The same thing happens to me every spring. The ice leaves the river and I get so excited I’m out paddling hard for the whole day. And then I pay for it with sore muscles for a week. Even though I keep myself fit through the winter, just using my muscles in a different way makes me reach for the rub A535. Trainers call this specificity of training, which simply means that you need to train for your sport.
So this year I am going to do things a little differently. I am going to follow a winter training program designed by Barry Short, a certified personal trainer and one of my paddling buddies. This program is geared toward recreational paddlers with the goal of giving you the shoulder and core strength to not only avoid early season pain but also to have the strength to dig in when the wind comes up. The program will also help avoid overuse injuries that are common in sports with repetitive movements. These exercises also don’t need a gym membership or fancy equipment. A medicine ball, a couple of sets of dumbbells, a resistance band and a mat is all you need. In the beginning do the workout twice a week. After a couple of weeks add a third weekly workout. Don’t exercise on consecutive days; your muscles need time to repair. And do three sets of 15 repetitions of each exercise. The size of the medicine ball and dumbbells you use will depend on your current strength level but if you are completing the fifteenth repetition in your third set effortlessly then you need to increase the size of the weights you are using. Doing a relatively high number of repetitions will help to build endurance, which is more important to us as paddlers than brute strength. And please, if you are new to exercising visit your doctor first to make sure there are no underlying reasons why you shouldn’t exercise.
All exercise sessions should begin with a short warmup. Walk, cycle, skip, do jumping jacks or any other easy movement until you just start to sweat.
The first exercise is torso rotations with a medicine ball. With your feet about shoulder width apart and holding the medicine ball at belly button height, rotate your upper body to the left and right, keeping your hips pointed to the front.
The next exercise is called the Woodchopper. It works your shoulders and obliques (side abdominal muscles), while simulating a similar body rotation as a paddling stroke. Again your feet are shoulder width apart with your left foot a pace in front of your right and a relaxed bend in your knees. Start with the medicine ball over your right shoulder while looking over your right shoulder. Lower yourself into a lunge while swinging the ball to the outside of your left foot. Then return to your starting position with the ball over your right shoulder. This is one repetition. Do 15 on each side.
The next exercise is Bent Over Rows. This one uses the dumbbells to strengthen the back, an area most of us ignore. Start with your feet shoulder width apart. Hinge at your waist, pushing your hips back until your torso is almost parallel with the floor. Let the dumbbells hang down from the shoulders. Row up with your elbows toward the ceiling, while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then let the weights lower in a controlled manner. This is one repetition.
Exercise numbers four and five target the front and back of the arms. First is bicep curls for the front of the arm. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and slowly curl the weights up and down. Good form is critical. Don’t rock your body and use a full range of motion. The next exercise targets the triceps on the back of the arms. For this, sit on a bench and hold the dumbbell over your head with both hands. Keeping your elbows pointing straight ahead and close to your ears, lower the dumbbell behind your head and back up to the starting position. This is one repetition.
Deadlifts are the next exercise in the workout. This exercise works the muscles in the back of the legs which will help keep us from getting sore and tired from sitting too long on uncomfortable canoe and kayak seats. Start with your feet shoulder width apart and a relaxed bend in the knees. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge at the waist, keeping your back long without either bending at the waist or hyperextending your back. Then straighten to return to the starting position. This is one repetition.
Paddlers obviously need strong shoulders and backs and one of the best exercises for this is straight arm lat pull downs. For this exercise you need to hook your resistance band so that one end is higher than your shoulders. You might need to be a little creative here. You could put a hook on the wall or maybe put a knot in it and sling it over a door. There are door anchors on the market that go over doors to which you attach the band. To do the exercise grab the band at shoulder height and while keeping your elbows locked, pull the band down until your hands touch your thighs. Keep your torso straight throughout this exercise. You can vary the resistance of the band by kneeling to get a harder workout or simply varying the length of the band.
The final two exercises are for your abdomen since the source of all our strength ultimately comes from our core. The two exercises are crunches and planks. For the crunch, lie on your back on a mat with your feet flat on the ground and your knees at about 90-degree angle. Put your hands at your ears and your elbows pointing out to the sides, not pointing forward. Keeping your chin off your chest, roll your head and shoulders up. You should feel your abdominal muscles engage. And roll back down for one repetition. Build up to where you can do at least 30 consecutive crunches.
For a plank, start on the mat on your stomach with your feet about a foot apart. Put your elbows directly under your shoulders and push up and back so you are hovering on your elbows and toes. It is very important that your body is flat. Resist the temptation to let your butt stick up or sag. Start with 15 seconds and work your way up to 45 seconds or longer. Try doing this three times with a short break between each plank.
Exercise is not meant to be a form of torture but it’s also true that you won’t get stronger without feeling uncomfortable. If you haven’t exercised in a while start slow by doing half the exercises on one day and the other half on another. Remember to not exercise on consecutive days.
And if you follow this plan, you should be in midseason shape right from the first paddle stroke of spring.