Conditioning for Kayakers:
A Complete Off-Season Program
By Roy Stevenson

Kayaking offers a rare combination of physical and spiritual benefits that few other sports can; paddling through calm, pristine, waters, while observing aquatic wildlife and scenic coastline that refreshes the soul of even the most burned out city dweller, while the repetitive paddling offers a physically tangible feeling, even when fatigued, of achievement and fitness.

Yet many kayakers don’t get full benefit from their paddling, because—due to poor conditioning—fatigue and soreness defrays their full enjoyment of the sport. To fully appreciate kayaking, one needs to be as well conditioned as possible for that feeling of accomplishment when you finally pull the kayak out of the water at the end of a pleasant day’s kayaking, with still enough energy in reserve so you don’t fall asleep while driving home.

With winter looming up, you should now be contemplating your off-season conditioning program for the next few months to extract the most pleasure from next year’s kayaking outings. Here’s one such program that will have you fitter than ever before, and thus better prepared for the rigors of the sport.

Goals for Your Conditioning for Kayakers Program

It helps to have a concrete series of goals for your workouts. Given that kayaking requires a unique meshing of several fitness factors for maximum performance, your conditioning goals should include developing the elements of fitness listed below.

Fitness Element & Goal:

Aerobic Fitness - Develop your cardiovascular endurance enough to sustain paddling for hours at a time.

Muscular Strength and Power - Have enough strength to provide a reserve for dealing with rough seas, emergencies and faster, more competitive kayaking.

Balance between the Major Muscle Groups - Prevent one muscle group overpowering its opposing group, which leads to injuries. Also, ensure you are exercising the muscle groups utilized during kayaking.

Strengthen your Core Musculature - Maintain your posture and torque when paddling for hours, without fatiguing. Prevent low back pain.

Minimizing your Injury Risk - Have your muscles in optimal condition to reduce incidence of muscle strains and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

Improving your Trunk Flexibility

- You’ll have a broader “band” of movement for your trunk, shoulders and arms, when paddling. Thus longer stroke length with greater ease.

Aerobic Conditioning for Kayakers

For paddling for sustained time periods, often in rough water, a high level of stamina is required. We call this cardiovascular or aerobic endurance. A myriad of adaptations happen with aerobic training from increased capillary beds that deliver more oxygenated blood to your working muscles, to more efficient use of your carbohydrate and fats as fuel, an increased oxygen uptake that enables you to distribute more oxygen, and maximizing your use of slow and fast twitch muscle fibers for long cruising. Their combined effect will enable you to resist fatigue for longer.

To develop this important aspect of kayaking conditioning you can choose your favorite aerobic activities and spread them out through the week. Your goal is to do 3-5 cardiovascular workouts each week, varying in length from 30-60 minutes, at a heart rate level somewhere between 65% and 80% of your estimated maximal heart rate.

How do you estimate your maximal heart rate? Subtract your age from 220, and then multiply this figure by .65 and .80 to get a training heart rate range. Here’s an example. If you are 30 years old, your estimated maximal heart rate is 190 (220-30 = 190). Then multiply this by .65 and .80 to get your range. I.e. 190 x .65 = 124, 190 x .80 = 152, so the range for your heart rate is from 124-152. If you’re above this, slow down, and if you’re below this when doing your cardio workout, speed up.

Aerobic activities that are good for improving kayakers’ endurance range from jogging and running (outdoors or on a treadmill), stair machines, elliptical machines, cycling (on the road or in the gym), cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and swimming. Swimming is particularly important for kayakers because it works the upper body, while training you for that day when things go wrong on the open sea, and you find yourself swimming for safety.

Muscular Strength/Power Conditioning for Kayakers

We no longer believe that paddling alone is enough for adequate conditioning for kayaking. Propelling your body and kayak weight against water resistance is hard work. The essence of resistance training is to train your muscle groups to deliver more force, or power, with each stroke, by overcoming the resistance more efficiently. The stronger your muscles, the larger the range (or reserve) will be between your cruising and maximal efforts. This translates into cruising at a lower percentage of your maximum effort for a longer time.

Physiological benefits of resistance training include increasing the size of your fast twitch muscle fibers and motor units, improved neuromuscular coordination and thus better muscle fiber recruitment, greater resistance to muscular fatigue, greater storage of intramuscular energy stores such as glycogen and Creatine Phosphate, a lower risk of injury, and a faster metabolism.

Exercise science research now shows that it’s a more efficient use of your training time to do heavier weights and fewer repetitions, Vs with low resistance and high numbers of repetitions. In other words, you’ll still develop your muscular endurance to its max by using heavier weights and sets of 8-12 repetitions, as long as they are done to muscular fatigue or failure.

Now is a good time to dispel another myth or two about strength training for kayaking. Some believe that resistance-training exercises should only be performed in a seated position. Not true. Although they can be done this way, general strengthening exercises done in either open chain (where the hand or foot moves freely, and generally non weight bearing) or closed-chain (where the hand or foot is fixed and does not move) positions will be effective for kayaking conditioning.

Another closely related myth is that your resistance training exercises must simulate the paddling action or they are of no use. As it is difficult to perfectly simulate the paddling action with most weight training exercises, one should stick to exercises that provide general conditioning to the appropriate muscle groups in the off-season, and do the cable, resistance band, medicine ball and dumbbell exercises and simulation drills closer to the kayaking season.

A common belief among kayakers is that the legs and hips are not important in the paddling action. Considering that they anchor your trunk to the boat, providing stability during the paddling action, and initiate each stroke, this is simply not the case.

The following split workout strength training program allows for balance between muscle groups while focusing on the major muscles groups, the back, shoulders, arms, core and legs, used during paddling.

Development of Core Strength Conditioning for Kayakers

Few sports activities place such a repetitive, rotational stress on the core musculature as kayaking. What is the core? The group of muscles around your hips, torso, pelvis and lower back, that provide a platform for virtually all of the movement you perform when paddling.

The unique rotational trunk movement when Kayaking in a seated position creates a relentless shearing force along the spine. And as we know, 80% of people experience low back pain at some time in their lives, so the statistics would indicate that most kayakers might be susceptible to some form of low back pain, exacerbated by the paddling action. And indeed, sports medicine physicians note that most injuries or soreness in kayakers occur in the back, (and shoulders and arms).

Flexibility Conditioning for Kayakers

Recent research shows that flexibility may not be the panacea it is claimed to be in terms of injury prevention, reducing post exercise muscle soreness, and improving sports performance. Many exercise scientists now believe that having a stronger, less flexible musculature enables you to develop more power in your movements, Vs over-flexible muscle groups that tend to be able to resist high force movements less efficiently, and are thus more prone to injury.

Nevertheless, having stated this, I’m not giving you absolution to ignore basic stretching of the muscle groups you are exercising. You should indeed do a few flexibility exercises for your back, shoulders, hamstrings, hip flexors, buttocks, and arms, especially when you finish your workouts. The goal of your stretching is to prevent a further reduction in the range of motion about your joints that may come from strength training and aerobic activity. It’s good to have a reasonably lengthy range of motion while paddling, to provide a reserve of movement for your kayaking muscles.

What muscles then, should you be strengthening and stretching?

Body Area - Muscles Involved

Upper back - Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and the trapezius

Chest and shoulders - Pectorals and the deltoids

Arms - Biceps, triceps, and the muscles of the hand, wrist and forearms.

Core - Rectus abdominus, obliques, and the spinal erectors.


- Gluteals, hamstrings, quadriceps, calf.

Designing Your Off-Season Conditioning Program

This program should be followed for 8-12 weeks. The workout can be done 2-3 days each week, with at least one rest day between each session. If you are very fatigued and sore after this workout, split it into two workouts, and allow two days rest between each session. Start with one set of 10-12 repetitions of each set for 2-3 weeks until you are comfortable with the exercises. Then from weeks 4-6, do two sets of each exercise. From weeks 7-12 do 3 sets of each exercise. If you are already an experienced weight trainer, start in at 2-3 sets of each exercise.

Start your resistance-training program gradually, especially if you have not done weights before. Beginners should enlist the aid of a personal trainer to ensure they do the exercises with good form.

Exercise - Description

Leg Extension - Adjust seat so knees are aligned with axis of the machine. Lean back against pad, extend legs straight out to full extension, and slowly return.

Leg Curl - Lie face down on bench with knee joints aligned with the axis of the machine. Adjust leg pad so that it is on lower part of calf. Hold handles securely and flex knees as far back as comfortable. Return slowly to straight leg position.

Leg Press - Adjust back pad for comfort. Lean back on machine with back firmly against pad. With legs shoulder width apart, and ankles, knees and hips aligned, slowly straighten legs. Do not lock out your knees. Press heels against the platform through full range.

Flat Bench Knee Ups - Sit on the end of a flat bench, hands just behind the buttocks, gripping the bench. From a straight leg position, flex knees in front of you as high as they can go, then return to straight leg position.

Back Extension - Adjust back extension machine so you can fully flex your torso below it. With hands crossed in front of your chest, slowly straighten your back while breathing out. Straighten back to 180 degrees, then slowly lower torso while breathing out.

Cable Standing Lat Row - Adjust mobile cable pulley to lowest setting. Place two handles on the cable. With quads locked in a ¼ squat position, and trunk leaning slightly forward, slowly pull back handles towards your abdomen until elbows are by your side. Return slowly back to start position.

Dumbbell Chest Press - Plant feet firmly on floor, buttocks, head and shoulders on bench. Pull shoulder blades together and hold them there, while lowering arms so that upper arms are parallel with floor. Do not lower any further than this. Push arms straight up, above elbows, and then pull the dumbbells together. Reverse this action slowly and repeat.

Cable Seated Rear Delt Row - This action is similar to the Cable Seated Lat Row, except the arms come through much higher. Plant feet firmly against the foot platform and keep trunk vertically straight at 90 degrees to the bench. Place two pulley handles on the cable. Grip handles, with wrists facing downwards, elbows facing outwards, and slowly pull the handles straight back towards your chest. Keep your shoulder blades squeezed together through this action. Slowly return to start position without bending forward.

Standing Dumbbell Biceps Curl - Stand with legs shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Tuck elbows in to sides, and aligned under shoulders. With dumbbells in hand, forearms facing forward, slowly contract biceps and pull dumbbells up as far as they will go. Slowly return to starting position.

Downward Transverse Cable Pull - Adjust cable to highest setting, with one cable handle. Stand facing cable post with legs shoulder width apart and hands gripping handle. Keep arms straight and up and to your right, above or at head height. Slowly pull handle downwards and across your body, pivoting slightly with your trunk and feet. You should feel this across your back as you pull downwards. Reverse movement slowly back to start position. Don’t forget to do this exercise in both directions, to your left, and right.

Triceps Extension on machine - Stand facing cable machine with legs shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Adjust cable so that it is at highest setting. Set a curved triceps bar, about 18 inches long, on cable. Grip curved bar with hands sloping downwards to the sides. Slowly push bar downwards to full arm extension. Slowly return to start position.

Supplementary Conditioning for Kayakers Exercises

A series other core exercises that can be done on the BOSU Balance Trainer or GymBall are also provided here. These exercises can be included with your strength-training workout, or done as a separate workout on one of your easier days between weight training sessions.

This program, if followed consistently, will result in a great kayaking season for you in 2010. Just remember to follow your subjective feelings when doing this program. If you’re exhausted, sore, or injured, stop training and rest up until you are ready to start again.

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