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Which is Better: Paddling or Rowing a Kayak?

Do you paddle or row a kayak? This may seem simple, but it can make all the difference regarding your kayaking experience.

Like different strokes for different folks, the choice between paddling and rowing a kayak can depend on several factors, including your skill level, the type of water you’ll be navigating, and your preferences.

In short, paddling a kayak involves using a single-bladed paddle to propel the boat forward. On the other hand, rowing a kayak typically consists in using two oars, with one in each hand, to move the kayak through the water.

Both methods have pros and cons, and the best option for you depends on several factors.

If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between paddling and rowing a kayak and the benefits and drawbacks of each method, keep reading.

We’ve consulted with renowned kayaking experts and enthusiasts to bring you the most comprehensive guide to choosing the right method for your kayaking adventure.

So, whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner just getting started, you won’t miss this informative and engaging exploration of the kayaking world!

Group of kayakers out having a trip kayaking down the river

Are Kayaking and Rowing the Same?

No, kayaking and rowing are not the same. While both sports involve propelling oneself across the water, there are some key differences between them.

Kayaking typically uses a single-bladed paddle to steer the boat, whereas rowing involves two oars that are attached to the boat with oarlocks.

Furthermore, kayaking is mainly powered through upper body strength, while rowing uses both the arms and legs for a more powerful workout.

Additionally, when kayaking you usually face forward, whereas when rowing, you face backward.

All these differences make for two distinct water sports you can enjoy on your next adventure!

Understanding Direction of Travel

Understanding the direction of travel is an integral part of kayaking and rowing.

In kayaking, paddlers typically face forwards in the direction of travel and use simple strokes to move the kayak forward, turn it or slow it down.

In rowing, rowers face away from the direction of travel and use oars that propel the boat in the opposite direction.

Knowing which direction you are traveling and how to use your strokes to change directions is key to successful paddling or rowing.

With the proper technique and practice, you can move your boat forward in a straight line, turn it or switch directions at will.

Lakes are a great place to practice these skills as they provide calm waters so you can focus on perfecting your technique without any distractions.

What Muscles are Utilized in Paddling and Rowing?

Paddling and rowing both use muscle power to move a boat through the water.

While many beginner kayakers rely heavily on their arm muscles, the back muscles are some of the most important ones to train for when it comes to canoeing.

The obliques, lats and triceps are all used for turning the torso and handling the paddles of a kayak, while the chest muscles help stabilize the paddling motion.

In addition, kayaking works the abs, chest muscles, shoulders, forearms, biceps, triceps, and legs.

Rowing also relies heavily on these muscle groups, but it is a harder workout due to the heavier boats requiring more effort.

Both activities provide an excellent full-body workout that will leave you feeling stronger and more energized!

Differences Between Paddling and Rowing

Paddling and rowing are two distinct water sports, each requiring different techniques and using different muscles.

Paddling requires a single paddle to propel the craft forward, while rowing requires two oars.

Although both sports involve propelling the craft across the water, they have some key differences.

Paddling is done while facing in the direction of travel, while rowing is done with your back to the direction of travel.

Additionally, paddles are free, while oars are attached to the boat. Rowing also uses more powerful leg muscles in combination with both arms on each stroke.

Finally, kayaks and canoes are lighter than rowing shells and require less effort to move across the water. Understanding these differences can help you decide which sport is right for you.

Direction of travel

When it comes to the direction of travel, kayaking, and rowing, differ significantly. With a kayak, you will usually have a double-bladed paddle, with each blade alternately propelling you across the water.

  • In paddling, the athletes are always turned in the direction of travel.
  • Rowing, however, requires the boater to sit with their back facing the direction their boat is traveling.

For leisurely row trips, you might not need to worry too much about this as you can turn your head to see where you’re going.

However, when it comes to competitive rowing, an effective stroke requires that rowers stay facing away from their destination to maximize their efficiency.

Paddles are free while oars are attached

Paddles are a key feature of kayaking and canoeing, offering a great deal of freedom compared to oars.

Unlike oars, paddles are not connected to the boat, meaning they can be moved freely in either direction with just one blade.

This makes it much easier to steer a canoe or kayak since the paddler can paddle on just one side.

The length of the handle also varies between paddles and oars; paddles typically have a shorter handle, while oars tend to have longer handles.

Regarding muscle usage, paddling requires more overall strength than rowing, but less coordination is needed, making it easier for beginners.

Single blade steering

Paddling and rowing are two popular water sports that require different techniques. One key difference between the two is how they are steered.

With paddling, a single blade keeps a craft straight and provides great flexibility for maneuvering.

Rowing, on the other hand, requires two blades and the oars are held in separate hands while they are supported on a shaft.

Paddles come in single and double-bladed varieties while oars are exclusively single-bladed and often made of hardwood materials.

The direction of travel is also different – with paddles, it’s the same as the direction of the paddler, whereas oars propel the boat in the opposite direction to the rower.

Understanding these differences can help you decide which water sport is best for you.

Different watercraft names

There are some distinct differences when it comes to the watercraft used for paddling and rowing.

A kayak is a small, narrow boat that is propelled by a single-bladed paddle. A canoe is a wider boat that uses a double-bladed paddle.

Rowing involves a much larger boat, called a rowing shell or scull, which uses two oars for propulsion.

The direction of travel for each of these watercraft is also different – kayaks and canoes move in the same direction as the paddler, while rowing shells move in the opposite direction.

It’s important to understand these subtle differences when deciding which craft you want to use for your next adventure on the water.


Regarding strokes, the differences between paddling and rowing become more evident.

When paddling, the movement of the paddle is mainly a strain on the upper body’s muscles.

At the same time, rowing involves using your upper and lower body in tandem to generate more forceful strokes that help you to move the boat faster through the water.

The most important difference between these two sports is that one utilizes two oars while the other requires a single paddle.

Even in simple rowboats, rowing uses your large back muscles (and your body weight) and you’re powering with both arms on each stroke.

Paddling uses mainly the arms and shoulders to power through the water.

It’s also important to note that you’re facing backward rather than in the same direction as paddling when rowing.

This means you can see where you’re going and make any necessary turns or adjustments much easier than when paddling.

Rowing can also use the more powerful leg muscle mass to propel the boat and have two blades in the water simultaneously.

These differences between paddling and rowing help make it easier to understand why they are two different sports.

Understanding the Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is a fundamental kayaking technique that, if mastered, can help you become a proficient kayaker.

It is the stroke you’ll be using 90% of the time when paddling a kayak, and it is important to understand how to do it correctly.

Remember to utilize your shoulders and keep your elbows bent and low to perform the forward stroke.

When placing the paddle blade in the water, position it somewhat behind you and pretend you have a beach ball attached to your paddle.

As you pull the paddle, your torso will be doing most of the work instead of your arms – the range of motion of your arms is quite small.

Doing this repeatedly on one side will cause the boat to turn in the opposite direction slowly.

Many kayakers make the mistake of holding their paddles too close to their bodies, preventing them from having full rotation and control.

Avoiding Counter-Productive Strokes

It’s important to remember that when it comes to kayaking, paddling or rowing, counterproductive strokes are best avoided.

As discussed in the previous sections, the forward stroke is the most efficient way to steer while kayaking or canoe sailing.

When attempting to move a kayak forward, it’s important to try and maintain the same speed and momentum with each stroke.

Any sudden speed changes can create a ‘row effect,’ which is energy-consuming and counterproductive.

Additionally, when ‘putting in’ at a beach, the stern paddler should push the kayak a little way into the water so that it is mostly floating; this will help avoid any unnecessary rowing strokes.

Finally, it’s important to note that top-level sprint kayakers have very few changes in speed every stroke; this helps maintain efficiency and avoid any counterproductive strokes.

Comparing a Canoe or Kayak to a Rowing Shell

Comparing a canoe or kayak to a rowing shell is an interesting exercise, as the two vessels have very different characteristics.

While a paddle or oar propels both, it is how they move through the water that sets them apart.

For example, the speed of a rowing shell is much greater than that of a canoe or kayak due to its increased length and weight.

Additionally, the double-blade paddle used for rowing offers superior performance compared to the single paddle used for canoeing.

Finally, rowing utilizes larger muscle groups than paddling, resulting in greater efficiency and power.

All these factors should be considered when deciding which craft best suits any given activity.

Is a Rowing Machine Effective for Kayaking?

A rowing machine can be a great way to cross-train for kayaking and help improve your on-water performance.

While it won’t provide the same level of rotational demand as kayaking, it does target many of the same muscles used in paddling, such as your upper back, core, and legs.

The added resistance of a rowing machine also increases the intensity of the workout compared to kayaking, making it an excellent option for intermediate and advanced paddlers looking to take their performance to the next level.

In addition, rowing machines offer a low-impact workout for paddlers who want to reduce strain on their joints.

Therefore, when used alongside on-water training, a rowing machine can effectively improve your kayaking skills.


In conclusion, kayaking and rowing are two distinct sports with similarities. They both involve pushing against the water with a paddle, oar, or another device to propel the boat forward.

However, important differences exist when deciding which sport is suitable for you.

Kayaking requires more balance and agility, while rowing requires more strength and coordination. Paddles are used for kayaking, while oars are used for rowing.

Paddling is often done in river conditions, while rowing is often done on flat waters.

It is essential to understand the differences between paddling and rowing and make sure you have the necessary skills and preparation for the activity you plan to do.