Paddling for Fitness: What Kayaking can do for Your Muscles and Body

Kayaking is a popular outdoor sport that offers many health benefits to its practitioners. From toning your muscles and body to helping you relieve stress, practicing kayaking offers one of the best ways to get in shape. And unlike running or other forms of exercise, kayaking doesn’t cause damaging wear and tear on your body.

But just as important as its fitness rewards is that kayaking is an enjoyable activity that you can look forward to. So whether you’re thinking about becoming a whitewater badass or just practicing it with your friends, you’ll be enjoying the recreational and fitness benefits that only kayaking can offer.

Here are 8 muscles that benefit from practicing kayaking:

1. Upper Back

Every time you’re paddling yourself through the river you are targeting your upper back muscles and, to a lesser extent, your lats. Paddling is a movement that closely resembles a single-arm row. Which means that when you’re pulling one side of your back is contracting while the opposite side is stretching and relaxing.

Since a typical kayak trip usually lasts several hours, during which you can repeat the same movement hundreds of times, you are essentially giving your back a complete workout that rivals anything you can do at the gym. Whether you’re sprinting or going for longer distances, pulling as hard as possible is the best way to get the most muscle benefit.

2. Shoulders

Kayaking strengthens and broadens your shoulders. While the back muscles are mostly used for pulling, the shoulders actually play a variety of roles in kayaking. Kayakers use their shoulders to pull and push the paddle in the water as a way to propel themselves, reduce their speed, and change directions.

Paddling involves the use of the whole deltoid muscle and the rear head of the deltoids in particular. Compared to other back muscle exercises, like the sitting row, kayaking involves both heads of the shoulder and helps to build a balanced upper body.

3. Biceps and Triceps

Since paddling heavily involves using your arms, kayaking is a great way to tone your biceps and triceps muscles to get rid of any flabby bits under your arms. Paddling forces your arm muscles to work together to overcome the water’s resistance, which makes it an excellent exercise to tone them and gain definition.

Kayaking on a regular basis also increases the arm size, giving you the “guns” that everybody dreams they could have. Unlike weights or cable machines, rowing involves the two muscles working together but at different intervals. This means that while one arm is rowing, using the biceps on that side, the opposite arm is extending the paddle forward, which targets the triceps on that side and creates more torque and therefore a more powerful stroke.

4. Chest

Paddling also involves using the chest muscles to provide stability while the arms are taking care of the pulling motion. A strong chest is essential to developing an even stroke, since the rotational movement used while paddling demands that your chest pulls the arms in and keep the shoulders together while you’re rowing.

Similarly to what happens with your biceps and triceps, both sides of your chest work together but in opposite fashions while you row, therefore providing a complete workout to your pectoral muscles.

5. Forearms

But there is more to the arms than just the biceps and triceps. The forearm muscles are one of those body parts that don’t usually get attention but are heavily used while kayaking. Especially because it’s customary to hold the paddle with a firm grip while paddling, which provides both a stronger stroke and maximum muscle benefit.

The stronger your grip is the easier it becomes to handle the kayak, even in the most difficult whitewater rivers. While at first your forearms may feel sore, with practice you will accustom yourself to the constant handling and maneuvering of the paddle as your forearms get stronger. This will also help you in your everyday life as the strength and dexterity you’ll gain are transferable to a wide variety of tasks, such as carrying grocery bags or even playing stringed instruments.

6. Abs

Kayaking also uses the abs to provide the rotational movement needed to paddle and change directions in the water. Unlike the rowing motion used on a boat, kayaking involves rotating the whole body to one side at a time. A movement that is heavily reliant on your entire abdominal section and develops a significant benefit on body strength.

If you’re just starting kayaking the first thing you’ll notice is how demanding it is on your abs. Most people don’t use their rotational muscles on a daily basis, which can lead to injuries and cause lower back pain. By kayaking on a regular basis you will develop a strong core that will keep you injury-free and allow you to use your upper and lower body more efficiently.

7. Legs

Though not the more obvious muscle group, kayaking uses your legs to stabilize your body while you’re paddling. Unlike the upper body, the legs remain in a stationary position and in close contact with the kayak’s surface. This means that even the subtle movements of your legs can help you control the kayak, adjust your course, and use more torque on your strokes.

This constant applying of pressure works as an isometric exercise on your legs, which over time helps to build your lower body strength and tone your leg muscles.

8. Heart

Kayaking is an excellent aerobic activity that does wonders for your cardio. There’s nothing like rowing upriver or riding turbulent rapids to get your heart going. Especially when you compare it with boring traditional aerobic exercises like running on a treadmill or jogging.

Also, unlike running, kayaking doesn’t have any negative impact on your joints. Which is why you can keep rowing as many miles as you like without it suffering any downside on your muscles and body.

Kayaking is an outdoor sport that offers multiple benefits for the body and mind. From tightening your body to helping you prevent heart diseases, practicing kayaking on a regular basis can be the basis for a healthy lifestyle. Kayaking is one of the most enjoyable ways of working out, as it is practiced in the relaxing outdoors rather than in the boring confines of a gym. So if you are thinking about getting in shape, get your kayak and your paddles and prepare to have the workout of your life!


Tim Fox is a co-founder and writer for The Elite. A blog where he and his friend shares the latest information about the outdoors.


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