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.