4 Spring Training Exercises for Paddlers (No Gym Required)

Recreation By Pete Marshall

If you’re like me, there have been plenty of times you’ve started out on a canoe trip without any kind of warmup. That is, you haven’t paddled for seven, eight months, and now, all of a sudden, you’re pushing a fully loaded canoe through the water.

The result is a predictable number of sore muscles, aches, and blisters right between my thumb and pointer finger. I’m not ashamed to admit I have delicate hands, and on any trip into the Boundary Waters, I need some time to toughen them up.

Obviously, getting out on the water and paddling a few times will help take off some of the rust.

But more than making your next canoe trip more enjoyable, strengthening your paddling muscles helps avoid injury. This should be reason enough to invest some time in developing these muscles.

In addition to simply getting out and canoeing, set aside some time to do the following exercises, which target the muscle groups you use the most when paddling.

There are no end of workout plans and creative exercises that will transform you into a paddling machine. For this article, I wanted to focus on a four essential exercises that any one can do at home.

They require no gym membership or any kind of equipment.

Adding these to your workout routine (or lack thereof) will definitely help when you get into the canoe this spring!

Plank and Side Planks for your lower back

If I could recommend just one exercise to someone about to go on a canoe trip, it would be the plank.


Planking is a simple, isometric hold that is one of the best ways to strengthen your core.

When you’re paddling, your core should be doing the lion’s share of the work. Planks will strengthen those stabilizing muscles and do wonders when it comes to preventing that sore back that often crops up in the first few days in the Boundary Waters.

Canoe exercise - plank

The standard plank involves laying on your stomach and with your toes and your forearms flat on the ground, lifting your body. The key here is in maintaining a flat back and a straight line from your head to your heels. Don’t let your back slouch down or curve up!

Want some more? Throw in some side planks.

Canoe exercise - side plank

From the plank position, lift one arm off the ground and turn your entire body so your torso is perpendicular to the ground and hold for 30…40…60 seconds. However long you can. Then repeat on the other side.

Canoe exercise - advanced plank

For a more advanced plank that engages the muscles in your arm, try the above variation. You’ll feel little stabilizer muscles working like you wouldn’t believe!

Crunches for your Core

A cardinal rule of any workout and weightlifting regimen is to work the opposite muscle group. Enter the crunch.

Not to be confused with its cousin the sit-up, the crunch involves a short movement. Lie on the floor with your knees slightly bent and your feet flat. Raise your head and shoulders off the ground and hold for three counts. Slowly go back down and repeat.

You should really feel it in your stomach.


Canoe training - crunch

People are obsessed with that getting that mythical 6-pack, and so have invented countless variations on the crunch and well over 101 ways to work your abs. However you choose to do it, working your core through crunches, planks or Pilates, are some of the best things you can do in preparation for a canoe trip.

Squats for Portage preparation

The Boundary Waters is canoe country and it’s also portaging country. While it is possible to do trip without portaging, it’s more likely than not that you will end up hulking a canoe on your shoulders and make your way down a portage trail.

Plus, at the risk of coming off like a masochist, there are few things as satisfying as finishing up a long portage. Seriously: Portaging is great!

Perhaps the single best exercise you can do to prepare those legs for the long carry is a squat. Without any weights, you simply place your feet shoulder-length apart, keep your chin up, your arms out in front of you for added stability and a slight forward curve in your back, then bend your knees and squat. You should lower yourself so your legs at at a 90 degree angle.

Canoe exercise - squat

Once you can comfortably do several sets of 12 to 15 reps, try a more advanced one-legged squat. This is hard! It will work a lot of balancing muscles and will get you ready for when it’s your turn with the Alumacraft.

Canoe exercise - squat

Pushups for your pecs

Exercise trends come and go (think Thigh Master, jazzercise, Richard Simmons) but the pushup has been a staple since my grandpa was chasing Rommel through North Africa. Probably well before his time.

Pushups are good for toning up your beach bod and your paddling stroke.

When you catch your blade on the water with a forward stroke, then pull back, you engage your chest muscles, the exact group of muscles worked by a pushup. So, naturally, pushups are going to help when you’re trucking it into a headwind.

Pushups also engage triceps and shoulders, both of which play a significant part in your paddle stroke.

Depending on where you’re at, there are a few different ways to do a pushup.

If you haven’t done a pushup in while, consider starting with your knees on the ground instead of launching into a full pushup. This is a good way to build up your strength and prepare for a full push up.

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A full push up has the added benefit of engaging your core as well as your chest or arms.

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Your fitness level will determine how many sets, repetitions, and how long you can hold these exercises. Start at least 5 weeks before your next canoe trip. At first, you’ll be sore, which is a good thing. This means you’ll enjoy those first few days on the water even more, and maybe you’ll be paddling stronger too.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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