids/mid and lower trapezei are out of their optimum zone for force production. Your muscles are happiest and strongest in their mid-range. For a simple example, think of curling a heavy weight. It’s tough to start the lift from elbow fully extended and, when you’re fatigued, most folks struggle to get the weight all the way up to finish the rep (elbow fully flexed). This is because 90 deg of elbow bend is about the middle of the elbow flexor muscle length (and coincidentally the joint angle of about the most mechanically efficient line of pull).
– They are slower paddlers. Sitting up from a fully reached position on a pull requires bringing up your whole trunk. This takes a lot of time and energy because your trunk is a long lever arm. Think of a long pendulum and how it swings slower than a short one (or takes much more force to swing faster than a short pendulum). Slower movement sets paddling rate limitations. When you’re racing fast, the water moves fast and you need to be able to move your paddle faster than the water to exert force on it. Using a slow body movement like trunk flexion and extension will cap your ability to hold a faster rate to meet fast hull speeds.
How much lean is optimal?
The short answer is it depends. The long answer is that there is no one answer and it depends. (ha)
I am an advocate for a paddle stroke that has minimal trunk flexion/extension during the stroke and relatively more degrees of rotation. My reason is that rotation allows for the paddle blade to get more positive on the catch and set the blade more forward than a negative/neutral angle, which increases the length of pull (possibly allowing more work to be performed). Rotation is also mechanically more efficient for generating force to the paddle because the distance of your shoulders to your spine is less than the distance of your shoulders to your hips (shorter torque arm for rotation means less of a mechanical disadvantage compared to hip hinging alone). One thing I am not a proponent of is sitting straight up and paddling. It sets your shoulders way above the water line and, with it, your paddle resulting in less water contact and a shorter pull. It also makes you work harder to resist the forces against the paddle (trunk as a long lever arm resisting paddle force at 90 degrees is the most mechanical disadvantage you can face).
I’ve never really paddled OC, but the stroke generally seems much more constrained than the typical dragon boat technique being used by local rec teams. Part of the reason for less body excursion and more paddle movement is for energy conservation, which makes sense to me with OC’s racing for many miles. I can see how allowing *some* increased trunk excursion may be desired in DB because the power gains may outweigh the need for energy conservation when you’re racing for sub 2 minutes or a 100-500 meter race.
On a side note, I think this is one of the reasons why senior/masters level teams can do as well/better than some youth teams is because masters paddlers may have 1) better water “feel” 2) physically less ability to flex their hips/spines so default to more rotation 3) better strength from a longer history of resistance training.