Part 2: Strength Training For Kayakers

In the last Paddle Strong article we covered the theory behind strength training for kayak performance and outlined what paddle athletes should focus on during their introductory strength phase to start getting those ‘indirect performance gains.’ So where to from here?

Now that you have completed some general introductory strength training your body is ready to progress to the anatomical adaptation training phase. Over this training phase your focus still needs to be on refining your technique while you start to increase the amount of weight you lift. This training phase is really important to prepare your muscles, tendons and ligaments so they are able to cope with the next training phases.

Anatomical adaptation training phase for kayakers

During this training phase the focus is to stimulate some muscle hypertrophy which is when your muscle fibres increase in size. A larger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle, so having some increase in muscle fibre size is beneficial. Many endurance paddlers and multisport athletes worry about bulking up in the gym. These concerns are unnecessary as this training phase should coincide with the base endurance phase of your on-water training. The aerobic on-water training limits the amount of energy available for dramatic increases in muscle mass therefore endurance paddlers will not experience large gains in muscle mass. During this training phase the load lifted is moderate (40-75 %1 RM) at a moderate – high repetition range (2-5 sets x 10 – 20 reps depending on the exercise) to expose the muscle to a large amount of accumulated load to ‘break down’ the muscle fibres and trigger the hypertrophic response.

Maximal strength training phase for kayakers

Once you have 4-6 weeks of anatomical adaptation training under your belt, you are ready to progress in to the maximal strength phase. Research indicates that it is this phase of your strength training that will give you the biggest ‘direct gains’ in your performance. These performance gains are going to occur via increases in force production through an increase in neural activation. This means you will be activating more muscle fibres, more forcefully with each muscle contraction leading to a more powerful paddle stroke. During this training phase the weight lifted in the exercises is increased (85 – 95% 1RM) and the number of repetitions is decreased (5 sets x 3 – 6 reps). Because of the increased weight the speed at which the exercises are performed naturally decreases, so you end up lifting a relatively heavy weight slowly.

READ MORE: How to strength train for kayaking part one

During this phase of your training, aim to keep your gym sessions simple and limited to a few key exercises that are going to give you the biggest ‘bang for your buck.’ Compound movements that use your prime movers such as the dead lift, bench pull, bench press and rotational exercises are key during these phases of your training.

Specific exercises for strength training kayakers

Matty Graham demonstrates a strength training exercise for kayakers.

Set your feet up under the barbell with your shins almost touching. Keep lower back straight in the set up, and throughout the movement. As you lift the bar, keep it as close to your legs as possible without touching on the way up. Try and open your knee and hip joints at the same time for maximum efficiency and injury resilience. Always lower the bar back down with the same technique used to lift (straight back), think of it as a ‘backwards lift.’

Matty Graham demonstrates a strength training exercise for kayakers.


Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Try not to raise your chest off the bench. Similar to the bench press, your elbows should point away from your head. Pull the weight until it touches the bottom of the bench then lower back down.

The research in this area has found performance gains with a number of different sessions per week. Anywhere between 2-4 sessions in the gym per week is required for you to get good results from your strength training. How many times you train in the gym each week will vary depending on who you are, your training history, goals and your other training load. I have found that 2 sessions per week seems to works really well for most weekend warrior athletes who are balancing work, family and training. For those looking to take things up a notch and push the sharp end of the field bumping this load up to 3-4 times per week on some weeks is required to get maximal results.

Matty Graham demonstrates a strength training exercise for kayakers.

Center load directly over shoulders. As the weight comes down, push your elbows down your body towards your feet. The bar should touch your body between nipple line and sternum. Press the weight straight back up to start position in a fluid movement.

Matty Graham demonstrates a strength training exercise for kayakers.

Set the cable up in a ‘high’ position. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and feet facing forward. Twist your torso around to grip the handles. From this start position rotate through your core moving your arms in an arch down to finish position. Retrace the arch with your arms back to the start position controlling the movement with your core.

Get your free preview of the Paddle Strong training package here and learn more about how you can use strength training to achieve your paddling goals.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here