What Muscles Do You Work When Kayaking?

Kayaking, as innocent as it can appear, makes use of many muscles. Unlike weight lifting, you are not isolating and targeting muscles. Although it appears emphasis is on the upper body and arm strength, we can be surprised to know the bottom half of the body is also contributing to the paddling motions.

In a previous article, we looked at how kayaking can be a good workout. The answer is: yes! The fantastic thing about kayaking is how you can control the intensity of the exertion required to propel your boat forward. Kayaking can become a cardio-intensive workout and build muscular strength as it puts a demand on both the endurance and power you have to paddle in the water.

Let’s take a closer look at how each of the specific muscle groups works together for kayaking.

How the Pros Train for Kayaking

Take a look at the video below first to see how the enthusiasts train for their kayaking, both in the gym and in the water.

The inspirational video shows how training can look like in the gym with weights, then how it looks like as an exercise routine in the water. Strong currents might appear scary for beginners, but this is what we can potentially work towards.

When you start out, enjoying the calm waters and learning how to paddle efficiently will be vital. Make sure you have the right gear and chose the right starting kayak to make things easier in the water.

Kayaking as a Workout

The flexibility to adjust the amount of resistance and intensity by changing the amount of effort you put into a paddling stroke can be seductive. For first-time paddlers, you won’t be surprised at how exhausted you might feel at the end of a session in the water. Simple as it the motions might be, paddling can put a high demand on your entire body.

You can do sprints in the water, long sets, increase the power behind each stroke, or adjust the grip on your paddle. All these little decisions can make use of many different types of muscles in your body at different degrees of demand.

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

Let’s explain how each of your muscle groups is involved in kayaking:

The Back Muscles

Every stroke may appear to be a single arm repetition, similar to a dumbbell row or seated cable row. However, the biggest muscles on your back, the latissimus dorsi (A.K.A. “lats”) draw torque power from the lower body and translate it to the upper body and arm movement. As one arm rows, the other arm extends and stretches.

Your lower back will also be involved in much of the paddle. The lower back provides the proper posture for the rest of your upper body to paddle properly. The wrong paddling technique can be strenuous so the backs do their work to set the right posture.

Make sure you install an adequate seat backrest with proper support. At the end of a paddling session, your back muscles may feel much more tired than expected and need to relax.

The Shoulder Muscles

Any arm-related exercise will include the shoulders. We find the rear head of the deltoids, which is the muscle that forms the contour over your shoulder, will be placed under tension as it contracts and elongates for every stroke.

Paddling does have a greater impact to the shoulder than typical back-isolated workouts. Since there is no linear direction as to how paddling is done, you can expect your shoulders to feel sore after some twists and turns in the water. The rotation of the shoulder can be demanding, and the assistance of the shoulder blades in pushing the kayak forward can be a good workout.

The Upper Arm Muscles

The triceps work more than the biceps for paddling, however, both are affected. The torque required for paddling with double-ended paddle blades provide a consistent workout for both arms. As one arm pulls the paddle through the water, the other arm extends and pushes forward to provide the extra torque power to drive the kayak.

As we begin to kayak, we tend to paddle with more of with our arms than our body. The same holds true for other sports such as golfing and baseball batting. However, as we become more proficient in our technique, despite the arm muscles contract to provide power, more of our body becomes involved in the motion.

The Forearms and Grip Muscles

The forearm and finger muscles also play a role in the paddling motion. This might be arguably the most important part of kayaking.

This muscle group handle and maneuver the paddle in a way that involves rotating, flexing, and extending the wrists. Both your forearms and hands will be tested for its endurance as you paddle at any and all degrees of intensity.

Hold on tight. The hands become the pivot point for the paddle rotation. The improper grip means less power. Also, the last thing we want is to lose our paddles!

The Ab Muscles

Although kayaking appears to involve the twisting of the upper body and power of the arms, the abs and lower body play an essential role as the muscle groups connecting point with the kayak.

The rotational movement places a demand on your abdomen and obliques. Torque is needed to generate power from the lower body. As you paddle, you may naturally contract your abs (squeeze) to support the upper body movements.

The core of your body is constantly working to maintain stability in or on your kayak. Balance is important to remain afloat and not capsize your boat, especially for smaller boats such as racing kayaks.

The importance of your ab muscles cannot be overstated. A large part of balance and stability is having the proper posture. The core muscles being the bridge between the upper and lower body will play an essential role in paddling forward and backward.

The Chest Muscles

Pectorals, being the bigger muscles known to be our chest, may not feel as though they are being used well. They do make up the bulk of the upper half of your torso. An exercise in the gym you can equate paddling and the use of your pec muscles to is the seated machine chest press. The difference is how you push with one arm and pull on the other, then alternate for a paddling motion.

The chest is placed under pressure for every stroke. Add in the necessary torso rotation and you will find a workout that involves both your pectorals and the abdomen to put power behind your paddle strokes.

The Leg and Hip Muscles

Surprising to most watchers of the kayaking sport, the legs are an essential part of paddling in a kayak. The engagement of the entire leg might not be done in the same manner as a squat or while your walk and run, but they bend and turn as your torso and arms drive the kayak forward.

The legs provide the connecting contact point with the entire kayak, and proper bracing against the interior walls or deck can help with paddling forward, maneuvering and turning, stability, and when you roll a kayak. The hips also provide a connecting contact point with the kayak, and has demand on it to provide powerful twisting and turning motions.

The next time you hit the gym to work your “kayaking muscles”, never forget to do leg workouts. Don’t skip leg day!

Want to learn more? Check out this video demonstrating the technique behind paddling. We can see a close-up view breaking down the muscles in action: