Is Kayaking Good Exercise?

Christmas Dinner

It’s just gone Christmas time as I write this – I’ve overindulged, I hope you have too. This time of year always brings to mind thoughts of your frighteningly lighter wallet and fantasies of a healthy lifestyle, losing weight and getting stronger and fitter.

Of course, we all know it’s just a fantasy – I don’t have the follow through to keep it up beyond late February of March. I’m more a weightlifting and eating kinda guy, myself – if I can sit, I sit; if I can lie down, I lie down. I’m lying down now. Too much Christmas cake….

However, I have to say that a generally active lifestyle does swing the balance in my favor overall. Kayaking is a good example – kayaking is a good exercise for your whole body, but it has more benefits besides that. Let’s have a look at what it can do for you…

(By the way, if you want to get started with kayaking I would recommend one of these inflatable kayaks to a beginner)

What Muscles Does Kayaking Involve?

Kayaking is a good full body workout; you use your arms, shoulders, legs, back and core while you’re rowing. Look at this:


As you’re kayaking, you’re gripping on to the paddle and rowing against the resistance of the water. Although it may not seem like it, this is great for your arm strength. It’s like an isometric hold which you keep up for potentially hours at a time.

As you improve as a paddler, you will naturally grow stronger, and your grip endurance will also improve. Although it’s not the same controlled progression that you would get with weight training, it will certainly improve your grip strength to a certain point.


Speaking of improved strength, you’ll also find that your biceps and triceps get a good workout from kayaking too – imagine yourself paddling, fighting against the current or the wind, trying to get up speed. As well as gripping the paddle, you have to move it around, and a lot of that work is done by your upper arms.

As you bring one arm in, the biceps on that arms contract and the triceps on the opposite arm contract to deliver greater torque to the paddle.

Man Squatting Big Weights

Shoulders & Back

Not only your upper arms are at work here. However – good paddling technique requires the involvement of your back and shoulders. Your lats and deltoids are big muscles that can do a lot of work. They also won’t fatigue as quickly as your arms. Pulling movements heavily involve your back and shoulders, especially the rear head of your deltoid.


Your abs will be engaged the entire time, helping with stabilizing your core and allowing you to deliver maximum force against the water – imagine how difficult it would be if your trunk as like a wet noodle. No, you will be solid as a rock as you cut through the water.

Not only resisting, however, your abs also help to apply rotational force during your stroke, making your paddling more efficient. You’ll notice after your first couple of excursions that the next day your abs are sore – it’s better than an ab wheel and more fun too.


Your legs will act as a solid foundation and are constantly in isometric contraction during the row, giving you a stable base from which to apply force – similar to their role in bench pressing.

What Health Benefits Does Kayaking Have?

Man doing yoga on beach

Obviously, the above is hugely beneficial. Kayaking is a full body workout; from forearms, to legs, you will be strengthening and improving endurance.

The side effect of getting so much of your body involved in exertion is that it is a great cardiovascular workout too. This will improve the condition of your heart and cardiovascular system; you’ll also benefit from improved endurance in other areas too, such as running and weightlifting.

Resistance and cardiovascular exercise are both effective for fat loss too, provided you are on an adequate diet. Kayaking burns over 300kcal an hour. Personally, kayaking is much more enjoyable than running; probably more enjoyable than weight training too (although I do both).

I’d MUCH rather go for an hour’s paddle than running, but truth be told I’d probably be out for more than an hour anyway. The only downside is that you can simply step out of your door to go for a run, whereas kayaking takes a bit more preparation. But as an adjunct to your exercise routine, it’s a great way of varying things and making life more interesting.


The other benefit of regular exercise is that it improves your mental wellbeing, especially with regard to stress.

Not only does that exercise aspect of kayaking help, but in my opinion, there is the skill aspect too – there is a sense of grace in achieving a good stroke, making a good pace through the water. And of course being out in nature is a wonderful stress relief for me – many others agree, forest bathing is an example of this (

What Training Can You Do To Improve Your Kayaking?

If you want to take your kayaking to the next level, my advice is to take up a strength routine – something simple with compound exercises would be my preference. Starting Strength, Stronglifts, 5/3/1, Greyskull LP, etc. There are plenty of fully laid out routines you can follow. If you focus on improving your strength to weight ratio (get stronger, don’t get fatter) you will improve your paddling no end.

Good exercises to include are barbell rows, pull-ups and chin-ups, and ab wheel rollouts.

Add to that a small amount of cardio and enough kayaking to test your limits, and you’ll be set!

Happy paddling!