Abs exercises for paddlers – Feel the burn

A constant observation among new boaters is that they’re discovering new muscles they didn’t know they had- boating makes physical demands on us that require the strengthening and development of abdominal muscles for such simple maneuvers and braces and rolls, and for more advanced moves such as whatever the latest and greatest play move today is.

This article is written to be informative and offer the reader suggestions on how to improve his/her abdominal fitness.  Before embarking on any course of fitness or strength training, you should soberly evaluate your physical condition, and take any existing conditions you may have, including back soreness, spinal issues, sharp pains, etc. into consideration.  If in doubt, consult a doctor, trainer, or physical therapist before embarking on this or any physical fitness regimen.

A similar observation is common among paddlers engaged in high-intensity paddling- because our abs and back muscles serve as the transmission between our upper body and the boat, poor muscle conditioning can lead to painful soreness.  Although I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, I’ve found that simply strengthening these muscles can both improve your performance on and off the water- and that the process of exercising your abdominal muscles (done in moderation) can actually relieve some of the common soreness symptoms, as the exercises articulate your back in a way that seems to work most of the minor problems out, while simultaneously increasing your range of motion.

This article will first describe each of the major exercises that I use, then discuss ways to put them together into a workout. 

  • Crunches

Crunches target the upper abs.  To prepare, lie on the ground with your knees up and your feet flat on the floor, such that your lower back is flat on the ground. You can also use any surface you find but if you are in the beach we recommend doing these exercises away from the sun, so it is mandatory to purchase a tent to keep you safe from sun‘s harm. Raise your head so that you’re looking someplace slightly above the level of your knees, in line with your body. Cross your arms and put each hand on or near it’s opposite shoulder- we’ll want to keep our arms quiet and out of the way for this. Some folks advocate interlacing your hands behind your head or neck, but often they end up pulling actively on their necks with their arms, which is not what we want to do- this exercise is not about arms, head, or neck.

To do the crunch, simply contract your abs to the point where your shoulder blades leave the ground, then actively (that is, still engaging your abs) roll yourself back down.  Pick a direction somewhere up in the direction above and between your knees to ‘go’ with the crunch.  There’s no need to go any further than just getting your shoulder blades off the ground.  Your legs should stay quiet and your lower back should remain flat to the ground.  Avoid straining in your neck, it will just make the process unpleasant, and avoid lifting your hips or rocking forward and backwards- remember, your legs, arms and hips should stay very quiet during this exercise.


Cross crunchies target both the upper abs and the diagonals.  The preparation is identical to regular crunches.  To do cross-crunchies, begin as you would with a regular crunch- get your shoulders off the ground, and *then* rotate your shoulders as far to one side as you can get, such that you’re facing in a direction above and to the outside of one of your knees.  Return to straight before lowering yourself actively to the ground.  On the next rep, go the other direction.  Again, through this process the lower back should remain flat, arms and legs should stay as relaxed as possible.

  • Leg-lifts

Leg-lifts target the lower abs and internal muscles like the psoas and iliopsoas.  To prepare, lie on your back with your hands palm-down on the floor, together- the back of your hands will support your tailbone and roll your pelvis forward, such that your lower back remains flat on the floor.  Lift your head so you can see what’s going on, then lift your feet together to about 20″ off the ground.  Lower them down to a couple inches off the floor, then repeat.

A variation on this, which is a bit of a lower-stress approach, is to begin by raising your feet to 6″ off the floor, then raising your knees to vertical while leaving your feet 6″ off the ground.  Complete the exercise by straightening your legs with your feet 6″ off the ground.

  • Leg extensions

 These target both upper and lower abs.  To prepare, place your hands about a foot wide of and slightly behind either hip, while sitting with your knees raised and your feet together, flat on the floor, in front of you.  Lift your feet off of the floor, and extend your legs out forward, keeping your feet at a constant elevation of 3-6″.  As you extend your legs, lean back with your torso to remain balanced.  Once you’ve extended your legs as far as you can (avoid locking the knees, just reach far) then bring your feet as close to your butt as you can without putting them on the floor.  As you bring your feet in, sit up with your torso (avoid using your arms to support you, this is about the abs) to maintain your balance.

  • Lateral lifts

These target the lateral abs and the back.  To prepare, lie on one side with your knees bent and legs together, such that your back is straight and relaxed.  Take the arm that’s on the ground and reach across your torso so that you’re grabbing your ribs or your lat or your opposite shoulder- the idea is to get your elbow off the ground and keep this arm out of the way.  Extend your other arm  down your body, so that it’s parallel with your spine.  To do the lateral lift, reach with your top arm towards a point slightly above and beyond your hip, and contract your side muscles until your lower shoulder comes off the ground.  Relax, then repeat.

  • Swivels

These target the lower abs, internal muscles, and the diagonals.  To prepare, lie on your back with your legs pointed straight up towards the ceiling, with your hands planted wide, palms down.  Begin by lowering your feet to one side as far as you’re comfortable, then recover your feet to center before lowering your feet towards the other side.  The effect will be that your legs will look like a windshield-wiper going back and forth.  Keep your feet together and your head up off the floor, and do not arch your lower back.

Another variation of this can be done with knees bent.

  • ‘Cobra’ stretch

This classic Yoga position stretches all of your abs. To prepare, begin lying prone with your hands palm-down underneath your shoulders.  Using your arms for support, slowly look up towards the ceiling and press your upper body upwards, while keeping your pelvis flat against the floor and pressing your shoulders down and away from your neck.  Avoid pressing yourself ‘back’ with your hands, as this merely compresses your lumbar vertebrae without giving you any ‘stretch’.  Instead, press your upper body up and extend forward and up, while feeling the stretch in your abs.  As you get into the stretch, breathe down into your belly to actively stretch those muscles that want it.

  • Passive ‘Fish’ stretch

Another Yoga position, this stretch will require a bolster or a couple of pillows to work.  To begin, place a couple pillows or a bolster behind yourself in a seated position, then roll yourself back so that the pillows support you between your hips and shoulders.  Depending on how much support you use, it’s possible that you’ll end up with your shoulders and pelvis hanging off of either side of your support.  Settle into the stretch, feel where things are tight, and use your breath to actively stretch the muscles that resist this pose- inhale into your belly, and on your exhale, relax deeper into the stretch.  Stay here for as long as you like.

  • Spiral stretch

Another Yoga fave.  This doesn’t stretch the abs as much as the previous two, but it does help to improve your rotational mobility, which is important for kayakers.  To prepare, lie on your back and bring both knees, legs bent, up towards the ceiling.  With one hand, reach up and grab the opposite knee.  Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, roll your pelvis to one side such that both knees go towards floor, more or less even with your hip, on the side from which you reached with your hand.  While this is happening, reach in the opposite direction with your other hand, turn your head to face in the direction opposite of the way your pelvis is rolled, and try to keep both shoulders flat on the floor.  If this position doesn’t give you much of a stretch, try straightening your bottom leg and letting your top knee go to the floor.  If you find it impossible to get your knees to the floor, use a pillow or some other support under your knees and just spend some time here, relaxing into the stretch. Once you’re in this position, breathe deeply into your belly to actively stretch those spots that may resist.  Once you’re done, do the same thing, to the other side.

Putting it together-  This is just a suggested order, designed to avoid working the same set of muscles for more than two sets in a row.  If you’re just beginning, start out by doing 2/3rds or 1/2 of the reps per set, then work your way up.  This workout can be done every other day at first, working up to every day if you’re really determined. (abs seem to recover well from this sort of low-intensity, high-rep workout).

These are the sets i do in a regular interval

  1. 2×50 crunches, resting 15 seconds between
    rest 15 seconds
  2. 2×50 leglifts, resting 15 seconds between
    rest 15 seconds
  3. 2×40 cross-crunchies, resting 15 seconds between
    rest 15 seconds
  4. 2×40 leg extensions, resting 15 seconds between
    rest 15 seconds
  5. 4×20 lateral lifts, resting 15 seconds between
    rest 15 seconds
  6. 2×40 swivels, resting 15 seconds between

STRETCH using the Cobra, Fish and/or Spiral pose, then go drink water.

If you stick to the short rest intervals, this workout takes 10-15 minutes.

This workout will strengthen and stretch your internal and external abdominal muscles, while articulating your spine.  It will tone all of the related muscles, but it will not burn fat or ‘flatten out’ your stomach appreciably.  If you have a ‘beer deposit’ obscuring your abs, aerobic exercise will burn fat.  If you have weak abs but strong back muscles, these exercises may help to alleviate back strain issues related to muscle imbalance, as well.

General principles

If it doesn’t burn, you’re doing it wrong.  Remember, each exercise has a positive phase, where you’re contracting muscles, and a negative phase, where you’re lengthening muscles, and an interval phase, where you’re relaxed.  Both the positive and negative phases involve actively working!

Drink lots of water.  If you’re dehydrated, this will hurt more than it needs to.

If you want more intensity, do the exercises *faster*- but never so fast that you get sloppy with form.  Remember, this is about strengthening, not about churning out numbers.  Keep your form good, push yourself as hard as you can while doing it right, rather than cheating on form and getting ‘better’ numbers.

Often, as you get tired, you’ll ‘compensate’ for this fatigue by cheating on form- whether this manifests as ‘rocking’ the parts of your body that should stay quiet, or in straining muscles that shouldn’t be active in this phase of the exercise, it’s usually not constructive.  Focus on form and be strict with yourself- remember, if it burns now, you’re doing it right and the benefit will be yours.


Strong abs and a flexible spine mean a strong, articulate torso- meaning that your body can be much more expressive, powerful, and less prone to injury or soreness during and after boating sessions.  Combine this workout with other good stuff like Yoga and other forms of exercise, and you’ll be astonished at how profoundly it’ll affect your paddling.