Improve your posture to kayak faster
by Caitlyn Dunphy, BSc Kinesiology, MSc Physiotherapy
Why sit with good posture?
Has your coach ever told you to sit up taller or lean forward more or sit on the front of your sit bones? Your coach is telling you this because it is going to make you a faster and more efficient kayaker. When you are sitting in the boat with the proper posture there are a number of benefits: 1) your muscles are in the ideal position to work with maximum efficiency, 2) your joints are in the ideal position to help you reach further, and move smoothly/together and 3) it will also help you avoid an injury.
Which of the two pictures above illustrates an athletic position which will allow them perform better and avoid injury? Picture A is not going to be able to rotate his hips on the seat very well, or get as much rotation from his lower and upper back as picture B. His shoulders are rolled forward which is going to restrict how much he can open the stroke up at the back and reduce the power he can generate on the next stroke. It will also increase his risk of low back issues and shoulder impingent type pain.
There are two reasons why the athlete in picture A may be sitting with poor posture. 1) He does not know how to sit properly and this is any easy posture to choose. It does not take much effort from your muscles to sit in this position. 2) The other possibility is that he has some muscle imbalances restricting him from sitting like the athlete in picture B. Below are the most common muscle imbalances (tight or weak muscles) I see with kayak athletes and an example of a stretch or exercise to work on it.
One of the most important things to remember about posture is that it is a habit. ‘Practice makes perfect’ but ‘practice can also make permanent’. If you practice bad posture at school, at home, and in the car etc. it is going to be very hard to have perfect posture in the boat.
Common tight muscles
- Your hamstring muscles attach to your sit bones and the back of your knees
- If they are tight, it is going to be very hard to sit on the front of your sit bones because the hamstrings will pull you onto the back of your sit bones (See the picture below. The dotted line is the hamstring muscles and it is tilting the hips, making it impossible for this person to sit up straight).
- If you cannot sit on the front of your sit bones, your low back will round and your upper back and shoulders will have to come forward so that you do not fall backwards in the boat
- Stretch (it is better to do this lying on your back because if you sit up and reach for your toes, you will most likely bend with your back which does not target the hamstrings):
Hamstring stretch in doorway: 2 ways to increase stretch- 1: straighten your knee more by moving your top foot further up the wall. 2: Move your buttock closer to the doorway to bend your hip more. Hold for 30-45 seconds and repeat 3-4 times on each side.
Pec Major and Minor
- The pec muscles attach to your shoulder blade/arm and your chest
- If they are tight, they will pull your shoulders forward making it harder to open up your stroke at the set up and increasing your risk of getting shoulder pain in the outside/front of the shoulder
Pec minor release (1): Put a tennis ball under your collar bone and inside the ball of your shoulder. When you lean on the ball you will feel an achy/sore area. If it is sharp discomfort, stop and move the ball. Lean on the ball until the initial achy/sore discomfort is cut in half. Then you can slightly roll in circles. This may increase the soreness slightly. Continue to roll until the new discomfort is cut in half.
Pec major stretch (2): Can be done in corner or doorway. Step forward with one foot. Lean onto your front leg and lean forward with your chest (try to keep back neutral). Feel the stretch opening up your chest. Hold for 30-45 seconds and repeat 3-4 times. You can repeat this with your arms at different angles like picture A, B and C.
Thoracic Region (upper back)
- When you sit with a rounded upper back for long periods of time (everyday when you are training, sitting at school, sitting on the coach watching TV) your upper back can become very stiff, making it hard to straighten back up (extreme example: think of an elderly individual with a rounded upper back).
- If your upper back is rounded, it is again going to lead to a shorter stroke and less power on the stroke because you can’t rotate as well and open up at the set up.
Middle and upper back rolling: Put two tennis balls side by side in a sock (one will be on each side of spine). Lie on them until the initial discomfort is cut in half. Once again, when you lean on the balls you will feel an achy/sore area. If it is sharp discomfort, stop and move the balls. Then you can slightly roll up and down. The achy/sore discomfort will increase slightly. Roll until the new discomfort is cut in half. Repeat in 5-6 different spots, from approximately where a heart rate monitor strap would be, up to your shoulders. **If there is too much discomfort lying on floor, try it with the balls against the wall first.
Lev Scap (Neck/Upper Shoulder)
- The lev scap muscle attaches to your neck and your shoulder blade
- When it is tight/has trigger points, it can create pain in the pattern of picture A
- Imagine that in picture B the red muscle is very tight/short. If it was tight/short it would pull on your shoulder blade and make the space where the pink/red arrow is pointing to much smaller. When that area gets smaller you have a higher risk of getting impingement type pain (pain on the outside/front of your shoulder)
Lev Scap stretch: Sit on your right hand or hold the edge of a chair. Look down, bring your ear towards your left shoulder and look towards your left shoulder (like ‘smelling armpit’). If you lose one of the components you may not feel the stretch (ex. keep your chin tucked while you side bend your head). Hold for 30-45 sec and repeat 3-4 times on each side. Reverse the instructions for the other side.
Common weak muscles
Middle and lower fibers of traps
- Your traps are a huge muscle that cover your back. Most people just think of the upper traps (in red, picture A) and that tends to be what kayakers overuse.
- Upper trap overuse can lead to pain in the neck, head and shoulders (picture B)
- Learning to use the middle and lower traps/increasing their strength will improve your speed on the water and also decrease your chances of experiencing shoulder pain.
- These muscles attach to the shoulder blade and if the shoulder blade is in the proper position/stable, the power travelling up from your legs and back will be properly transferred to the paddle.
Middle and lower trap strength: You can do both of these lying flat on the floor with a towel under your forehead (so you can keep your neck/upper traps relaxed) or you can do them both over a stability ball. If on the stability ball, make sure you are looking down and not forward so that your neck is aligned with your back.
Middle traps: Lift your arms straight out into a ‘T’ position (90 degrees out from body) by pulling your shoulder blades together (thumbs pointed up). Keep the neck and upper shoulder muscles relaxed. Hold for 10sec and repeat 10 times. Take a break and repeat 10x10 sec again. If 2 sets (10 x 10 sec) feels easy, you can add a light weight (ex. 1.5lbs).
Lower traps: Same as above but your arms are now in a ‘Y’ position. Think about pulling the shoulder blades together and down (see arrow in picture B).
- One of the most common reasons a young kayak athlete may sit with poor posture in the boat is to compensate for poor balance/stability.
- Sitting slouched over will lower your center of gravity and potentially make you feel more stable but you will lose power and efficiency.
- Having more core stability will make a kayak athlete better able to handle perturbations (rocking, waves, sliced stroke etc.) in the boat.
- When an athlete is more balanced and comfortable in the boat they will have better posture (which will lead to faster times and less injuries).
- Stability exercises: there are many to choose from, here are a few examples. Note: these exercises have you holding a stable core while moving your arms or legs, similar to kayaking.
Plank with shoulder tap or leg lift (you can alternate which one you do): Focus on not letting your pelvis or shoulder drop when you lift your arm or leg. Keep neutral spine and core engaged. Slowly lift one arm and touch your opposite shoulder or lift one leg. 3 set of 10-20 reps (form is more important than number of reps so stop if you begin to lose your form).
Side plank with leg lift: Your body should be straight from head to toe. Slowly lift your top leg, keep the rest of your body completely still. Hold for 3-5 sec at the top and lower back down slowly. 2 sets of 10-16 reps on each side (form is more important than number of reps so stop if you begin to lose your form).
The ‘deadbug’: Hold stability ball between your knees and hands (Put a slight pressure on the ball with both). Slightly flatten the arch of your back onto the mat. Straighten opposite arm and leg out, trying not to let your lower back arch increase (keep it against the mat) and keep pressure on the ball from the arm and leg that remain. 3 x 10-16 (form is more important than number of reps so stop if you begin to lose your form).
Caitlyn Dunphy moved from Nova Scotia in 2015 to work at Insync Physiotherapy in Burnaby Heights (BC). She has been active in athletics for over 15 years as an athlete and coach, and is a level 3 trained Competition Development coach for sprint canoe/kayak. She has participated as an athlete and coach for Team Nova Scotia at the Canada Games as well as coached for Team Canada at the canoe/kayak Pan American Championships. Caitlyn has also served as an athletic trainer for Dalhousie University (NS) men’s varsity volleyball as well as the Vancouver Stealth Lacrosse team (BC). She earned her Masters of Physiotherapy and Bachelors of Kinesiology degrees from Dalhousie University (NS) and graduated with the Canadian Physiotherapy Association award and Physiotherapy Student Leadership award.