Kayaking as Exercise

I consider kayaking to be a workout, especially after covering several miles in the past few days, but what are you really working when paddling? I would assume your biceps, abs and the muscles of your upper back, but that’s just my observation. Anyone have any insight on this?

Upper body and more!
I started kayaking as a companion to hiking as summer in the Connecticut(and elsewhere in the NE)woods can be downright muggy and buggy. My sister is a personal trainer, so I confirmed with her.

If your technique includes pushing/pulling on your paddles, along with a good trunk twist, you are working the following: on the pull…lats (gives you that “v” appearance, providing you don’t balance paddling with too many Guiness) biceps, abs/obliques

and on the push…triceps, deltoids, chest. Also joining in the fun are the forearms, lower back (balance out abs) and a little calves/quads if you’re pushing off with the legs. Excellent upper body workout if you are including some hard digging. Slow moving rivers feature more exercising of the mind, and in my case, trigger finger on the Nikon.

My apologies to any muscle groups I may have inadvertently skipped in this reply. Disclaimer, post paddle beers might skew results…

Among the people who have the most longevity are symphony conductors. Their aerobic activity is almost entirely upper body and arms. Sound like paddling?

No backtalk either!
Longevity could be enhanced by the fact that nobody argues with the conductor. Symphony blindly follows orders. Wish I could get my kids to do that…

Abbs and legs.
I get a little tennis elbow but there is little arm shoulder and telated strain for me.

My legs get a work out when I have to tow.

Outside of rushing or towing I do a few miles with little effect.

Dancing is a bigger work out.

If you are training for speed…
almost all of them get a good work out.

If you are paddling correctly, you will be pushing off the foot braces or pedals and pumping them. this gives your leg muscles a great workout along with your arms, torso and the rest of your upper body.

I don’t know the names of all the muscles, but as a ex runner and also a cyclist, I find that I get as good if not better work out paddling hard in a kayak as I did running or cycling.

I also have that hard to explain, slight soreness, but wonderful feeling a hour or so after a hard work out or race.



I must be doing something wrong. When I train for speed( a variation of sprints and intervals), I never get that leg workout.

When I sprint, pretending a great white is chasing me, I feel my quads lifting up on the pads but I can’t seem to feel that push off of the pedals.

I guess I need some lessons because I have heard off Jackl’s description about proper form from others.

Lower body workout
As others have said, be sure to include your lower body in your paddling. In fact, a few months ago when I took a Forward Stroke clinic with famed paddler Brent Reitz, he went so far as to say that “all the action happens below the skirt”, which caused no small number of snickers among the students.

Here’s a good article about his technique, with links to those of other paddlers:


In cycling, it is sometimes said that going to a lower gear and higher cadence transfers some of the workload from your muscles to your heart and lungs, for more of a cardio workout. To some extent this can also be done in paddling, for a more rounded workout.

Also like cycling (at least for me) is the rhythmic and meditative’groove’ one can sometimes fall into, where the miles seem to just drift by. Other athletes call it the ‘zone’, and although I can’t say anything about endorphins or other biochemicals, I know it does my soul good …

Happy Paddling!



Low vs. High elbow on the push hand
I need to experiment more with this, but I’m not sure I necessarily agree with his high elbow position being better on the shoulder than a low elbow position.

I suppose it is individual, but lifting the elbow higher (as in a “crossing blow” as he puts it), there seems to be actually more strain in my shoulder than if I keep the elbow lower. And not only that, there are some muscles in there that slide over each other with lifting the elbow/arm up and slide a lot less when the elbow is down.

May be I have a defective shoulder, but I think the strain from say 15 miles of paddling with a high elbow feels more than what I get with lower elbow.

Also keeping the elbow low is one of the main arguments of GP users who say their greenland paddles let them go farther with less strain.

I suppose, if one is sprinting, higher elbow gives better power and may be prefereable. But for longer cruises I fail to see why it would be better on the joints/muscles.

The rest from his write-up I seem to find reasonable and am trying to apply in my paddling…

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this if you’ve been paying attention to this particular aspect.

Funny you should ask …
A couple years ago while on a trip, I developed pretty painful elbows, and one of my fellow-paddlers suggested I get my elbows up. She called it a ‘chicken wing’ stroke, and it was awkward as hell at first, but certainly alleviated my elbow pain.

Which makes sense, as you are no longer expecting the rather weak tendons and muscles of the elbow to apply the rotational torsion required to move the paddle fore and aft. No mechanical engineer would design a machine to utilize such a motion. By keeping the elbows more on a plane with your wrists, the elbows are only applying a straight and linear thrusting motion–much easier on those tendons.

It was only recently that I took Brent’s clinic and learned that he’s the innovator/advocate of the Chicken Wing stroke. It still sometimes feels awkward and really works the trapezius muscles running from the outer shoulder to the neck, but has completely eliminated my Golfer’s Elbow pain resulting from paddling. It also encourages one to rotate the torso more, and being less of an arm-paddler.

Certainly, every body is different, and you may not have any trouble with such elbow pain, and feel more comfortable with your elbows down.

But I cannot argue with pain relief, and suggest paddlers try different strokes to find what works best for them.

Good Luck!



Fully agree!
I have not had an issue with elbow pain yet, but I had with shoulder (due to muscle/tendon irritation due to long paddling in a single day) and found that lowering the elbow alleviated the shoulder pain.

I can see the trade-off though: more strain on the shoulder vs. more srain on the elbow, so change style/paddle depending on where it hurts -:wink:

Thanks for the feedback - I’ll watch myself a little closer to see what I’m doing. May be ask my wife to take a short video to see myself doing it…

CTYaker got them
As for cycling, it’s easier for me to get a really tough workout than from paddling, because long steep climbs are abundant. And really high altitude.

Personal physiology and body mechanics are highly individual, so we’ll all find something different that works for us.

In general, the shoulder muscle groups are much larger and more robust than those of the rather bony elbow, so are perhaps better suited to the repetitive motion of paddling. Even larger and stronger are the torso/core muscles, which is why so many advocate torso-paddling over arm-padding.

In fact, Brent had us try holding our arms ‘locked’ in the usual box pose, holding the paddle, then do all of our paddling using only torso rotation, using our arms only for aligning the paddle. Again, awkward as hell, but quite effective at identifying those core muscles that need to join the party and do their share.

The video analysis we did in the class was really effective, and even the renowned Brent caught himself using some bad form! Have your partner shoot you from straight-on, straight-behind, and in profile. You may be surprised what you see yourself doing.



Bike vs Kayak
I never, ever push myself as hard for as long a time in a boat as I do on a bike. I think it has to do with return on investment… pushing myself harder on a road bike makes me go faster. Pushing myself really hard in the boat just makes me go somewhat less slowly.

There’s the competition thing also. There are always lots of bikers trying to drop me out on a country road. Not many kayakers out on the lake to rat race with.

Paddle into a wind and or tide
or up river against a current. They are your bike hills



Look at it this way
a 20 MPH average for a century ride down in your neck of the woods equates to a 6.0 MPH for a 6 mile kayak race.

May be faster for you young studs!



individual flogging methods
I’ve yet to duplicate the sheer exhaustion of a two hour mountain bike loop during a two hour paddle. Of course, my piscean nature does slow me down a bit on a beautiful day like today. I did some sprints yesterday on a lake in between thunder storms, and today I exploited the sun and made a run down Hamburg Cove to the Connecticut River and back. I used a 36’ sailboat returning to the cove as a chase target. My elbows tend to stay below my shoulders and roughly on a plane with the wrists. I like to dig and take a longer stroke, exiting beyond my hips. Not text book, but I’m tall and like getting the extra distance. So far, the only soreness I end up with is the right biceps tendon where the biceps attach. I blew out my left biceps tendon a few years ago, so this soreness gets my attention. How high do elbows go on a “chicken wing” stroke?

My back and legs get sore on longer
paddles. With a good touring paddle, never have soreness in the arms. I hope that’s a good sign…


‘not potatoing’-excellent!
def. total body but honestly I didn’t experience it in the real world until i got an excercise specific kayak…not that you can’t get whipped in a typical SINK but the racing type kayaks will force you to use even muscles beyond leg push offs, torsoe rotations…these muscles are what i’ll call the ‘balance’ muscles…ones like the quadratus lamborum (sp?) and others, plus if you think you are rotating the torso in the typical SINK you will be in awe about what can be done when you are sitting up higher in the racing boats…and I’ve learned over the last month that you can lean and edge a Jet and do low braces with a wing paddle :slight_smile:

Fitness paddling
Another source of good information is a piece called “14 tips on forward stroke dynamics by Mark Zollitsch” that can be found on the “fit2paddle.com” website. It is similar to Brent Reitz’s…

I cycle as well and get a good workout from both. I think that a faster boat encourages one to try and maintain a faster speed, like a faster bike does. I have no trouble keeping my heartrate at over 100 without really pushing too heard, and when I push with some determination, can get it up to the 150’s…and am having trouble remembering to breath along with everything else!

The leg drive seems to be the last part of the technique that I am able to realize, and am finally able to move my sit bones an inch or so on the seat that actually looks as though it were designed to cup one’s posterior…maybe a swiveling seat would help but I might compromise comfort and ability to handle more severe conditions. There is a lot to incorporate into the technique even without the leg drive that I think is more important to getting a feel for the proper form and dynamics. Keeping the sholder/wrist/upper arm/elbow at chin level while hyper-rotating is challenging, along with incorporating a slight hesitation and blade drop in the bow wake withouth hitting the deck. I attempt to get the tip of my paddle all the way to a line of sight with the bow to facilitate follow through and hyper-extention on the next stroke. The follow through with elbow bend at the end of the stroke seems important in adding to the stability of a narrow hull and getting maximium extention and rotation on the next alternating blade drop. And it seems to bring the center of gravity or balance point back in closer to the torso as well.

My obliques seem to be getting developed since paddling, along with my back muscles. Probably some overall sholder and arm development as well. And that chicken wing is killing my injured rotator cuff!