High Angle Vs. Low Angle Paddling

high angle vs low angle strokes

Typically, the difference between high angle vs low angle paddling styles is explained as the height of the upper hand during the forward stroke, because the height of the upper hand changes the angle of the paddle’s shaft when referenced from the water. For example, if the hand is shoulder high or above, it’s consider a high angle stroke because the angle of the shaft is high. If the hand is shoulder high or below, it’s considered a low angle stroke because the angle of the shaft is low. Typically, the stroke type then dictates the type of kayak paddle to use. For a high-angle style stroke, a shorter paddle length and shorter but wider blade type is recommended. For a low-angle style, a longer paddle length with longer, skinnier blades is suggested. I find this definition a bit simplistic. For example, a wing paddle is typically used with a shoulder high stroke, but you size it short and the blade is long and narrow. I also think that the typical definition leads to a misunderstanding of one of the key components of an efficient forward stroke: the alignment of the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

The Wrist-Elbow-Shoulder Alignment

Ideally during the forward stroke, you want to lead with your elbow to lift your hand into the upper position. This elbow lift puts your arm into a chicken wing position that aligns the wrist, the elbow and shoulder in one horizontal plane in much the same way as punching does (It also helps you avoid a wrist flick for adjusting feather). For a visual demonstration of this pick up the Brent Reitz Forward Stroke Clinic DVD. By aligning your muscle structure and bone structure in this way, you form a strong unit that allows you to transfer all your body’s rotation to the stroke. Assume this position now just to get a feel for it.

Now, raise your wrist to your forehead’s height, and try to throw a punch. Compare it to a punch thrown when everything is in alignment. When the wrist is raised slightly above the elbow, it’s a weaker punch and a weaker forward stroke because your wrist, elbow and shoulder aren’t aligned and don’t provide a direct link to power the stroke. Yet, this typically how the high angle forward stroke is demonstrated. Now, lower your wrist and elbow below your shoulder and try this exercise again. You lose power for the same reasons as before. Yet, this is how the low angle stroke is often demonstrated. In fact, there’s an often used video about high angle vs low angle strokes online by a well-respected instructor who shows the strokes exactly in these ways, and demonstrating it in that way shows an inefficient form. The key is to maintain an alignment with the wrist, elbow and shoulder. On a side note, if you watch racers with great forward strokes, you’ll notice that some appear to have their upper hand above their shoulder. Look at their shoulders and you’ll notice that their shoulders are at an angle to the water, and the change of angle keeps everything in alignment.

Defining High Angle Vs Low Angle Paddling

If you’re an average paddler trying to get the most efficient forward stroke, you need to get that wrist-elbow-shoulder alignment, which means that there’s almost no difference in the shaft angle between an efficient high angle stroke vs low angle stroke. Instead of defining the style by the angle of the paddle’s shaft, I suggest defining it by the other types of strokes you use. If you paddle a high-angle style, you typically use more of the strokes that require a vertical paddle shaft, such as draws, slips, bow rudders and crossbow draws. A shorter paddle helps you gain that vertical shaft and a shorter but wider blade makes sure that it gets planted entirely during the catch. A low-angle style uses more strokes that benefit from increased leverage of a longer paddle, such as sweeps, stern rudders and low-brace turns. These strokes are more horizontal than those that require vertical shafts. In other words, if you steer from the front of your boat more often then the stern, you’re a high angle paddler, and if you steer from the back of your boat, you’re a low angle paddler.

Additionally, the length of your paddle in part determines the cadence, which means your paddling cadence can also determine the type of paddle you’ll use. A shorter paddle lets you paddle at a higher cadence and a longer at a lower cadence. So, if you like to paddle in a faster cadence get yourself a shorter paddle and learn more of the vertical strokes. If you like a lower cadence, then use a longer paddle.

I think defining high angle vs low angle as the types of stroke you use works much better than defining it by the height of your upper hand. Do you?

BTW, if you want a good book on strokes, I highly recommend Sea Kayak Strokes: A Guide to Efficient Paddling Skills. I referenced it for this article and I use it whenever I want a good explanation about a kayaking stroke.

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  • Interesting thoughts. I am curious what prompted you to write this piece? Is it just the misalignment of the wrist-elbow-and-shoulder.

    Personally, this article did not resonate with me. Seems to me that the reason for this bad taste I have is too much emphasis on just one aspect of efficiency. For long-distance cruising purposes, it is more efficient to paddle without having to lift your elbow?

    I totally get the point about alignment and how it helps deliver maximum power to the pushing arm. However, when cruising, even a very strong kayaker applies only about 5 lbs of force per stroke. So the question is: How critical is this alignment for applying this much force? What will produce more total efficiency: alignment of more natural resting elbow position? Keep in mind, that the pushing hand supplies much less than 100% of the total power that ends up on the blade. To me part of the essence of the low-angle stroke is precisely in the dropped elbows. The efficiency of the low-angle stroke is in rested shoulder muscles.

    I prefer the commonly accepted definition of low- vs. high-angle paddling–high top hand vs. low top hand, vertical vs. horizontal shaft angle, and chest vs. navel shaft position. I am a high-angle paddler and do a lot of work at the bow. Even at the bow, I use low angle strokes such as the first third of the forward sweep. And how does alignment figure into a bow rudder with the top hand aligned with the spine or on the same side as the bottom hand?

    • Wow, lots of questions and I’m not sure you mean for me to answer them all, so I’ll answer a few.

      Q: What prompted me to write?
      A: I was thinking about blade shapes and paddle length and how that relates to strokes other than just the forward stroke. I was also thinking of how the typical definition of high angle vs low angle takes one aspect an efficient forward stroke and throws it out the window. This concentrates on the wrist-elbow-shoulder alignment aspects of a forward stroke, because the high angle vs low angle definition doesn’t throw the other parts out the window.

      Q: For long-distance cruising purposes, it is more efficient to paddle without having to lift your elbow?
      A: I don’t think so. Efficiency is the ratio of power expended to the actual power used. If you don’t get the skeletal structure into alignment, less energy gets used than is expended. Racers travel long distances using the elbow lift because it is more efficient; that is more energy is transfered to the forward power. If a low elbow was more efficient, they’d use that type of stroke instead. The elbow lift is not easy, but that doesn’t mean that not raising your elbow, which feels easier, is more efficient. Greg Barton says that about 25% of the strokes power comes from the upper hand push. I don’t know how to measure the loss of power from a lower elbow, but if we say you lose 10%, the question becomes do you save 10% of forward stroke energy by not having to raise your elbow? I don’t think so. I think paddlers just need to strengthen the shoulder muscles involved in the elbow lift, and it won’t feel harder than keeping the elbow low. (Not to mention the stress saved through less wrist rotation when you lift with the elbow. And loss of power if you push with bent wrist.)

      BTW, I’m not suggesting that high angle paddlers or low angle paddlers by my definition don’t use strokes from the other side of the equation. For example, I steer more from the bow, use a high-angle paddle, but I often use the other strokes, such as sweeps and rudders, when needed.

      A few questions for you:
      1. Where does the 5 pounds of force per paddle stroke come from? I’d guess that most paddlers apply at least that at touring speeds because no paddle is 100% efficient.

      • 5 lbs came from one of the developers of the boat drag formulas: Booze I think. It makes sense. Think of the weight of a dumb-bell that you could lift for hours with the same effort that it takes to paddle at a brisk pace. I have 15lbs set at home and I could definitely not do that for more than a minute or two. Five sounds about right for a sustained effort.

        I don’t think I expressed myself completely about the lifting of the elbow and long-distance. What I meant to say, that it would be more efficient to paddle without lifting the elbow rather than with lifting ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL–if you could produce the same amount of output. That’s just a statement that is true by definition. What is more important is that the paddler needs to have a sufficient supply of something that adds to efficiency. In this case, sufficient conditioning of the shoulders and other muscles that support lifting the arm. No matter how efficient this may be in theory, if a given individual has other muscles that are better conditioned, then for this given individual not lifting the elbow will be more efficient.

        John Dowd, I believe, once said “I have never seen anyone finish and expedition with a high-angle stroke.”

        Sorry to ramble, but here’s another thought. I’ve been reading up on Imre Kemecsey’s forward paddling technique. Important component of the forward stroke in his system is using the paddler weight on the blade in the water to generate forward momentum. If we accept this, then the vector of pushing hand and hanging hand (to put your weight on the shaft you need to pull down) will no longer result in the straight alignment of the elbow and shoulder behind the wrist. This fits very nicely with your observation that many athletes seem to have their hands go up from the shoulder.

        Paddle Hard!

        • I’ll have to look around for the Broze study. If you think about Newton’s third law of motion, the amount of force you’re applying through the paddle must equal the drag of the hull for whatever speed you’re going. I was more curious if someone had figured out that five pounds was the average after taking into account the loss of power from an average paddle. More likely the reference is to the drag of the boat. To keep up against 5 lbs. of drag is more than I can do over any distance.

          I get your point and you explained it well. I just think we have a disagreement about it. You think that you save overall energy for the same speed by keeping the elbow low and I think that you expend more energy for the same speed by keeping the elbow low. I’m using the subjective experience of racers who align the wrist, elbow and shoulder as evidence and personal experience in long distance touring. You’re using your subjective experience of touring with a low elbow as evidence. I doubt that anyone has any objective evidence that we can easily get our hands on, so we’ll continue to disagree. That’s fine with me and healthy for the paddling community. I’m more than happy to change my mind if I see objective evidence to the contrary. If someone is looking for a masters project; figuring out the calories burned during the elbow lift vs low elbow over long distances might be a good one.

          I understand what your saying about strength, but don’t buy it. That’s like saying if a student can’t get his shaft close to vertical during a draw, it’s good enough even if it’s not the most efficient way to do a stroke. You’re discounting training and practice.

          Not to contradict Dowd, but I finished the last two days of my 45-day expedition this spring using the elbow lift to align my wrist, elbow and shoulder. The second to last day, I was meeting a friend who was bringing pizza and underestimated the distance by five miles, so I didn’t have a minute to spare. :) I didn’t use that style of stroke the entire trip, but I did use it more often than not.

          • Our disagreement is not about the ideal. I also paddle with high angle and can sustain it for multiple days. I don’t know if know how to paddle low-angle.

            That being said, it took me years to develop the required strength. What I am arguing is that the majority of the paddlers will never be able to achieve this level of fitness. I just see so many out there who just can’t maintain the high angle, primarily because of the lack of strength in the shoulders, and they neither have the interest no persistence to develop that aspect of their physique.

            So is elbow behind wrist ideal? Yes! Is it practical for an average paddler? No.

          • We maxed out the nested threads! Sweet! I just upped it to 8 deep, but I’m not sure if it will catch up to this post.

            I agree with you that many paddlers lack the strength and interest. I’m of the opinion that we should teach the ideal/most efficient and let the student figure out what’s going to work best for himself.

            The traditional definition of high angle vs low angle teaches something that just isn’t the ideal. I’d be happier with an explanation for selecting/selling paddles that went something like this, “If you paddle with a less than ideal stroke and like to keep your upper hand and your elbow low, then a longer paddle with longer but skinnier blades will work better for you.”

            • I wish some Greenland paddler would jump in on this thread :)

              I attended an instructor update this summer. One of the messages from ACA that I took home is the distinction between IDEAL and REAL. They are encouraging the coaches to back off from teaching 100% ideal and pay attention to what is real for a given paddler. Not to give up the ideal but be more tolerant of less-than-perfect technique.

              • Stevie’s comment just below addresses Greenland paddles.

                I’d agree with the concept of ideal vs. real. You hope for the ideal but deal with the real. That’s something that is beat into our heads during WFR classes and updates, and I think it just one of those rules of life that you deal with. It wasn’t mentioned at my last ACA update, which was last year. I think that’s probably up to the IT or ITE. But I agree with it.

  • Good points.

    I am mostly a high angled paddler and I do use a skinny(low angled) standard euro blade.
    I also use a traditional Greenland style paddle.

    I pretty much agree with your description of the hand, elbow, shoulder alignment and in fact I even come close to this stroke with the Greenland paddle. The difference is I have to keep my top hand just below my shoulder with the Greenland paddle to get the most efficiency out of the long skinny blade.

    I was once criticized about my Greenland stroke by a few respected Greenland paddlers who felt that my stroke wasn’t an efficient way to use a Greenland paddle.

    I, on the other hand, felt that it was, so ignored them.

    I was reassured when I saw a video of a race in Greenland with Maligiaq Padilla participating. I noticed that the winners of the race were paddling pretty much the way Olympic racers would paddle with a wing paddle. With the top elbow aligned with the top wrist, like a boxer’s hook punch.

    Later I saw a talk given by Maligiaq where he described his stoke as being different from the way American and Europeans used a Greenland paddle and that his stroke was more lake what a Olympic racer would use.
    A lot of people at that talk probably started changing their forward stroke after that:-)

    I’m not saying that this stroke is the do everything stroke, but it is what I use if I have to fight wind or current, or have to get somewhere fast.

    • That’s really interesting. It has been years since I regularly used a Greenland paddle. I remember that the style being talked about and taught at the time was much different than how paddlers used Euro blades. With all the talk about how a GP is similar to a wing paddle, I’m not surprised that the Greenland racers are using a similar stroke.

  • Isn’t it a little off center to think of effective strokes solely with regard to alignment? When you really come down to it, that perfect wrist, elbow, shoulder alignment is a pretty elusive ideal. Even watching Reitz’ video, I fail to see that perfect alignment very often. I’m more inclined to say that the efficient stroke has less to do with “pushing” with the upper arm/hand and “perfect” alignment, and much more to do with the arms acting as a solid unit and maintaining a link to the paddle which is powered by the oblique and latissimus muscles in unison. I’d rather see students not thinking about using the arms at all, other than preserving the original horizontal plane of the upper hand as it is rotated across the body during the stroke. That implies that that move can be performed with either a high or low angle stroke; euro or greenland style paddle (I use both).

    • There’s a lot more to an effective forward stroke than the alignment of the wrist-elbow-shoulder. The reason that I concentrated on that in this article is because the traditional definition that I’ve heard defines the difference between high angle vs low angle as the difference in that alignment.

      I think the reason that the alignment works is because you end up aligning your skeletal structure in addition to your muscular structure. When you keep your elbows low, you might have a stiff muscular structure, but without the skeletal support there’s going to be more flex when you try to keep your arm as a solid unit.

      Try this exercise. Align your arm in the ideal position and hold your hand in a fist. Have someone push on your fist using a controlled amount of force. Lower you elbow and have your friend push the same way. What happens to your solid unit? It takes less force to collapse it.

      I think you’d want to teach both the elbow lift/alignment and the solid unit during rotation. I think Reitz even talks about this in the video.

  • I agree Bryan: The high angle/low angle dichotomy is overly simplistic. We tend to use the terms as a catch-all phrase. Esp. for the instructors reading or posting here, I entreat you – do not draw a line in the sand (or the water, as it were) regarding stroke angle. Help each student find their best angle.

    A lot of us paddle well and happily using a lower version of the high angle or a higher version of the low angle. And to take it one step further, we can mix it up, and do. There are times to go full vertical like a ww stroke, as in making a rapid progress thru surf, or go a few inches above the deck when tiring. I would rather experience these applications than focus inordinately on what angle I normally use.

    Form is important. Good form is possible using either high or low angle. Good form is also hard to achieve. Ken King once said that out of 100 kayakers he sees on the water on any given day perhaps 1 or 2 will have a technically good stroke. I don’t think he does further tabulation as to whether they are high or low angled in origin. :)

    Regardless of where we are in the “low”/ “high” continuum we can and should aim for proficiency in all strokes. Ben Lawry for instance teaches five different stern rudders alone. It matters not to him if you use high or low angle. It does matter if you use all aspects of good technique in learning each variation.

    I do not agree that because I tend towards high angle the strokes in front of the boat will be easier, better etc for me. If I know what I’m doing it shouldn’t matter a bit about the shape of my blade (high or low angle). Whether I throw a cross bow rudder or a sweep, I just need the correct head/body/hand positions & the right amount of edging, and remember to sink the Euro blade (whatever shape it is) as far as the throat (deeper is wasted).

    Consider one of the first strokes all new paddlers learn in slowing down their boats as they approach the shoreline: the stern rudder. It’s an easy stroke almost everyone learns quickly and in some cases almost intuitively – whether they are high/low or whatever. A lot of times even before they know which is which.

    Your article on the whole is a good tribute to staying open minded as to what works for the individual and not what the different “camps” prescribe.

    • Thanks, Deborah!

      I think I didn’t write clearly enough when writing about selecting paddles. What I was trying to do is encourage people to select a high angle vs low angle paddle based more on what other types of strokes they use often than selecting one just for the forward stroke. I.e. a high angle paddle if you use lots of bow rudders, draws, etc, and a low angle if you use lots of rudders and sweeps. I totally agree that a competent paddler should be able to do all the strokes with any blade shape.

      The more I think about this, the more is occurs to me that much of the high angle vs low angle thing comes from marketing. I remember back in the day when the forward stroke was the forward stroke and the power forward was the power forward. Then marketing got us high angle vs low angle.

  • The problem with most forward stroke instruction is not high angle vs. low angle or hand/arm placement. The focus for beginning paddlers needs to be taken off the arms entirely. Novice paddlers need to be trained to paddle with their core. You do not push or pull a paddle through the water. If you do, your kayak doesn’t go anywhere. You need to think of paddling as sticking your paddle into a bucket of wet cement. You want your paddle to stay in place and your core/trunk muscles need to be pushing/pulling the kayak forward in the water. Alignment of the hand/wrist/arm is beneficial to a good forward stroke that uses the core muscles, but punching your paddle shaft in and of itself does not do much to propel a kayak forward in the water. On land, demonstrations of paddling technique give the impression that the paddle moves 2-3 feet backward through the water while the paddler remains stationary. What appears to be a punching motion in this demonstration is really just the upper arm needing to change its position in relation to a stationary paddle shaft in the water as the kayak glides past. I don’t wish to sound as if the arms have no role in paddling, but they receive way too much emphasis which is why you see so many people paddling kayaks like a bicycle with their arms. When I teach beginners, I don’t talk at all about hand height and shaft angle. For me, the first steps are all about using the abdomen, back, and legs to move the kayak past the paddle which has been firmly planted in the water alongside the feet/ankles. I encourage the paddler to focus on their belly button. If it’s not wiggling back and forth from side to side, the paddler isn’t using the core muscles for rotation. When that motion becomes second nature, then we can spend time concentrating on the finer points of the stroke like hand position. The reason you see so many people with poor forward stroke technique is that too many “intermediate” paddlers have never really learned how to use proper core/torso rotation to move their kayak, and after several years of paddling with little or no rotation it becomes extremely hard to break their bad habits. They spend all their time trying to perfect hand position, stroke length, and shaft angle. It’s like trying to teach a toddler to waltz gracefully when he hasn’t learned how to walk yet.

    • I agree with you 100%, and I teach the forward stroke in much the same way. When working one-on-one I ask the paddler to show me their back, then show me their chest as they rotate back and forth. Additionally, I communicate how the hips slide around in the seat as if they were riding a mini-bicycle, which helps increase the torso rotation.

      Keep in mind that this article isn’t about all the steps involved in the forward stroke, nor is it about torso rotation, the most important part of the forward stroke, nor is it about teaching beginners (but I appreciate the comments about that subject). It’s about one aspect of the forward stroke and its relation to the definition of high angle vs low angle strokes. I believe that height of your upper hand doesn’t necessarily determine whether or not you’re a high angle vs low angle paddler. I think a better criteria is what I outlined. If you inferred that I’m suggesting kayakers throw a punch from the analogy exercise with their upper hand, let me clarify: I don’t suggest that. That’d be so 1970s. :) The upper arm is in alignment to lock the paddle into the torso rotation.

      What I’m trying to say with this article is that the traditional definition of high vs low, i.e. the height of the hand, legitimizes inefficient technique, and that there is a better way to define it.

  • I think we’re mostly in agreement in the execution of the forward stroke – high or low angle. (I also learned with the old terminology of forward stroke and power forward stroke.) My point is that all the discussion of this particular aspect of the stroke (of which there is quite a bit lately) tends to leave students focusing on the arms, not the core. No matter how good your hand/wrist/arm alignment is, if you aren’t using your core, your stroke will be poor. I would agree that a definition of the high or low angle stroke that just takes into account the hand position is too simplistic. I did like your suggestion that someone who prefers to correct their course in the front of the kayak and use a higher cadence of strokes is more likely to be a candidate for choosing a high angle paddle.

    • I learned with that old terminology, too. I still use it, because I like it. :) I’m actually starting to think the the new terminology came about because of marketing.

      I agree with you completely: the core is where the action is at.

    • P.s. thanks for the comments, you always have good things to say. I appreciate it. And that’s to everyone who commented in this thread.

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