Stretches and Techniques to Alleviate Paddlers’ Back Pain

By Kim Russell

Imagine carving into a river right eddy: set your angle, paddle forward, lift your left hip and cruise into the slack water. Now, imagine rolling your kayak by performing a hip snap, raising one hip while extending the other.

Eddy turns, rolling, and boofing, all of these movements are driven by your core muscles. As paddlers, these muscles are vital not only to each paddle stroke, but they also help stabilize our boat as we make our way downriver.

One of paddlers’ most predominately used muscles is the Quadratus Lumborum (QL), which is located deep in the 
back of the waist on both sides of our lumbar vertebrae. It attaches from the 
lower ribs to the pelvis and the lower back. When the Quadratus Lumborum contracts unilaterally, it brings the 
spine and pelvis closer together, raising the hip. When the QL contracts bilaterally, on both sides of the spine, it is responsible for extension
 of the lower back.

As paddlers, the Quadratus Lumborum easily becomes an over-worked muscle as we raise our hips to carve into and out of eddies, brace through rapids, and roll our kayaks. Trigger points in this muscle can cause referred pain in the lower back, something paddlers are a little too familiar with. Through stretching and self-mobilization, it is possible to
 loosen the QL and relieve lower back pain. Here are a few stretches and techniques I often use after a day out on the water.

Side child's pose.
Side child’s pose.

Side Child’s Pose:

Start by kneeling on your hands and knees. Extend your arms forward, and place your hands palms down on the ground. Lower your hips backward toward your heels and relax. While this may already serve as a deep hip opener for some, let’s take it a step further to address the side of your body. Walk your hands to the right, and further sit your hips rearward toward your left buttock, feeling a stretch along the left side of your body. Hold for 30 seconds on each side and repeat for a total of three times per side.

Kneeling QL Stretch:

Start by kneeling on your hands and knees. Reach forward with your left hand and grasp a secure object. Sit back on your heels toward your left buttocks, stretching your left side. To increase the stretch, internally rotate your left arm, and sit back further diagonally toward your left hip. Hold for 10 seconds on each side, and repeat for a total of three times per side.

Kneeling QL Stretch.
Kneeling QL Stretch.


Find yourself a tennis ball or something circular of about the same size. While simple, this form of self-mobilization is very effective, and generally relieves most individuals of their low back pain.

Lie on your back, with the tennis ball between your back and the floor just below your ribcage but near the spine on one side (that is, on your QL). Apply direct pressure to the area, as well as the areas above and below. You will likely feel some tension and perhaps discomfort. If possible, try to roll around on tennis ball for ten minutes or so. Play with the amount of pressure you apply as well as the kind of pressure you apply (circular movements, stationary, etc). While painful at times, this form of self-massage can do wonders to alleviate low back pain. Be sure to use the tennis ball evenly on both right and left sides, as well as above and below the QL area. You can even play with the pelvis and sacroiliac areas as well.

photo 5

Note: This may also be done while standing upright with a tennis ball between your back and a wall. Start moving your body against the tennis ball and slowly work down your back.

Whether it’s stretching or self-massage, be careful how much self-mobilization you do in one day. If your back is tender, a little can go a long ways. Start small with pressure and time, and work your way up as your body allows. Be sure to do some directed stretching of your hamstrings, hips and quads as well to ensure muscular balance throughout the pelvis.

**These exercises may not be suitable for some individuals. Consult your physician before trying any of these movements.**

About the Author: Kim Russell has a B.S. in Human Physiology and is a ACE certified Personal Trainer. She is a full-time Exercise Specialist and Professional Whitewater Paddler of over seven years. She has won the Western Whitewater Championship Series from 2010-2013, the Wind River Festival from 2010-2013, and the Northwest Creeking Competition from 2009-2013. She won the 2015 Little White Salmon Race, was nominated for 2015 C&K Female Paddler of the Year, and has participated in various FLUX women’s clinics. You may also find Kim racing mountain bikes professionally for Yeti Cycles.

For more information on Russell and for similar articles visit her website:

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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