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THE FORWARD STROKE, the canoeing perspective

Updated: Aug 12, 2023


Want to be a powerful paddler? Want to have strength and be effective all day? A powerful & efficient forward stroke is the foundation.



The foundation of paddling is in moving forward. Placing an object in the water and pulling on it. No matter what the paddling discipline, most of the movement will be using the forward stroke. Commonly applied mechanics by humans for paddling is through the use of the arms. The trouble is, It doesn’t take much for a paddlers strength to be diminished by primarily using the arms for paddling.


As a lifelong paddler and instructor, I am obsessed with forward stroke. My first introduction to the idea that the forward stroke itself was the most important thing to work on in paddling technique was at the Madawaska Kanu Center. In order to advance my paddling certification, I had to travel to Ontario for a ORCA L3 instructor course. On the first day we went out to the lake and dug deep into paddling forward. The reason being is that the more one must steer the more momentum they lose. As I watched my instructor complete 15+ forward strokes without having to place a single j stroke I realized I have a lot to learn. 20 years later I continue to search for the next ingredient to perfecting the forward stroke. And what I have found is that I am not the only one.



The greater concept in a good forward stroke is to use the bigger muscles of your body. Also minimizing waisted energy is essential. In order to do both, the technique will be focused on utilizing abdominals, legs and back muscles. And limiting rage of motion to the most effective range for power.


Ergonomics and the most effective use of your body: Overall, limit the use of your arm muscles. Use your body to pull your boat thought the water rather than your arms. This means you will have to lean and rotate your body forward to set up for the stroke and then when you perform the stroke you are using those big muscles to return you back to a neutral.

Performing the stroke!

The photo above is a discussion about how far forward someone can reach when bending forward and rotating at the same time. Effectively doubling the throw in effective forward stroke mechanics.


The body: Rotate forward on the same side as you are paddling on. Or conversely rotate the t-grip side back. Try to include the hips as well. Your torso can rotate almost 90o with your shoulders almost parallel to the gunnels. You can also lean forward, for an aggressive stroke like a boof, or the initial 2 or 3 strokes to quickly bring a boat up to speed. Leaning forward can offer a massive throw and power range. However, those big forward strokes can cause your bum to push back and kill your momentum. Once up to speed it is best to limit the range of motion to one that can provide a high rate turn over but still provide a good length of the power phase of the stroke.


Performing a "boof" stroke over Gooseberry Ledge.


The arms: Your t-grip hand should be at the same level as your nose but in line with the opposite shoulder. Here it will move in small ovals as your limiting the amount of power that comes out of your arms. The t-should not come too far inside the boat on your recovery. Your shaft hand should hold the paddle in the middle of the shaft. With a firm grip on the shaft the shaft hand can anchor itself straight out from the body. Keeping the elbow slightly bent you can assist the t-grip hand in the fine movements of an efficient recovery. Always returning the hand placement to a “catch position”


The 3 ¾ phases of the forward stroke: starting from a neutral position, sitting/kneeling up straight, shoulders back facing forward.

1. Rotating; winding up the body and extending the reach

2. Catch; placing the paddle as far forward as possible into the water and vertical.

3. Perform; using your core and back return to neutral while maintaining the vertical position of the paddle

¾ Recover; use arms to recover the blade and return to catch position.




Initiating forward movement starts with a solid anchoring phase!


The legs: so how do you know when you have been paddling hard? Your legs are sore. And not sore from being crunched into a kneeling position but from flexing against your outfitting. Once you have begun to pull hard on your paddle by manipulating your body position you will find that you will rely on what ever leverage you can. Pushing on and against the outfitting of the boat to gain the most leverage over the paddle or the boat itself can require a lot of force. Considering the turning effect, the forward stroke has on a canoe it may be advantageous, especially in solo boating, to utilize your legs to counter this. Try, while completing a forward stroke, forcing the forward movement of the hip on the opposite side you are paddling on, rather than pulling on the hip that was rotated forward. This can be effective in counteracting the turning effect of the forward stroke.



Blending strokes to paddle through rapids. Forward momentum with steering. Partially bent arms with well achored paddles makes the boat and extension of your body.



The correction: I’m not going to get into it. However, I will describe another very important aspect of maintaining a forward trajectory is forward momentum. Shortened forward strokes, ending just past or at the knee, profoundly reduces the turning effect of a forward stroke. What I will say about correction strokes is the less you have to do the better. Focusing on shortening your stroke to include only the most effective range of motion is the best approach. Finding the power in that range of motion is the key.

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