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How Can I Improve My Kayaking Endurance & Strength?

You may have heard someone quip that the best way to get in shape for kayaking. . . is kayaking. But a fat lot of good that will do when the water around you is frozen over. 

If you don’t live in a climate conducive to year-round kayaking, you might need to take some time to get – or stay – in shape for the kayaking season. We’ve got a few recommendations to make the most of the spring thaw when it comes, so you can get out on the water, kayak-ready.

One: Stay Active for Kayaking

Kayaking is great fun, but also physically demanding. That means you can’t just sit on your couch six months of the year and expect to pick up where you left off last season. Staying consistently active is a huge step in being ready to paddle when the weather allows.

Biking, walking or jogging (getting those steps in) is so important for overall physical health. When the weather just doesn’t cooperate, gyms, rec centers, malls, and even having exercise equipment in your own home offer indoor alternatives. There are many options today to give you nudges in the right direction. Set alarms to remind you to move, set goals & record progress on fitness apps, or even join competitions or games that reward activity.

Two: Cardio Training for Kayaking

Kayaking is an aerobic activity – even if you are just out for a leisurely paddle or getting to the perfect spot for the big catch, you will get your heart rate going. Developing a good cardio routine will stand you in good stead when it comes time to get the kayak on the water. 

Something as simple as a brisk walk with the dog is a good step (wink, wink) in the right direction. Running and strenuous hiking are excellent choices that can be done right out your front door. If you have access to a gym, consider swimming or cycling as great choices for a full body cardio workout that uses similar muscles as paddling. If you get bored easily, switch up your routines: walk, cycle, jog, elliptical, run, row, etc.

Getting your heart rate up for a sustained amount of time is important for overall and kayaking health. The Mayo Clinic, among other experts, recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week spread out over multiple days.

Three: Strength Training for Kayaking

For overall health (as well as more effective paddling) adding strength training to your routines is important. Focus on all major muscle groups as kayaking is a full-body endeavor.

Arms - This might be the most obvious muscle group as you think about the act of paddling. Strengthen your biceps and triceps for the forward and back pull. Focus on your shoulder and back muscles for the reach and catch phase. Your forearm and hand muscles are also needed for grip strength.


  • Single arm bent over row: Targets lats and works unilaterally as you do when paddling (each side fires separately)
  • Chest press: Targets chest, shoulders, and triceps. Use dumbbells (rather than a barbell) to challenge your core further as you fight against rotational pull during the exercise.
  • Pull-downs: Target the lats as well as upper / mid back, shoulders, biceps, and grip. Using a band or machine, standing or kneeling, position the band or grip above your head and pull down engaging your lats & back. 
  • Push-ups: Targets chest, shoulders, and triceps along with abdominal and lower back. A good push-up should focus on bringing your chest to the ground (not reaching with your nose / chin) and keeping your body flat (no dip, snaking or inch-worming of the body on your way up).

Legs - While the lower body might not appear to be particularly active during kayaking, that doesn’t mean it isn’t firing. Legs, including hamstrings, glutes, quads, and calves, are used to steady yourself in your kayak and provide a good base for paddling.

  • Step-up with lateral raise: Targets the glutes, quads, and hamstrings while also engaging the obliques and other stabilizing muscles with the lateral movement. Step up on a block or step, leave weight on the elevated leg (so you are balanced on the foot on the block), then do a lateral raise by stretching your arms out wide (with / without weight), return to start position and switch legs.
  • Deadlift: targets the hips, glutes, and hamstrings. Use dumbbells or barbell and focus on hinging at the waist (rather than squatting) and squeezing the glutes to return to standing position. 
  • Skater: Targets quads, hips, and glutes (with bonus cardio). Jump side to side in a smooth motion, remain on one leg, return to the other side using your arms for momentum. Stay low in a squat-like position. This kinda resembles the flow of a speed skater.

Core - The core might just be the most important - but overlooked - element of kayaking fitness. Your posture is vital for stability and control while you paddle. And the body part most responsible for posture is your core. The rotation of your torso during paddling also works out the obliques and erector spinae. The core can be thought of as anything that acts to stabilize the spine. But for training purposes, at the minimum, core workouts should strengthen abdominals, erector spinae, and obliques.


  • Plank: Targets, well, your whole body if done right, includes core muscles along with shoulders, lats, triceps, biceps, traps, chest, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. Rest on your forearms and raise your body. Hold in a flat / straight line with no sagging of the hips or raising of the glutes. 
  • Dead bug: Targets cores muscles of transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, obliques, and pelvic floor. Lay on your back with your arms raised above your shoulders and your legs in line with your hips and bent at the knee (with feet off the ground). Hold this position and then alternate raising and lowering your opposite arm and leg. Stretch the arm overhead and straighten the leg. 
  • Side Planks with Hip Drop: Targets abdominal, hip, and quads but with added emphasis on obliques. Rest on your side on your forearm. Stack your feet and lift your hips until you are in a straight line. With control, lower your hip to the floor (dip) and return to side plank. 

Four: Flexibility for Kayaking

An often overlooked aspect of training is flexibility. To be an effective paddler, it is necessary to be flexible. So be sure to add stretching or even yoga / pilates into your work-out regimen. It is always wise to stretch and warm up a bit before or whenever you pick up the paddle. 

Staying in shape in the off-season can put you in a great place to capitalize on getting out on the water the first chance you get. Happy Paddling!

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