Head to Toe: Strength Training for Sea Kayakers

Do you want an explosive forward stroke? Would you like to paddle all day without getting too fatigued, feel great the next day, and be ready to do it again? Cardiovascular endurance training will contribute to these performance objectives but an investment in strength training will yield multiple benefits for your kayaking fu.

I’ve come to realize through my own progression as a sea kayaker that fitness has a significant direct correlation to performance and enjoyment in the boat. I started with a running regime to prepare myself to tackle the long days of my Newfoundland trip in 2015. Some days of our journey demanded 7 hours of coastal paddling followed another hour fighting 20-knot headwinds as we advanced to the only suitable campsite at the back of a fjord. The trip was physically demanding but well within my capabilities and comfort because of investment I made in conditioning.

Head to Toe-Newfoundland

Newfoundland 2016 journey: 132 km in less than 5 days

After the success of that trip and the satisfaction of the physical accomplishment, I was compelled to invest more to improve my fitness. I recruited a sports conditioning coach, Ben Costigan, who put me on the path of strength training. I started first with mobility exercises, strength work using bodyweight and handheld weights (kettlebells, dumbbells), and high intensity interval exercises. After establishing a good foundation, I advanced to Olympic barbell.

Why Strength?

One of the first things I learned from Ben is that you can train for strength, power, or endurance, each requiring a different approach and regime. Strength is your ability to exert force against an external resistance using the body’s system of muscles and skeletal attachments. Power is strength applied over a relatively short time and distance (explosive forward stroke to catch a wave, sprinting, throwing). Endurance is strength repeated many times over a longer duration with a lesser resistance (coastal paddling, running, ditch digging).

Author/trainer Mark Rippetoe describes strength as the foundation for performance. Although strength is slower to develop than endurance, it offers the greatest leverage for the investment. Increased strength contributes to both increased power and increased endurance, even if you don’t train for them specifically. In a October 2010 study in the Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, Aagaard and Andersen concluded that the use of high-volume, heavy resistance strength training protocols can lead to enhanced long-term (>30 min) and short-term (<15 min) endurance capacity in athletes.

Why Barbells?

Bodyweight training is productive and effective to a point but eventually your progress will be limited by the weight of your own body. You can increase the challenge by changing angles of attack (e.g. elevated feet on a box for push-ups), donning a weighted vest, and performing many repetitions. Handheld weights like dumbbells and kettlebells increase the resistant force and have their own useful place in strength training but they too have limits.

The barbell is a modern training tool that embodies the ancient training technique of lifting heavy things off the ground. It allows for the greatest diversity of functional human kinetic movement under load. The advantages of barbell training include:

   •    Measurable — The bar itself has a known mass (typically 45 pounds) and each plate has a specific weight measure so that training plans and accomplishments can be expressed precisely.

   •    Incremental — You can warm up with increments of 20-30 pounds and push the limits of your maximum weight with as little as 5-pound increments.

   •    Functional — Lifting embodies full-body functional movement that demands coordination, balance, and comprehensive engagement of the nervous system. This is contrasted with exercise machines that isolate parts of the body rather than work the entire system.

Diversity of Lifting

Head to Toe-Squat

Barbell training at Core Essentials in downtown Dartmouth

Strengthening the muscles involved in forward stroke will improve your power transfer and speed. But training strength for increased athletic performance doesn’t necessarily need to replicate the precise movement that we’re aiming to improve in the sport. We can strengthen the upper back with bent-over rows (horizontal pulls) and the chest with bench presses (horizontal pushes). Shoulders are strengthened with presses (vertical pushes) and lats with pull-ups (vertical pulls).

In addition to upper body strength, the forward stroke relies on power transfer through the torso and legs onto the footpegs. The barbell is also immensely useful for strengthening the entire posterior chain (quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back) with quad-dominant squats and hamstring-dominant deadlifts. A friend of mine remarked that these exercises must be hard on the knees and lower back and indeed improper technique or inappropriate weight increments could contribute to an injury. But when we learn lifts correctly and weight is progressed with appropriate increments, this training will strengthen the knees and back rather than break them.

Power movements, like the clean, train coordination and speed as well as strength. I particularly appreciate the technical challenge of these more complicated lifts. For some additional challenge and a great workout, combine a variety of lifts into a complex routine (deadlift, hang clean, front squat, and press) and compose circuits using both the barbell and the pull-up bar.

Is barbell training for me?

The barbell is suitable for anyone who wants to get stronger: from teens to seniors. To be successful, you will need to bring two essential ingredients:

   •    Motivation — Make no mistake, lifting is not easy and you really have to want to do it. Unlike weight machines, you can’t just walk into a gym and start training on your own. A good coach who can teach you, spot you, and refine your form, will empower you to progress safely and steadily.

   •    Mobility – Once you’re sufficiently motivated, you’ll probably require some work on your flexibility to advance with weight training. Sufficient mobility, beyond the range of motion required for strength training, will prevent injury and contribute to effective body mechanics. Be prepared and patient to invest this time up front (stretching, rolling, smashing, flossing) to enable your body to lift effectively.

Strength training requires dedication, hard work, time, and patience. Finding a good coach to get you started is both necessary and worthwhile. With motivation and persistence, all of your kayaking strokes will improve, including rock solid rudders, powerful draws, and well-connected rolls. And in the off-season, your snow shoveling will also yield improvements.


   •    Rippetoe, M., & Baker, A. (2013). Practical programming for strength training (3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: Asgaard.

   •    Starrett, K., & Cordoza, G. (2015). Becoming a supple leopard: The ultimate guide to resolving pain, preventing injury, and optimizing athletic performance (2nd ed.). Las Vegas: Victory Belt Pub.

   •    Aagaard, P. & Andersen J. L.. “Effects of Strength Training on Endurance Capacity in Top-level Endurance Athletes.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 20 (2010): 39-47. Web.


  1. This is inspiring. Thanks for the information, not to mention the opening photo…you’ve just kicked up my sea kayak craving a few notches!

    1. Author

      Yeah, get out there! There are lots of great outfitters who can help you follow your passion!

Leave a Comment