By Patricia Staszak, PT

If you’ve ever thought it would be fun to walk on water, then you definitely need to give stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) a try.

Just as the name implies, stand-up paddleboarding entails standing on what is essentially a modified surfboard and propelling yourself over the water with a long paddle1.  If that sounds impossible to you, then read on, because it’s a whole new kind of fun and a lot easier than it looks!

I love kayaking, and lately have been intrigued with this new paddling sport — mostly because one of our own physical therapists, Catherine, has been doing it after work. She even does yoga and Pilates on the board and can now do a headstand for 90 seconds!  So after I read some articles that said SUP was easy and joint friendly, I was eager to give it a try.  (Turns out “easy” is a relative term, but more on my experience later!)

A fast-growing sport with Hawaiian origins, SUP is not only a fun way to play on the water, but you get a great full-body workout while emphasizing balance and core strength. Though it’s somewhat high intensity, it’s also a low impact workout. So if you’re a skier, snowboarder or really any kind of athlete, it’s ideal for cross training. And since you’re standing literally on the water, you get an excellent view of everything around you. It really is almost like walking on water!2

Here in Chicago, Kayak Chicago provides classes and rentals for stand-up paddleboarding and paddleboard yoga at Montrose Harbor. A friend and I took the two-hour introduction to SUP class, so all we needed to do was show up — they provide all equipment and instruction to have a safe and successful experience.  Our guide, Artem was very knowledgeable and made sure to keep an eye on and help all members of the class.

The board itself is longer and more stable on the water than a surfboard. It also has a rubber surface on the top so it’s easier to grip with your feet. In shallow water, it was relatively easy to maneuver the board, climb up, kneel, and then stand on the board.

Then came the hard part: staying up there. At least for me anyway! Seriously, it can be a challenging balance workout. Most people are able stand up without much problem, and generally, women do better than men, because they have a lower center of gravity. But if you do have balance issues, old injuries, core instability and muscle imbalance, be prepared to take a few spills!
If you take a lesson, most of the technique you need will be covered, but here are a few tips to help get you started.
When you’re a beginner, it’s easier to kneel on the board rather than to stand directly upright. Lay your paddle down the middle of the board and either pop yourself onto the board from the side, or pull yourself up from the tail. Once on board, take a kneeling position, making sure you’re centered on the board. Keep your hips loose and relaxed.
When you feel comfortable, you can try paddling from your knees, or place your paddle across the board in front of you (like a T) and carefully stand up. It’s not much more complicated than that! Place your feet where your knees were, keeping them about hip width apart and parallel. Keep your toes pointed forward, ankles, knees and hips “soft” and your back straight. You should be balancing with your hips, not your head, as all those core muscles work to quietly stabilize your body while the board floats beneath you. Another good tip is to keep your gaze forward on the horizon – avoid the temptation to stare down at your feet!
When you’re ready to start moving, you’ll use an alternating, two-handed stroke to pull back on the water and propel the board forward. Try to keep your arms straight and twist from your torso as you paddle — you have more strength in those abdominal muscles than in your arms. This can be an excellent cardiovascular workout while all those core muscles contract and relax to keep you balanced.

Now, if you’re like me and fall a lot, you can also practice balancing in a different position – kneeling or sitting. I found that my tight right ankle (old ankle injury) and foot and left knee instability made it difficult to stay upright on the board for very long. On the plus side, all that falling and climbing back onto the board burns lots of calories, right?!

I also discovered that high kneeling or sitting back on the heels are excellent positions to work on hip, pelvic and spinal (core) stability. And it’s a great opportunity to practice keeping your joints in neutral. These positions are easier to balance in, because they eliminate or decrease the stability needed through the feet and knees, so it is much easier to keep the joints above them stable.

And speaking of core strength and stability, Paddleboard Yoga is a popular offshoot to stand-up paddleboarding.   The undulating water underneath your board challenges your balance while you perform the various poses on the board. Knowing that you’ll be able to fall in the water (as opposed to on the floor) allows you the freedom to push your boundaries and safely work on new poses.3

So next time you’re looking for something different and you’re in the mood for some sun, fresh air and the cry of seagulls, consider SUP – it’s the perfect summer workout. 

1.    “Paddleboarding.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 July 2012. Web. 16 Aug. 2012. <>.
2.    Internicola, Dorene. “Surf’s Down? Time for Paddleboard Yoga!” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Aug. 2012. <>.
3.    Tsong, Nicole. “Everybody into the Drink for Stand-up Paddleboard Yoga.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 06 July 2012. Web. 16 Aug. 2012. <>.