Last updated: November 21

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

Kayaking is an excellent water sport for all those who want to get up close to nature. There can be nothing better than flowing with the river among trees and beautiful landscapes. However, kayaking can also be a great workout as it involves a significant amount of muscular exertion. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “what muscles does kayaking work,” then keep reading.

Is Kayaking a Good Workout?

New paddlers may find kayaking excessively tiring and exhaustive. They not only find their upper-body sore but almost their entire body feels worn out. Kayaking is a full-body exercise and depending upon the intensity and the effort you put in, you could end up working several muscles in the body.

The exercise not only works out muscles but also decreases stress. Kayaking releases endorphins, which are known to lift your mood and improve your overall health. Being by water also calms down the nerves and provides a much-needed connection with nature.

So What Muscles Does Kayaking Work Out?

Back Muscles

Your back muscles are what primarily drive each kayak stroke. With each stroke, you end up working three main muscles in the back:

  • The Latissimus Dorsi or Lats – They are the largest muscles in your back. As you bring each stroke forward, the Lats contract, allowing you to transfer energy from the lower body into the movement. The motion is somewhat similar to pull-ups or chin-ups. You can increase your muscle strength by regularly undertaking these exercises in the gym.
  • Rhomboid Muscles – Towards the end of the stroke, the rhomboid muscles are responsible for the muscular movement called scapular retraction. It’s primarily the pulling of your shoulder blades towards the middle of the spine. The rhomboids are particularly crucial for maintaining good posture during kayaking, which significantly improves performance.
  • Trapezius – Situated in the middle of the back, the trapezius, or traps, are responsible for movement in the neck and shoulders. It also controls the movement of your shoulder blades. We mostly only use our upper traps in our day-to-day routine. However, for kayaking, we must train our middle and lower traps as well to avoid overusing the former.

Shoulder Muscles

Shoulder muscles tie in closely with the arms and back muscles. All three are critical for excellent performance in the sport. The deltoid muscle contours the shape of our shoulders. When kayaking, you put your shoulder muscle at serious risk of injury.

During the forward stroke, our posterior deltoids get the most amount of workout, and we run the risk of overdeveloping them. To ensure you maintain a muscular balance and avoid overdevelopment, you need to focus on how to balance the rear and forward deltoids. You can do that through regularly undertaking exercises that help develop the balance, or you can practice maintaining the ‘paddler’s box.’

The paddler’s box is an imaginary rectangular shape that paddlers should maintain. It helps ensure maximum strength and power while avoiding the risk of injury to the shoulders. Your arms, upper body, and the paddle will constitute the rectangular shape.

Upper Arms

When kayaking, you use your triceps a lot more than you utilize your biceps. However, the sport does significantly utilize both the muscles. During the sport, as one arm pulls and the other pushes, working both muscles in both arms consistently. You can also indulge in kayaking as a way to build arm strength.

Rotator Cuff

The four muscles in our rotator cuff play a critical role in stabilizing the arm and shoulder movement. Keeping the rotator cuff healthy and in shape is essential. Leaving them idle for long periods can become a cause for injury when you pick up kayaking again.

Forearms and Grips

Forearms and hands play an essential role in kayaking. They rotate, flex, extend, and allow you to maneuver the kayak paddle through the water. These are the muscles that need to be the strongest if you’re looking to enjoy a long and enduring trip down the water stream.

Wrist injuries are pretty common among kayakers, especially the not so polished ones. Make sure to keep a relaxed grip so as not to put too much strain on your muscles. Regular grip exercises can help build strength and stamina.

Core Muscles

In almost all sports and exercise, we need to maintain balance and hold some sort of posture. To do so, we draw most of our strength and stability from our core. In kayaking, we draw the power required to propel the kayak forward, from our center. While we move our arms and back and even our legs, we need to keep our base contracted during each stroke.

You also need core stability and strength to maintain the paddler’s box and an upright position. Because kayaking is quite a time-consuming sport, the stronger the core strength, the longer you will be able to deliver your best performance. You continuously work your obliques and abdominals in the forward propelling motion. If you’re a regular kayaker, you may even develop chiseled abs.

Chest Muscles

Just as you work your back muscles in combination with your arm and shoulders, you simultaneously also work your chest muscles. You place a significant amount of pressure on your chest muscles with each stroke. To effectively propel the kayak forward, you require torso rotation, which also works the chest muscles.

Legs and Hips

While kayaking is not primarily a massive leg sport, you do require a significant amount of leg work to build synergy. Technically, your leg and hip muscles act as the cherry on top of the entire process. They pull the whole movement together and ensure effective energy transfer from the body into the action.

If you want to make a good stroke, you first need to plant your feet firmly on the base of the boat. You have to brace yourself for the transfer of power. Your hip here acts as the connecting point between the core and the legs. Where you use your legs to initiate the stroke, you use your core strength to see it through. The hip as the connecting point plays an important role, especially during torso rotation.

As you build expertise over time, you realize you can also utilize your legs to steer the kayak in the direction you want.

Cardiovascular Exercise

Though many people take kayaking to be a leisurely activity, it is, in fact, great cardiovascular exercise. It is an excellent cardio exercise for flat-footed people or those who generally do not enjoy excessive leg work. People suffering from lower body or knee injuries can also take up kayaking to ensure they get their recommended dose of exercise.

Tips for Beginners

If you want to undertake the sport, you should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Pick the right vessel – There are different boats for each level of expertise. You, as a beginner, should opt for boats that are beginner-friendly. We suggest you opt for a wide vessel, which makes it easier for you to get back on it once the boat flips over. You should also choose a lightweight paddle which makes it easier for you to handle
  • Wear a life jacket – No matter how good of a swimmer you are, you should always wear a life jacket for added safety.
  • Watch the weather – As a beginner, you don’t want to be caught in a storm, as things could go wrong really fast. Make sure you practice when the weather is clear so that you have a good grip before you venture into tumultuous waters.
  • Paddle with friends – Paddling with friends is not only more fun, but it is also a lot safer. By turning it into a group activity, you have fewer chances of getting lost or being stranded.

Related Questions

Is kayaking better cardio or strength?

Kayaking is an excellent workout and is particularly useful for toning your body. It’ll get you the V shape you desire. It is also one of the few upper body-centric cardio exercises that you can take part in. Just one hour of the sport can burn up to 400 to 500 calories. At the same time, kayaking also requires a significant amount of strength and resilience. Regularly undertaking the sport does develop muscle strength.

However, when it comes to strength building, you need to combine a few more exercises with the sport to ensure the best results. Therefore, kayaking is better as a cardio exercise then it is a strength-building one.

Can you lose weight by kayaking?

An amateur kayaker can burn around 400 to 500 calories in just one hour of kayaking. It is an excellent way to burn off stubborn belly fat and end up with chiseled muscles, all while surrounded by nature. For those who hate the idea of going to a gym or sticking to rigorous diets, they can take up kayaking and lose weight at a leisurely but sustained pace.

What are the benefits of kayaking exercise?

Kayak exercises offer multiple health benefits. Without a doubt, it strengthens your muscles from the shoulders to the arms, the back, core, and the legs. It is a full-body work out that not only builds strength but also burns fat and improves your grip. It also provides you with your much-needed dose of vitamin D.


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Always Make Sure You Have the Right Gear When You Go Kayaking