Keeping your paddle strong is largely about keeping your shoulder strength and mobility optimal. When the shoulder girdle is unrestricted in its movement and is properly stabilized, you are able to catch more waves because your stroke is stronger. You also have more stamina because you’re not fighting your body to get into the proper position and then maintain it for long periods of time. Shoulders that are both flexible and strong are less prone to injury, such as rotator cuff tears, as well.
Research has shown that it is best to train for mobility, stability and then strength. This holds true regardless of what you’re training for and is especially important to keep in mind when training the shoulder. Trying to strengthen muscles that are too tightly bound to move freely or are too unstable to support their action is a recipe for strains, sprains and tears. With that in mind, the following exercises are designed to keep your shoulders healthy and your paddle strong.
Shoulder Mobilization Exercises for Paddling
As you may know, the only things that keep your arms attached to your body are your rotator cuff tendons. What you may not be aware of is that building shoulder strength has little to do with the arms at all. (So ditch the dumbbell front raises, high rows and bench presses—these moves just cause more damage to inflexible shoulders.) Instead, the real focus for building shoulder strength is on liberating and stabilizing the scapula (shoulder blade), while increasing the mobility of the thoracic spine (mid-back).
Longer, stronger paddles require the shoulder to be in the correct position. It also takes far less energy to paddle in the proper posture than it does if you have to strain your neck, shoulders and/or upper back to get yourself up off the board. Trying to paddle with a tight upper body can be akin to the feeling of having an extra 30 pounds between your shoulder blades, pushing your head, neck and chest toward your board. It doesn’t take long for fatigue to set in when your own muscles are opposing the actions you are trying to perform.
Mobilization Exercise #1: Tennis Ball in the Pecs
If your shoulders are rounded forward, you need to loosen the muscles on the front of your body so the scapula can slide back to its proper position. Start with exercises that lengthen and release pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and other associated structures in the front of your shoulder. A simple and effective way to do this is to take a tennis ball and roll out the front of your shoulder with the ball between you and a wall. Go slow and gentle; these muscles are often exquisitely tender, and need to be treated with care. One to three minutes of tennis ball rolling is plenty for each side.
Mobilization Exercise #2: Foam Roll the Lats
If you have yet to discover the benefits of foam rolling, you are missing out. Rolling your body out over a foam roller is one of the easiest ways to relieve tension and restore mobility to deep tissues. The latissimus dorsi muscle or “lats” adducts, extends and internally rotates the arm as well as being a powerful rotator of the torso. Because it attaches from the sacral region all the way to the humerus, restrictions in this muscle can cause compensations in the neck, shoulder, elbow, lower back and gait. Foam rolling the lats is a simple and effective method of releasing knots and muscular restrictions that may be inhibiting your overall shoulder and spine mobility.
Mobilization Exercise #3: Towel Pull
This exercise is excellent to perform as a warm-up before any activity that will tax your shoulders. Grab a towel. Put one hand behind your back, with the palm facing out. Take your other hand and drape the towel over your shoulder. Holding the ends of the towel with both hands, slowly pull with the top hand, allowing the bottom hand to move up the middle of your back. You will feel a stretch across the front of your shoulder. Reverse the motion by pulling with the bottom hand. Now you’ll feel the stretch on the other side. Repeat for 8-10 reps and then switch hands. These muscles can be super tight, so don’t pull too hard. Go just to the level of “a good stretch” but not to the point of pain.
Mobilization Exercise #4: Baby Cobra and Downward Dog
Along with lengthening tight, over-used muscles, you also want to focus on spinal mobility. Lack of mobility in the thoracic spine and neck (cervical spine) really makes it tough to look up and see where you are paddling. It also makes it tough to breathe deeply, which makes fatigue set in much faster. Assess where you currently stand with Baby Cobra. Lay on the ground in your prone paddling position and look up as if you are paddling. This will get easier as the muscles in your neck, chest and the front of your shoulders relax and lengthen. Push up into Downward Dog, keeping your shoulder blades set firmly down on your lats. Repeat 3-5 times and hold each pose for five deep breaths.
Shoulder Stabilization Exercises for Paddling
Once some of the pulling forces on the scapula are relieved, the exercises you do to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the shoulder girdle will be more effective. Longer, stronger paddles require the shoulder to be in the correct position. First, correct the position and then build endurance.
Stabilization Exercise #1: Scap Squeezes
Stand, sit or lay down. Pull your shoulders back and down and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for seven counts, repeat 5-10 times. Check yourself in a mirror to ensure that you have proper alignment and that both shoulders are held on an even plane. It’s pretty common for one shoulder to be higher than the other, thanks to activities such as sleeping on one side, holding a phone on only one side, working a computer mouse, etc.
Stabilization Exercise #2: Scapula Clock
Consciously engaging the muscles that stabilize and support the scapula in their natural anatomical positions retrains your brain and muscles to perform the movement properly. Lay face down. Start with your arms in the 6 o’clock position, palms facing the floor. Breathe deeply, and without letting your shoulders rise up toward your neck, slowly squeeze your shoulder blades together. Lift your arms up slowly, imagining your shoulder blades moving down along your back, ribs and spine. Visualize your shoulder blades scooping up your heart and pushing it out your chest. Hold the position for five deep breaths and slowly relax and let your arms down. Move your arms out from your sides six inches and repeat, working your way all the way to the 12 o’clock position. Make it tougher by doing it on a stability ball with a light pair of dumbbells.
Stabilization Exercise #3: Shoulder Isolations
Lay on your left side and hold a dumbbell in your right hand (no more than 8 lbs). Bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle and place your elbow firmly against your right side. Lift the weight by rotating your shoulder away from the ground. Do not let your elbow lose contact with your side! (Hold a small, rolled towel between your elbow and side to ensure this.) Do 15-20 reps, focusing on good form before switching to the other side. Remember that these are smaller, stabilizing muscles that respond better to precision movements than they do to brute force.
Shoulder Exercises That Build Strength and Stamina for Paddling
If your shoulders and spine are properly mobile and stabilized, it’s time to build strength and stamina.
Exercises for Strength & Stamina #1: The Plank
The plank is an excellent move which strengthens the core and activates most of the muscles you use when surfing (abs, shoulders, legs). As always, focus on keeping your shoulders set down on your back. Hold for five deep breaths, repeat 5-10 times.
Exercises for Strength & Stamina #2: Pushup Variations
Considering the number of pushups you end up doing while you’re ducking and diving through an average surf session, it only makes sense to practice this move and its many variations in training. Variations to try: dumbbell pushups, stability ball pushups, and scapula flex pushups (from standard position, drop your chest, allowing your shoulder blades to come together, then reversing the motion and rounding out through the mid-back).
Exercises for Strength & Stamina #3: Bent Rows
Bent rows, when done properly, help develop stamina and strength throughout your entire chain of extensor muscles. These are all the muscles that hold you up while you’re paddling. Bent rows can really help to develop stamina in these muscles, helping to lay a strong foundation for your paddling ability.
The shoulder’s ability to move in so many directions makes it super-functional, allowing us to do the things we love, such as paddling, popping up, duck-diving, swimming and zipping up our wetsuit gear. Keeping our shoulders mobile and stabilized is the best way to ensure that we can do these activities until our dying day.