TopKayaker.Net: Kayak Instruction Articles

Balance Drills

by Graham Ulmer Race Team Coach ~ posted November 2017
Photos: The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team.

If you are new to kayaking or are seeking to upgrade to a faster boat, you will want to make sure you are comfortable not only sitting in the boat, but also paddling with power. Faster kayaks that are longer and have round or V-shaped hulls can be a bit of a challenge at first. Here are some drills you can run through to not only improve your balance, but also your technique and enjoyment of the sport.

1. Stationary balance drills

If you’re completely new to your boat or to kayaking in general, your leg muscles may naturally tremble as you sit in the boat. This isn’t because you’re scared (although you might be). This is your body recruiting previously unused motor neurons needed to maintain this new posture. Settle into this unfamiliar posture with some stationary balance drills, such as:

  • Spinning your paddle over your head like a helicopter, in both directions
  • Raising your paddle up and down rapidly to make the boat bounce in the water (this one is great for training your body to identify the boat’s center line as well)
  • Passing your paddle under the boat and grabbing it on the other side
  • Throwing your paddle and then hand paddling forward to obtain it

2. Tap Drills

The kayak stroke is not a cyclical motion like that of a bicycle. Instead, there is a left stroke and a right stroke, with a distinct pause in between each. This pause is called the setup, and includes the bottom hand (that which is about to take the stroke) and top hand (the off-side hand).

During the setup, the bottom hand should be directly over the center of the boat and almost perfectly straight. The top hand should be close to your ear, with the elbow and forearm at about a 90-degree angle. The onside leg should be bent and ready to drive into the footboard, while the offside leg is straight.

Caption Left: Canadian Gold Medalist Adam van Koerverden’s setup in a K1. Bottom arm straight and pointed down the boat’s center line, top-hand at ear height with elbow at approximately 90 degrees, paddle in front of chest and pointed downwards, onside hip rotated forward, onside knee bent and ready to drive against the footboard.

Master this same position with tap drills. Take a few strokes to get a little momentum and then tap the top of the boat in between each. As you tap, check that your top hand is near your ear, your onside leg is bent and ready to drive, and your bottom arm is extended. It’s quite helpful to put a little piece of tape on the boat, near the footboard. This is where you should tap and enter the water each time.


Add difficulty by first tapping the top of the boat with your bottom hand and then tap your ear with your top hand. If you can successfully do this on both sides, you will be in the correct setup position.

Caption: Double tap drill. 1. Tap top of boat’s center line

Caption: Double tap drill. 2. Tap ear with top hand.

3. Pause drills

Pause drills offer a further way to work on the setup and improve your dynamic balance and comfort in the boat. Simply take three strokes, hold your setup position in between strokes for a count of three, and then resume paddling for three strokes on the opposite side. You can vary the count to add or reduce difficulty. It will be easier to hold your setup position the faster the boat is moving, so you can take five strokes to get more momentum or increase difficulty by pausing after just one stroke at a time. As you pause, make sure your setup position is correct and that your onside hip is rotated forward, your onside leg is bent, and you are ready to drive against the footboard when you make your catch (i.e., the entry of the blade into the water).
Add difficulty by combining your pauses with the tap drill above.

4. Paddle on one side at a time

Most people have a dominant side, and paddling on just one side at a time is a great way to identify any muscular imbalances and work these out on the water. To do so, take your stroke on just one side and then rotate as you normally would without taking a stroke on the opposite side. Try 10 left strokes, 10 right strokes, 10 left strokes, etc.. up to 100 for a great on-water warm up. Remember to still drive powerfully with the legs.

Add difficulty by not using the rudder to steer. You can still maintain a fairly straight line by applying the same level of power on each side. Don’t be afraid to lean some weight onto your paddle as you take a stroke.

5. Swing drills

Swing drills are a bit more advanced variation of paddling on one side. Assume the same setup as the above, but this time, after you take a stroke, make three powerful rotations of the hips (e.g., left, right left or right, left, right) and then resume paddling on the opposite side. The trick is to exaggerate your rotation and force your body to dynamically balance the boat, rather than your paddle. Take your time and don’t rush to take your next stroke. You should ledt the boat glide as your work on your rotation and balance.

6. Paddle with your eyes closed

The ultimate test of your comfort level in the boat is to paddle with your eyes closed. Try it for a few strokes at a time and then increase the number of strokes you can comfortably take. Also, run through each of these drills with your eyes closed for added difficulty and skill development.

Graham Ulmer

About the author: Graham is a writer, coach, and paddler. One of his greatest joys in life is paddling long distances in his home waters of the Puget Sound. He also enjoys traveling and scoping out new and undiscovered paddling locations around the world. Graham is a member of The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team.


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