Shoulder and back strengthening exercises for paddlers

Paddling can take its toll on the shoulders and back with the repetitive nature of the sport leading to strain on joints and tendons, while bracing and rolling can cause some more serious shoulder and back injuries, or even dislocation.

For those wondering to themselves “what are the best back and shoulder exercises for strengthening my paddling?” fret no longer, as we have listed all you need to know for improving your shoulder and back strength below:


Risk of injury 

One of the main risks of injury from paddling to your shoulders is damage to the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles that surround the joint and provide stability to your shoulder. If one or more muscles are affected, so is joint stability, which means a greater risk of shoulder injury or dislocation.

As a paddler, you need to listen to your body and be aware of the condition of your shoulders. Rest days are vital to recovery, especially if you have been out on the water for an extended session. These rest days allow your muscles to recover from the stress and strain placed upon them from paddling.

Together with a shoulder conditioning program, injury risks can be lessened. We have taken a look at the best shoulder exercises for paddling below, which can help to strengthen your shoulders. These exercises are not limited to those of you who are paddling a canoe or interested in our sit in kayaks for sale, but can be performed by anyone to improve shoulder strength:


 Note – for the following two exercises (internal and external rotation), tie a knot in the end of a resistance band and close one end in a door at about elbow height.

Internal rotation

  • Hold your arm out in front of your body, with your forearm parallel to the floor and at a 90-degree angle to your upper arm.
  • Place a thin pillow or a rolled-up towel between your elbow and torso, and stand with the door to your right. Holding the band in your right hand and with your elbow tight to your right side, move your hand inward toward your stomach, pivoting at the elbow.
  • Slowly return to the original position, and continue this movement for 3 sets of 10 rotations.

External rotation

  • Once again, place a thin pillow or towel between your elbow and torso. Stand with the door to your right, but hold the band in your left hand. Keep your elbow tight to your torso and move your hand outward, pivoting at the elbow.
  • Slowly return to the original position and continue for 3 sets of 10 rotations.
  • For these exercises, you should start off with a low resistance band, as the rotator bands tend to be neglected and are a lot weaker than you might think. Once you can easily do 3 sets of 15, move up in resistance.

Serratus press up

  • This is a variation on the traditional press up, with the function of strengthening the serratus anterior, which is a muscle that helps to stabilise the scapula (shoulder blade), and by default, shoulder joint.
  • Start in the traditional plank position with your hips level and your back flat. Keeping your arms straight, push up away from the ground through your upper back, rounding your back slightly at the shoulder blades. Once again, complete 3 sets of 10.

Low row

  • For this exercise, you will want to tie a knot in both ends of the band to create handles, and then close the band in a door at its middle. Now, holding the band in both hands with the arms extended, pinch your shoulder blades together as though you are squeezing an orange between them.
  • Overemphasise this movement by keeping your elbows close to your torso and pulling backwards. Slowly return to your starting position, and continue for 3 sets of 10.
  • In addition to these rotator-cuff specific exercises, you should consider adding in traditional pull ups and press ups for furthering strengthening.

Things to consider 

When performing strengthening exercises, the emphasis is on the slow return to the original position. This eccentric strengthening of the muscle is associated with greater muscle than concentric exercises (simply lifting the weight). If you are looking to improve muscle endurance, pick a weight that will allow you to do a greater number of reps.

These exercises can be combined with other upper body exercises and can be performed every other day to give your body a rest day between exercises. Be sure to fuel your body with a nutritional post workout meal and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

 It is also worth noting that these exercises might not be suitable for everybody, so listen to your body if you are experiencing high levels of discomfort when performing them. If you are in doubt, contact your doctor prior to performing them.



Risk of injury

Posture is key when out on your canoe or kayak with the incorrect form and positioning wreaking havoc, not only your technique but your health as well, with the incorrect posture leading to injury.

There are three positions that you could adopt when paddling; you can lean back, sit upright or lean forward, all to varying degrees.

To eliminate the risk of injury, make sure you are sitting correctly when paddling by doing the following

  • Sit either in your kayak or canoe on the floor.
  • Place your legs out in front of you or into the position that they sit in your boat.
  • Imagine someone has taken hold of a string attached to the top of your head and pulled it straight up to the sky.
  • When they let go you’re sat up straight and tall.
  • Relax slightly let your body sink just slightly (roughly 1cm at most).

This is the optimum paddling posture. You don’t want to be sat up so straight that you’re tense; you want to be sat in a comfortable vertical position. Remember, if you’ve been sitting incorrectly when paddling for the previous sessions you may experience soreness as your body adjusts to the new correct way of sitting.

Common back injuries in paddling are tears and strains of the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and obliques, with many of these being avoidable with the correct warm up and strength training. As the old saying goes… prevention is better than cure!

Lat Pulls

  • This exercise works the muscles of the back that gives people the V shape. For paddlers this allow more power to any stroke in which you will “hang” on the paddle, such as sweeps, rolls and high braces.
  • Begin with the hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Sit up straight with the back arched.
  • Flex the your lats by rotating the shoulder back, pulling the shoulder blade under, and pulling down. Remember to not pull with your arms[JW1]  and start with light weights.
  • Inhale as you pull and flex. Complete 3 sets of 20 reps.

Pull overs


  • Strengthening the latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior and lower chest will have a profoundly positive impact your ruddering, rolls and sculling braces.
  • Begin with the feet wide and knees bent.
  • Keep the arms straight with the hands just higher than the shoulders.
  • Take a deep breath, exhale, press the bar[JW2]  down flexing the serratus muscles under the arms as you pull.
  • Keep the arms straight throughout the exercise and complete 3 sets of 20 reps.
  • If your triceps burn, it means you are pushing down with the arms and not the serratus anterior.

One arm rows

  • One-arm rows will strengthen most of the major muscle groups of the back, as well as the rear deltoids of the shoulders, meaning this is one of the best exercises for increasing your paddle power!
  • Using a flat bench for support, place one knee on the bench and one foot, to the side, on the floor.
  • Brace the upper body by holding the bench using the arm on the same side as the knee.
  • Keeping the weighted arm straight, reach forward and stretch the upper back.
  • Now, pull the weight up using the muscles of the back and not arm muscles such as the biceps.
  • Keep the back flat throughout the exercise. Specifically avoiding rotating the shoulders and hips as you pull.
  • Exhale as you pull. Inhale as you release and stretch.
  • Once again, complete 3 sets of 20 reps. Alternate sides and count both sides as one full set.

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