Paddleboarding (aka stand up paddling or SUP) is great for strengthening your back and core. However, like many core exercises, you need to make a conscious effort to use your core and avoid over-torquing your lower back and hips. Depending on the condition of your back, paddleboarding can have both negative and positive consequences.
SUPing can be great for building back strength and preventing lower back pain, and can be be beneficial for people with minor back problems. However, if you’re recovering from a serious injury, there’s always a risk of re-injuring your back if using bad form.
If you suffer from debilitating back issues, such as a slipped disc or severe osteoporosis, you should consult a medical professional before hopping on a paddleboard, as the paddling movement can cause further injury if not performed correctly.
For more minor ailments such as muscular tightness, mild arthritis, or SI joint pains, SUPing combined with regular stretches can help strengthen and even relieve you of recurring back pains.
Does paddleboarding help strengthen your back?
Paddle boarding is known for being one of the best ocean sports for strengthening your core.
By building muscle throughout your core, from your abdominals to your quads and glutes, you are strengthening the muscles that support and protect your lower back and spine from potential injury.
Simply using your legs and core strength to keep balanced while standing on top of the board is a passive workout that should not be underrated.
If you’re looking to slowly improve your back strength, try to spend one hour each day paddling from one point to another in flat water, continuously paying special attention to your form, stance, and technique.
After a few weeks, you should notice your balance and physical core strength improve.
Can paddleboarding cause back pain?
While paddleboarding is generally a great core exercise that builds up the muscles that support your lower back and spine, the sport can also cause back pain if not performed correctly.
Avoiding back pain while SUPing is all about maintaining the right form and posture. If you allow your lower back to torque when you pull your paddle through a stroke, your lower back will take the brunt of the exercise from a twisted angle, causing pain.
Those recovering from recent back surgery or with degenerative slipped discs or fractures are likely to have weakened muscles or inflamed nerves surrounding the lower back.
When engaging in a physical core workout that requires you to twist and torque your mid-body, these nerves might seize and flare up as they try to protect the weak spots in your back from further harm.
Paddle boarding can even cause lower back pain for people who don’t have any predisposed medical issues, yet are severely unfit and paddle with poor form.
The easiest way to know if you’re doing more damage to your back than good is if you start feeling pain or fatigue in your lower back or SI joints.
Lower spine and SI pain
Experiencing lower back pain is a sign that you might be using the wrong muscles and aren’t engaging your glutes, hamstrings, and core correctly, leaving your lower back to carry the weight of your body instead.
Bending through your stroke before your lats and abs are connected at the catch, and bending at the lower back as opposed to flexing at your hips while paddling, are probably the most common problems in paddleboarding form.
Poor form can cause lower back pain in anyone, but it can be even more serious for those prone to back and SI joint issues.
If you experience pain in your hips when paddling, you might be overworking your piriformis muscle, which is located within your glute, next to the sciatica nerve.
The piriformis muscle connects your lower spine to your thigh bones and is one of the hips stabilizing muscles that can cause hip pain when engaged in core exercises.
Such hip pain can often be fixed with the right stretches, and if necessary physio.
Upper back pain
Upper back pain is a cause for worry for many paddleboarders too. It often results from rhomboid muscles taking up slack from other weak muscle groups such as Trapezius, Serratus Anterior, or fighting against tight Pectorals.
Here again, these pains often result from bad form when paddling. Many times paddelboarders initiate their paddling strokes from their arms and shoulders, putting extreme pressure on the above mentioned muscles.
To avoid these issues, your strokes should start from your core, glutes, hips and abs, then engaging your lats with the shoulders and arms only propagating the movement through the paddle.
While upper back issues can be crippling for a while and can take some time to fix, they can generally be solved with the right stretches.
Can paddleboarding help with lower back problems?
People who suffer from ongoing back problems such as degenerative disc diseases, mild arthritis, or stenosis of the spinal cord can sometimes benefit from the muscle strengthening action of paddleboarding.
SUPing strengthens the core muscles that support the spine. In some cases, increased back strength can help relieve nerve infringement areas and, as a result, relieve lower back pain.
Some paddleboarders who have recovered from back surgery report that SUPing has improved their back fitness and reduced their pain levels significantly by strengthening these core muscles.
People with sciatic pain can also benefit from paddleboarding. By paddling with good form, you may be able to improving your core strength without pressure on the sciatic nerves.
Aside from the physical benefits of maintaining core fitness, let’s not ignore the huge mental impact that being out in the water can have.
Is stand-up paddling IN THE SURF good for your back?
When you leave calm waters to get into the surf, the likelihood of injuring or causing further irritation to your back increases. These can result from sudden and/or exaggerated movements during takeoff or wipe-outs, or muscle overuse during long sessions in waves.
Compared with surfing, however, stand up paddling is better for your lower back than laying down paddling on a surfboard, which constantly puts the spine in hyper-extension, including your neck.
As long as you paddle with the correct stance and technique, your core should take most of the burden of the strokes.
However, because SUPs are longer, heavier, and more voluminous than the average surfboard, maneuvering a SUP when riding a wave requires a lot more twisting and torque.
When up and riding, SUP involves significant lower back rotation under a lot of upper body twisting pressure down through the hips with high torque from the paddle, compared to classic surfing.
In addition to the added weight of the board, using a paddle to direct the angle of your board adds to this torque movement, adding even more pressure to your lower back and hips.
Overall, SUP surf may be better avoided for a while for people with serious lower back issues or those recovering form a serious injury.
Tips to avoid back pain when paddleboarding
Paddling with the right form is essential. The most crucial aspect is hinging at the hips. Many paddle boarders put way too much load on their lower back muscles when doing their paddle strokes.
You need to hinge at the hip instead of the lower back, engaging your core – hips, glutes, hamstrings while stabilizing your pelvis. Bending at the hips involves sticking your butt out.
A good hip hinge secures your stroke and significantly reduces lower back issues. In contrast, initiating your strokes through hip twisting with your spine flexed can do serious damage to the lower spine and SI joint.
Keep your hips roughly parallel and pull the paddle by extending the hips. When bending forward from the hips (not the waist), keep your back flat and your shoulder back to keep the stress off your back.
During each stroke’s most powerful part, bend your knees slightly to transfer the torque to your legs.
Stretch before and after a session
Engaging in a decent warm-up before you get into the water, and a cool-down after a hard session is one of the simplest ways to avoid injury while keeping your lower back from stiffening up.
Try to make a habit out of stretching and warming up your muscles, even when you don’t feel like your back is hurting at the time.
Raising your heart rate levels can also help warm you up before a session.
Use the right paddle
Make sure you use a paddle that is the right length for your height. Using a paddle that is too long could cause you to overwork your shoulders, and a paddle that is too short might force you to bend over too much, adding to potential back issues.
In addition to this, if you use a paddle that is too stiff (e.g. one a carbon core), you might end up over-torquing your body as you try to penetrate the water at the right angle.
If this is the case, source a paddle made from a more flexible fiberglass material, that has a forgiving feel when paddling through the water.
Friday 7th of April 2023
Good article. How long should the paddle ideally be compared to height?
I don't understand "paddle that is too stiff, you might end up over-torquing your body as you try to penetrate the water at the right angle." A flexible paddle doesn't flex until after it's already penetrated the water and has pull on it? Thanks
Friday 7th of April 2023
For flat water paddling, I use a paddle a few inches taller than me. For surf SUP my paddle is about my height.
Paddles with a bit of flex deform slightly once in the water and hence give you more leeway as they don't require as much of a perfect angle for effectiveness.