7 best exercises to stay fit for canoeing

Some of my really die-hard canoeing buddies don’t hesitate to venture out onto the water in a canoe throughout the year – even during the winter!  Certainly, our Canadian pioneers and their Haudenosaunee predecessors couldn’t avoid canoeing in chilly water.

But for us less exuberant, fair-weather paddlers, October is pretty much the end of “canoe season,” and paddling is completely out of the question in the wintertime – even in south Mississippi and Louisiana!  Our delicate hides and our psyches cannot withstand the potential for exposure to water that chilly.  Most years I would be hard pressed to put a boat in the water between early October and the end of April.

So, if you are like me in your aversion to cold water, here are several of the best exercises that you can do during the winter downtime to help keep you fit for canoeing so you can jump right back into the action in the Spring!

These exercises promote strength, flexibility, and aerobic fitness, and they emphasize the muscles primarily involved in canoeing in similar postures and positions as those you might see in canoeing.

active adult athlete body

Core calisthenics

In canoeing the power for propulsion comes from the paddle moving backward against the water and that force is transmitted through your core into your seat to make the boat move forward.  Basically, you are pushing the boat forward with your core as you push the paddle backward against the water.

You will need a strong core, and that means crunches, situps, hundreds, roman chair, and the like.  Fortunately, these are some of the most common schoolyard and Scout fitness activities so most folks will not require a lot of instruction – just a dose of willpower and motivation to get started.

woman exercising bear body of water

Yoga / Pilates

These are great base programs because they get you used to exerting in twisted or confined or uncomfortable positions. Also great for the core.  If the thought of Yoga puts you to sleep, there are several more fast-paced Western alternatives, like Pilates, Barre, etc…

Cable pull

The cable pull at the gym is a very versatile piece of equipment.  You can do pretty much anything on it.  For the purposes of canoeing, you’ll want to use the cable pull to do obliques, as in this video.

You could even rig a decent simulation of paddling with a bench and a paddle.  Attach the cable to the paddle so that it will not slip and sit on the bench facing the cable column and paddle away (against light resistance)!

UBE exercise machine


If your gym is cool enough to have some of these UBEs, you should find some time to make use of them.  They will, obviously, improve the strength and endurance of your chest and arms and back muscles – but they are also a great core exercise!

Military press / ammo cans

This is one of the fundamental exercises that will help you most with lifting and portaging boats.  If you don’t have a barbell or a set of dumbbells, you can use anything – try filling a backpack with cans of soup – but definitely get some practice pressing above your head.

Clean & press

This is the other half of the previous exercise, and the other great exercise for lifting and portaging.  This is approximately the motion you will use to get the boat from the ground to shoulder-level and then get your head inside the boat to carry it.

Rowing machine

Unless you are able to rig a paddling simulation with a cable pull machine as described above, the plain, old rowing machine will probably be your most sport-specific activity.  Rowing is a classic that emphasizes lats and builds cardio.

You might also be interested in the 8 best exercises for hiking!


Categories: Adventure, Canoeing