If you're looking to become a stronger paddler, but can't spend a ton of time training in an actual boat, then this strength training for kayaking plan is for you. Written by Geoff Hart, UESCA certified multisport coach, and reviewed by Heather Hart, ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, this at-home or in the gym training plan will help you build strength training for kayaking, canoeing, or any other paddle sport you might find during an adventure race.
There is a running joke in the adventure racing world that "no one trains for the paddle". We're not exactly sure where this came from, but our guess is that it stems from the fact that training time on the water-or even paddling equipment-simply isn't accessible to every adventure racer.
As fitness professionals, we constantly preach the Principle of Specificity. In this case, the best way to build kayak paddling strength and skills is to actually spend time kayaking.
But, if your day to day reality doesn't allow for regular kayaking practice, this workout plan will help.
What Muscles are Used in Kayaking?
The muscles used to paddle a kayak include:
- Back (latisimus dorsi, rhomboid, trapezius, erector spinae)
- Shoulders (lateral and anterior deltoid, teres major)
- Chest (pectoralis major)
- Arms & Hands (biceps, triceps, forearms, & grip muscles in hands)
- Abdominals (external obliques)
- Hips/Legs (for stability)
While most people immediately think of the muscles in the back as the major players in paddling a kayak, the reality is that while one arm is completing a pulling motion (back) on the paddle, the opposite arm should be completing a pushing motion (chest), with each forward paddle stroke.
A strong core is necessary while kayaking for the natural rotation of the torso throughout the paddle stroke. More specifically, the external obliques help provide power, as well as the erector spinae that support the spine throughout the rotational movement.
Forearms and hand muscles, all responsible for grip strength, are essential for paddling a kayak.
And lastly - believe it or not - your hips and legs play an integral role in kayaking, acting as stabilizers to help you maintain balance.
Strength Training for Kayaking: 12 Best Paddling Exercises
First, we'll cover eleven different paddling specific strength training exercises. Later on in the post, we'll talk about the equipment needed, and explain how to put it all together with suggested sets, reps, and rest periods.
Disclaimer: The following workout was designed for educational purposes, and is not a prescribed training plan for any particular individual. Understand that when participating in strength training exercises, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this workout you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, and assume all risk of injury to yourself. You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs. If you are not comfortable performing a movement, ask a trained fitness professional for in person help!
1. Single Arm Bent Over Row
A bent over row targets the lats (back) as the primary mover in the pulling movement of a kayaking paddle stroke, but also targets the upper back (traps, rhomboid), shoulders (posterior deltoid, teres minor and teres major), the biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis (which help with flexion at the elbow).
Paddling a kayak is a unilateral movement - meaning, we are using one side of our body at a time to perform the movement in a given direction. By focusing on one arm at a time while lifting weights, we are also challenging our core strength to help with stabilization and rotational strength.
How to do a single arm bent over row:
- Place your feet into a staggered stance, supporting your weight on the front leg. If you have a bench available, you may support your weight on the bench.
- Place the dumbbell in your opposite hand with a closed, neutral grip.
- Flex forward at the hips so your torso is slightly above parallel to the floor, supporting your free hand on your front leg if necessary. Keep your core engaged, and your back neutral (not rounded)
- Allow the dumbbell to hang down a full elbow extension
- Pull your shoulders back and push chest slightly forward.
- Pull the dumbbell up towards your torso, allowing your elbow to lead the movement, while keeping your arms close to your body.
- Continue pulling upward until the dumbbell touches the side of your chest or rib cage. Imagine your shoulder blades squeezing together - this is the top of the movement.
- Lower the dumbbell slowly and with control maintaining a stationary torso, until you return to the starting position.
Alternatives to the single arm bent over dumbbell row include (click links for video demonstrations):
- Barbell bent over row (in either supinated or pronated grip)
- Resistance band bent over row
- Barbell, ring, or TRX inverted row
2. Incline or Flat Bench Dumbbell Chest Press
A chest press targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps muscles. Using dumbbells instead of a barbell (such as in a bench press) will challenge your core as you stabilize your entire body to fight rotational forces.
How do Do a Dumbbell Chest Press:
- If using an incline bench, set the incline between a 15-45% incline
- Sitting on the bench, make sure your body has five points of contact with the bench and/or floor, including:
- left and right foot flat on the floor OR foot pegs on bench
- butt is firmly sitting on the bench
- shoulders and upper back are placed firmly and evenly on the bench
- head place firmly against back of the bench
- With dumbbells in a neutral hand position, arms come out to the sides perpendicular to the torso, elbows bent at a 90 degree angle.
- Keeping the wrists stiff, push the dumbbells up towards the ceiling (both arms controlled and at the same rate of speed) until they come together, centered over your body between the chest and face. Arms should be fully extended, but not locked at the elbows.
- From the top position, slowly and with a controlled movement, lower the dumbbells in an arched motion down and slightly out until the dumbbells are approximately chest level, with elbows lower than the bench.
Alternatives to the dumbbell bench press include:
- Banded Chest Press (incline or flat bench)
- Barbell Bench Press (incline or flat bench)
3. Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
Lat pulldowns target - you guessed it - the lats. But that's not all, this exercise is great for the upper and midback, as well as shoulders, biceps, and grip strength.
How to Do a Resistance Band Lat Pulldown:
- Loop a band around and through a pullup bar, or, use another attachment that is safe and secure (such as a rafter, or door frame attachment).
- Kneel on the ground, reach up overhead, and grab the band with your palms facing each other.
- Engage your core, sitting up tall on your heels.
- From this position, squeeze and retract your shoulder blades to bring your elbows down in a sweeping motion out to your sides, stopping once your elbows reach your sides. Be sure to allow your elbows to lead, wrists remaining locked into place . At no point should you be pushing the band down with your hands - it's a pull from the back.
- Keep a neutral, upright to very slightly backward lean posture. Do not emphasize a backwards lean in order to move the band.
- At the bottom of the movement, reverse the movement by allowing the band to slowly (and with control) bring your arms back up overhead into the starting position.
Alternatives to the resistance band lat pulldown include (click links for video demonstrations):
- If you have access to a gym or a cable machine, a cable lat pulldown is a preferred substitution to this exercise.
- Pullups or Chin ups are also great substitutions.
4. Conventional Deadlift
While the lower body doesn't necessarily play a major role in paddling a kayak, having strong hips, glutes, and hamstrings will help with your posture while sitting in the boat. The conventional deadlift will help strengthen these muscle groups.
Note: In the video we use a barbell for demonstrative purposes. You can absolutely substitute dumbbells for the barbell.
How to Perform a Conventional Deadlift:
- Stand with feet slightly wider than hip width apart, toes pointed slightly out for balance, with a closed, pronated grip on the dumbbells. Dumbbells should be hanging towards the ground, with arms fully extended in front of your thighs.
- Keeping your back in a flat neutral position, slowly bend your knees and torso at the hips at the same rate, while sending your hips backwards. This should almost feel like a squat, but with emphasis on the forward hinge at the waist.
- Keep the dumbbells as close the body, and arms fully extended as you lower towards the ground.
- Continue lowering until you reach your comfortable range of motion. At no point should your back arch in order to try and place the weights on the ground.
- From the bottom position of the movement, push through the feet, extending the knees and kips. The hips should rise at the same rate as the shoulders (not faster), and the back should remain in a neutral position.
- Again, the dumbbells should remain as close to the body as possible. Continue to extend the hips and knees until the body reaches a fully erect standing position.
Alternatives to a deadlift with dumbbells include :
- Barbell deadlift
- Banded deadlift
- "Good Mornings"
Pushups are a no-equipment-necessary body weight strength movement that can be done almost anywhere, and modified to allow almost anyone to complete them. Pushups are not only great for your chest, shoulders, and triceps, but challenge your abdominal and low back muscles as well.
How to Do a Pushup:
- Start by getting into high plank position: Hands are placed on the ground below your shoulders with fingers pointing forward. Spine, hips, and legs are in a neutral "plank" position, and bodyweight is supported off of the ground by your toes. (Note: you can absolutely drop to your knees for a modified pushup. Be sure to tuck your hips, keeping your neck, back, and hips in a neutral position)
- Keeping your spine neutral, slowly lower your body towards the ground by allowing your elbows to bend backwards at approximately a 45 degree angle, leading with your chest.
- Once your chest reaches the ground, push through your hands to bring your body back to starting position. Be sure that your head, back, and hips all move together at the same rate - avoid "inch-worming".
- Common mistakes during the pushup include reaching for the ground with your chin or nose rather than letting your chest lead, allowing your hips to either dip towards the ground, or raise towards the ceiling, and not completing a full range of motion movement.
Pushups can be made more or less difficult by changing the angle of your body. For a less difficult pushup, incline your torso by placing your hands on a bench, barbell, or even the wall. For a more difficult pushup, raise your feet by placing them on some sort of stable platform, putting your body in a decline position (please see above linked video for examples).
6. Seated Long Pull (Single Hand) with Resistance Band & Core Rotation Twist
The seated long pull targets the lats and biceps. However, turning it into a single arm movement, and adding a core rotation twist, makes it far more paddle specific.
How to Perform a Seated Long Pull with a Resistance Band:
- Securely fasten the band to a sturdy and stable surface that has zero risk of being pulled over, about 1-1.5 feet off of the ground.
- Sit down facing the band, and brace your foot on the same surface the band is secured to, keeping a slight bend in the knees.
- Reach forward and grab the resistance band with one hand, palm facing your legs.
- Sit up tall, core engaged, shoulders down and back away from your ears. Arm should be fully extended out in front of you.
- Pull the band and your hand towards your torso by retracting your shoulder blades, bending your elbows, and pulling. Be sure to keep your torso upright, do not hinge at the hip to create momentum.
- Optional Core Twist: Once your hand reaches the side of your torso, squeeze your obliques to rotate your torso towards the arm holding the band, allowing you to pull back the band even further.
- Once you have hit your maximum range of motion with the twist and pull, carefully and with a controlled motion, allow your hands to travel back to the starting position.
Alternatives to the resistance band long pull include:
- If you have access to a gym or a cable machine, a cable long pull is a preferred substitution to this exercise.
- A weighted drag with a rope and some sort of resistance will work as well.
7. Triceps Skull Crushers with Dumbbells:
Sure, the name "skull crushers" doesn't sound very appealing, but this exercise is fantastic for building triceps strength, as well as stability in your shoulders.
How to Perform Dumbbell Skull Crushers:
- With a dumbbell in each hand, lay down on on your back the floor or a sturdy bench, face up.
- If laying on the floor, bend your knees so that your feet provide a point of contact on the floor. If on a bench, place your feet flat on the floor for support.
- Raise your arms dumbbells will be straight overhead with palms facing in.
- Slowly bend your arms at the elbows, letting the weight drop towards your ears, while keeping your upper arms stationary in their start position, perpendicular to the floor. Continue lowering the weight towards your ears, being careful not to hit your head!
- Once the dumbbells reach the side of your head, slowly return to the starting position by extending the elbows.
Alternatives to the dumbbell skull crushers:
- Resistance Band skull crusher
- Triceps kickbacks or overhead triceps press, if you are uncomfortable with the skull crusher movement
8. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Shoulder press exercises target not only the medial, posterior, and anterior portion of your deltoids (shoulders), but all three heads of the triceps as well, and challenges your abdominal and lower back muscles to maintain stability with a weight overhead.
For an added-kayak-specific bonus, try sitting on a stability ball. The movement of the ball and subsequent activation of your hips, glutes, abdominal muscles, and lower back is similar to that of balancing in your kayak on rough water.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Shoulder Press:
- If standing, place feet shoulder width apart to provide a stable base. Keep your back in an upright, neutral position, core engaged.
- Place a dumbbell in each hand with a closed grip. Palms face forward throughout movement.
- Bring the dumbbells up towards your shoulders, elbows bent at a 90 degree angle to the floor and your torso.
- Press dumbbells overhead in an upward and slightly inward motion, until they gently tap each other.
- From the top of the movement, lower dumbbells down and out, back to the starting position.
NOTE: If this exercise feels uncomfortable in your lower back, use lighter weights, and consider sitting on a bench with a back support to prevent excessive arch in the back. If this bothers your shoulder joints, start with dumbbells just in front of shoulders and keep palms facing inward. Press dumbbells upwards until they gently tap.
Alternatives to the dumbbell shoulder press (click links for video demonstrations):
- Resistance band overhead press
9. Reverse Bicep Curl
It's no surprise that bicep curls target the bicep as the primary mover. But, the reverse curl is an excellent exercise for strengthening the wrist and forearms. Reverse curls work the extensor muscles of the forearms, whereas standard bicep curls target the flexors.
Grip strength and strong forearms are helpful for gripping your kayak paddle over long distances, as well as portaging boats (you've got to get them in the water somehow!)
How to Perform a Dumbbell Reverse Bicep Curl
- Stand upright, feet hip width apart, with a slight bend in the knees, shoulder and upper back in neutral position, one dumbbell in each hand resting at your sides. You should have a closed, pronated grip, meaning that your palms are facing your body/behind you.
- Keeping your palms facing behind you, flex your elbows, keeping your upper arms by your side, to slowly raise the weight up to your shoulder. The entire movement from this exercise should come from the elbow, which should stay at the hips for the entire movement.
- Once the dumbbell reaches your shoulder, carefully lower the weights back to starting position.
Alternatives to the dumbbell biceps curl include:
- resistance band reverse bicep curl
10. Weighted Dead Bug
- Lay on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor/ground, with a dumbbell or other weight firmly held in each hand.
- Engage your core by squeezing your abdominal muscles and low back. Imagine bringing the bottom of your ribcage towards your hips, while pushing your low back into the floor.
- Keeping your low back pushed into the ground and core engaged, bring your knees up to a 90 degree angle, and your arms with weights in hand straight up overhead, perpendicular to the floor and your torso.
- Keeping the core engaged and low back pushed into the ground, extend one leg straight out, while keeping the opposite leg at a 90 degree angle. Simultaneously, extend the opposite arm out overhead, keeping the other arm down by your side.
- Note: the further you extend your leg and the closer you bring it towards the ground (but don’t touch the ground!), the more difficult the exercise will be. If at any point your back arches off the ground, you have gone too far. Reset, and try again, perhaps keeping the foot closer to the body.
- Return arm and leg to start position, and repeat on the other side. Alternate legs and arms with each repetition.
11. Side Plank with Hip Dip
The side plank with hip dip is a fun (at least we think it's fun) variation of the standard side plank. Adding the "dip" provides an additional range of motion, emphasizing a greater contribution from the oblique muscles.
- Lay on one side. Place your elbow on the ground directly under your shoulder to help support your body weight. Working your way down the length of your body, make sure you are completely perpendicular to the ground. Hips should be stacked one on top of the other, as should the thighs and lower legs. If you need to, bend your bottom leg at the knee to form a 90 degree angle, for a modified version of the side plank.
- From this position, push through your core to bring your weight up into side plank position.
- Slowly lower your body in a controlled fashion until your hip almost touches the ground. Before it does, pop back up into side plank using your abdominal muscles, NOT your legs.
- Note: it's not uncommon for your body to come slightly higher than standard side plank during this exercise. Try to keep movement slow and controlled.
12. Loaded Carries
Weighted carry exercises (often referred to as a “loaded carry”) are exactly what they sound like: pick up something heavy, and carry it from one point to another. Carry exercises essentially work your entire body: upper, lower, and core.
Further, they help improve: work capacity, grip strength, posture, core strength, and shoulder stability. All necessary when it comes to paddling a kayak.
And, if you've ever had to portage a kayak or canoe during an adventure race, then you know EXACTLY why carry exercises are necessary!
How to Perform a Loaded Carry Exercise:
There are a number of variations of loaded carry exercises. The most adventure race specific is the "suitcase carry", or a single weight in only one hand.
- Pick up a dumbbell or other weight in one hand. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, arms hanging at side. Engage your core. Stand tall with neutral, upright posture. Pull your shoulder blades down and back in order to actively hold the weight.
- Pick a focal point, and start walking towards it while carrying the weight in your hand.
- Take controlled and smooth steps, focusing on keeping your posture tight and tall. Try not to lean to one side to compensate for the weight.
- Once you get to one side of the room/gym/yard, put the weight in the other hand, and repeat!
What Equipment Do I Need for This Kayaking Strength Workout?
This workout is written with the assumption you have access to resistance bands and/or dumbbells. But, any item that you can safely use to provide moderate to heavy resistance against your muscles can work. A few notes on equipment:
- Resistance bands are relatively inexpensive, and do not take up a ton of space. However, if you're borrowing bands or digging them out of your attic, check them for durability, as the elastic on the bands can degrade overtime, making them susceptible to snapping.
- Dumbbells can vary in price, and definitely take up more room as far as storage goes. If you're looking to purchase dumbbells, we've found that an adjustable dumbbell set is both cost effective and a space saver. While these may seem expensive at first, when you consider that free weights typically retail for around $1 (USD)/lb, an adjustable dumbbell that ranges from 5-50 lbs, and increases in increments of 2.5-5lbs, definitely makes more sense.
- If you don't have access to bands or free-weights, you can absolute improvise for some exercises. A gallon container of water weighs around 8lbs and has a convenient handle for some exercises. Kitty Litter comes in 40lb containers. A 5 gallon bucket can be filled with sand, soil, or rocks. Use your imagination as needed, but always think of safety first!
- While not necessary for this workout, utilizing a stability ball instead of a bench is a fantastic way to challenge your abdominal, lower back, and other core stabilizing muscles.
How to Perform the Workout:
WARMUP: Always begin with some sort of warmup in order to increase blood flow to the muscles and prepare your body for movement. Suggested warmup includes:
- Wall, bar, or incline pushups x 10 reps
- Sit-to-stands x 10 reps
- Bird Dogs (alternating) x 10 reps
- Shoulder I, Y, T's x 10 reps each (unweighted or light weights, 2-5 lbs max).
Run through the list 2-3 times. Please feel free to add any mobility exercises you enjoy, or like to do before lifting.
LOAD AND REPS: Unless otherwise noted, aim to use a weight or resistance that you can safely move for 8 to 12 repetitions (reps) with the last 3 to 5 reps feeling difficult or offering a nice muscular “burn” sensation, BUT, you are still able to lift with safe, and proper form.
Each movement should be done slowly, but with a purpose. Avoid rapid movements and try to get full range of motion (ROM).
Please always use proper form. When in doubt, seek out a certified Personal Trainer.
SETS: Aim for 3-6 sets of each exercise. When you first start strength training, 2-3 sets will be more than enough. Increase number of sets as your confidence increases, and as time allows.
REST: Aim to rest for at least 1-2 minutes between each set.
Complete all of the desired reps and sets of a single exercise before moving on to the next exercise.
Notes on Loads/Reps/Sets/etc.
It's important to know that the number of sets and repetitions you perform will vary based on your goals - strength, power, hypertrophy, muscular endurance. But for the sake of "getting stronger to help my paddling", 8-12 reps is a great place to start.
If you are unfamiliar with the moves, or new to strength training, aim for a lower weight, with higher repetitions, to help with initial neuromuscular adaptations. As the exercises become easier to perform, increase your weight and decrease the number of reps.
Ultimately, the best way to get better at paddling a kayak...is to paddle a kayak. But incorporating strength training into your overall paddle training program will help you build power and strength that will carry over to paddling success.
And if you can't make it out on the water for actual paddle training very often, strengthening your body by using resistance training exercises that mimic the movement patterns of paddling is a decent substitute.