High Performance Bellyak Training: Volume 1

Bellyaking may be a new sport, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to train for it. It’s accessible to everyone – from 8 to 80 – but as with any paddle/water sport, there are a few things you can do in training that will better prepare yourself for time on the water. Read on for answers to commonly asked questions, and tips and tricks to help take your bellyak skills to the next level.

Q1: Doesn’t that hurt your back?

Only if you want it to. Back pain from sports is more commonly related to sitting and standing incorrectly as well as poor posture and core strength, not the sport itself. According to Eric Goodman of Foundation Training, many of us have adopted a movement program that doesn’t allow us to use the strongest muscles in our body properly. Ready to change that? Grab your bellyak and let’s go!

First, it’s important to note the bellyak has an ergonomic design which supports the prone position while paddling. This eases tension in the lower spine. It also allows the paddler more contact with the water so you can dig deeper and paddle stronger. If you are ready to beef up your game and become a more aggressive paddler, full-functioning muscle groups combined with flexibility are a must. I guess this is the part in the article where I am supposed to say if you have any pre-existing back conditions, consult your doctor and don’t take my word for it.

Q2: Where do I start?

Keep it simple. Your pelvis and lower spine are the most mobile areas of your body and so need the most stability and flexibility training to increase muscle control. Working on these areas will allow you to go from version 1 athlete, to a higher functioning version 2 athlete. You’ll be like a baby discovering it’s neck muscle! Proud moments!

Bellyaking with a stiff lower back

Version 1 – a less flexible lower back

Bellyaking with a more flexible back

Version 2 – a more flexible back

How to begin functional training

Let’s break down a couple of basic moves. My favorite is the classic yoga pose Sanskrit calls Salabhasana. Say it with me: SAL-AB-HASANA. If you are unable to pronounce the word you can also call it by its street name – Locust Post. Let’s try it!

Start with just the upper body. The majority of us can put ourselves into this position no problem, but remember we are retraining muscle groups to be full-functioning, so before you pop up as high as you can possibly go consider strength first. When we activate the muscles in our lower spine it adds stability versus just recklessly stretching and bending muscles, tendons and ligaments.

While lying face down, place an  object you dare not lose in between your thighs (see below). To hold the object in place you will need to squeeze your inner thighs together, which in turn activates the muscles and ligaments around your lower spine. From there, gently raise yourself a few inches off the ground, pressing the tops of your feet into the ground and lengthening your spine. Take 5 or so deep breathes, rest, and repeat 4-5 times. Wrap it up with a counter pose like child’s pose. Once you feel under control with this move you can add legs. I recommend giving it a few days before you add legs. Remember to keep it simple so you can retrain your body to function more effectively.

The first half of Locust Pose

Cobra pose with extended arms

Extend Arms for More of a Challenge!

Finish with Child's Pose

Finish with Child’s Pose

That’s enough yoga for today!

The next step of functional training

Now let’s add in some core strength! We are a big fans of Foundation Training, developed to facilitate the body’s natural healing ability and quickly improve degenerative movement patterns. The next exercise – The Founder – could be a game changer for everyone, whether you bellyak or not! Here’s a quick tutorial to get you going:


***No banjos were harmed in the making of this blog post and author, Jamie MacLeod, makes no promise to the results you may see.***

Bellyak roll in the river

How to Roll a Bellyak

The bellyak roll is a fundamental skill for paddling whitewater. The main function of the bellyak roll is so that you are able to maintain connection with the boat and stay on line. This leads to a happier time on the water, gives a stronger sense of control which leads to confidence, which thus equals more fun. And he who has the most fun wins. We read that in a book. To help you along, here’s all you need to know to flip and dip your bellyak.

What Happens if I Flip Over?

Swims happen. Sometimes you lean left when the river wants you to lean right, and you find yourself in the water. The good news is that the bellyak is very easy to remount/self rescue. But let’s face it. It’s way cooler to roll. If you’re off your boat swimming, then you aren’t in control, and you aren’t having as much fun as you could have. The good news is you don’t have to spend $900 on clinics and hours of lake practice…the bellyak roll can be mastered by most people in a short amount of time, often in the first few hours of paddling.

Set Up

As you feel yourself about to roll over, your instinct may be to grab the handles. Not so! Bear hug the boat like you would hug your favorite hound dog, wrapping your arms all the way around. The key is to create a solid connection via your arms and your chest to the bellyak.

Bear Hug the bellyak when you start to flip

As You Begin to Flip Over, BEAR HUG the bellyak

Keep the bear hug strong when the boat is upside down

Once Upside Down, maintain BEAR HUG of bellyak, keeping chest connected with the boat.

It’s Mainly in the Legs

Once upside down you will be hugging the bellyak close and telling it secrets. Your legs will be in the water, because of gravity. Perform a quick scissor kick to maintain your momentum and get the boat fun side up.  Imagine wrestling an alligator and trying to flip it over on it’s back. That’s what you want to do.

Perform a Quick Scissor Kick While Chest Stays on bellyak

Perform a Quick Scissor Kick While Chest Stays on bellyak

Back Upright: Almost There

Once your boat is back upright, you will be oriented as in the picture below. At this point you will want to swing your legs back on top and get back in position.

As you roll back upright, maintain chest connection to boat.

As you roll back upright, your legs will be off the side of the boat. Maintain chest connection to boat.

Swing legs back on and your bellyak roll is complete!

Swing Legs Back on, re-adjust trim as necessary using the handles to move fore and aft

The bellyak roll from the back

As boat is brought around upright, a quick scissor kick helps with the momentum of the roll

Rear View: As boat is brought around upright, a quick scissor kick helps with the momentum of the roll.

Bring one leg onto the bellyak and swing the other in place

Bring one leg onto the bellyak and swing the other in place. Use knee or foot to ‘hook’ side of bellyak and bring it under body.

Common Challenges

Not Maintaining Momentum

The roll is something that happens as soon as you feel yourself flipping over. The key is to GO WITH the roll, and use that momentum to bring you all the way around. If you don’t maintain momentum you will lose connection with the boat and have to remount from the water. This works, but isn’t as quick. Or as fun. Like we mentioned.

Not Bearhugging Tight Enough

If you give your bellyak a half-hearted hug, it will leave you. Hug it like you mean it.

No Sense of Urgency

We see this all the time…people just flop off and don’t even try to get back on. Have some urgency. The safest place on the river – and also most fun – is on top of your bellyak, paddling in control. TIP: Imagine the water is filled with starving pyranhas and you have to get back upright, or else some fish is going to be wearing your skin. You don’t want that do you?

Bellyak roll in the river

ACA Lesson Series: Mastering Bellyak Basics

Bellyak 101: Mastering the Basics!

This blog lesson will focus on the very foundation of proper bellyaking: Proper body position and posture, forward and combination strokes, and learning to trust your secondary stability.

In the picture below, Jamie is demonstrating the proper posture for paddling: head up and engaging the core to form a powerful prone position. Many people ask…what about my face?? As you can see, there is quite a bit of bow in front of you, and your head position is far enough above the water to easily see where you are going and what is coming up ahead.

Proper Trim is when you are centered on the Bellyak, neither too far forward or too far back. We see a lot of first timers get too far forward on the Bellyak. This makes it very difficult to control, as you will just go in circles.

Too far Forward: Stern is too far out of water.

Too Far Back for Paddling…this is the position for surfing river waves.

We often see folks paddling too far back on the Bellyak who think that you have to kick…remember the Bellyak is ‘front wheel drive’ and made to glide through the water, therefore proper trim is crucial.

*In the more advanced skills, surfing river waves requires the rider shift their weight towards the back of the bellyak to be in a position as shown in the picture above. This will raise the bow and make it easier to surf. For general paddling, the neutral position, centered in the boat, is most effective.

*The handles are used to reposition  and are not for hanging on while going downstream.

The Forward Stroke:

The Forward stroke is the main driver for the Bellyak. The majority of the time you will be using an alternating, thumb down sweep stroke. Imagine if you were doing the breast stroke, and alternating arms. It’s more effective to paddle this way, as it reduces shoulder fatigue over doing a deeper, more crawl style stroke.

Reach forward, Thumb Down for the catch phase of the forward stroke

Alternating Thumb Down Sweep Stroke


Combination Strokes:

The unique thing about not having a paddle is that you can use two hands in the water at any given time, allowing maximum mobility. Most of the time you’ll be using a combination of strokes while paddling your bellyak. The most common one to practice is spinning in place using a combination of a forward stroke on one side and a reverse stroke on the other.

Left Hand Reverse, Right Hand Forward, Spin Left

Always remember to smile!

Secondary Stability: Learning to Trust your Edges

The bellyak was designed to have excellent secondary stability. What does that mean? It means when you lean left or right the boat will support you ‘on edge.’ This is a crucial skill for moving water, as your success will depend on how well you can ‘edge’ your boat in current.


Superwoman position: Learn to trust your edges

Front and Rear Rudder:

Now that you have the basic body position, the forward and combination strokes along with right/left lean you can start adding in rudder strokes to help keep you on course as you move forward.

Static Front Rudder

As you are moving forward, if the bellyak starts to drift off course, you can use your opposite hand to help it correct back to center. You place your hand forward just as if you were reaching to do a forward stroke but instead of being ‘thumb down’ it will be ‘thumb up’ as the picture shows. Practice this in flat water by generating some speed and as the boat glides practice combining the lean you learned above with a static rudder.

Always LOOK where you WANT to GO, not at what you want to avoid. True for life as well.

A great way to practice these skills is by playing games: racing your friends, playing bellyak ultimate frisbee, or just using natural features to create a slalom style course. The better your boat control in flatwater, the easier it will be to feel comfortable in moving water. If you’re having trouble, try SLOWING DOWN and really focusing on the GLIDE between strokes. We’ve seen too many people think they can muscle the bellyak around…but let’s face it, water always wins! Of the hundreds of people we’ve taught, women have HANDS DOWN mastered bellyaking quicker than men. Why is this? Perhaps the stereotype is true…women are just better listeners! So listen to what your boat is telling you, and pretty soon you’ll achieve what we all strive for: effortless mastery! (But first you have to put in the effort)

Is there a skill you would like to learn that you’ve seen us do on the Bellyak? Send us a message and we’ll create a blog to answer your questions!

Thank you to the American Canoe Association for providing the photos and supporting the development of the prone paddling curriculum. If you are not a member of the ACA, join today!