What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

Wondering if you can get a good workout in while having fun kayaking? We'll break down exactly what muscles you're working when kayaking!

It’s tough to find a more sizzling question than this. It seems like everyone and their mother are trying to figure this out. What muscles does kayaking work? Type that question into Google and you’re sure to get a massive list of results. It makes sense as people love to exercise when they get to do something that they actually enjoy.

For some, it’s one of the only ways to make exercising a reality. Hey, we get it completely. Kayaking, in specific, is usually one of those activities that get associated with exercising. Question is does kayaking actually equate to good exercise? With so much to dive into, let’s not waste another second here. Let’s roll.

Is kayaking considered good exercise?

Before we go straight to the money question, we should also address this one here. After all, it could make the money question somewhat trivial to answer. Thankfully, that’s not the case as kayaking can be a fantastic exercise…with a catch.

Imagine yourself going to the local gym in town. Everyone considers gyms as an excellent place to get good exercise. However, what happens if you’re just going there to stand (or sit) around to talk to some of your friends that are actually there to exercise? What happens is you go to the gym but don’t end up getting any fitness-related benefits out of it.

Okay, so why bother bringing that up, you may be wondering? It’s the same concept as kayaking. If you kayak but pretty much just float down the river and only paddle occasionally when you have to, you’re not going to get the same benefits as someone who’s really pushing themselves on their kayak. Basically, the kayak isn’t going to do the work itself and, if it did, it wouldn’t be exercising. Getting good exercise requires hard work…and there’s really no way of getting around that.

What muscles does kayaking work?

A lot of them. K, moving on. Wait, you wanted a more specific answer, didn’t you? Nah, we don’t get paid enough for that. Of course, we’re just playing around. But seriously, kayaking does work a lot of your muscles (again, when you’re actually paddling). Primarily, the activity will require use out of your shoulders, arms, back, and really just the upper body (in general). Let’s break it down in a bit more detail.

Shoulders and arms

When answering, “What muscles does kayaking work,” it really starts with the shoulders. When you think about it, while you’re stroking the paddle, you’re bringing it towards your body. This motion, done over and over again, is going to work out many areas of your shoulders and arms.

The rotator cuff muscles: Due to the fact that the muscles of the rotator cuff act in different ways to both stabilize and rotate the arms and shoulders, they’ll get quite the workout while you’re kayaking. In fact, it’s important to maintain a proper paddling technique to avoid possible injury to the rotator cuff. Here’s a video of what a proper paddling technique looks like:

YouTube video

Forearms and your grip: Moving a kayak in the water requires you to use your hands to paddle your way forward. While your hands themselves aren’t generating all the power, the power your upper body does garner will be transferred to the paddle through your grip. As such, you can build your grip strength up by kayaking as your forearms will be engaged each and every time you stroke with the paddle.

Triceps and biceps: Are you going to get ripped to the core while kayaking? Well, to be fair, both the biceps and the triceps will be used extensively while you kayak. However, they tend to build in strength and not necessarily in mass. Both muscles work together throughout the paddling motion. Yet, you’re probably not going to look like prime Arnold Schwarzenegger by just kayaking.

The back

Along with the shoulders and arms, the back is another primary body part that can achieve an excellent workout during kayaking. It can be broken down into a few sections.

The traps: The easiest way to describe the traps is that they’re responsible for pulling your shoulders up and then pulling them back down. The muscle bundle extends to your shoulder from the back of your neck and head. The act of paddling will give them a good workout.

The lats: Do you know the large V-shaped muscles that connect your vertebral column to your arms? Those are known as the lats, and they help to provide back and shoulder strength while also stabilizing and protecting your spine. During your forward paddle strokes, they’ll be contracted.

Your core and chest

The core muscles in your body play a pivotal role in the art of kayaking. Both your abs and your obliques will be used to rotate your trunk through each stroke you make. A lot of the power that will be generated throughout the paddling motion will be from your core.

As for the chest, the muscles will act as stabilizers while you’re paddling back and forth. While not the most obvious muscles you’d think of, they do play a role in the activity.

Your legs

Not too many people would expect the answer to, “What muscles does kayaking work,” to be the legs. After all, you don’t do much with your legs while you kayak. So, what gives? No, the legs won’t be used as much as the upper body area, but they will still be used to help stabilize your body while you’re stroking with the paddle.

Given that when your legs are firmly planted you can generate more power, keeping your legs planted while stroking is something that can easily get overlooked.

Is kayaking good cardio?

It really depends on how much you push yourself. While you can still get a decent cardio exercise out of casually kayaking, it’ll be more intense if you really work yourself. Quite honestly, though it can be fun and relaxing, kayaking can also be hard and exhausting.

Final thoughts

Well, there you have it. What muscles does kayaking work? It places a focus on your arms, shoulders, upper body, core, and back, while also giving your legs and heart some mild action. Man, who would’ve guessed that something as simple as stroking a paddle back and forth could be so beneficial? Anyway, now that you know how worthwhile it can be to kayak, perhaps you’ll also want to now know how you can rig a kayak rack for your RV. Who knows, though, we’ve been wrong before. Cheers!

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Tyler Jones

Tyler is much like a swiss knife. Even though he has a degree in Computer Science, he knows almost everything there is to know about camping. He has been writing for HeadlessNomad since 2021 and has contributed with over 100 articles. If you have an outdoor-related question, then Tyler much likely knows the answer.