Anna’s Flatwater Drills for Improving your Whitewater Kayaking Technique


Many of my students have asked me for a hand-out for reviewing the flatwater drills and warm-ups that I cover the first day of my workshops – at all levels. So, I decided to put it together and post it on my blog so that it’s easy for women who have taken my workshops to review and so that others can also benefit from these exercises to help their paddling.

These drills and exercises not only help you warm up before you paddle, but also help you develop good stroke technique, strong edge control and fluidity in your paddling. They’re simple and quick and if you use them your paddling will improve – I guarantee it. Enjoy!

Core Rotation Drills
When you watch good paddlers they look effortless as they maneuver through rapids. This is because the power to move their kayaks comes from their core and not their arms. They take less strokes and each stroke is well timed, powerful and efficient. Incorporating proper torso rotation into your paddling technique is the key to more efficient and effortless kayaking. What I mean by effortless is more smoothness and less struggle with every stroke – it doesn’t mean that you won’t exert yourself or feel tired. Here are some great tips on drills that can help you incorporate torso rotation into your kayaking strokes.

Paddle in the Mud Drill
Sounds funny, I know… This is a very quick drill that can help you better understand how your abs should engage with every stroke. Get close to the bank of the river or lake in a spot that is muddy enough for you to stick your paddle in the mud. Hold your paddle as if you were going to do a sweep stroke – this is very important – you want to hold your paddle just like you would if you were about to take a sweep stroke — and stick one blade in the mud instead of in the water. With your blade firmly planted in the mud move the bow of your boat away from and then toward the bank. Repeat the motion several times until you get a good feel for how your abdominals are engaging. Notice that you’re moving your boat with your core.

Our instinct when we start kayaking is to plant our paddle in the water and pull it through with our arms. This way of paddling feels more natural at first because it’s easier, but pulling with your arms requires more of a struggle and is less efficient than planting your paddle and then moving from your core to move your boat. The ‘paddle in the mud’ drill will help you to better understand this difference.

You can also do this drill with a friend by having a friend hold your paddle while you move the bow of your boat back and forth toward and away from her boat. This drill is demonstrated in my DVD Whitewater Kayaking Basics for Women.

Sweep Stroke Drill
The sweep stroke is a basic turning stroke and is the easiest stroke to incorporate proper torso rotation, especially as a beginner. The length of the stroke, from in front of your feet to your stern, allows for exaggerated twisting of the upper body. The key is to fully wind up before you plant the stroke so that your body can fully unwind as you perform the stroke. So, if I’m planting the stroke on the left side of my boat I wind my body up toward the right so that I can fully unwind to the left.

I recommend to my students that they follow the paddle with their eyes as they practice the sweep. This also encourages a strong and full rotation. Obviously, when you’re on the river you’re going to look where you want to go, but when you’re practicing these drills/strokes in flatwater the idea is to exaggerate good technique so that you create muscle memory that you can call upon when you need it in the rapids.

If you’re wondering if you’re using enough torso rotation try doing the sweep and keeping the arm that you plant the stroke with straight the whole way back. If you’re bending your arm and pulling in at the end of the sweep stroke you’re not using torso rotation. The practice of keeping your arm straight all the way back will help you determine if you’re rotating or not.

Finally, one of my favorite warm-ups for torso rotation in flatwater is to spin myself in a circle by performing a forward sweep on one side, rotating around and performing a back sweep on the other side. This gets your rotation going and warms you up before you start paddling downstream.


The “Frankenstein” Drill
Incorporating proper torso rotation into your forward stroke is one of the most challenging technical skills in kayaking. This drill will help you get the feel for the rotation. It’s called the Frankenstein because you’ll look like you’re paddling like Frankenstein would if he tried it.

Start by holding your paddle out in front of you, straighten your arms and lock your elbows. From here take short strokes while keeping your arms totally straight. If you keep your arms straight you’ll notice that you have to rotate your torso in order to take a stroke. If you don’t feel it in your torso pay attention to your arms. You’re probably bending them and pulling instead of keeping them straight and rotating. Once you get the hang of paddling with straight arms using your torso you can simply relax your arms, keep the same movement through the upper body and you’ll have a great forward stroke!

Hand on the Helmet Drill
This is another drill that I learned from Mary DeRiemer that can help you get the feel for torso rotation in the forward stroke. Hold your paddle in the plant position for the forward stroke. While holding your paddle bring your top hand to your helmet so that the back of your hand is pressing into your helmet just above your forehead. Your other arm (bottom arm) will be extended straight with that blade in the water. From here you want to take a short stroke while keeping your bottom arm straight and your top hand pressing into your helmet. Take the stroke out at the hip and switch. Take your time. In order to take a stroke in this position while keeping that bottom arm straight you have to rotate your torso. If you don’t feel it in your torso then you’re probably pulling with your bottom arm. Once you get the hang of what torso rotation feels like you can simply take your top hand off of your helmet, keep the same upper body movement and you have a great forward stroke!

Edge Control Drills
Edge control means to be able to put and maintain your boat on edge to varying degrees. We use edge control to make ferries, to catch eddies, to surf waves, to steer and to remain stable. Edge control is one of, if not the most important skill in whitewater kayaking. Because women’s center of gravity is in the lower half of our bodies, positioning and keeping our kayaks on edge means throwing our balance off – and that can be challenging. Here are a few drills that will help you increase your ability to maintain an edge and recover from getting thrown onto edge in current.

Sitting on Edge with a Side Crunch
This exercise is really simple and quick and it can improve your paddling by 100% because it builds strength and muscle memory. Start in flatwater sitting in your kayak. Hold your paddle up and concentrate all of your weight in your left butt cheek. This will put your kayak slightly on edge. Next, crunch the muscles on your right side together as if you were doing a ‘side crunch’ at the gym. Hold this position for at least 5 to 10 seconds. Then switch to the other side. As you get stronger and more comfortable on edge you can start to increase the amount of edge you use by pulling up on the knee and trying to tuck your cockpit rim into your armpit. I suggest being comfortable with your flatwater roll before attempting more edge!

Paddling on Edge
Paddling on edge is important when we’re maneuvering rapids because we use this skill to ferry and catch eddies and to make more advanced moves. Surfing and freestyle is also all about feeling comfortable moving on edge. We practice our strokes in flatwater to build muscle memory so that we can paddle with proper technique in whitewater so it’s just as important to practice paddling on edge in flatwater so that we feel comfortable with it in rapids. Use the ‘sitting on edge’ drill and, while maintaining your edge, paddle forwards. The challenge with this drill will be to reach over the edge that’s lifted to get in a good paddle stroke. This can feel unstable, but it’s good to get comfortable with this positioning. Switch sides when you’re ready and if you want a bigger challenge try paddling backwards while maintaining an edge!

Power Circles
I like Power Circles because they combine edge control with graceful paddling. They also teach how to combine paddle strokes, motions and feathers to maneuver fluidly and effortlessly. They’re a great way to warm up before paddling and to practice putting your kayak where you want it to go. The idea is to trace a large circle in the water with your kayak.

Beginner Power Circle
If you’re a beginner you want to start here. Paddle forward for about 5 or 6 strokes to build up momentum. Choose what direction you want to travel in before you stop paddling. If you want your bow to turn to the right then take a stroke on your left side and edge your kayak toward the right (you always edge into your turn in whitewater kayaks). Immediately take a stroke on your inside or right side and then take a stroke on your left side while maintaining your edge. The strokes you take on your inside should be longer than the strokes your take on the outside side. The inside stroke is to continue to create forward momentum and the outside stroke is to turn your kayak.


The idea is that you’ll trace a big circle with your kayak. If your creating small circles then your outside stroke is too strong compared with your inside stroke. If you’re not turning at all then your inside stroke is too strong compared to your outside stroke. If you start turning in the opposite direction you probably killed all of your speed before your turn – remember that you must take that first inside stroke as you’re turning. Don’t wait until you’ve spun out or stopped moving to take the first stroke on the inside. Keep your eyesight lifted and looking toward the center of the ‘circle’ that you’re tracing with your kayak. If you want to go in the opposite direction switch sides, but always remember to paddle forwards to gain momentum before edging into your turn.

Intermediate Power Circle
The intermediate power circle focuses on stroke and feather combinations of one blade to keep the circle going. Start by paddling forward for 5 or 6 strokes. If you’re turning to the left then take a stroke on the right, edge left and take a stroke on the left with your left blade. Instead of paddling on both sides of your boat you’re only going to paddle on the left or inside. Take a long stroke right alongside your kayak, at your hip feather your wrist up so that the blade is neutral and parallel to your kayak. From here perform a bow draw all the way up to your bow and then repeat this stroke. The draw is to keep your boat turning and the stroke is to give you forward momentum. This combination of strokes teaches you how feathering your blades can have a big impact on the fluidity of your paddling. Intermediate boaters want to be working on stroke combinations that incorporate the side and bow draws and these power circles help with this. If you want to go in the opposite direction switch sides.

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Advanced Power Circle: Cross-bow
Once you’re comfortable with the intermediate Power Circle you can move into the cross-bow Power Circle. You start by paddling forward for 5 to 6 strokes. If you’re turning left your take a stroke on your right and then bring your right blade across your bow (out of the water) and over to the left side of your bow in the water. You’re body will be twisted toward the left with your right blade in the water on the left side of your kayak. From here you’ll do a very short forward stroke, feather your wrist down so that you perform a short bow draw back up to your bow where you perform another small forward stroke and so on. Cross-bow Power Circles are smaller and tighter than regular Power Circles. To travel in the opposite direction switch sides.

This advanced Power Circle really works flexibility, balance, edge control and fluidity.

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Anna’s on-water warm-up

30 forward strokes focusing on good technique and torso rotation
30 back strokes
Intermediate Power Circles to cross-bow Power Circles
Sweep Stroke drill
Sitting on edge
Paddling on edge
Any strokes that I want to practice or review
A bit of stretching with the paddle (for another article)