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What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

author image Ryan Mess
Ryan Mess earned a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Cal Poly SLO, where he played rugby. His fitness expertise bloomed during his college and semi-pro rugby career. And since then, he has been training everyone from youth to professional athletes to grandparents in all things fitness and health while still competing.
What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?
How fun does this exercise look?

What is not to love about kayaking? Out in nature, potentially experiencing marine life depending on where you are, it's beautiful. And as if that wasn't reason enough to get after it, your upper body is in for one heck of a workout. Your back, shoulders, arms, hands, abdomen, chest and especially heart are key target areas during this adventurous exercise. Even an hour of kayaking will produce more work for these muscle groups than you'd probably hit in any single gym session.

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The Back Attack

Kayaking requires rowing.
Kayaking requires rowing.

Every stroke you take while kayaking is a single-arm row. Picture doing a single-arm dumbbell row or seated cable row; it’s basically the same motion with a paddle. Every stroke works the lats to a great degree. While one arm is rowing back, the other is getting a stretch and then a contraction. It’s an effective back workout and you can go at whatever tempo or variation you like: sprints, long sets, each pull as hard a possible, wide grip or narrow grip.

Boulder Shoulders

You work your back muscles when kayaking.
You work your back muscles when kayaking.

Generally, any time that you do a back workout, you will be hitting the shoulders, especially the rear head of the deltoid. In the case of kayaking, the direct impact on the shoulders is much more involved than a typical back workout. At the end of each stroke, the paddle has to come up and around to the front again. This motion transfers the load from the large lat muscle up to the shoulders. That forward circular motion really attacks the rear, lateral and anterior delts. Again, varying the tempo and the width of your grip will vary how the muscles are worked.

Guns and Grip

You use your biceps when rowing.
You use your biceps when rowing.

Like any other rowing workout, the biceps work is a byproduct of the movement. In kayaking, the triceps actively contract as well. As one arm is rowing in, hitting the biceps on that side, the other arm is countering with a forward extension to create more torque on the paddle. That extension involves a lot of triceps. As the biceps and triceps are doing their thing, your grip and forearms are getting attacked by handling and maneuvering the paddle. Like high-rep pullup workouts, your hands will fatigue and your forearms will be tested during a kayaking session.

Abs of Steel

Kayaking works core muscles.
Kayaking works core muscles.

As with all rotational movements, the abdomen and obliques are heavily involved and responsible for your performance. If you have weak core muscles, good luck getting through a demanding kayaking session with any kind of pride. Your trunk, which runs from your waist to your neck, is constantly working in a rotation and counter-rotation manner, resulting in a huge demand for spine stabilization and balance. Expecting to kayak without taxing your abdomen and core is like expecting to win an auto race with a faulty axle between your wheels.

Heart of Steel and Pecs For Real

Kayaing is a great overall workout.
Kayaing is a great overall workout.

Like the triceps involvement in kayaking, the chest is also involved. When one arm is rowing back, the other is countering with a forward push, like a single-arm dumbbell bench press. The interesting part is that when you do any row, your pectoral muscles actually work to stabilize the shoulder and pull the arm in, so the chest works on both arms simultaneously in opposite fashions. And f it wasn't obvious, kayaking is a cardio-respiratory onslaught. Whether you sprint or coast, your heart and lungs will be tested on every single row for the duration of your adventure.

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