Paddling Your Way to Success: A Guide to Kayak Training

Key Points

  • It's wise to train for kayaking as it is a very challenging sport.

  • It's important to learn what muscles you use most often when kayaking so that you do the proper exercises to strengthen them.

  • Taking a holistic approach to kayak training is very beneficial.

  • Indoor and outdoor kayak training are great ways to improve your kayaking abilities.

When you think of a kayak, you probably think of brightly colored plastic boats, hot summer days, and thrilling white water rapids. It might surprise you to learn that the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup'ik tribes created kayaking thousands of years ago from driftwood and washed-up whale skeletons. Unlike rafting or canoeing, kayaking is a one-person show and requires a level of physicality casual canoeing doesn't. A message to all those looking to dabble in this hardcore sport: You must train for kayaking.

Native tribe people didn't need to train for kayaking. The Arctic region, which is their homeland, made them strong. Their lives were, and still are, physically demanding. The untrained wouldn't stand a chance out there. Living in the coldest region on Earth isn't easy and requires innovative ways to survive. They used kayaks for hunting and travel.

In the 2020s, for most people, kayaking is more of a fun sport rather than a means of finding sustenance. Modern kayakers hit the rapids to enjoy a more personal, adrenaline-filled connection with the water. 

It doesn't matter if you're rocking a tandem kayak or hunting a seal atop a whale skeleton: You must get in shape to succeed. 

Kayak training

Training for Kayaking: It’s a Must

There are various varieties of kayaking – some more hardcore than others. Whitewater kayaking demands an advanced level of physical strength, while a chill ecotourism voyage needs less power. Regardless of the type of kayaking you hope to enjoy, you must learn to do it properly. Every kind requires different skills and training. Always receive specialized instruction if you plan to participate in these activities.

Kayaking may seem straightforward, but it's dangerous if you don't know how to maneuver the kayak properly or are unfamiliar with water conditions. It requires knowledge of paddling, steering, balancing, and even rescue techniques in case of an emergency. 

When training for kayaking you must understand how to function in a kayak and prepare your body for the physicality of kayaking. The best way to learn how to function while in the kayak is to find someone to train you when you actually go out on the water. To prepare for the physicality of kayaking, take a long look at yourself in a mirror and vow to get in shape. Kayaking isn't a simple walk in the park. It works a lot of muscles and skills.

Target Specific Muscles When Training for Kayaking

There are over 650 skeletal muscles in your body. Kayaking uses a supermajority of them. Paddling, steering, and balancing are hard to do. Such moves require all hands on deck from your body. 

Even harder? Flipping over in a sit-in kayak. In this case, you must perform an Eskimo roll or a wet exit. Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like submerging in the water while upside down in your kayak! That alone might get you out. Hopefully, Poseidon blesses you, and that doesn't happen. If it does, you are going to be glad you're in good shape.

Most of your muscles undergo some serious strain while kayaking. Peak-performing muscles lead to top-quality kayaking. Focus on the main muscles engaged when kayaking to set yourself up for success.

You don't need to go to a gym to get in some great kayaking training. You don't even need weights for a lot of them; however, weight training does build the strength any kayaker needs.

Understanding what muscles kayaking uses makes it easier to focus on those muscle groups when training. Not every muscle gets used while kayaking. Sorry, tensor tympani, it looks like you don't get the spotlight when kayaking — you're going to have to keep dampening the noise of chewing (which is what it actually does).

Take a closer look at the major muscles involved in kayaking. 

Back Muscles

The upper and lower back muscles pull the paddle and provide power and control over your movements. The back has a lot of muscles, so do a mixture of different exercises to hit all of these muscles. Pull-ups, assisted pull-ups, rows, and lat pulldowns are a good place to start.

Shoulder and Arm Muscles

The shoulder and arm muscles are heavily involved in the paddling motion – particularly the deltoids, biceps, and triceps. Shoulder presses, lateral raises, bicep curls, tricep extensions, and push-ups are great exercises for developing the deltoids, biceps, and triceps.

Girl kayaking

Chest Muscles

The muscles of the chest are involved in the paddling motion and stabilize the upper body. Chest presses, push-ups, and dumbbell flyes work these very important muscles.

Legs and Glutes

The leg and glute muscles provide power and stability during kayaking, particularly during bracing and rolling maneuvers. Squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, and leg presses strengthen the leg and glute muscles.

Core Muscles

The torso-twisting motion of paddling works your entire core. This part of your body is the anchor connecting your upper body to the kayak. It's an essential player in the kayaking experience; ensure it's strong. Core muscles include the abdominals, back muscles, and obliques.

The muscles of the core are essential for maintaining balance and stability while kayaking, so it's wise to dedicate a lot of your training time specifically to these muscles.


A classic plank targets your abs, lower back, and glutes. To perform a plank, start with your forearms on the ground and your body in a straight line from your head to your feet. Hold this position for as long as possible, keeping your core engaged and your hips level.

Russian Twists

Russian twists are a great way to target your obliques, which are essential for rotational movements in kayaking. Sit on the ground with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lean back slightly and lift your feet off the ground. Hold a weight or a ball in front of you, twist your torso to the left and then to the right, and touch the weight to the ground on either side of your body.

Bicycle Crunches

Bicycle crunches get your hip flexors in on the action. Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your knees bent. Lift your shoulders off the ground and bring your right elbow to your left knee as you straighten your right leg. Repeat on the other side, alternating back and forth like pedaling a bicycle.

Bird Dog

Begin the bird dog by getting down on your hands and knees with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keep your spine and neck in a neutral position to avoid unnecessary strain.

Once you're in position, engage your core muscles to stabilize your body. Slowly extend your right arm straight out in front of you while simultaneously extending your left leg straight out behind you. Keep your arm and leg parallel to the ground and hold this position for a few seconds before returning to your starting position.

Repeat the exercise on the opposite side, extending your left arm and right leg. Keep your hips level and avoid arching your back or letting your hips sag down. Keep your movements slow and controlled, focusing on maintaining balance and stability throughout the exercise.

Dead Bug

To perform a dead bug, start by lying flat on your back on an exercise mat. Bend your knees and lift your legs so your thighs are perpendicular to the ground and your knees are at a 90-degree angle. This is your starting position.

Engage your core muscles and slowly lower your right arm and left leg toward the ground, keeping them straight and in line with your body. Make sure to maintain control throughout the movement, keeping your lower back pressed against the mat. Return your arm and leg to the starting position, and then repeat the movement with your left arm and right leg. Continue alternating sides for the desired number of repetitions.

While these exercises build your core and shape you into a top-notch kayaker, they are for nothing if you cannot get into the kayak in the first place. 

Man with muscles kayaking

Exercises for Getting In and Out of Your Kayak

Getting in and out of a kayak is challenging – especially if you have limited leg strength. A few exercises ensure you have what it takes to enter and exit a kayak with ease.


Squats improve your leg strength and make getting up from and returning to a seated position easier. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and your toes pointed slightly out. Keeping your chest up and your back straight, bend your knees and lower your hips toward the ground. Push through your heels to stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement. Use weights or just your body weight. 


Step-ups also improve leg strength and balance for getting in and out of a kayak. Stand in front of a step or sturdy object about knee height. Step up onto the object with your right foot, and then bring your left foot up to meet it. Step back down with your right foot and then your left. Repeat for several reps, and then switch sides.

Sit and Stand Exercise

One of the best ways to train for kayaking is to practice standing up from a sitting position on the floor without using your hands. This forces you to use nothing but your legs. If you have the strength, flexibility, and mobility to do that, getting up from a kayak becomes much more manageable. 

Sit on the ground with your back straight. Place your feet on the ground crisscross, use your leg and glute muscles to stand up, and then sit back down slowly. Repeat for several reps.

TRX Exercises for Kayaking 

There is a form of exercise geared towards those with a strong core. They're called Total Resistance Exercises (TRX), and a former Marine named Randy Hetrick invented them — so you know it's a good workout! TRX System is a form of suspension training that uses a set of adjustable straps with handles and a system of anchor points to provide resistance for a full-body workout. It improves mobility and stability, increases metabolic results, builds lean muscle, and develops functional strength.

Some experts worry the instability of the straps might lead to injuries – especially among people with inadequate core strength or a history of joint and back injuries. Consult your doctor before trying it out.

If the doc gives you the okay, TRX undoubtedly provides lots of exercises that up your kayaking game. Here are some of them:

TRX Push-Up

Attach the TRX straps to an anchor point above you and hold the handles with your hands. Walk your feet back so that your body is at a slight incline, with your hands directly under your shoulders. Lower your body toward the ground, keeping your core engaged and your elbows close to your sides. Push back up to the starting position and repeat for several reps.


Stand facing the anchor point with the TRX straps at arm's length. Lean back slightly, keeping your core engaged and your hands directly under your shoulders. Pull your chest up toward your hands, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lower back down to the starting position and repeat for several reps.

TRX Squat

Hold the TRX handles with your palms facing each other and stand facing the anchor point. Walk your feet forward, so your body is at a slight incline, then lower down into a squat position. Keep your weight in your heels and your chest up. Push back up to the starting position and repeat for several reps.

TRX Lunge

Hold the TRX handles with your palms facing each other and stand facing away from the anchor point. Step your right foot back and lower down into a lunge position, keeping your left knee directly over your ankle. Push back up to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

TRX Plank

Attach the TRX straps to an anchor point at ground level and hold the handles with your hands. Walk your feet back, so your body is in a plank position, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your core engaged. Hold for several seconds, and then lower down to the starting position.

Exercising your muscles is a foundational part of training for kayaking, yet it's not the only one. 

A Healthy Life Equals Great Kayaking

Kayaking takes stamina. Twisting, jerking, flipping, paddling, turning, and cardio for hours is exhausting. You need more than exercise to be in shape, including proper nutrition and hydration. This sport demands a lot from its participants but the reward is great.

Man paddling on kayak

Cardiovascular Exercise

Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise such as running, cycling, or swimming to help improve your cardiovascular fitness. Aim to gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts over time.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Incorporating HIIT workouts into your training routine increases your endurance and stamina. HIIT involves short, intense bursts of exercise followed by rest periods and is an effective way to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Progressive Overload

Gradually increasing the distance, duration, or intensity of your kayaking sessions builds your stamina. Start with shorter, easier paddles and progressively increase the length and intensity as your fitness improves.

Nutrition and Hydration

Proper nutrition and hydration are essential for building stamina and endurance. Make sure to fuel your body with healthy, energy-rich foods and drink plenty of water before, during, and after kayaking sessions.

Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for kayakers. They provide the necessary fuel to power through long paddles and maintain energy levels throughout the day. Good sources of carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

Protein is crucial for building and repairing muscles. As kayaking involves a lot of work from your muscles, eat foods that promote muscle growth. Good protein sources include lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, and dairy products.

Avoid processed and sugary foods, which cause blood sugar spikes and crashes. These foods leave you feeling sluggish, tired, and hinder your performance on the water.

Hydration is also key for kayaking. Dehydration leads to fatigue and cramping. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after kayaking. Sports drinks provide additional electrolytes and carbohydrates that you lose through sweating.

Following all of this advice should put you in prime shape to absolutely slay the rapids!

Indoor Kayak Training

Consider checking out indoor kayak training if it's in the middle of winter and you're dying to put your abilities to the test. Indoor training is a way to practice and improve kayaking skills in a controlled and safe environment, usually in a pool or artificial whitewater course. It's a great option for kayakers who want to improve their technique, build stamina, and train during the off-season or when outdoor conditions are not ideal.

Find an Indoor Pool Open for Kayaking

Look for a pool or facility that offers indoor kayaking training and provides access to kayaks, paddles, and safety gear. Some facilities even offer classes or instructors to help you improve your technique.

Practice Basic Kayaking Skills

Indoor training facilities allow you to hone your skills without the perils of actual kayaking. Use indoor kayaking training to practice basic kayaking skills, such as forward strokes, sweep strokes, bracing, rolling, and other self-rescue techniques in a controlled environment.

Man and woman tandem kayaking

Focus on Technique

Practice making your movements as precise and effective as possible. Kayaking uses boatloads of energy, so the better your technique, the longer you can go. Refine your strokes, improve your posture, and practice efficient paddling techniques. Hire a trainer if it's within your budget.

Finding Indoor Kayak Training Near You

To enjoy the benefits of an indoor kayaking facility, you first need to find one near you. When looking for indoor kayaking training, there are several places to check. 

Start with local community centers and parks offering indoor pool facilities, as they may have kayaking classes or open practice times. Fitness clubs with pool facilities may also provide access to indoor kayaking training or courses. 

Specialized indoor kayaking centers offer training and classes with equipment and instructors. Local kayaking clubs or outfitters may have recommendations for indoor kayaking facilities in your area or may offer their own indoor training programs. 

Do an online search for indoor kayaking training or classes along with your location to find facilities and programs near you. Check with each facility for specific details on their programs, schedules, equipment, and fees. With so many options available, finding an indoor kayaking training program that meets your needs and works with you to improve your skills is possible.

Finding Outdoor Kayak Training

Finding outdoor kayak training is a bit easier than finding indoor training. If you're looking for outdoor kayak training, there are many ways to find it. Check with local universities, outdoor programs, and tour companies.

Check With Local Universities and Colleges

Some universities and colleges offer outdoor recreation programs or have kayak clubs with training and group expeditions.

Look Into Outdoor Recreation Programs

Many parks and recreation departments offer outdoor recreation programs, including kayaking. These programs are a great way to learn from experienced instructors and meet other paddlers in your area.

Inquire Into Kayak Rental and Tour Companies

Kayak rental and tour companies often offer training programs and lessons for those new to kayaking. They are an excellent way to learn the basics of kayaking and gain confidence in the water.

The Key to Kayaking Lies in Training

Training for kayaking is vital for both beginners and experienced kayakers. Regular exercise improves fitness levels and prepares the body for the physical demands of kayaking. Without proper training, kayaking is a challenging and even dangerous sport. Always prepare your body for the unique movements required for kayaking.

Man on kayak

The great polymath and nature writer Loren Eiseley said, "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." To tap into the magic of water, get yourself a kayak — the greatest way to experience a personal connection with water. Train with passion, train with might, and unleash your inner kayaker like a bird in flight!

Oh, and naturally you will want to look the part. The first step towards doing that is taking care of yourself. If you do that, kayaking and all the adventure it offers are at your fingertips.

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