What Muscles Does Paddle Boarding Work?

If you’re new to paddling sports, you’re probably convinced that it’s primarily about arm strength – and I wouldn’t blame you for it. Most people assume the same thing.  When you finally step on a SUP and dip that paddle into the water, though, you’ll be surprised to feel the ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

If you’re new to paddling sports, you’re probably convinced that it’s primarily about arm strength – and I wouldn’t blame you for it. Most people assume the same thing. 

When you finally step on a SUP and dip that paddle into the water, though, you’ll be surprised to feel the soreness not just in your arms – but your abs and legs, too. And yes, I am speaking from personal experience here, in case you were wondering. 

That’s the thing: 

Paddle boarding is a whole-body workout – and a perfect blend of balance, strength, and endurance training, might I add. 

So, if you’re curious to learn more about what muscles does paddle boarding work, I suggest that you stick around. You’re in for a surprise! 

Muscles Used In Paddle Boarding – Key Takeaways 

  • Back muscles: The brunt of your stroke’s power actually comes from the muscles in the back. Paddle boarding actually works your latissimus dorsi, rhomboids (major and minor), and trapezius muscles.
  • Shoulder muscles: Your shoulder muscles – the rotator cuffs and deltoids – serve as the main “anchor” point between the muscles in your back and your arms. As such, they are crucial for transferring the power of your stroke from your back and onto the paddle.
  • Arm muscles: Paddle boarding uses the muscles in the upper arms – biceps and triceps – as well as your forearms. If you can only feel the soreness in your arms, though, you’re likely doing something wrong.
  • Chest muscles: Swinging the paddle engages your pectorals – or, more specifically, the Pectoralis major – which helps your back and shoulder muscles to work more efficiently.
  • Core muscles: Since your core muscles play a crucial role in helping you maintain your balance while on the water, they get a more-than-decent workout from paddle boarding.
  • Lower body muscles: From quads, hamstrings, and glutes down to your calves and the tiny muscles in your feet, paddle boarding engages virtually every muscle in your lower body.
  • Paddle boarding as cardio: Paddle boarding will definitely bring your heart rate up and, as such, counts as a great cardio workout. In fact, you could burn up to 400 calories per hour of paddle boarding – even at a relatively moderate pace.
  • Kneeling vs. stand-up paddling: If you stay in a kneeling position rather than standing up on a SUP, you’ll still need to engage your core to retain balance – and feel the burn in your shoulders and arms. The only difference is felt in the lower body.

What Muscles Does Paddle Boarding Use?

Man Stand Up Paddle Boarding

It’s not uncommon to see people – who probably have never even picked up a paddle in their life – assume that paddling sports are all about the arms. 

That is such a huge misconception, though. 

Honestly, it does bother me a little – but at the same time, I get it. I didn’t know any better when I first got into paddling sports, either. 

So, to settle it once and for all: 

Yes, paddle boarding is a full-body workout, just like kayaking. In fact, it targets several major muscle groups in the body. 

Here’s a quick overview of those muscle groups, just to show you why paddle boarding is such a great workout: 

  • Back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and trapezius muscles 
  • Shoulder muscles, including rotator cuffs and deltoids 
  • Arm muscles, including the biceps, triceps, and the forearms  
  • Chest muscles, mainly the pectorals 
  • Core muscles, including the abdominals and obliques 
  • Lower body muscles, including glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and the upper and lower calf muscles  

Even more so, it works your cardiovascular system – your heart and lungs – as well. 

When I say that it’s a “full-body workout,” I don’t just mean that in the sense that it engages your muscles, though. I’ve long believed that paddle sports have this incredible ability to engage your mind, and that’s certainly worth mentioning here. 

Think about it: 

We could all benefit from spending more time in the sun, away from the stress and challenges of everyday life – and surrounded by calm waters and nature. And that’s something that you cannot get from a gym membership, can you? 

Oh, and if you’ve ever hesitated to pick up a paddle and hit the water because you’re concerned that you’re too old or too out of shape, just know this: 

Paddle boarding is low-impact, easy on the joints, and suitable for people of virtually all ages. It’s pretty much the ultimate workout – although I might be a bit biased here. 

Sure, you should expect some initial soreness – but since such a large number of muscle groups is involved in the process, there’s no risk of overload and muscle imbalance. Best of all, you can make paddle boarding as easy – or as challenging – as you want. 

If you want to enhance your performance out on the water, I highly recommend strengthening your muscles, core, and improving your balance at the gym. Here are some top SUP training exercises to help you achieve your goals.

If you’re looking to improve your performance on the water, I highly recommend hitting the gym to strengthen your muscles, core, and balance. Here are some top SUP training exercises that can help you achieve your goals.

Head shot of the editor, Sam O'Brien Editor’s Note

If you’re looking to improve your performance on the water, I highly recommend hitting the gym to strengthen your muscles, core, and balance. Here are some top SUP training exercises that can help you achieve your goals.

– Sam O’Brien

The Role Of Back Muscles In A Strong Paddling Motion

SUP Stand up Surf girl with paddle

Contrary to popular (mis)belief among beginner paddle boarders, when it comes to a strong SUP stroke, there are far more important muscle groups than your biceps and triceps. 

Sure, arm strength helps quite a bit. However, a proper paddling motion requires several groups of your body’s muscles to work together and take you through each phase of the stroke. 

Done right, the brunt of your stroke’s resistance is on your back and core muscles. 

How can you tell you’re not doing it right? 

Well, if you mostly feel the soreness in the arms, that’s your sign that it might be time to go back to the basics and work on improving your technique. 

On that note, the three key muscle groups in your back that are engaged when you’re paddle boarding are: 

  • Latissimus dorsi muscles, also known as “lats” – the largest muscles in your back, by the way – support various movements of the arms, including the adductions, extensions, and medial rotations. 
  • Rhomboid muscles sit underneath the traps, running along your shoulder blades, and are crucial for supporting movements in the upper limbs and shoulder area. 
  • Trapezius muscles, or traps, aren’t just in charge of allowing you to shrug and move your neck; they also allow you to move and twist your arms and stabilize the shoulders as you paddle. 

What Muscles Does Paddle Boarding Work In The Shoulder Area?

Image showing how paddleboarding is a great shoulder workout

Your shoulders aren’t the driving force behind your stroke. However, they still play a pivotal role in the movement. 

How is that? 

You can look at your shoulders as the main point of connection between your “power muscles,” – namely your back and core – and your arms, which, in this case, play the role of your “leveraging muscles.” 

Your rotator cuff – which, by the way, consists of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and the teres minor muscles – ensures that your shoulder joints work properly. And as such, it is crucial for the performance of the other upper-body muscles involved in paddling.

Your front and posterior deltoid muscles are another key part of this equation. They stabilize the shoulder joint and allow you to move your arms in different directions. 

In other words, while they’re not a primary source of power behind the stroke, the shoulders are still engaged as you continuously dip, pull, and lift the paddle. 

The repetitiveness of that motion is why paddlers are known to suffer from shoulder injuries – the most common one being rotator cuff tears

With that said, here are some exercises you can do at home to minimize your risk of injuries and keep your rotator cuff in top shape: 

SUP Shoulder Rotator Cuff exercises

Arm Muscles Used In Paddle Boarding

Paddle boarding works more than just your arms

If you already have Arnold-Schwarzenegger-like arms, that’s great. It’ll certainly help in the initial stages of learning how to paddle board. That said, you can still get by just fine, even if your arms aren’t in the best shape. 

That’s because, when your technique is on point, you don’t really exclusively use the muscles in your arms to propel your SUP. It’s supposed to be a full-body movement that includes your back and shoulder muscles – and, as you’ll soon learn, even your abs. 

That’s not to say that your arms won’t get a workout out of it, though. 

Maintaining a firm grip on the SUP paddle and maneuvering it by rotating, extending, and flexing is bound to engage the muscles in your arms. 

On that note, there are several arm muscles involved in the paddling motion, including: 

  • Biceps is a large muscle on the front portion of the upper arm that acts as a “connection” between the shoulder and the elbow and makes it possible for you to flex and relax your arm. 
  • The triceps is the muscle located in the back of the upper arm, and its primary function is the extension (straightening) of the arm. 
  • Forearm muscles support the movements of the fingers and wrist, making them a crucial point of contact between your upper body and the paddle. 

Chest Muscles

Man on paddle board with knees slightly bent

“For every action, there’s an equal – and opposite – reaction.” Right now, you are probably sitting there, scratching your head: 

Okay, but what does Newton’s third law of motion have to do with paddle boarding?” 

It might not be obvious, but each time you swing the paddle, that motion engages your pectorals (Pectoralis major, to be precise). So, while your back muscles work together with your shoulders and arms to propel the SUP forward, your pecs join the action as an antagonistic muscle group – acting in the opposite direction as you go through the motion. 

That’s where the whole “equal – and opposite – reaction” bit fits in. 

So, while paddle boarding is a back-dominant activity, strong pectoral muscles help balance that out, preventing kinesthetic imbalances and related injuries – and ultimately, allowing the muscles in your back and shoulders to work more efficiently. 

Oh, and let’s not forget about proper breathing

Pecs are attached to your ribs – which means they play a key role in elevating the rib cage when you inhale, creating room for your lungs to expand and allowing you to take a deeper breath. 

And since paddle boarding tends to elevate your heart rate – pushing your respiratory rate up, as well – proper, deep breaths are part of the deal. So, in a sense, that’s enough to make your pecs work harder (than usual) to open up the chest. 

Core Muscles

Sporty young man with a muscular torso on a sup board

You might not realize this, but – your core muscles are actually in charge of helping you maintain balance and powering your paddle strokes. And with that in mind, it’s easy to conclude that they do, in fact, play a key role in paddle boarding

Just like the shoulder muscles serve as the point of contact between the back and the arms, the muscles in the core – including the abdominal muscles and internal and external obliques – function as a connection between the upper and lower body. 

In short, they transfer force from the upper body to the lower body – and vice versa – making you less reliant on your arms to push through the paddling motion. 

That’s not all, though: 

Another key role these muscles play is linked to supporting the spine, thus preventing excessive overload and providing spinal stability. 

That’s why core strength is the foundation for all other activities. 

Practicing using your core on land to improve paddle stroke / How to SUP

All your movements are powered by the muscles in your core. With each and every paddle stroke, your obliques make it possible to bend and rotate your torso. And at the same time, the abs keep you balanced and stable. 

As it turns out, the key to becoming a better paddler is in learning to engage your core. So, just in case you had any doubts about it: 

Yes, paddle boarding could actually help you get those defined six-pack abs. 

Cardiovascular System: Heart & Lungs

Man getting his morning cardio out on his SUP board

Okay, time for biology 101: 

Your heart is the single most important, hardest-working muscle in your body. It works non-stop, 24/7 – and doesn’t get to take a break EVER. 

So, while it’s easy to get caught up on getting six-pack abs or toning your arms, don’t forget that your heart – and, by extension, the cardiovascular system as a whole – needs some attention, as well. 

And that brings me to an important question: 

Is paddle boarding cardio? 

Paddle boarding is an all-around low-impact workout, offering a great blend of balance, strength, and endurance training. And provided that you put some effort into it, it’ll definitely get your heart rate up – meaning that it can double as a form of cardio exercise. 

Ok but how many calories can paddle boarding burn? 

In fact, you could easily burn roughly 500 calories per hour while paddle boarding at a moderate pace. 

Here’s what goes on with your cardiovascular system when you hop on your SUP board: 

The moment you start paddling, your heart begins to beat faster, contracting hard to pump more blood throughout the body and supply your hard-working muscles with oxygenated blood. At the same time, your breathing rate goes up to around 40 to 60 breaths per minute as the lungs work to introduce oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide. 

And sure, paddle boarding can make you feel out of breath – but the long-term effects, mainly the lower risk of heart disease and improved cardiovascular fitness, are well worth it. 

Lower Body – Leg Muscles

Women demonstrating a strong core balancing on paddle board

Maintaining good posture and balance doesn’t just engage your core. Your lower body also gets a workout out of balancing on a SUP board. 

Every time you move the paddle, you’re forced to bend your knees slightly. In doing so, you use a range of lower-body muscles

  • Hamstrings, also known as thigh muscles, are posterior upper leg muscles that allow you to bend your knee and rotate your legs at the hip. 
  • Quadriceps femoris (quads) are a group of anterior upper leg muscles that stabilize your body, support your weight, and allow you to extend your lower leg from the knee and flex your thigh at the hip. 
  • Upper and lower calf muscles are posterior lower leg muscles that allow you to stand up straight, flex and point your toes, and move forward. 

So, if you ever wondered, “Why do my thighs hurt after paddle boarding?” that right there is your answer.

And while we’re at it, does paddle boarding work your glutes

It most certainly does.

Oh, and let’s not forget about your feet: 

There are more than 100 muscles in the human foot. When you first step onto the SUP, don’t be surprised if you experience some cramps. After all, you’re using many of those tiny muscles that rarely get a good “workout” in your day-to-day life. 

That said, how much the muscles in your feet will be engaged during paddle boarding is linked to how rough the waters get. You’ll need to dig your feet in when the conditions are less-than-ideal, and the waters get choppy. 

Does Kneeling On A Paddle Board Use Different Muscles Than Standing Up? 

Man kneeling on paddle board

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but while it’s technically called “STAND-UP paddle boarding,” you don’t necessarily have to do it in a standing position. You can stay on your knees if you’d like to – and it would still count as paddle boarding. 

But does that change the effectiveness of the workout or the muscles it targets? 

Well, yes – and no. 

You still have to work on maintaining your balance – even if you are “just” kneeling on your board – which will activate your core. And, of course, your back, shoulders, and arm muscles must stay engaged in the kneeling-down position since they generate and transfer the energy behind each stroke. 

So, as far as the upper body is concerned, things stay more or less the same. 

But since you’ll basically spend the whole outing sitting down, you can’t expect the same level of “engagement” in your lower body. And some paddlers report the kneeling position places excess pressure on the knee and hip joints, which in turn can lead to hamstring injuries and weaker glutes. So, it’s important to ensure that you don’t stay kneeling all the time, but come up regularly – to build strength in these muscles as well. 

Summary: What Muscles Does Paddle Boarding Work?  

Paddle boarding is a low-impact full-body workout that provides strength and endurance training and improves your balance. Even more so, it engages many different muscle groups throughout your body – including the following: 

  • Lats (Latissimus dorsi) 
  • Rhomboid muscles 
  • Traps (Trapezius muscles) 
  • Pecs (Pectoralis major) 
  • Shoulder muscles (rotator cuff and deltoids) 
  • Abdominals and obliques 
  • Quads (Quadriceps femoris) 
  • Hamstrings  
  • Glutes 
  • Upper and lower calf muscles  
  • Heart (and lungs)

Frequently Asked Questions On The Muscles Used In Paddle Boarding

Does paddleboarding build muscle?

Yes, paddleboarding can actually help you build and tone muscles and burn off excess fat. That is because it engages the entire body. The muscles in the back and arms work to pull the paddle through the water, activating your core with each stroke – while the lower body muscles help you to maintain your balance. 

Can you get abs from paddle boarding?

Paddle boarding engages all sorts of muscles – large and small – throughout your body. And yes, your abdominals and obliques are also involved. Being able to rotate your upper body, maintain balance, and keep your posture in check is all about core strength. So, if you’re on a mission to get sculpted abs, paddle boarding is worth adding to your fitness regime.

Is paddle boarding good for weight loss?

Generally speaking, you should aim to burn roughly 3500 calories to lose one pound of fat. And, as it turns out, paddle boarding actually burns anywhere between 350 and 570 at a casual pace. If you pick up the tempo, though, you could burn up to 700 (or more) calories per hour. So, yes – it’s possible to lose weight paddle boarding. Granted, you’ll have to watch your diet, as well – but that’s a whole separate discussion. 

Is stand-up paddle boarding a good workout?

Yes, it most certainly is a great workout. It’s safe to say that very few activities can provide such an extensive range of strength training – targeting everything from your upper body to your core and legs. To add to it, it’s also a fairly low-intensity activity accessible to most people, regardless of their size or fitness level. 

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Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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