How do I train for a winter kayaking vacation?

I going on a ten-day whitewater rafting and kayaking trip this winter. I've just spent the last several months training for a marathon, but have virtually ignored my upper body. Can you offer me a good strengthening regimen so I'm not ready to cry after each day in the rapids? Alissa Mears Washington, D.C.

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

You’re smart to seek an upper-body program after running exclusively all summer. Studies show that runners who neglect to lift atrophy their upper bodies at the same rate as sedentary people, and the best way to enjoy your trip is to get in the zone of optimal performance, where the challenge and your perceived skill-level are both high. If you have already started training, good job. If not, embark on the following plan for a jump-start.

First, warm up for about 20 minutes—get really sweaty. Then start with some exercises that work your core, like crunches, medicine-ball twists, and good mornings (when you take a body bar on your shoulders and bend at the waist down to 90 degrees and back up—but make sure to stretch your hamstrings first). Do these three days a week in just one set of eight to ten reps. Since you’re new to them, it won’t take much for your muscles to react.

Work on some basic upper-body strengthening through pushing and pulling movements like knee-down pushups or bench pressing; lat pull-downs, assisted wide-grip pull-ups, and seated cable pulls; tricep extensions and standing barbell curls (done with your abs engaged).

Make sure to use enough weight that the last two reps are challenging, and work with a spotter on the bench presses. Focus on good form, and let the weights down slowly. In the last half of your training period, start using dumbbells—this will challenge new stabilizing muscles on the periphery of your lifts and prepare you for the independent movements your arms will face on the water.

Also—and this is important—take up some sport-specific drills. Kayaking is about rotational movements generated from the core, and pushing with the opposite arm more than pulling, so you’ll need to mimic these movements in the gym. Start with little-to-no weight, and switch to cables after some practice. Consider doing a rotational one-handed cable cross, or a “wood chop,” where you pull the cable down from the opposite upper corner toward your outside knee, as if swinging an ax.

In all rotational movements, keep the weight low in the beginning, bend at the hip, not mid-back, and engage your abs throughout to hold your form and protect your lower back. Be sure to ease off on the weights the week before you go, so you don’t show up exhausted. Have a great trip!

For more strength training tips, check out Paul Scott’s National Magazine Award-winning article series, “The Shape of Your Life.”

promo logo