What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

Picture this: you’re out on the open water, sun lapping down on your back, paddles dipping in and out of the water - sounds like paradise, right? 

For this reason, kayaking can often feel like more of a pastime than a workout, but in fact, it’s actually a great way to build muscle and keep fit. 

The constant movement of kayaking, the resistance of the paddling, and the core strength required to sit in the kayak and keep your balance provide a great upper body workout that is ideal for burning calories and losing weight. 

In this article, we’ll be focusing on the specific muscles kayaking builds up, and let us tell you - some of them may surprise you.

Is Kayaking good exercise? 

Of course, how many calories you can burn when kayaking depends a lot on the intensity of the kayaking and the duration you’re doing it for. 

Kayaking is great exercise regardless, but there’s a big difference between a casual paddle in a kayak and an intense, endurance-packed session where you’re sprinting or battling rough waters. 

This is one of the great things about kayaking - it can be as intense as you want it to be. 

What muscles does kayaking work? 

Back Region

Your back is made up of many muscles, and it’s here that you’ll find the Latissimus Dorsi, known as the ‘Lats’ - which make up the biggest muscle group in your back.

These muscles are the powerhouse behind that paddling motion that’s crucial to kayaking, and even if you feel that these muscles aren’t moving much, trust me, with every stroke they’re contracting and expanding to deliver the torque power that keeps your kayak moving forward. 

At the end of each stroke, your rhomboid muscles come into use. These are located in the upper part of your back, and their main function is to pull your shoulder blades toward your spine.

Your Trapezius muscles (or Traps) are large muscles that deliver motion to the spine and neck when you paddle.  Your ‘upper traps’ are often referred to as shrug muscles, but our middle and lower traps need working also, and kayaking is the perfect way to do this. 

Shoulder Muscles

Your shoulder muscles are also super important when it comes to kayaking, but because they work in combination with your arms and back to help propel you forward, it’s easy to overuse and overwork them.

As a result, your rear deltoids can become overdeveloped, which can lead to an imbalance with the forward deltoids.

The rotator cuff is also crucial - it’s composed of four muscles that connect the arm to the shoulder, and if you experience an injury of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, or subscapularis, you will feel a significant loss of power. 

Triceps, Biceps, Forearms, and Grip

Kayaking is a great way to build up your arm muscles, and after you’ve been kayaking for a while, your efforts will really start to pay off. 

The biceps and triceps in our arms are known as the agonist-antagonist muscles, as the former contracts and the latter relaxes. When paddling, one pulls the paddle while the other pushes, and together they endure a constant muscle workout while powering your kayak forward. 

Your grip is where your hand comes into contact with the paddle, and if you don’t have a good grip you will find it hard to use the muscles mentioned above. A good grip of the paddle is crucial to apply force to drive the paddle through the water.

Because your forearms and hands are continually in use when kayaking, you’ll notice a significant improvement of these muscles in a short period of time. 

Chest Muscles

The cardiovascular workout of kayaking provides a great workout for your chest, and, as the back pushes the paddle forward, your chest muscles activate to drag the paddle backward.

Legs and Core

It can feel like your legs are barely in use when kayaking, but, while your legs might seem stationary, the muscles are actually activated to keep you balanced with every stroke of the paddle.

The legs act as an anchor to the rest of your body - so each stroke of power is rooted from here. From here, the power then activates all the other muscles involved - including your core, another region you may not realize you’re working. 

Your core muscles are central to your body, as they literally connect the lower and upper parts. While your legs and feet provide balance, your obliques and abdominal muscles are activated with each rotation of your torso, and this side-to-side motion generates the power you need to propel you forward. 

The more experienced you become, the stronger your core and legs will be. 


It’s easy to forget that the heart is a muscle, and just like all your other muscles, it requires exercise to keep it in shape. Kayaking sure does provide the heart with a good workout, as the cardiovascular nature of the activity gets your heart pumping and blood flowing. 

Over time, your stamina will increase and you’ll feel fitter and able to kayak for longer. Plus, every hour spent on the water kayaking is burning a pretty impressive amount of calories. 

That said, how many calories you burn will depend on your weight - not only your bodyweight but the weight of your kayak too, as well as the duration and intensity of your paddling. 

Above all though, kayaking provides many benefits to the heart, regardless of your age and level of experience. 

Final Say

Kayaking is a full-body workout, even though it can sometimes feel like you’re using certain muscles a lot more than others. While kayaking will especially benefit your back, arm, and shoulder muscles, it will also activate your legs, core, and chest. 

Over time, it’ll build up your muscular and cardiovascular endurance, meaning you’ll become both stronger and fitter, and you’ll start noticing serious gains, not only on the kayak, but off the kayak too. 

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