The 11 Muscles That Paddle Boarding Works

After a satisfying day of stand-up paddle boarding, you wake up the next morning feeling sore. It’s the same type of soreness after a good workout. That has you wondering, are you working your muscles when SUP riding? If so, which ones?

What Muscles does Paddle Boarding Work? Overall, there are 11 muscles paddle boarding works:

  • Lungs
  • Heart
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstring
  • Rhomboid
  • Lats 
  • Traps 
  • Triceps
  • Biceps
  • Rotator cuffs
  • Abs

Paddle boarding uses all sorts of muscles. If you’re standing up, you’ll rely on your shoulder, arm, back, and abdominal muscles. If you’re kneeling while paddle boarding, you work your abs, shoulders, arms, and back. Even when in the prone position of lying down, your triceps and biceps do the brunt of the work, as do your shoulders.

In this article, we will elaborate more on each of the above paddle boarding activities and the muscles required to excel at them. We’ll even tell you what to do if you’re experiencing prolonged muscle soreness after a day of SUP riding. Keep reading, as you won’t want to miss it!

What Muscles Does Standing up on a Paddle Board Use?

First, let’s talk about the muscles your body will rely on just by standing on up on a paddle board. As you know if you’ve been into SUP boarding for a while, it’s by no means easy to hop up on a paddle board and stay upright. The cresting waves of the ocean threaten to topple you over nearly every second. Well, unless you’ve balanced your core.

As you keep your body firm and secure on the board, here are the muscles you will use the most.

Legs

Keeping your feet planted to the board is crucial to balance on a paddle board, even before you begin paddling. Your legs play a key role in doing just that. Namely, it’s the hamstrings and quadriceps that are responsible for letting you stand and do so much more.

Hamstrings are a series of posterior muscles in the thigh. There are three of these total: the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. They run from your knee to your hip. Through the use of your hamstrings, you can move your hip joints and knee joints.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to injure your hamstrings. You should always listen to your body when SUP riding, then. If you feel any sudden pain, it’s best to take a break and then assess whether you can continue.

Besides the hamstrings, the quadriceps are another leg muscle that comes into use when standing on your paddle board. The quads are also thigh muscles, this time at the front of your legs. Instead of three muscles, the quadriceps have four. These are the rectus femoris, the vastus intermedius, the vastus medialis, and the vastus lateralis.

Your quads work in conjunction with your hamstrings to allow for greater knee joint flexibility. When doing activities like balancing, squatting, jumping, running, and walking, the quads get used.

Back

Your legs keep you standing, but your back lets you stay upright and straight. That’s quite important when it comes to maintaining your balance while standing on your paddle board. Particularly, your rhomboid muscles is triggered when balancing.

What are the rhomboid muscles? These upper back muscles go along your shoulder blades and near your sides. The muscles connect to your spine. The reason these back muscles are called rhomboid muscles is because they’re shaped like a rhombus, a four-sided parallelogram. Your rhomboid muscles include the rhomboid minor muscle and the rhomboid major muscle.

Core

You always hear that you should have a strong core to stay balanced, and one of the main muscles in that core is your abdominal muscles or abs. Now, everyone has abs, even if you don’t have a visible six-pack. With a strong core, good balance, and great footing, you can feel secure on your paddle board.

It may be hard work balancing on your paddle board, but it’s worth it. This thesis from the University of Wisconsin cites data that discusses what it takes to balance on a SUP board. When a group of scientists tested eight SUP athletes back in 2014, they sought to determine the level of balance of these athletes. They did so by reviewing track postural sway with a center of pressure force platform.

The athletes were proven to have a “greater dynamic balance” when compared to athletes who engaged in other aquatic activities. Now, these were some of the premier SUP boarders in the world, but it does go to show. If you can balance on a SUP board, you can do almost any other kind of balancing activity.

What Muscles Does Paddling on a Paddle Board Use?

As a beginner, it’s okay if you spend a few days just balancing on your paddle board before moving on to using your paddle. It’s also okay if you feel sore after doing this. You’re working your muscles in new ways, after all.

Once you feel confident with your balance, you can begin using your paddle board. I’ve written a great post on this blog recently about how to properly hold a paddle board. It also includes information on paddle board materials and sizing. If you by chance missed it, we highly recommend you check it out.

As you paddle, which muscles will you use? Some of them are the same as standing on your paddle board, but since you’re also slicing through the water, some new muscles are added into the mix. Let’s discuss them all now.

Shoulders

The rotator cuff in your shoulders has two purposes. First, it keeps your glenoid cavity and humerus in place so your shoulder joints work properly. It also allows for greater stability in the shoulder.

The rotator cuff contains these muscles: the subscapularis, the teres minor, the infraspinatus, and the supraspinatus. Many SUP boarders liken their shoulders to anchors that connect their forearms/upper arms to their core/back. While your shoulders don’t drive the force of your strokes, they do allow the upper half of your body to move and pivot as needed.

You get a great shoulder workout as you have to pull, dip, and lift your paddle constantly when paddle boarding. This may be tough to do the first few times you go out SUP riding, especially if you’re a beginner. As you build up the strength in your shoulders, maneuvering with the paddle will seem easier.

Arms

Like you readily need your shoulders to paddle on your SUP board, the same goes for your arms. In fact, we’d say there’s no more important muscle in handling your paddle than those in your arms. Without them, you can’t even hold the paddle.

Several muscles are at play as you paddle, such as your triceps and biceps. The triceps are around the back of your upper arms. Each time you straighten out your arm, you have your triceps to thank for it.

Your biceps are on the other side of your arm, so the front. They connect your elbow and shoulder. You can relax and flex your forearm with your bicep muscle.

Now, you don’t necessarily need arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger to do well with your paddle. If you have bigger arms, then fine, but you can get by without them. That’s because you’re not exclusively using your arm muscles to stroke with the paddle. It’s a whole-body experience.

In order to get all these benefits, you’ll need all the right equipment. Check out our Recommended Gear pages or visit our paddle board affiliate Red PaddleCo.

Back

In the last section, we talked about how your rhomboid muscles can help you balance. You’ll still use them here, but some other back muscles will be activated as your body moves on your paddle board.

One of these is your trapezius, commonly referred to as traps. You need these muscles to twist and move your arms and maintain shoulder positioning. The trapezius also lets you shrug and move your neck and head. They’re located around the shoulder blade and can retract, rotate, depress, and elevate as needed.

The other back muscle you’ll use when paddling is the latissimus dorsi, also known as the lat muscles. These muscles attach your vertebral column to your body’s upper extremities. It’s one of the back’s bigger muscles and can do what are known as adductions. This movement allows you to raise a limb towards your body’s midline.

Core

But of course your core would come in handy for paddling on your SUP board. To make yourself less reliant on your shoulders and arms, you want to twist your body higher up towards your chest as you paddle. This is a very gentle motion, but it should help. Check the below video from Red Paddle co to see how to properly use your Core muscles to paddle more efficiently.

Does Kneeling on a Paddle Board Use Different Muscles Than Standing up?

In the intro, we talked about kneel-down paddle boarding. This is where you stay on your knees rather than stand up when SUP boarding. You may do kneel-down paddle boarding in preparation of standing up or after a long day of standing when you tire yourself out. You can also just enjoy kneel-down paddle boarding on its own.

Balance is still important here, even if you’re not standing. If you don’t position your body correctly, after all, you could end up with shoulder and neck pain the next day. You should maintain a parallel stance where your shoulders and neck are at the same level. Having good core strength can help here.

Your shoulders and arms will also get a good workout with kneel-down paddle boarding. You don’t have to use a paddle board, as both your arms will paddle you along the water.

The only muscles that don’t really get used compared to SUP boarding are those in your legs. That’s because you’re squatted down on your paddle board.

Which Muscles Are Used in the Prone Position When Paddle Boarding?

Prone paddle boarding refers to either of two positions: kneel-down paddle boarding or prone paddle boarding (belly down). We already discussed which muscles get used while paddle boarding during kneeling down. Next, we’ll talk about which ones are activated during prone paddle boarding.

Shoulders

You may work your shoulders harder with lying-down paddle boarding than you do with SUP boarding. Why is that? Well, in this prone position, you have to keep your head up. It should ideally be above your shoulders, which is not easy to maintain at all. If you’ve never done lying-down paddling before, then we recommend you start with five or 10-minute sessions or until your muscles hurt. Then stop for the day and try it again another time.

Arms

Like with kneel-down paddle boarding, when you’re on your belly, you use your arms as the paddles. This will really strengthen your triceps and biceps if you do it regularly enough. The repeated motion of extending your arms into the water and then pulling them back is tiring in the best way possible.

Back

Your back muscles will also come in handy as you do some belly paddle boarding. Your back can stabilise you, helping you maintain your position as you paddle. It can also partially support you in keeping your head up, triggering your trapezius.

Muscle Pains from Paddle Boarding: How to Stop Them

If you’ve ever gone to the gym and did a whole bunch of exercises, you probably woke up sore the next day, right? The same is true for new paddle boarders. That pain is normal, at least for a day or two. If you’re still in agony four or five days after SUP riding, then something is wrong. This is not the usual “burn” of a good workout, but a potential injury.

Here are some areas of your body that could hurt as well as advice on how to treat the pain.

Feet

Beginners who haven’t quite refined their balance might tighten their leg and feet muscles without realising it. You can then hold these muscles in this tense state for your whole SUP ride to stay on the board.

As you improve your balance, you’ll relax your muscles more, or at least those that don’t need to be so tight, including your feet. That should lessen your pain. There are more tips for preventing foot pain here.

Shoulders

Your shoulders will almost definitely be sore after handling a paddle for the first few times, but after that, the pain should fade. If you still end your SUP rides with achy shoulders, it’s because you’re not paddling the right way. We’ve written about proper paddling before on this blog, so read up and correct your technique.

Arms

A bad paddling technique can also affect your arms, leaving them very painful. As we said earlier in this article, when you stroke with your paddle, you may be doing so with your arms, but they’re not the only muscles you use. Your back and core will also help you along.

If you force just your arms to do all the paddling work, then it’s no wonder they’ll get tired and sore very fast.

Neck

Lying-down paddling could certainly lead to some neck pain since you’re lifting your head for a prolonged period. Also, overworking your back or tensing it up too much could affect the trapezius, which may cause your neckache.


Check out the Bluefin Cruise Carbon boards by clicking on the video above. The link will take you to their product page.


Related Questions

Is kayaking or paddle boarding a better workout?

If you’re defining a better workout as the amount of muscles you’re working, then the winner between paddle boarding and kayaking has to be paddle boarding hands down. In a kayak, you’re always seated, so there’s no need to use your leg muscles. Your core and back muscles can support you when paddling, but you’re mostly using your arms and shoulders here.

Unless you’re lying or kneeling down, then paddle boarding requires a strong core, back, shoulders, arms, and legs. It’s much more demanding on your muscles, but again, in a good way. But which is faster? Click that link to find out.

How do I get Better at Paddle Boarding?

As a beginner, paddle boarding can be tough. You want to do better, but you have no idea how to improve. Here are some tips that can set you on the right path:

  • Practice often. The only way to master anything is to put the time and work in. The more you go paddle boarding, the easier it can become.
  • Don’t rush into rough waves. Paddle in placid waters first until you get the basics down.
  • Work on your balance. There are countless exercises out there that will help you strengthen your core, so use them.
  • If your shoulders, back, or other muscles are weak, then pay more attention to those parts when you exercise.
  • A paddle board leash will be your best friend, as it will keep you close to your board. Read my post for more on leashes.
  • Make sure you have a paddle that’s matched to your body size. Read my post on choosing the right size. One that’s too big or too small will make it very tough to paddle without pain or struggle.  

Final thoughts

Paddle boarding is a great workout, just like we talk about in our scuba and snorkeling posts here. All of these water sports use multiple muscle groups for balance and movement. Even jet skiers require good core muscles for balance, support and to counter G-forces when turning to avoid getting tossed off. Exercising for paddle boarding, scuba and snorkeling is a great way to stay in shape and improve your stamina. Be sure to check out those sections of the board when you’re ready to take on another water activity. You can even paddle board out to snorkel or scuba then paddle back. Just don’t overdo it.

So follow the health tips in several of our other posts, learn a new water sport if you wish, then get out there. Stay safe and, regardless of which activities you choose to try, make them fun!


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Carlo Raffa

Carlo Raffa is a blogger, stand-up paddleboard enthusiast, water lover and local to Brighton city in the South of England. Paddle boarding is my escape and this is only the starting point. Being a larger guy at 260lbs I am finding it very good exercise as well, especially for building core muscles. This is something that believe it or not cycling 16 miles a day at 6 miles per hour doesn't seem to be doing. Paddle Boarding allows me to just grab my board and walk right through the busy bar filled beachfront between the two piers in Brighton and head straight out of shore. It's not long before the shouting and cheering of our buzzing beach fade into just the lapping waves and the people to just small dots of the Brighton shoreline.

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