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Kayaking: A low-impact high intensity exercise

Posted by on August 16, 2013

The next ‘big thing’ in fitness

Kayaking may not be the next Billy Blank’s Boot Camp or P90X, but there is no hiding the physical and mental benefits of kayaking. The sport of paddling challenges muscle groups not normally utilized during traditional exercise including the upper body, essential core muscles, and upper legs. With proper form, kayaking can act as a great low-impact high intensity workout.



Low impact

Unlike high impact workouts like running, crossfit, and weight training, kayaking is a low-impact exercise. With proper kayaking form, paddlers can achieve a high endurance workout with very little impact to joints, bones, and connective tissues. It is kayaking’s low-impact appeal which makes the sport ideal for seniors with limited flexibility, individuals with arthritis or soft-tissue injuries, or individuals attempting to avoid chances of mechanical injury.

seniors kayaking


High intensity

You can achieve aerobic fitness goals, lose weight, and burn calories all from the high endurance features of kayaking. A person can burn about 350 calories in average conditions and up to 600 calories an hour in rougher conditions. Paddlers can turn up the intensity of their workout by sprinting or introducing resistance. Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton would pull small buckets behind his kayak to build endurance on the water. Another way to add resistance is by paddling directly into a head wind.

US Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton

US Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton


Proper form

Proper kayaking form is critical in making sure you are not only utilizing all necessary muscle groups but reducing the risk of injury. Kayak Dave wrote an excellent editorial about proper kayaking form in an earlier article. This is what he suggests:

  • Start by sitting in your kayak on flat water and hold your paddle such that a square is formed between your arms, chest, and paddle. If you lock your elbows you will find that the only way to paddle is to do so by twisting with your core.
  • Now, relax your elbows and continue to paddle using the twisting motion leaving your arms to push and pull at the end of the stroke. Using torso rotation will help prevent common muscle and joint injuries by transferring much of the stress of paddling from your weaker arm muscles and joints to your stronger core muscles. It takes some time to get used to but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts by tiring out more slowly and suffering fewer aches and pains.
  • Also, a proper paddling position; sitting upright or slightly forward with your lower back slightly pressed against the back band will take a lot of strain off of your back. Lounging against your back-band is a nice way to relax in a protected cove but chronic slouching while paddling is a recipe for lower-back troubles.


What muscles should I be using?

A common delusion is that kayaking is “all arms.” In fact, with the use of proper form, arms are a very little part of the kayak stroke. A paddler using proper torso rotation will engage key muscle groups in the abdomen, lower back, upper legs, hips, and glutes. In addition, miscellaneous muscles such as deltoids, trapezius, and obliques will be engaged throughout a fluid paddle stroke.


How do you use legs in kayaking?

When the paddle blade enters the water, torso rotation begins. At this point, the paddler begins to pull him or herself through the water with each stroke. In the motion of pulling and rotating through the water, the paddler will engage each leg… How? Much like a bicycle motion, a kayaker will essentially push against a foot brace with each stroke. For example, when a kayaker leans forward for a stroke and places the blade on the right side of the kayak, he will push off of right foot pedal—using it as leverage to help draw the blade though the water. After the right blade is exits the water, he will repeat the process with his left stroke—this time using this left foot and foot brace. With the kayaker’s legs acting in the bicycle motion with each stroke, his upper legs and glutes do most of the work.


Any questions, suggestions, comments?? We’d love to hear what you have to say!

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2 Responses to Kayaking: A low-impact high intensity exercise

  1. Kayakfishingfever

    Great breakdown Dave of the mechanics of paddling. Reminds me not to slouch. Thanks

  2. Paul

    Hi Paul I have a kayak for fishing it is set up for fishing as type 2 diabetic I use it for exercise and releave stress and I fish for hours I go to my good spot at it is five kms from the beach and my many more kms if I am up to it I love it that much I am going to start a diabetes kayak fishing group

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