What Muscles Does Kayaking Work? The 8 Full Body Muscles

by Jason | Last Updated:   October 8th, 2022
What Muscles Does Kayaking Work? The 8 Full Body Muscles

For many people observing kayaking from the shore, kayaking looks like it takes zero effort. But, if you’ve been kayaking before, you’ll know this isn’t the case.

If you’ve never been kayaking before, it can actually be considered a full-body workout. It might seem a bit crazy considering you only move your arms, but as you’re about to find out, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

So, stick around to the end of the article to discover what muscles kayaking works:

Is Kayaking A Good Workout?

With fitness playing such a big part in people’s minds, one of the first things beginners want to know is:

“Is kayaking a good workout?”

And it’s only after they’ve been kayaking upstream for an hour before they realize just how shattering kayaking actually is. 

And that’s what makes kayaking so great; you can make it as easy or hard as you like it.

So, is kayaking a good workout?

Well, that’s really up to you. It can be as challenging or as simple as you want; you just have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into it.

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work?

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work

As I mentioned earlier, most people think that kayaking only works the arms and shoulder, but that’s really not the case.

In fact, kayaking can help build muscle in 8 different target areas, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about in the following sections:


One of the biggest mistakes beginners to kayaking make is thinking that the paddling power comes from the arms. And this is absolutely not the case. 

In fact, the primary driving forces for paddling come from your back, shoulders, legs, and many more, which means your arms have little to do with paddling.

And when it comes to your back and kayaking, there are four muscle groups you use:

Latissimus Dorsi

Kayak muscles

Otherwise known as lats, the latissimus dorsi will receive the greatest benefits from kayaking. The muscle transfers power from your lower body which can transform into the arm movements you need for kayaking.

And this means:

With every stroke of the paddle (learn how to choose the right paddle here), you’ll be making them stronger. If you want to give your lats a good workout while paddling, there’s a simple exercise you can do.

Try alternating your speed while you’re paddling. An example of this would be paddling very fast for short intervals and then slow deep strokes for more extended periods. 


kayak back muscles rhomboids

You’ll find the rhomboid muscles at the upper center of your back, and they are used to help your shoulder blades rotate. And this makes them a key muscle group for paddling your kayak.

Your rhomboids will contract at the end of each stroke as your shoulder blades move towards your spine. Using the correct paddling technique, you’ll become a more powerful paddler and have a better standing posture.


Kayak muscles traps

Your trapezius is also known as your traps, the large muscle in the middle and upper-middle sections of your back.

The upper traps are used to help you shrug your shoulders, and it’s not the part of the trapezius that’s going to help us paddle.

We need to concentrate on the middle and lower traps because they are the ones we use when paddling a kayak.

One thing to remember about these muscle groups is not to overwork them. So make sure you do a decent warm-up and cool-down stretches to avoid damage.

Serratus Anterior

Kayak back muscle serratus anterior

The Serratus Anterior is a muscle not many people know about because it’s so hard to see on the body. It starts off at the side of the chest on the surface of the 1st to 8th rib and finishes at your scapula (shoulder blades).

It’s used to pull your shoulder blade forward and stabilize it while you’re paddling your kayak down the river. 


Kayak muscles shoulders

The shoulder muscles are one of the groups that you use the most when you’re kayaking and tie in closely with your arms and your back.

And this is confirmed when you realize that the most commonly damaged muscle for kayakers is their shoulders.

When paddling forwards, you’ll notice that the back of your shoulder muscles gets worked more than the front. And this helps you pull the paddle towards the body.

But there is a problem:

If you don’t work both muscles, you can overdevelop your rear deltoids, which leads to a muscular imbalance. And this is why training and stretching both muscles in your shoulder is essential.

Biceps & Triceps

Most men dream about having a nicely shaped pair of guns to show off at the beach. And luckily, this is something kayaking can assist you with. While paddling, your triceps and biceps are heavily relied on.

Biceps and triceps are known as agonist-antagonist pairs, which means when one contracts, the other relaxes.

While you’re paddling forward, the bicep will contract as your arm pulls the paddle towards you, and at the same time, your tricep will push the other blade away from you.

And this is why paddling provides a consistent workout for your biceps and triceps. If you want to make things more challenging, try slow and deep paddling to increase the intensity. 

Forearms & Grip

Your hands are the contact points for the paddle, so it makes sense that your forearms and grip muscles will get a good workout.

The power you generate from your back, shoulders, and arms needs to be transferred through your grip. So, one of the best ways to improve the muscles is from intense paddling due to your forearms and grip being constantly engaged.

One thing to remember is it’s very easy to damage your forearms when intense paddling, so make sure you disengage the muscle when you’re casually paddling. 


It’s funny, but most people think the power start’s at the shoulders or back, but that’s not the case. The rotational force is actually generated by the core muscles, which are found in the torsos rotation.

As you make the forward paddling motion, your abdominals and obliques will rotate your trunk from side to side.

And this torso rotation starts the power to move your back muscles, which impact your shoulder muscles, and so on.

So, the more you paddle, the more exercise your core gets. They also help you maintain a proper posture in your spine and prevent you from capsizing the kayak.


You might not realize, but your chest is an important muscle when it comes to kayaking. It’s the chest muscles that help stabilize the kayaking motion, just like it does on the rowing machine at the gym.

Legs & Hips

I tell people your lower body gets a good workout when they’re kayaking. And while it’s not the most intense workout, they still get a little bit.

During the kayaking motion, your leg muscles act as a synergist for the entire range of motion for paddling.

Here’s the thing:

A good kayak stroke will always start at your feet and the foot pedals. And from there, the power is transferred from your leg muscles all the way up to your arms to the paddles. And this is why it’s so important to have your feet firmly on the kayak’s foot braces when you’re paddling.

As for your hips, they are engaged with your core as a point of contact to your kayak. They are also used for moves like braces.


The last muscle I want to talk about should also be the most important muscle to consider, and of course, that’s the heart.

It doesn’t matter what style of kayaking you’re doing or how leisurely you’re going to take it; you’ll still have a good cardio workout.

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

So, what muscles does kayaking work?

As you can see, kayaking doesn’t just work one or two muscles; it’s actually an excellent full-body workout. And while you’re not going to see a considerable gain in muscle mass, it still gets your body moving…

And that’s the most important thing!

So, by using the correct paddling techniques (learn how to kayak with these tips), you can get yourself a great workout at that level that suits your needs. To make things better:

You can burn around 500 calories an hour while having fun, and for me, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Get Ripped From Kayaking?

It’s best if you don’t expect to get ripped from kayaking; at best, you might get some better definition to your upper body and core muscles. But at a recreational level, you won’t get jacked; it’s more about getting your muscles moving and staying healthy.

Does Kayaking Burn Belly Fat?

Yes, you will. Using the proper paddling techniques will engage your abdominal muscles and get them working. With each kayak stroke, your abdominal muscles will engage, which will help burn that and help engage your core.

Is Kayaking Better For Cardio Or Strength?

In my opinion, it probably works both equally, and it really depends on what type of kayaking you’re taking part in. You’re not going to bulk up with kayaking, and it’s not going to help you run a marathon. 

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Hey, my name's Jason, and before I was a writer, I worked as an outdoor activity instructor where I took groups kayaking and camping. Now I use my personal experiences to share tips and tricks I've learned over the years. For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about the outdoors, and now I want to share that passion with my readers.