What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

What muscles does kayaking work? Every kayak stroke works the upper body, lower body, and abs, as well as many other muscles in your core. 

The four major muscle groups that kayaking works are the back, shoulder girdle, abdominal area, and legs. In this article, we will take a look at each of these areas and learn why kayaking is such a good workout for these specific muscles.

Kayaking and Your Health

It requires a lot of stamina and strength to paddle through any body of water. When kayaking, you are using mainly your arms, back, and chest muscles to push yourself forward through the water. 

Your shoulder muscles and back muscles are engaged when you twist in order to use the proper kayaking technique for moving forward.

Unlike other sports where you can get away with using a one-arm motion to propel yourself, kayaking requires a symmetrical twisting motion that is a good workout for the same muscles on each side of the upper body. 

The abdominal muscle group is also engaged while kayaking. This is because it takes strength and stability in the trunk of your body to steer the boat in order to avoid hitting obstacles or going off course. 

You may have to lift your knees up to your chest in order to sit with proper posture for various kayaking techniques. This action tightens the abdominal area which, in turn, helps with control and steering.

When kayaking down rapids, you have to use the kayak paddle to brace yourself against rocks and other obstacles. There are different techniques used when bracing yourself to avoid injury that engages many muscle groups.

This movement not only works the abs but also engages your legs as well. If you are trying to execute a brace maneuver before bumping into rocks or trees, your feet will be pushing against the kayak’s foot braces to help with balance and avoid a kayak roll.

5 Muscle Areas That Kayaking Works

So what muscles are worked as you propel your kayak forward? There are four main muscle areas that are developed during every paddling session.

1. Back Muscles

Kayaking works the back muscles because of the twisting motion that is required to paddle. There are four main muscles in your back, and they are the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboid, and erector spinae.

The latissimus dorsi stretches along the side of your body from the lower back area all the way to the armpit. Your arm pulls through this muscle with each forward paddling motion, which allows you to use the muscles in your back to push yourself forward.

The trapezius muscles are located at the base of your neck on either side of the spine. The upper traps tense up during periods where you have to bring your arms close to your body in order to paddle fast. The upper traps are also engaged any time you raise your paddle to avoid an obstacle.

The middle and lower traps help you to maintain stability through each paddling motion.

The rhomboid muscles are found under the trapezius muscles on either side of your spine, between the shoulder blades. Paddling is a good exercise for these muscles because you use them when you lift up your blade to feather it or when you need to brace against an object.

The erector spinae is a group of muscles located along the spine on either side of your back. In order to keep your kayak from rocking side to side, you need to tense this muscle group by pulling yourself forward and maintaining a good posture throughout your kayaking session.

2. Shoulder Girdle Muscles

Kayaking works the shoulder girdle muscles because of the rowing and lifting motion required to paddle efficiently. 

The shoulder blades are known as scapulae, and it is important for them to be strong enough to endure the pressure placed on them during kayaking. They are one of the main shoulder muscles that are worked while you kayak.

They have a big impact on the level of control you have in your paddle strokes, and they work together with the chest muscles to move your paddle back and forth. The paddling effort when kayaking is said to be just as beneficial to your shoulder muscles as a seated cable row session at the gym!

The teres major muscle works with the latissimus dorsi as your arm extends in order to help you paddle forward using feathered strokes. This muscle stretches from the upper part of your back all the way to the armpit area of your upper arms.

The latissimus dorsi is located in your mid-back along the spine. This muscle is used when you pull yourself forward while paddling or feathering. 

Since kayak paddles have blades at each end, you are executing a somewhat one-armed row with each stroke. Beginners will likely need to build strength in their latissimus dorsi because of how much strength it takes to paddle using one arm at a time.

The deltoid is located at the top of your shoulder near the middle part of your body. This muscle is used when you are pushing yourself up against an obstacle while bracing or doing arm pulls to paddle forward with no obstacles in front of you.

The supraspinatus, one of the rotator cuff muscles, is found underneath your shoulder blade. These muscles help with control because they are used when you have to keep yourself from swaying side to side while paddling.

Rotator cuff injuries can be painful, so it is recommended that you build this muscle slowly and take a break if it starts to tense up while you are paddling. The rotational force generated as you paddle can be quite strong, so start on calm waters as you build strength in your supraspinatus. 

Both the biceps are used for control in every good kayak stroke. They are responsible for power transfer to the forearm muscles, which affects the speed of each paddle and keeps propelling the kayak forward.

3. Abdominal Area Muscles

The abdominal area muscle groups help with bracing and kayaking in general. Bracing is the technique that helps you stay in a straight line while paddling down a fast-moving river or through rough water. 

You need to have strong abdominal muscles to be able to balance yourself while bracing against the pressure that is being placed on your body by the water currents. The main compound muscles that will get a good workout in this area are the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis.

The rectus abdominis, commonly known as your abs, stretches across your mid-section from front to back. This muscle is worked even when you are taking a leisurely paddle because it helps with control when you are pulling yourself forward or bracing against an obstacle.

The obliques are located along the side of your body next to your rectus abdominis muscle. They are similar to your latissimus dorsi, because they are engaged when you execute the torso rotation that is necessary for every paddling motion.

The transverse abdominis wraps around your spine and is mainly worked when you are bracing. This helps with control because it keeps your torso balanced while paddling, allowing you to maintain the proper posture in your upper body.

4. Legs

Kayaking also works your legs because they play an important role in controlling your kayak by keeping you balanced.

The leg muscles that kayaking works include the gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus.

The gluteus maximus stretches from the top of your hip all the way to your pelvic bone and is used to keep your entire body stable when paddling forward.

The biceps femoris is located on the back of your upper leg. This muscle works together with your gluteus maximus in order to push yourself against an obstacle while bracing or doing one-arm rows.

The semitendinosus and semimembranosus are located on the back part of your thigh. These muscles help with paddling because they are used to push you forward while feathering or bracing one-armed against an obstacle.

5. Core Muscles

Last but not least, kayaking works the core muscles, which includes all the smaller muscles that run along your midsection and outer thighs. These muscles help with bracing and kayaking in general by keeping your body stable when encountering rough water.

The main compound muscles in this area are the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, rectus abdominis, and obliques.

The pectoralis major is located under your breasts on either side of your chest. This muscle gets a great workout as you paddle because it is used during every arm row.

The latissimus dorsi is located in your midsection along the spine, just before meeting the back of your armpit area. These muscles help with paddling because they are used to pull yourself forward with each row.

The serratus anterior is located along the scapula and helps with bracing by pulling your body up and holding it tight as you encounter an obstacle. The rectus abdominis stretches from front to back at the top of your stomach and works together with the obliques and the transverse abdominis in the same manner to help you brace.

The transverse abdominis is located around your midsection and wraps around your spine. This muscle, along with the aforementioned muscles in your core, helps you brace as you pull yourself forward against an obstacle.


1. Where does kayaking work your leg muscles?

Kayaking works your leg muscles less than the muscles of your upper body, but they are still involved in the exercise routine. Their main job is to help the kayak stay balanced and controlled. To do this, you will likely find yourself subconsciously keeping the muscles in your lower body tensed and tight. 

2. Is kayaking a sport that requires a lot of stamina and strength?

Yes, the four main muscle groups that kayaking works are the back, shoulder girdle, abdominal area, and legs. It works your upper body, lower body, and abs as well as many other muscles in your core.

Kayaking is also a great cardiovascular exercise. A good cardio workout will get your blood pumping and your heart rate up. 

The nearly constant paddling motion that is maintained while you kayak keeps your heart working hard and helps you burn calories. One of the other health benefits of kayaking is that it helps you to maintain a strong core, which in turn increases your balance both in and out of the boat.

3. Can kayaking damage muscles?

You need to build up strength and stamina in order to paddle for a long period of time. If your muscles aren’t used to a consistent workout routine, you will likely experience total body fatigue after a kayaking trip.

Kayaking can tire out your arm muscles, really all the muscles in your upper body, so much that they are sore for several days afterwards. So be sure to give yourself plenty of time to rest between kayaking trips.

But remember, the more often you kayak, the stronger these muscles will become. Maintaining a regular kayaking routine will help you to build strength, which in turn will help you to avoid wrist injuries and other muscle damage. 

Regular exercise can also help you lose weight, as even kayaking leisurely burns calories and benefits a variety of muscle groups.

4. How long does it take for muscles to build strength and stamina?

This depends on many factors, including age, weight, gender, etc. 

Generally speaking, the older you get, the longer it takes to build up endurance in your muscles. This is because aging causes a decrease in muscle tissue and a decreased ability to repair muscle fibers after they are damaged.

Now that you know about all of the health benefits of kayaking, it’s time to get out there and paddle!