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What muscles does kayaking work the most?

Paddling Your Way to Success: A Guide to Kayak Training


Canyon Hohenstein · March 5, 2023 ·

Last updated: March 26, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Key Points
  2. Training for Kayaking: It’s a Must
  3. Target Specific Muscles When Training for Kayaking
  4. Exercises for Getting In and Out of Your Kayak
  5. TRX Exercises for Kayaking
  6. A Healthy Life Equals Great Kayaking
  7. Indoor Kayak Training
  8. Finding Indoor Kayak Training Near You
  9. Finding Outdoor Kayak Training
  10. The Key to Kayaking Lies in Training

Key Points

  • It’s wise to train for kayaking as it is a very challenging sport.
  • It’s important to learn what muscles you use most often when kayaking so that you do the proper exercises to strengthen them.
  • Taking a holistic approach to kayak training is very beneficial.
  • Indoor and outdoor kayak training are great ways to improve your kayaking abilities.

When you think of a kayak, you probably think of brightly colored plastic boats, hot summer days, and thrilling white water rapids. It might surprise you to learn that the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik tribes created kayaking thousands of years ago from driftwood and washed-up whale skeletons. Unlike rafting or canoeing, kayaking is a one-person show and requires a level of physicality casual canoeing doesn’t. A message to all those looking to dabble in this hardcore sport: You must train for kayaking .

Native tribe people didn’t need to train for kayaking . The Arctic region, which is their homeland, made them strong. Their lives were, and still are, physically demanding. The untrained wouldn’t stand a chance out there. Living in the coldest region on Earth isn’t easy and requires innovative ways to survive. They used kayaks for hunting and travel.

In the 2020s, for most people, kayaking is more of a fun sport rather than a means of finding sustenance. Modern kayakers hit the rapids to enjoy a more personal, adrenaline-filled connection with the water.

It doesn’t matter if you’re rocking a tandem kayak or hunting a seal atop a whale skeleton: You must get in shape to succeed.

Kayak training

Training for Kayaking: It’s a Must

There are various varieties of kayaking – some more hardcore than others. Whitewater kayaking demands an advanced level of physical strength, while a chill ecotourism voyage needs less power. Regardless of the type of kayaking you hope to enjoy, you must learn to do it properly. Every kind requires different skills and training. Always receive specialized instruction if you plan to participate in these activities.

Kayaking may seem straightforward, but it’s dangerous if you don’t know how to maneuver the kayak properly or are unfamiliar with water conditions. It requires knowledge of paddling, steering, balancing, and even rescue techniques in case of an emergency.

When training for kayaking you must understand how to function in a kayak and prepare your body for the physicality of kayaking. The best way to learn how to function while in the kayak is to find someone to train you when you actually go out on the water. To prepare for the physicality of kayaking, take a long look at yourself in a mirror and vow to get in shape. Kayaking isn’t a simple walk in the park. It works a lot of muscles and skills.

Target Specific Muscles When Training for Kayaking

There are over 650 skeletal muscles in your body. Kayaking uses a supermajority of them. Paddling, steering, and balancing are hard to do. Such moves require all hands on deck from your body.

Even harder? Flipping over in a sit-in kayak. In this case, you must perform an Eskimo roll or a wet exit. Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like submerging in the water while upside down in your kayak! That alone might get you out. Hopefully, Poseidon blesses you, and that doesn’t happen. If it does, you are going to be glad you’re in good shape.

Most of your muscles undergo some serious strain while kayaking. Peak-performing muscles lead to top-quality kayaking. Focus on the main muscles engaged when kayaking to set yourself up for success.

You don’t need to go to a gym to get in some great kayaking training. You don’t even need weights for a lot of them; however, weight training does build the strength any kayaker needs.

Understanding what muscles kayaking uses makes it easier to focus on those muscle groups when training. Not every muscle gets used while kayaking. Sorry, tensor tympani, it looks like you don’t get the spotlight when kayaking — you’re going to have to keep dampening the noise of chewing (which is what it actually does).

Take a closer look at the major muscles involved in kayaking.

Back Muscles

The upper and lower back muscles pull the paddle and provide power and control over your movements. The back has a lot of muscles, so do a mixture of different exercises to hit all of these muscles. Pull-ups, assisted pull-ups, rows, and lat pulldowns are a good place to start.

Shoulder and Arm Muscles

The shoulder and arm muscles are heavily involved in the paddling motion – particularly the deltoids, biceps, and triceps. Shoulder presses, lateral raises, bicep curls, tricep extensions, and push-ups are great exercises for developing the deltoids, biceps, and triceps.

Girl kayaking

Chest Muscles

The muscles of the chest are involved in the paddling motion and stabilize the upper body. Chest presses, push-ups, and dumbbell flyes work these very important muscles.

Legs and Glutes

The leg and glute muscles provide power and stability during kayaking, particularly during bracing and rolling maneuvers. Squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, and leg presses strengthen the leg and glute muscles.

Core Muscles

The torso-twisting motion of paddling works your entire core. This part of your body is the anchor connecting your upper body to the kayak. It’s an essential player in the kayaking experience; ensure it’s strong. Core muscles include the abdominals, back muscles, and obliques.

The muscles of the core are essential for maintaining balance and stability while kayaking, so it’s wise to dedicate a lot of your training time specifically to these muscles.


A classic plank targets your abs, lower back, and glutes. To perform a plank, start with your forearms on the ground and your body in a straight line from your head to your feet. Hold this position for as long as possible, keeping your core engaged and your hips level.

Russian Twists

Russian twists are a great way to target your obliques, which are essential for rotational movements in kayaking. Sit on the ground with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lean back slightly and lift your feet off the ground. Hold a weight or a ball in front of you, twist your torso to the left and then to the right, and touch the weight to the ground on either side of your body.

Bicycle Crunches

Bicycle crunches get your hip flexors in on the action. Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your knees bent. Lift your shoulders off the ground and bring your right elbow to your left knee as you straighten your right leg. Repeat on the other side, alternating back and forth like pedaling a bicycle.

Bird Dog

Begin the bird dog by getting down on your hands and knees with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keep your spine and neck in a neutral position to avoid unnecessary strain.

Once you’re in position, engage your core muscles to stabilize your body. Slowly extend your right arm straight out in front of you while simultaneously extending your left leg straight out behind you. Keep your arm and leg parallel to the ground and hold this position for a few seconds before returning to your starting position.

Repeat the exercise on the opposite side, extending your left arm and right leg. Keep your hips level and avoid arching your back or letting your hips sag down. Keep your movements slow and controlled, focusing on maintaining balance and stability throughout the exercise.

Dead Bug

To perform a dead bug, start by lying flat on your back on an exercise mat. Bend your knees and lift your legs so your thighs are perpendicular to the ground and your knees are at a 90-degree angle. This is your starting position.

Engage your core muscles and slowly lower your right arm and left leg toward the ground, keeping them straight and in line with your body. Make sure to maintain control throughout the movement, keeping your lower back pressed against the mat. Return your arm and leg to the starting position, and then repeat the movement with your left arm and right leg. Continue alternating sides for the desired number of repetitions.

While these exercises build your core and shape you into a top-notch kayaker, they are for nothing if you cannot get into the kayak in the first place.

Man with muscles kayaking

Exercises for Getting In and Out of Your Kayak

Getting in and out of a kayak is challenging – especially if you have limited leg strength. A few exercises ensure you have what it takes to enter and exit a kayak with ease.


Squats improve your leg strength and make getting up from and returning to a seated position easier. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and your toes pointed slightly out. Keeping your chest up and your back straight, bend your knees and lower your hips toward the ground. Push through your heels to stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement. Use weights or just your body weight.


Step-ups also improve leg strength and balance for getting in and out of a kayak. Stand in front of a step or sturdy object about knee height. Step up onto the object with your right foot, and then bring your left foot up to meet it. Step back down with your right foot and then your left. Repeat for several reps, and then switch sides.

Sit and Stand Exercise

One of the best ways to train for kayaking is to practice standing up from a sitting position on the floor without using your hands. This forces you to use nothing but your legs. If you have the strength, flexibility, and mobility to do that, getting up from a kayak becomes much more manageable.

Sit on the ground with your back straight. Place your feet on the ground crisscross, use your leg and glute muscles to stand up, and then sit back down slowly. Repeat for several reps.

TRX Exercises for Kayaking

There is a form of exercise geared towards those with a strong core. They’re called Total Resistance Exercises (TRX), and a former Marine named Randy Hetrick invented them — so you know it’s a good workout! TRX System is a form of suspension training that uses a set of adjustable straps with handles and a system of anchor points to provide resistance for a full-body workout. It improves mobility and stability, increases metabolic results, builds lean muscle, and develops functional strength.

Some experts worry the instability of the straps might lead to injuries – especially among people with inadequate core strength or a history of joint and back injuries. Consult your doctor before trying it out.

If the doc gives you the okay, TRX undoubtedly provides lots of exercises that up your kayaking game. Here are some of them:

TRX Push-Up

Attach the TRX straps to an anchor point above you and hold the handles with your hands. Walk your feet back so that your body is at a slight incline, with your hands directly under your shoulders. Lower your body toward the ground, keeping your core engaged and your elbows close to your sides. Push back up to the starting position and repeat for several reps.


Stand facing the anchor point with the TRX straps at arm’s length. Lean back slightly, keeping your core engaged and your hands directly under your shoulders. Pull your chest up toward your hands, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lower back down to the starting position and repeat for several reps.

TRX Squat

Hold the TRX handles with your palms facing each other and stand facing the anchor point. Walk your feet forward, so your body is at a slight incline, then lower down into a squat position. Keep your weight in your heels and your chest up. Push back up to the starting position and repeat for several reps.

TRX Lunge

Hold the TRX handles with your palms facing each other and stand facing away from the anchor point. Step your right foot back and lower down into a lunge position, keeping your left knee directly over your ankle. Push back up to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

TRX Plank

Attach the TRX straps to an anchor point at ground level and hold the handles with your hands. Walk your feet back, so your body is in a plank position, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your core engaged. Hold for several seconds, and then lower down to the starting position.

Exercising your muscles is a foundational part of training for kayaking, yet it’s not the only one.

A Healthy Life Equals Great Kayaking

Kayaking takes stamina. Twisting, jerking, flipping, paddling, turning, and cardio for hours is exhausting. You need more than exercise to be in shape, including proper nutrition and hydration. This sport demands a lot from its participants but the reward is great.

What Muscles Are Used in Kayaking? Feel the Burn!

What Muscles are used in Kayaking?

Kayaking is a great way to work out and build muscle! And given the perception that it’s all arms in paddling, you’d be surprised to learn what muscles are used in kayaking. Because while it seems like kayaking only works the arms, a host of other muscles, throughout your entire body, are actually used in kayaking. So, what muscles are used in kayaking? Kayaking works all 12 major muscle groups in your body. Abs, biceps, triceps, lats, deltoids, trapezius, back, quadriceps, hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves. From abs to lats, deltoids (shoulder) to calves – there’s no doubt that paddling can help tone and build your muscles. So if you’re looking for an exciting way to exercise while taking advantage of nature’s beauty, in this article we’ll discuss what muscles are used in kayaking and what parts of your body benefit most from paddling a kayak.

Contents show

Does Kayaking Build Muscle?

First let’s remember that building muscle is a function of stressing your muscles beyond their current capacity for work, allowing them to heal completely, and then stressing them again. This process of breaking down and repairing muscle so it’s stronger is what “building” muscle means. With that in mind, we can talk about kayaking and muscle building. Kayaking has many health benefits and is an excellent way to build and tone muscle. Paddling works the upper body, core, leg and arm muscles all at once. And as you paddle more often and for longer periods of time, with each paddling session, your muscles get stronger. The best part about kayaking is that it can be done in a variety of places, times, and conditions. So you don’t have to worry about getting bored with your workout routine.

Kayak Muscles Worked

Major Muscles Used In Kayaking

Kayaking works 12 major muscle groups, including:

  1. Biceps
  2. Triceps
  3. Deltoids (shoulder)
  4. Chest
  5. Latisimus Dorsi
  6. Trapezius
  7. Abdominal
  8. Obliques
  9. Quadriceps (thighs)
  10. Hamstrings (back of legs)
  11. Glutes (buttocks)
  12. Calves

It uses your upper body to paddle, your core muscles for power and your lower muscles for stability and balance.

Upper Body Muscles

Kayaking engages your upper body muscles as your arms, shoulders, and chest paddle through the water.

Kayaking works your arms and shoulders for paddling and steering the boat. Your arms are used to “pull” the paddle back while your chest muscles help keep your paddle steady during each stroke. You’ll also use your shoulder muscles to rotate and lift the paddle out of the water after each stroke.

From paddling to turning and steering, even getting in and out of a kayak, kayaking is a great way to strengthen your upper body muscles.

Core Muscles

Your core abdominal and oblique muscles are used throughout kayaking as you twist from side-to-side with each stroke of the paddle. In fact, to paddle properly, you twist as much or more with your core than you do pulling and pushing with your arms.

Here’s a great video on the wtisting motion in kayak paddling:

Chest, Arm, Shoulder Muscles Used In Kayaking

Chest Muscles

The chest muscles are used to “push” the paddle through the water with each stroke. When paddling on one side of your kayak, you “pull” with the end of the paddle that’s in the water and to get more power you push with the offside arm.

This works the back muscle on your “paddle” side and your chest muscles on the side of the paddle that’s not in the water.

Your shoulders also play an important role in helping you move forward efficiently by providing power and stability during each stroke.

Back Muscles

Finally, your back plays a crucial role in keeping you upright while sitting in a kayak seat for long periods of time; it is responsible for holding up most of your weight. Having a strong back can help maintain good posture which can improve overall performance and ensure that every stroke counts towards propelling yourself further downriver or across open waters more quickly.

The pulling the paddle through the water also works your latissimus dorsi (lats) in your back.

Arm Muscles

Your arms are essential for controlling your paddle throughout each stroke as well as helping you stay balanced while maneuvering around obstacles or turns in rivers or lakes. Keeping your arms strong helps prevent fatigue so that you can enjoy longer trips out on the water without tiring quickly.

Upper body muscles play an important role in kayaking, providing power and stability to the paddler.

Core Muscles

Core muscles are essential for kayaking because they help with posture, control of the kayak while paddling, and provide power to your paddle stroke in twisting. The main core muscles used in kayaking include the abdominals, obliques, and lower back.

Core Muscles Used In Kayaking

Abdominal Muscles

The abdominal muscles provide stability when you paddle your kayak. They also keep your torso upright so that you can move forward efficiently without having to constantly adjust your position in the boat.

Oblique Muscles

Your oblique muscles are important too as they enable you to twist and turn your upper body while paddling around obstacles or navigating tight turns on rivers or lakes. Finally, strong lower back muscles will help you maintain good posture throughout long trips on the water by supporting your spine and keeping it aligned properly during those extended hours of paddling.

When developing a good core muscle routine for kayaking, focus on exercises that target these three areas:

  1. Crunches (for abs)
  2. Side bends (for obliques)
  3. Planks (for lower back)

You should also incorporate other full-body exercises such as squats, lunges, pushups and pull ups into your routine since these movements will help strengthen multiple muscle groups at once which can improve overall performance out on the water.

Additionally stretching before each session is key to avoiding injury due to overuse of any particular muscle group from repetitive motions like paddling strokes or maneuvering through rapids or waves.

Core muscles play an important role in kayaking, providing stability and power for paddling.

Key Takeaway: Kayaking is great exercise and an excellent, low-impact full-body workout, particularly for core muscles. To maximize performance and avoid injury, focus on exercises such as crunches, side bends and planks; incorporate squats, lunges, pushups and pull ups; and always stretch before each session.

Leg Muscles

When you paddle, the main source of stability comes from your legs. This means that when you kayak, you are working out many different muscles in your lower body.

Leg Muscles Used In Kayaking

The quadriceps are one of the primary leg muscles used in kayaking. The quads help to provide stability when paddling and also keep you balanced while seated on the water. Your hamstrings also play an important role in helping with balance as well as providing stability during turns or other maneuvers while kayaking. Additionally, they work together with your glutes to help propel yourself forward through each stroke of the paddle.

Your calves are another set of muscles that get worked out when kayaking since they assist with pushing off against the foot pegs or braces at the bottom of your boat as well as keeping your feet firmly planted inside them throughout each stroke cycle. Lastly, don’t forget about those core muscles.

Your abs and obliques come into play here too by helping maintain good posture while paddling and aiding in rotation so that each stroke can be executed properly and efficiently for maximum power output over long distances or tough conditions on open water bodies like lakes or rivers.

Overall, if done correctly and consistently over time, regular kayaking sessions can lead to increased strength gains all around – not just for your legs but for other areas such as arms, shoulders, back etc. This will only serve to make you a better overall paddler. So next time you head out onto the water make sure to give those leg muscles some extra attention; after all they do most of the hard work.

Leg muscles are key for providing stability and balance while kayaking. With strong legs, you’ll be able to paddle with more ease and efficiency. Now let’s look at the arm muscles that help make kayaking a fun activity.

Key Takeaway: Regular kayaking sessions can lead to increased strength gains in the legs, arms, shoulders, back and core. To maximize power output over long distances or tough conditions on open water bodies like lakes or rivers, focus on strengthening your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and absobliques.

Specific Arm Muscles Worked

When you paddle, the muscles in your arms are used to provide power and help steer the kayak. The main arm muscles that are worked are biceps, triceps, forearms and wrists which all work together with other smaller stabilizing muscles to propel you forward.

Having strong grip strength is also essential for whitewater kayaking.

Arm Muscles Used In Kayaking


Your biceps are located on the front of your upper arm between your shoulder and elbow joint. These muscles are responsible for flexing or bending at the elbow joint as well as rotating your forearm so you can turn the paddle blade while paddling. As you pull back on each stroke with a bent elbow, these muscles contract providing power to move forward through the water.


The triceps make up two-thirds of the mass of your upper arm muscle tissue and they work together with other smaller stabilizing muscles like brachialis (located underneath) to extend or straighten out your elbows during each stroke of paddling. This helps keep good form while paddling which will give you more power over time by using proper technique rather than relying solely on brute force from just one set of large muscle groups like bicep curls would do if done incorrectly without proper technique .


Your forearms also play an important role in helping propel yourself forward while kayaking by gripping onto either side of the paddle shaft tightly during each stroke; this helps create leverage against both sides evenly for maximum efficiency when propelling yourself forward through water resistance with every single stroke taken.

Wrists and Grip

Additionally, having strong wrist flexors will help prevent fatigue from occurring too quickly due to the repetitive motions required when turning or maneuvering around obstacles such as rocks or logs floating downriver during whitewater rafting trips etc.

Finally, a strong grip is essential for those who plan on doing any type of river running as it’s important not only for controlling direction but also being able to hang onto rocks/logs/etc should they need assistance getting themselves out safely after capsizing their boat(s).

All these combined make up what’s known as “arm endurance” which can be built up over time by regularly practicing different types of kayaking strokes correctly until they become second nature.


Not only does kayaking work out 12 major muscle groups, but it also provides a great cardiovascular workout as well. Whether you’re looking for an upper body workout or want to strengthen your core and legs, kayaking can help you reach your fitness goals. So if you’re looking for a fun way to get fit while enjoying the outdoors, plenty of muscles are used in kayaking.

I’m Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family’s paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?


What’s not to love about kayaking? Out in nature, potentially experiencing marine life depending on where you are, it’s beautiful. And as if that wasn’t reason enough to get after it, your upper body is in for one heck of a workout.


Kayaking works muscles in your back and arms while torching calories.

Muscles Used in Kayaking

Your back, shoulders, arms, hands, abdomen, chest and especially heart are key muscles used in kayaking. Even an hour of kayaking will produce more work for these muscle groups than you’d probably hit in any single gym session.

The Back Attack

With proper kayaking technique, every stroke you take is a single-arm row. Picture doing a single-arm dumbbell row or seated cable row; it’s basically the same motion with a paddle. Every stroke works the lats to a great degree. While one arm is rowing back, the other is getting a stretch and then a contraction. It’s an effective back workout and you can go at whatever tempo or variation you like: sprints, long sets, each pull as hard a possible, wide grip or narrow grip.

Build Boulder Shoulders

Generally, any time that you do a back workout, you will be hitting the shoulders, especially the rear head of the deltoid. In the case of kayaking, the direct impact on the shoulders is much more involved than a typical back workout. At the end of each stroke, the paddle has to come up and around to the front again.

This motion transfers the load from the large lat muscle up to the shoulders. That forward circular motion really attacks the rear, lateral and anterior delts. Again, varying the tempo and the width of your grip will vary how the muscles are worked.

Guns and Grip

Like any other rowing workout, the biceps are among the muscles used in kayaking. During this activity, the triceps actively contract as well. As one arm is rowing in, hitting the biceps on that side, the other arm is countering with a forward extension to create more torque on the paddle. That extension involves a lot of triceps.

As the biceps and triceps are doing their thing, your grip and forearms are getting attacked by handling and maneuvering the paddle. Like high-rep pullup workouts, your hands will fatigue and your forearms will be tested during a kayaking session.

Abs of Steel

As with all rotational movements, the abdomen and obliques are heavily involved and responsible for your performance. If you have weak core muscles, good luck getting through a demanding kayaking session with any kind of pride. Your trunk, which runs from your waist to your neck, is constantly working in a rotation and counter-rotation manner, resulting in a huge demand for spine stabilization and balance.

Expecting to kayak without taxing your abdomen and core is like expecting to win an auto race with a faulty axle between your wheels.

Pecs for Real and More

Like the triceps involvement in kayaking, the chest is also involved. When one arm is rowing back, the other is countering with a forward push, like a single-arm dumbbell bench press. The interesting part is that when you do any row, your pectoral muscles actually work to stabilize the shoulder and pull the arm in, so the chest works on both arms simultaneously in opposite fashions.

And if it wasn’t obvious, kayaking is a cardio-respiratory onslaught. Whether you sprint or coast, your heart and lungs will be tested on every single row for the duration of your adventure.

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