8 Exercises to Help You Become a Strong Paddler

Paddling your kayak or canoe involves working a specific set of muscles. Here's how to prep those muscles so you're ready to hit the water.

Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #499
The Quick And Dirty
  • To truly enjoy a boating adventure, you need to be physically ready for it.
  • Paddling fitness involves core, shoulder, and arm strength plus mobility, balance, and endurance.
  • Doing some specific exercises for a few weeks before a paddling adventure can set you up for success and fun.

Just a few days after this article and podcast are published, I'll be heading out on a kayak, right in the heart of Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound on the eastern edge of Queen Charlotte Strait. This area, which surrounds the protected Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, is the summer feeding ground of the northern resident orcas (or killer whales). Along with the orcas, we hope to be paddling among humpback whales, sea lions, seals, and porpoises. On our trek, we hope to spot bears and eagles. I've been training for this and I can’t wait!

The fun part of paddling on any body of water is having the ability to explore with power and ease. That means having the strength, stamina, and technical know-how to control your watercraft. Part of being a strong paddler involves technique and practice but the other part involves being fit and strong enough in the right areas. 

Regardless of your paddling prowess, you also need the power, strength, stability, coordination, and endurance to truly enjoy your time on the water.

Of course, it's smart to learn the proper technique from an experienced instructor so you can safely control your chosen vessel. Bad paddling technique and poor stroke form can poop you out in a hurry, no matter how fit you are. (Trust me, I nearly broke myself kayaking in Kawaii once a few years ago.) But regardless of your paddling prowess, you also need the power, strength, stability, coordination, and endurance to truly enjoy your time on the water.

If you've gone for even a quick paddle around a lake, or even just tried the rowing machine at the gym, you likely found out quickly that many of your paddling muscles aren't ready for a multi-day excursion. So if you're heading out on an adventure, like I am, it really does make sense to spend some prep time getting in ship shape. 

Paddling fitness focuses

The four main areas we want to focus on before the big day are:

  1. Core strength. First, we need to build some strength in the core muscles. These core muscles—specifically the side-core or external obliques—help you with the power of your stroke. Without strong obliques, you will rely on the shoulder muscles to do all the work, which will make you fatigued and sore in a hurry.
  2. Shoulder and arm strength. To keep the boat in motion, you also need to keep your paddling arms in motion and that requires some specific arm and shoulder strength and stamina. 
  3. Balance. This is more important if you choose to do something less stable (like stand-up paddle boarding or SUP) but even in a kayak, balance is required to make your stroke smooth and keep your boat from capsizing.
  4. Endurance. It can be fun to just take a boat out on the water, float around, and then head back to shore. But if you want to cover some ground, see some sights, and have an adventure, being able to stay active for hours at a time is important. 

How and when to train

Of course, this varies greatly depending on the individual. Your current fitness level, your paddling goals, and how much time you have to prepare are all factors in how long you'll need to get yourself ready. I suggest starting some specific paddling exercises about six weeks before the trip. Eight weeks, if you have the time.  

You can either mix these exercises in with your other workouts or switch to doing only these, again depending on how serious and how experienced you are. I suggest doing these exercises every second day, mixed in with two cardio days, and also two rest days per week. 

Remember, too-much-too-soon is the number one cause of pain and injury.

As always, when you are starting a new routine like this, err on the "too easy" side. I would rather have you “waste” a few workouts by taking it easy than to end up too sore (or injured) to work out because you went too hard at the start. Remember, too-much-too-soon is the number one cause of pain and injury. 

8 exercises to strengthen your paddling

Side Plank Rotation

Get down into a side plank position by lying on your left side on an exercise mat with your feet stacked on top of one another. Then prop yourself up on your left elbow and forearm so your body makes a straight line from head to feet.

Raise your right arm so that it is straight out from your shoulder and perpendicular to the floor. Then, with that same arm, reach forward and under your body with your right hand and twist so that your chest is parallel to the floor. Pause, then rotate back to starting position.

Repeat as many times are you can with good form and then do the same on the other side. 

For an added boost, you can hold a dumbbell in the hand doing the rotation. 

Thoracic Rotation (open book)

Lie down on your side in the fetal position (with your legs bent in front of you at 90 degrees). Your arms should be straight in front of you at shoulder height with your hands resting on top of each other.

Just like a book opening its cover, lift your top arm as you rotate your torso, neck, and head to look behind you. Try to get your arm on the floor behind you. Feel a nice stretch along your side and the front of your shoulder. Don’t force it—breathe into the position, don’t muscle your way into it.

Then rotate back to the original position. That is one rep. Slowly do 10 to 15 of these using good control and form. 

The goal is to be able to do a  full rotation while also keeping your knees together. Don’t worry if reaching this goal takes time; just do what you can and you'll get the benefits. 

Speed Skaters with Dumbbells 

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and leap out to the side with your left foot. Cross your right leg back and behind your left leg and touch your toes to the ground. Swing your arm so your right hand reaches across your body toward your left foot. 

Change directions and repeat this movement on the opposite side—leap out with your right foot and cross your left leg behind while reaching your left arm across your body. You got it. Just like a speed skater but without the ice, skates, or full-body spandex jumpsuit. 

If you choose to use dumbbells, you can add in some uppercuts. To do that, while you are hopping laterally, bring your front arm up and diagonally across your chest as if you were doing an uppercut punch. 

There are two ways to increase the difficulty on this one: leap farther (side-to-side), and add a heavier dumbbell. 

Wood Chopper

For this one, you will need to hold a kettlebell, medicine ball, or dumbbell in your hands—like an ax, sort of. 

Do a half squat, and twist left while holding the weight on the outside of your left leg. Pause for a second and lift the weight diagonally across your body, ending with a twist to the right and the dumbbell above your head. 

Think of this movement as if you're picking something up off the ground beside you and then throwing it up and away on the other side. But stay in control the entire time and don’t let momentum take over. 

Following the weight with your eyes is a good way to keep your body aligned. 

Running Man Row

Begin by attaching an appropriate elastic resistance band to a low anchor or heavy piece of furniture. Then stand on your right leg with the end of the cable/tubing in your left hand.

Do a small-ish single leg squat on your right leg while you step back into a lunge with the left leg. Keep the cable/tubing arm straight with your ribs slightly rotated toward the right leg.

Then begin to lift the left leg into a knee drive position (like a flamingo) while also doing a row motion with the left arm. Then step back into a lunge while releasing and straightening the rowing arm. That's one rep.

Make this one more difficult by adjusting the depth of your lunge or increase the resistance of the band so you have to work harder in the row. 

Straight Arm Pull-Down

Attach the middle of a resistance band to something slightly taller than you. Grab each end of the band in each hand. Take a step back with your arms fully extended overhead until you feel some tension on the band. You should feel a stretch on your lats (the sides of your back). Make sure your feet are shoulder-width apart.

Slowly drive your arms down to your sides in an arcing motion, keeping your elbows straight and locked, so your hands end up in line with your hips. Reverse the motion and slowly extend your arms up again. Keep your arms straight and your elbows locked. That is one rep.

Bicycle Crunch

Lie down flat on your back with your lower back pressed to the ground. Put your hands behind your head in the quintessential crunch position. Then bring both of your knees in towards your chest and lift your shoulder blades off the ground. This is your starting position.

Straighten one leg out to about a 45-degree angle to the ground while turning your upper body toward the bent leg, bringing your elbow towards your knee. Make sure your rib cage is rotating, not just your elbows. Then switch sides and do the same motion on the other side to complete one rep.

You can make this one harder (or easier) by adjusting how high you raise your body off the ground and how far you rotate your torso to each side.

Plate Pinch (or book grab)

This is a simple one. Grasp a weight plate between your fingers and your thumb. Then just stand up straight and hold the weight plate with your fingers as long as possible. If you can hold it longer than 30 seconds, you can use a heavier plate next time.

If you don’t have access to weight plates, you can use a book! My old anatomy textbook works well since it's both heavy and large. 

So, there you go. Even if you aren’t going on a multi-day paddling adventure like I am, sessions called Fitness Paddling are a really fun way to get some different types of movement into your life. Paddling gives you the opportunity to combine a really great core workout with some shoulder and arm strength all while getting some fresh air and a glimpse into nature.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.