How to Train for Kayaking

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a kayaker with a strong paddle stroke

An expert kayaker gliding across a glassy bay can make things look effortless. If you’ve been out for even a short paddle, though, you may have noticed muscles that weren’t ready for an extended voyage. So if you have an upcoming tour or are taking up the sport in earnest, then it makes sense to spend some time tuning up your kayaking engine.

This workout increases strength, endurance and balance in the upper leg, hip, abdomen and back. Multiple exercises target these muscles, with individual exercises mimicking motions you use for certain kayak strokes.


Here’s a quick, general overview of how to train for kayaking:

  • Increase strength in core muscles that help you generate stroke power (so you aren’t tempted to rely on the weaker muscles in your arms and shoulders).
  • Build endurance in shoulder and arm muscles, which will need to be in continuous motion during any stroke sequence.
  • Improve your balance so you have a more stable base that will allow you to go through your paddling motion smoothly and efficiently.
  • Don’t forget your cardio. Complement this exercise plan with your favorite aerobic exercise like running or biking—swimming, of course, would be ideal.

Before beginning any training plan, check in with your doctor or certified training professional.


Training Schedule for Kayaking

Start training 6 to 8 weeks before you’ll be kayaking. A good mix of workout types for each week involves the following (but feel free to modify this schedule to fit your needs):

  • 3 nonconsecutive days of strength training (exercises in this article)
  • 2 nonconsecutive cardio sessions
  • 2 nonconsecutive rest days

Training Exercises for Kayaking

Keep the following in mind as you train:

  • Make the exercises fit your body, not the other way around.
  • If something hurts, modify the exercise or skip it; and take extra rest days if you feel the need.
  • Move at your own pace, going slowly at first.
  • Increase the repetitions or add more resistance or weight as your training progresses.

Warm up: Get yourself warmed up by doing an easy 5- to 10-minute session on any gym equipment you might have at home, or just go for a brisk walk. Then follow the guidelines below as you progress through the exercises in this article:

  • Inhale during initial exertion, then exhale as you return to the starting position; during faster exercises, simply make sure you breathe regularly.
  • Rest for 30 to 45 seconds at the end of each exercise (if an exercise requires a longer rest period, it will state that in the steps for that exercise).
  • Do each set of exercises below one time in succession, then rest for two minutes and repeat another set of the exercises (if you have time to fit in a third set of exercises, that’s even better).

Open Book Exercise

This exercise enhances your range of core rotation, because an efficient stroke requires torsional flexibility.

Props: None

  1. Lie on your side, with legs in front of you and knees bent at 90 degrees. Both arms should be straight in front of you at roughly shoulder height. Arms and open hands rest atop one another.
  2. Slowly lift your top hand and arm as you rotate your torso and head to look behind you.
  3. Rotate as far back as possible, feeling a good stretch along your side and the front of your shoulder. Don’t force your arm to the ground if it is too tight or painful.
  4. Rotate back to the original position.
  5. Do this 15 times on one side, then repeat the exercise lying on your opposite side.

TIps and modifications: Stop the moment the top knee starts to lift away from the bottom knee. Your goal is to eventually be flexible enough for a full rotation with knees staying together, but overextending to do so can lead to muscle strain.


Skater with Uppercut

This warmup exercise engages your glutes, quads and abdominal muscles to develop your rotational power and balance. The uppercut motion helps increase shoulder strength and endurance. The dynamic side-to-side skater motion also helps get your blood circulating.

Props: A lightweight dumbbell

  1. Start in a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Hop laterally, landing on your right foot, while also bringing your weighted left arm up diagonally across your chest as if you were doing an uppercut punch. The power to raise your arm should be generated more by your torso and core muscles than with your arm.
  3. Hop back to left leg, bringing the weighted right arm diagonally up across your chest.
  4. Complete 15 reps on each side.

Tips and modifications: Adjust the difficulty by using a lighter or heavier dumbbell; you can also adjust how far laterally you jump each time.


Kneeling Chop Exercise

Similar to the motion you use for a forward kayak stroke, this exercise boosts your core rotational power by strengthening the upper and lower abdominals and the obliques, as well as the glutes and upper leg muscles.

Props: A resistance band 

  1. Secure one end of the band at slightly above shoulder height.
  2. Stand sideways to where the band is anchored and position yourself so that you can reach up even with your right shoulder to grab the free end of the band with both hands.
  3. Get into a kneeling stride stance with your left foot forward and left knee upright. Your right knee should be down, directly under your right shoulder, and your lower right leg pointing backward.
  4. Pull the band down across your body while turning your trunk. Do not let your knees move.
  5. Keep your arms as straight as you can as you pull down on the band. Your arms should act as guides, with your obliques and back muscles generating the pulling and rotating power.

Do this 20 times, then repeat across your left shoulder with your right foot forward and left knee back.

Tips and modifications: Adjust band resistance level by shortening it to increase resistance or lengthening it to ease the resistance. Your goal is to feel fatigued at the end of your reps, but not so fatigued that you struggle to finish them.


Kneeling Lift Exercise

Sometimes called the “reverse chop,” the lift exercise puts your body through a motion that’s similar to the backward stroke. It helps develop core rotational power by strengthening your upper and lower abdominals and obliques, along with your glutes and upper leg muscles.

Props: A resistance band 

  1. Secure one end of the band at ankle height.
  2. Position yourself so that the band is on your right side. Kneel on your right knee with your left foot forward. Grasp the band with both hands so there is tension in the band.
  3. Rotate your torso upward to the left, pulling the end of the band at an upward angle across the front of your torso. Don’t let your knees move.
  4. Return to the starting position while maintaining an even tension in the band.
  5. Through this entire motion, your core muscles should be powering the movement. Your shoulders should remain square, your hips should remain aligned and your elbow and wrists should remain as straight as possible.
  6. Do this 20 times, then do the same on the opposite side for 20 more reps.

Tips and modifications: Adjust band resistance level by shortening it to increase resistance or lengthening it to ease the resistance. Your goal is to feel fatigued at the end of your reps, but not so fatigued that you struggle to finish them.


Single-Leg Squat and Row Exercise

The squat in this exercise develops core strength and stability because it engages core muscles in tandem with the muscles that support the hip to balance body weight over your knee. The row movement develops endurance in biceps and lat muscles, both of which are in continuous use during a kayak stroke.

Props: A resistance band

  1. Secure one end of the band at slightly above shoulder height.
  2. Begin in a standing position facing where the band is anchored with your left hand holding one end of a resistance band and bent at a 90-degree angle next to your rib cage.
  3. Keep your shoulders broad and your trunk tall throughout this exercise.
  4. Do a single leg squat on your right leg, extending your left arm out as you lower; use your right arm to counterbalance your movement.
  5. Stand back up from the single leg squat and row the left arm back to the starting position.
  6. Do 15 reps and rest 30 seconds; then switch sides and do 15 reps on the other side.

Tips and modifications: Adjust the difficulty by adjusting the depth of your squat, or start by performing a regular squat with both legs before you begin your arm row.


Pull-Down Exercise

While a well-executed stroke doesn’t rely on the shoulders for power, your shoulders are in constant motion throughout a stroke sequence. The pull-down exercise can help you build up the endurance to handle long stretches of forward paddling.

Props: A resistance band 

  1. Secure one end of the band at slightly above shoulder height.
  2. Stand with feet slightly apart and hinge at the hips slightly. Grab the end of the band in your right hand and position yourself so that the band has some tension, and that your fully extended arm and the band both point straight toward where the band is anchored.
  3. Pull the band down until your hand is next to (or slightly past) your right thigh, keeping your core tight and your arm straight.
  4. Reverse the motion, maintaining band tension until your arm and hand are in the starting position.
  5. Do this 20 times, then do the same using your left hand and arm for 20 reps on that side.

Tips and modifications: Adjust band resistance level by shortening it to increase resistance or lengthening it to ease the resistance. Your goal is to feel fatigued at the end of your reps, but not so fatigued that you struggle to finish them.


Crunch and Twist

While you don’t need six-pack abs or a vicelike grip to paddle efficiently, you do need to repeatedly rotate your core. This exercise develops core strength and endurance by engaging your obliques and abdominal muscles.

Props: None

  1. Lie on your back, with your arms crossed and lying atop your chest; your knees should be bent and together.
  2. Raise your head and upper body up, doing a crunch. Maintain a fist's length between your chin and your chest so that your neck remains in a neutral position.
  3. Rotate toward your left knee on the way up (you don’t need to touch the knee).
  4. Lower back down to the ground.
  5. Repeat, this time rotating toward your right knee.
  6. Do a total of 30 crunches, 15 rotating each way.

Tips and modifications: Make it easier or harder by adjusting how high up you raise your body and how far you rotate to each side.


Book Grab Exercise

This is another exercise that builds endurance in your forearm muscles, which you use continually to grip and manipulate a paddle.

Props: A large hardback book

  1. Stand upright with your arms at your sides.
  2. Grip the book’s spine in the center using your right hand and hold it (with your arm and the book hanging straight down) at your side.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds.
  4. Repeat on the other side (holding the book on your left side with your left hand).
  5. Do this 15 times on each side, alternating between sides/hands as you go.

Tips and modifications: If you struggle, choose a lighter, thinner book. To make it harder, hold the book farther away from your body. After a few sessions with a static hold, increase difficulty by doing a “grip walk” up and down the spine of the book with your fingers.


Improve Your Kayaking Technique

Even if you’re strong physically, poor stroke technique will hinder your ability to paddle far and feel comfortable on the water. So make sure you brush up on your basic strokes, too.

Sign up for a Kayak Class 



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Contributing Experts

Samantha Van Gorder

This exercise plan was developed by Dr. Sam Van Gorder, a physical therapist based in Bellevue, Wash. She worked as a personal trainer while pursuing her doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT) from Duke University.