I've never had a stamina or ache problem with rowing a row-boat or paddling a canoe, although my limits have declined with age. However, my arms and shoulders tired very quickly the few times I tried kayaking recently.

Either my technique was wrong, or my kayaking muscles were rudely wakened from a life-long sleep and protested, or both.

I read the answers to the question suggested as a duplicate to this Q and do not find the answers "solved my problem", although the answer of @Chris H coupled with the rope exercise suggested by @Blade Wraith gave me some ideas to follow if my muscles are at fault. (Note -- rowing machine will not help; I have no problems with the rowing motion.)

However, I wonder if my technique is at least partly at fault. Perhaps I elevate my arms too much. The problem is really with unremitting work with my arms elevated much of the time. (I have no problems paddling a canoe.) Advice ?

  • If you focus on "exercises" then this is a duplicate of the other question. However, as you hint in this question, i suggest you focus on asking what is wrong with my technique.
    – Martin F
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 20:50
  • @ab2 just occurred to me that people may make different assumptions about the type / intensity of paddling you’re trying to prep to do. In my experience the different English speaking countries, or even the different coasts, have different norms for how they use language to downplay or exaggerate the intensity of their sport so It can be hard to make a good guess.
    – mmcc
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 20:45
  • 1
    Un update on how it went and if anything in particular worked or didn’t would be great.
    – T. M.
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:37

3 Answers 3


Short of seeing a video of your technique, here is some general advice.

A very common but poor technique in the forward stroke is where you keep your torso relatively still and repeatedly push and pull your arms in opposition. It will lead to tired arms sooner or later. Your arms are much weaker than your core muscles so the key to efficient forward paddling is to keep your arms relatively still (not dramatically flexing and straightening) and use the power of your trunk by rotating your whole body with each side of the paddle stroke.

While the videos and articles below may differ in some details on their advice, they all agree on the following:

  1. Grip the paddle with your hands wider than shoulder width apart, the position that would feel natural for push-ups and pull-downs.
  2. Sit up tall in the cockpit, leaning slightly forwards.
  3. Hold the paddle in front of you with your arms only slightly bent.
  4. Rotate your body about your spine so one hand and paddle blade is forward.
  5. Spear the the paddle blade completely into the water, just ahead of where your feet are.
  6. Simultaneously, push on the foot peg on that side and rotate your body about your spine, keeping the shaft parallel to your chest. This will pull the boat towards and past where you placed the blade.
  7. Lift the blade out of the water, just after it passes your side.
  8. Repeat steps 5, 6 and 7 on the other side.
A more aggressive, powerful variation is to do "high angle" paddling, have your arms far in front and hold the pushing elbow high. A more relaxed, touring variation – probably what you need – is to do "low angle" paddling, have your arms close to your chest and keep the pushing elbow low.

Some short videos:

Some articles: Some long video classes from champion paddlers:

You can train through this, but don’t miss this opportunity to use the information from your muscles to improve your technique as much as you can while your complaining arms give you the incentive.

In my experience kayaking does have a sort of breaking-in period during which a bunch of muscles that don’t typically get used in a specific way gain strength and gripe about it. After a few good trips you reach a plateau in which arms and hands are no longer the limiting factor, you really are doing the main work with your core, and your range in a day becomes more a function of general conditioning (/rest/nutrition on that day).

In addition to the excellent answer from Martin F above, I would emphasize the following:

—go out and paddle (with whatever form) until you get good and sore. Then at that point really focus on torso rotation and pushing the boat with your feet. It’s easier when you’re tired/sore because your core will not be as fatigued as your arms and will give you immediate pleasant feedback that you can move the boat while sparing your arms.

—in particular focus on a short power stroke that happens ahead of your hips. Most of the forward propelling force really comes from an amazingly short part of the time the blade is in the water pretty soon after you plant the blade. A lot of what you do with your arms is guiding it cleanly in and out.

—experiment with how loosely you can hold the paddle (especially with your top hand) until you’re on the verge of dropping it (you will instinctively grip tightly if the wind/water is actually in any danger of taking it from you).

—a drill I find useful is to make yourself paddle without bending your elbows. Seriously lock your arms straight out like an old horror-movie monster and figure out how to move the boat, even if it takes a couple of minutes to go anywhere at all. What you realize is that a big torso rotation and a very short very powerful stroke soon after you plant the paddle really does move you. Then add a little arm bending but as little as you can. Revert to this drill now and then as you find yourself drifting back into relying on your arms.

—try a bunch of paddles and buy your own even if you don’t own your own kayak. It makes an enormous difference. I like my hefty wooden Greenland paddle (carrying it on land it’s a heavy piece of lumber, in the water it’s buoyant and bears a lot of its own weight). Among European paddles, carbon fiber shafts and blades eliminate work spent holding up the paddle instead of moving the boat and will spoil you for ever wanting to paddle with rental gear. Bent shafts save some people’s wrists, wing paddles add undeniable speed and range (at the cost of versatility of control strokes). I personally refuse to feather my paddle (rotate the blades relative to one another), mostly because I’m used to a Greenland and don’t want to get confused on my brace strokes but I don’t accept that outside of a race the aerodynamic benefit outweighs the ergonomic drawback of adding even the small twisting motion. The point is experiment and find what you love.

—finally to answer your original pre-edited question, find anything you like to do that works your arms and hands whether it’s rock climbing or baking bread. It’s about lifetime habits there’s only so often most of us can force ourselves to train.


Pulling on a kayak paddle uses a lot of arms and upper back, so any exercise in the gym they utilisies those muscles will be of benfit to you.

Rowing Machine

Not being patronizing but this is obviously your best bet, it exercises ALL of the correct muscles. but if oyu don't have one and don't like the gym...

Rope Workout

Take a decent length of thick rope, (about 4cm diameter, and about 10 metres long is good). Loop it around a post so you have an end in each hand, now raise and lower each hand opposite the other quickly, as if hitting a big drum. this is a great arm and back workout


You will hate me for suggesting this the first time you do it, but this has the added benefit of improving your grip strength more than the Rowing machine will, so you hand won't fatigue as quickly when holding the paddle

  • 1
    A rowing machine is a significantly different motion to kayaking. That's why you can buy kayak ergos
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 16:18
  • 1
    @ChrisH, agreed, but the rowing machine does exercise all of the correct muscles and is the easiest to access for most people and is a good aerobic workout for stamina training, which is why i put it as the best option, not many gyms have a kayak ergo but most if not all have a rowing machine, and if you were so inclined you can use a rowing machine in the same way you would use a kayak ergo Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 16:26
  • Kayaking alternatives to rowing machines are described in outdoors.stackexchange.com/q/20112/11563
    – Martin F
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 19:44
  • Kayak paddling does not require any significant grip strength. A light grip is usually recommended, to prevent blisters or sore finger/hand joints.
    – Martin F
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 19:46
  • @MartinF, i'm aware of the kayaking machines, but as i stated in the above comment they are not widely accessible for most people, unless bought yourself. hence i stated rowing machine, and while a light grip is indeed recommended training grip strength reduces the chance of blisters and when kayaking over several miles at a time, even a light grip tires, so increasing your grip strength is highly recommended Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 7:58

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