Muscles and Body Parts Used in Kayaking

Kayakers rowing together on still lake
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Contrary to popular belief, kayaking is an activity that uses the entire body. In one way or another, almost all muscle groups, joints, and body parts are involved—not just the arms. For this reason, it is essential to properly stretch before kayaking. Once you're out on the water, you'll be using your arms, shoulders, core, lower back, and legs. Paying attention to these areas and maintaining proper form will help you avoid soreness, stress, and injury.


Woman sea kayaking on lush lake
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Many people assume that the arms are what propel the kayak, but the truth is, when proper technique is followed, the arms will not exert much force at all during the paddle stroke. When you hold a kayak paddle, your arms should be about shoulder width apart, and the paddler’s box should be maintained for maximum paddling efficiency and safety. Your arms, rather than pushing and pulling the paddle, should stay at a relatively fixed length, merely transferring the power generated by your core muscles and torso rotation into the stroke.

Core Muscles

When proper form is used, your core muscles will help you stabilize your body and propel the kayak. The core includes all of the muscles that connect your upper and lower body, including those in the abdomen and pelvic floor. These muscles help you maintain proper posture as well as provide the power and rotation for various kayak strokes. The importance of your core muscles cannot be overstated. It is these muscles that drive the kayak forward, not those in your arms.


To outside observers, the shoulders may not seem to play a significant role in kayaking beyond serving as the connection point between the arms and the core muscles. It is for this reason that shoulder injuries are one of the most common kayaking injuries that paddlers experience. It is very easy to be caught off guard and allow the force of the water to pull your arms out of the paddler’s box, thereby torquing your shoulder. The best way to protect your shoulders is to maintain the paddler's box and keep your hands below your shoulders while bracing.

Hands & Forearms

When kayaking, you should be careful not to place too tight a grip on the paddle. This will wear out your forearms and can even cause arthritis in the joints of your hands later in life. You should be able to maneuver the paddle with only your index finger and thumb around the shaft, maintaining a relatively loose grip when you are traveling through calm waters. Of course, once you enter whitewater or other rough conditions, you'll need to tighten your grip so that you don't lose your blade position in the water—or worse, lose your paddle altogether.

Lower Back

The lower back is part of the core muscles, but it deserves some special attention when kayaking. Failure to provide adequate support can easily lead to sore muscles. Make sure that you properly set up your kayak before setting out on your journey. Adjusting the backrest so that it cradles your lower back is essential for lower back health and comfort.


For non-kayakers and beginners, it's difficult to imagine how the legs are involved in paddling the kayak. These muscles, though, are actually quite involved, since they provide the connection between the boat and the rest of your body. As you become more experienced and learn proper technique, the intricacies of how the legs work in conjunction with the hips to turn, stabilize, brace, and roll the kayak will become more evident. Sore legs are often the result of paddling in a kayak that is too small or not outfitted properly, so be sure to adjust your kayak before heading out onto the water.