Sports-Specific Training: Kayaking

Hone your paddling muscles with these 11 exercises.

It takes more than strong arms to navigate through rapid waters: kayaking is a full-body sport. Your arms and back propel you through the water, while your core is the center around which your arms and the paddle pivot. Your lower body provides the force that anchors you to the boat, with your legs bracing against each stroke to keep you stable and balanced.

You’ll be able to handle long trips, rough waters and swift currents far better if you are physically fit. That’s why it pays to adopt a training regimen that focuses on the muscles that kayaking uses the most.
Try adding these 11 kayaking-friendly exercises into your fitness regimen:


The motion of paddling is inherently repetitive and can sometimes result in overuse injuries, particularly in the shoulders and back. This is something to keep in mind when strength training your upper body, as you don’t want to initiate or worsen overuse of those muscles. Keep your training balanced and halt exercise if you feel pain in your joints. If done properly, strength training should actually help you insulate against injuries.

1. Seated leg press — quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, glutes

Adjust the seat to a position where your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle when you place your feet on the platform. Sit in the seat with your shoulders and spine pressed firmly against the backrest and grasp the handles. Drive through your heels, extending your legs to press the weight away from your body. Stop before locking your knees and hold the position for a moment. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

2. Alternating seated cable row — middle back, biceps, lats, shoulders

Extend your arms forward to grasp the cable handles and engage your core to keep your back straight. Holding your elbows close to your sides, draw one arm back until your hand is close to your side, pulling your shoulder blade down and back. Return to a starting position and perform the movement on the opposite side. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

3. Lat pull-down — lats, biceps, middle back, shoulders

Select your desired weight and adjust the seat so your thighs fit snugly under the pads. Keep your back straight and grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Pull the bar down to meet your chest while keeping your elbows pointed straight down. Pull your shoulder blades down and back, and then slowly raise the bar to your starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. Avoiding locking out arms between repetitions.

If you’re looking for more of a challenge, do pull-ups.

4. Barbell deadlift — hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back

Load the barbell with your desired amount of weight and select a hip-width stance. Keep your back straight and shoulders back. Position hands outside the hips, with an overhand and underhand grip. Hinge at the waist, bend your knees and lower to a starting position. Drive through your heels to lift the weight to a standing position, holding the bar close to your body and keeping arms straight. Hinge at the waist and bend the knees to return to your starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

5. Standing twist with resistance band — abdominals

Wrap a resistance band around a pole or other stable structure at about shoulder height. Interlock your fingers around the handle and extend your arms fully in front of your body. Position yourself so the band runs perpendicularly to your body and twist at the waist to stretch the band. Repeat the twist for your chosen number of repetitions and then do the same going the opposite direction. If the band rubs against your body, take a small step backward. This exercise can also be performed with a cable machine.


6. Stability ball plank — core, balance

If you’re sea kayaking and your boat capsizes, having a strong core will make it much easier to right yourself. Set a half stability ball — a blue rubber half-ball — on the ground in front of you. Kneel in front of the ball and rest your elbows on the curved side. Keeping your elbows on the ball, lift on to your toes to form a plank. Focus on forming a straight line with your body, avoiding arching your back or rounding your back. Hold this position for 30 seconds to one minute.

For an added challenge, flip the BOSU ball over so the curved side is against the floor. Grasp the hard edges of the ball and hold the plank position with your arms fully extended, rather than resting on your elbows.

7. Stability ball sit and paddle — full-body stability

This move is challenging, but excellent practice for improving your kayaking balance. Sit on a stability ball with a smaller medicine ball placed on the ground in front of you. Once you’ve balanced yourself on the stability ball, lift your feet and place them on the medicine ball. Your knees should be slightly bent, as they would be in a kayak. Hold this position while focusing on engaging your core for 30 seconds to one minute. Regress this movement by using an air disk or simply positioning feet flat on the floor. Progress this movement by performing a kayaking motion with a wooden dowel or light training bar.


8. Treadmill interval training — cardiovascular conditioning

To improve your endurance, perform high-intensity interval sprints on the treadmill. Interval training is an efficient way to improve your overall athletic performance and can help you keep up your momentum when you’re on the water. To get the most benefit, alternate between short periods of high exertion that get your heart rate up and lower-intensity recovery periods. Try using work periods of 30 seconds and recovery periods of 60 to 90 seconds.

Mobility and Flexibility

9. Sitting triceps stretch — triceps, shoulders, upper back

Sit on a stability ball and reach both arms over your head. Bend one behind your neck so your hand rests between your shoulder blades. Set your opposite hand on top of your bent elbow and gently push it to extend the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat with the opposite arm.

10. Overhead wall stretch — shoulders

Stand a few feet away from a wall. Extend your arms overhead and then fold at the waist. Keeping a straight back, drive your hips back and press your palms against the wall, fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Your chest should be parallel with the floor. Keep your arms in line with your ears and hold the stretch for 30 seconds.

11. Arm circles – shoulders

Stand and extend your arms out to your sides so they are parallel with the floor and at shoulder height. Move them in small forward circles. Gradually expand the circles until your arms pass close to your body. Perform forward circles for 30 seconds, then reverse the direction and repeat.

While kayaking is an excellent way to get and stay fit, we know that most people can’t enjoy the activity every day due to weather and proximity to water. But you can spend time working on these kayak-specific 11 exercises to be primed for the next chance you get to set out and paddle. Don’t forget to wear a life-vest!