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Muscles and Body Parts Used in Kayaking

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Contrary to common belief, when performed correctly, kayaking is an activity that employs the entire body. Almost all muscle groups, joints, and body parts are utilized in one way or another while kayaking, dispelling the idea that kayaking mainly works the arms. It is therefore essential to properly stretch for kayaking Here is a look at how your arms, core, lower back, hands and forearms, and shoulders are used when kayaking and some things you can do from an ergonomic standpoint to ensure you are using your body properly when paddling.

The Arms' Purpose When Kayaking

Woman sea kayaking on lush lake
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While it is assumed that the arms are the main mechanism in propelling the kayak, the truth is when proper technique is adhered to, the arms will not exert much force at all during the paddle stroke. When holding a kayak paddle, the arms should be at about shoulder width apart and the paddler’s box should be maintained for maximum paddling efficiency and safety. The arms should not push and pull the paddle but rather stay at a relatively fixed length, merely transferring the power generated by the core muscles and torso rotation into the stroke.

Kayaking is All About the Core Muscles

When proper form is used, your core muscles are the primary parts of the body that should be used to stabilize the body and propel the kayak. The core can be defined as the connection and support between your upper and lower body. The muscles and body parts that are typically included in the core muscles are the abdominals, or abs for short, the hips, and the back. Through these muscles will help you maintain proper posture as well as provide the power and rotation for the various kayak strokes you use. This cannot be overemphasized. It is the core body parts and muscles that actually paddles the kayak, not the arms!

Protect Your Shoulders While Kayaking

The shoulders in kayaking don’t seem to do much but support the stroke as they are the connection point between the arms and core muscles. It is for this very reason that shoulder injuries are of the most common kayaking injuries that paddlers experience. While proper form should prevent shoulder injuries, 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 torqueing your shoulder. Some ways to ensure you don’t injure your shoulders while kayaking is to maintain the paddler’s box when paddling and to keep your hands below your shoulders while bracing.

Don't Grip the Kayak Paddle So Tight!

You should not over-grip or choke the shaft with a tight grip on the paddle. This will wear out your forearms and can also be a cause of arthritis in the joints in your hands later in life. When paddling, you should literally be able to maneuver the paddle with your index finger and thumb around the shaft. That is as loose of a grip you should use while paddling normally. Of course, when in whitewater, or other rough conditions, you’ll need to tighten that grip up so you don’t loose your blade position in the water or worse, lose your paddle altogether.

Support Your Lower Back While Kayaking

While the lower back is associated with and a part of the core muscles, I’m calling it out here as it is important to have good lower back support while kayaking. Sore lower backs from kayaking, especially as we get older, are just no fun. Make sure that you properly setup your kayak before setting out on your journey. Paddling a kayak with a good backrest that is adjusted so that it securely cradles your lower back such that you feel the support is essential to lower back health and comfort.

Legs: Out of Sight but Not Out of Mind

For non-kayakers and beginning kayakers its difficult to imagine how the legs are involved in paddling the kayak. Well, as the legs provide the connection between the boat and the kayak they are actually quite involved. As you become more experienced and learn proper technique, the intricacies of how the legs in conjunction with the hips help to turn, stabilize, brace, and roll the kayak will become more evident. The legs are also very likely to feel sore on kayakers who paddle boats that are too small or not properly outfitted to them. So be sure to properly adjust your kayak before paddling in it.
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