Is Kayaking Good Exercise? What Muscles Does It Work?

Kayaking engages the core, back, and leg muscles and is a great cardio and strength workout. Discover more benefits and try these kayak workouts.

Is Kayaking Good Exercise

You may not consider kayaking the most strenuous or challenging outdoor activity. But some types of paddling can elevate your heart rate, improve muscle tone, and be much more fun than hanging out inside a gym. 

Since there’s little impact on your joints and paddling is relatively easy, kayaking can be an excellent way for people of all ages and physical conditions to enjoy the great outdoors and burn calories.

So no matter if you’re just getting started kayaking or looking to mix up your workout program, you may be surprised by the results it can offer.

Is Kayaking Good for Weight Loss?

Kayaking won’t burn calories as quickly as high-intensity training programs like CrossFit and HIIT. But on the plus side, you can kayak much longer since it’s not as strenuous. It also has minimal impact on your joints, reducing the risk of long-term wear and tear that comes with many other forms of exercise.

However, I wouldn’t say kayaking is the best workout program if your plan is to shed weight. And if it’s your primary workout, you will probably be disappointed in the results.

I paddle almost every day between May and September, but if I don’t incorporate some running and weight training, I have trouble maintaining my preferred body weight.

The difference in the calories burned is stark. For example, Harvard Health Publications estimates that a 185-pound paddler will burn 210 calories over a 30-minute paddle, compared with 420 calories if you’re running (at a pace of 10 min/mile).

But as a supplemental exercise or if you’re not ready for more intense programs, kayaking can be a great introduction.

Bear in mind that it depends on what type of kayaking you’re doing. If this is a form of exercise, treat it as such. Paddling hard across a lake is different from floating down a river.

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work

Proper kayak paddling technique puts a lot of focus on your core and back. By pushing with your top hand while pulling with the bottom, your core, and back muscles are engaged, taking the pressure off your biceps and triceps. 

Since these are larger muscle groups and less prone to fatigue, you can paddle longer and harder while sculpting those abdominal and back muscles.

You wouldn’t think your legs are getting much of a workout, but they play a crucial role in paddling. Your legs brace against the side of the kayak, improving your paddling efficiency and overall balance. 

You have to continually flex and adjust your leg’s position to do this. It doesn’t do much for their endurance but is a great way to tone your leg muscles, specifically your quads.

Is Kayaking Better for Cardio or Strength?

2 kayakers paddling in parallel in the sea

Kayaking can improve both your cardio and overall strength. But, as discussed above, it isn’t the best substitute for running or high-intensity training. However, if you’re paddling hard enough, you can elevate your heart rate for a good cardiovascular workout.

It’s challenging to bulk up from kayaking. But paddling is an excellent way to tone your abdominals, back, arms, and legs.

Again, you won’t see significant results just from kayaking. Still, it’s an excellent way to get a workout that can benefit several different areas of your body.

Kayak Workouts

If the primary goal of your kayaking career is exercise, there are better ways to go about it than simply paddling. Instead, try to elevate your heart rate and increase the number of your paddle strokes as if you’re running a race.

Interval training can work well. For example, paddle hard for a minute, rest for 20 seconds, and repeat. Then, take a short break (around a minute) and repeat as many times as you want. The longer you stick with it, the better results you’ll have.

If you’re paddling down a river, you need to be more intentional with your process. Look for eddies (water moving in the opposite direction, usually along the shorelines) to increase the paddling resistance.

If you’re paddling in rapids, hit every rapid you safely can, and practice your techniques and moves to make the paddle as challenging as possible.

Working standing waves, moving upriver, or against the tide or wind is the easiest way to elevate your heart rate and burn some calories. Then, all you have to do is paddle hard.

Additional Health Benefits of Kayaking

Along with improving your cardio and overall strength, kayaking can do wonders for your mental health. Just getting outside can boost your mood, and removing yourself from a world of electronics and status updates for a couple of hours can act like a mental system reset.

I may be biased, but some pretty cool people also like to kayak. And immersing yourself in the paddling world can be a great way to meet new people.

Kayaking has become part of my job and how I relax. When I pretzel myself into my kayak and feel the hull dip in the water, I can feel any stress dissolve, and my heart slows down. At least until a sea lion pops up closer than I’d like!

If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with lots of sun exposure, kayaking can be a great way to grab some vitamin D. But remember that the sun is much stronger reflecting off the water, so be sure to bring adequate sunscreen. 

There are plenty of other benefits to exercise, whether from the seat of a kayak or not. For example, you’re much more likely to get a good night’s sleep after a day with some exercise. Breaking a sweat can also stimulate your brain by improving memory retention, enhancing learning, and slowing cognitive decline.

If you’d like an entire rundown on why kayaking is an excellent sport, check out our article on the benefits of kayaking.