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The All-Important “Hip Snap”

About a month ago I posted a blog about learning to roll at pool sessions during the winter. I had promised to put some video of hip snap practice on the website. It is actually on the photo gallery page, but I didn’t get around to blogging about it until today. Sorry. I’m much more punctual and responsible in real life than I am when it comes to writing my blogs. Well, better late than never, I guess.

Kayakers who are anxious to learn the skill of rolling tend to get to focused on the end product and it actually inhibits their ability to roll successfully. The first thing you need to understand is that none of the movements required to roll a kayak are hard to perform. The hard part is learning which movements are required and in what order, and then training your body to perform those movements in a choreographed sequence when you are upside down, underwater, with water shooting up your nose. Add to that the fact that those who are chronologically challenged (read over 40) are going to take a little longer to train their muscles than those who are younger. Despite all this, I don’t want you to despair. There is truly hope for anyone who wants to learn to roll. It may take some time, but there are some secrets to working your way to a successful roll.  The trick with learning to roll is you want to break the skill into small, easy incremental steps that build your confidence.  As you watch the video, please excuse the poor production quality and ignore the audio. It isn’t very good. Rather, read what I have written below and then watch the video several times before going to practice yourself.

The hip snap is the key component of any successful roll. Don’t be in a big hurry to do a full-blown roll with a paddle. Take the time to work through the following steps and be rigorous in your attention to detail as you practice. You will start by practicing a hip snap while holding onto the side of the pool deck. Then you can try doing the same thing while holding onto the bow of a friend’s kayak. From here you graduate to using a paddle float for support as you perform your hip snap. Once you can do the hip snap successfully with the paddle float alone, then you can start working on the roll with a paddle. Your next step will be to place the blade of your paddle on the bow of someone else’s kayak. After that, you can put a paddle float on your paddle blade and practice your hip snaps with the paddle held at a ninety degree angle. The last steps will be to learn the set up position and how to get from the set-up to the finish postion (this will vary depending on the type of roll that you are learning).  For now, I’m just going to cover the steps of practicing your hip snap without the paddle.

It is imperative that you insist on good technique in all of these steps. The most important aspect of this technique is that you do not “muscle” your way up with your arms. The roll happens under the sprayskirt using your knee, thigh, and hip. Unfortunately, “hip snap” is not a very good description of what you do. As you watch the video, notice that the kayak does not roll from rightside up to upside down and back in a jerky, “snappy” motion. It should be practiced in a very slow, controlled, and smooth motion. Practice this skill much slower than you are likely to do it in your final complete roll. The focus needs to be on getting as much flexibility out of your body as possible and teaching your body to use the correct muscles in the correct sequence. You can always speed it up later.

When you see me with my head on the pool gutter, I am laying to the left of my kayak. To bring the kayak upside down, I am lifting my right knee in the thigh brace to tip the boat on top of me. When I go to right the kayak, I need to relax the right knee (although it stays in the thigh brace) and instead lift up on my left knee and thigh to roll the kayak right side up. I am not “snapping my hips” side to side. The motion should be very smooth and requires very little strength or pressure on the hands and arms. Notice that I do not lift my head off my hands while I practice repeated smooth transitions rolling the kayak upside down and rightside up. Only when I am done practicing several “hip snaps” do I lift my head up. Keeping your head down during this whole exercise helps you to train your body to keep your head down while attempting to roll a kayak upright. When practicing your hip snaps, get in the habit of leaving your head down as much and as long as possible. Keeping your head resting on your hands the whole time takes away some of that tendency of trying to push yourself up.

When you switch to practicing on the bow of someone else’s kayak, that person needs to watch very carefully to make sure that you are not pushing down on the bow of the boat to lift yourself up. The more still and quiet the bow of your friend’s boat stays while you execute your hip snaps, the more likely it is that you are doing it correctly.  Practice your hip snaps just the same as you did while holding onto the pool deck.

You may be able to fool yourself or your partner into thinking that you are not muscling yourself up when you use the pool deck or the bow of your friend’s kayak, but be prepared to learn the truth when you use an inflated paddle float to perform your hip snaps. There is no cheating with the paddle float. If you are performing your hip snap technique correctly focusing on using your knee and thigh to lift the kayak, you will be successful. If you attempt to use your arms at all, the paddle float will go underwater and you will not come up. Have your friend standing by to give you a bow rescue just in case, or be ready to wet exit if necessary. It may take you awhile to truly discover what it means not to use your arms to muscle yourself up. When you successfully perform a hip snap using a paddle float for support, you will immediately understand how little effort it really takes to roll when you do it right. In fact, gradually letting air out of your paddle float as you practice could actually lead you to learning a hand roll!

Only after developing a solid “hip snap” should you be thinking about trying to learn how to use your paddle. You will be much less tempted to try pulling yourself up by pulling down on your paddle, a problem that plagues many people who are learning to roll and a technique flaw that can lead to shoulder dislocations in the future.  Another suggestion to keep from developing bad habits as you learn to roll, don’t practice for too long at any one time.  It is better to practice frequently for short periods of time (example: 3 times a week for 30 minutes each time rather than one 90 minute session.)  Even though rolling does not take a lot of strength, your leg and hip muscles will get fatigued as you practice and you will have a tendency to resort to poor technique as you compensate.  You don’t want to ingrain bad habits.  In between physical practice sessions, take time to visualize those smooth easy hip snaps.  Remember that you are trying to build your confidence by having success at each of these steps.

Feel free to shoot me any questions you may have, and good luck with your quest to cultivate a roll!


This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. I have no trouble hip snapping with my head resting against side of pool but when I attempt actual roll I feel my hip snap is quite weak. The pool I practice in has a shelf with 10 inches of water depth and when I put my hand and head against that I also have trouble snaoping my hips. I dont know if it is a flexibility issue or is this common? Height is 5’11 and weight is 200 pounds and fit as I weight train 4 times weekly and have for many years. Boat is a Liquidlogic Remix. Any advice would be helpful as I have had individual instruction and am working on C to C. Thank You, John

  2. The C to C roll does require more flexibility than the sweep roll. The Remix is sort of a deep boat and will require a reasonable amount of flexibility to perform a C to C roll well. The term “hip snap” can also be misleading. Remember that you are pulling on one knee at a time and relaxing the other knee (although you don’t want to let your relaxed knee come out of the thigh brace). If you lay your head down to the right side of your kayak when practicing hip snaps, you will use your left knee to roll the kayak upside down. When you go to roll the boat back upright, you will need to relax the left knee while you pull on the right knee. Finally, age makes a difference in how quickly you will learn to roll. You didn’t give an age, but said you have been training for many years. As we age, we lose neural pathways between our brain and muscles that were not used (probably you didn’t use those rolling pathways for anything else). You can regrow new connections between the brain and muscles, but it will take time. Have you had a chance to watch my YouTube video on hip snaps?

  3. Yes I have watched your video and it is certainly helpful. My age is 56 and I have just taken up whitewater kayaking. The enthusiasm is there but I guess it will just take time to train older muscles! I have a pool in back yard so I will continue to practice and try to be patient! Thank You for your quick response.

  4. Keep working at it, John. It will take a little longer since you are starting later in life, but it can be done. I have many friends who learned to roll in their 50’s and 60’s. I have found the rolling DVD produced by Ben Lawry to be a big help for many students. He has a method for learning some of the body movements that is done on dry land. You can see more by going to his website, I also have it linked on my website. It is the first link on the “DVD & Videos” page. Look under “Resources”.

  5. I’m teaching my uncle how to roll right now and I just wanted to say that I think this is a fantastic instructional.

  6. Thanks, Burt. Another great instructional tool for learning to roll is Helen Wilson’s DVD called “Simplifying the Roll”. There is an excellent trailer that can be found on YouTube.

  7. Hi Sherri

    I own the Helen Wilson Video and it really is a great instructional DVD for a low impact roll.

    I have a reconstructed left shoulder(26 years ago and going strong) I am a pretty strong guy but also know I dont want to damage my shoulders so I have gravitated to greenland paddles and technique.

    I also have introduced my wife and daughter to kayaks, when they were watching me learn to roll with the Ct o C both were convinced they would never even try to learn to roll. I found Helen Wilson’s trailer on youtube a number of months ago and showed it to them. Both of them said “well I can do it like that” Helen makes the standard greenland roll very easy to understand. by watching the video and being focused on her methods I can now roll in slow motion with very little energy at all.

    I think its a great DVD to study.


  8. […] Practice A Hip Snap: This skill is critical for doing effective braces like the slapping and sweeping high and low braces.  It is also a lead-in skill for the bow rescue and certain rolls like the C-to-C Roll.  You can start by doing hip snaps as you hold onto the pool gutter.  Move on to holding the bow of a friend’s kayak, and eventually work on hip snapping with just a paddle float or life jacket in your hand. […]

  9. Hi Sherri,

    I recently changed my kayak from an RPM to a Burn and immediately noticed the difference when trying to roll. I had a bomb proof roll in the RPM but regularly failed in the Burn. I thought all that was required was a bit more grunt as the Burn has a flatter hull. This misguided notion lead to me using more ond more grunt when my rolls failed and subsequently loosing my technique – raising my head, forgetting the hip snap. Now, thanks to your advice, I went back to basics, concentrated on my technique and am back on track. Rolling the Burn is different to the RPM (and at 49 I am not as flexible as I used to be) but getting my technique right means I come up everytime.
    Thanks for the advice, I am once again a happy paddler.

  10. I also paddle an RPM. I love it. I have a Dagger GT 7.8 with the planing hull, but I just miss the feel of my RPM when I’m not in it. I guess I’m just old school (or just old). ; )

  11. Great article Sherri! It’s funny how similar this article was to a conversation I had with a group of (advanced beginner?) paddlers this weekend. This was an eager and skilled group that took easily to the skills and were eager to learn rolling. I told them I wouldn’t teach them the roll, but that I’d offer them some techniques that will get them moving their body in the right way and heading down the path toward rolling. Your article is exactly what I was telling them. Except the exercise with the inflatable paddle float – I hadn’t seen that before or thought of it. It’s a great idea.
    Cheers & thanks for the articles,

  12. Thanks. There are also some very good suggestions and practice techniques in the Helen Wilson DVD, “Simplifying the Roll” and the DVD by Cherry Perry and Turner Wilson, “This is the Roll”.

  13. I’m working on my roll in a Remix 59, much different than my old Crossfire. I need to strengthen and stretch the muscles that perform the hip snap. Any suggestions for out-of-water practice, especially to strengthen those muscles?

  14. Sorry for my slow response. September has been especially busy for me this year. I don’t really have much in the way of exercise suggestions other than your traditional crunches and sit-ups including ones where you are doing a bit of twisting to the side as you do the crunch. However, the “hip snap” shouldn’t require a great deal of strength. If you are used to doing a “C to C” roll in your old Crossfire, perhaps you should consider switching to a “sweep roll” which requires a much less explosive hip snap. It is more of a constant pull on one knee to roll the kayak while you perform what amounts to a sweeping high brace. You can end in a layback position or a forward facing position – whichever seems to work better for you. The sweep roll also has an advantage over the “C to C” in the newer whitewater kayaks as the boat begins rolling sooner which means that you need less flexibility. The newer whitewater kayaks have much more volume in the cockpit area making them wider and deeper than the old whitewater kayaks. This makes it much harder to get into the correct position to perform the “C to C” roll unless you have long arms, a long torso, and a fairly high degree of flexibility. I also feel that the sweep roll has a greater degree of reliability over the “C to C” once you master it.

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