Stand Up Paddleboarding for Exercise

People buy SUPs for a lot of reasons but fitness definitely hovers at the top of the list. Stand Up paddleboarding is a fantastic workout and you can easily tailor your paddle sessions to focus on your exercise priorities. In the next 3 to 5 minutes, buying a board will become a far more interesting proposition than paying for a gym membership.

Granted, not all of us live in Florida and therefore won’t paddle all through the year. In fact some of us live where the sun don’t shine, aka northern England. This is actually one more tally for SUPs because cold weather exercise quite possibly helps you burn more calories.

“Both shivering and brown fat activity increase your energy expenditure, causing you to burn more calories in cold temperatures.”

“Do you burn more calories exercising in the cold?” – source

Ok. I’m listening. What kind of workouts can I do with my SUP?

I’m glad I have your attention. Before you grab your dry suit and head to the Arctic, let’s talk about more normal SUP workout conditions. The kind of conditions most people will be  paddling in most of the time involves reasonably calm if not flat water and maybe a little wind.

Cardio and Endurance

These baseline conditions are ideal for touring and touring is ideal for cardiovascular conditioning. Touring entails paddling at a challenging pace non-stop for a sustained period of time.  You don’t have to do a marathon session. You could do 20 min sessions with breaks in between and build your stamina to longer blocks. “But cardio is for girls and little girly men” you say. No it isn’t. And try telling that to professional SUP racer James Casey.



But if cardio and endurance training is not what you’re here for, that’s fine. Stand up paddling will give you the lat-span of an albatross and delts so big you’ll have trouble staying upright. That’s right, you can strength-train with SUP.  

That’s not to say that female paddlers will end up hypertrophied like the incredible hulk. It’s not that easy to pack on muscle mass and you won’t end up doing it by accident if you’ve got XX chromosomes.

That said, sustained paddle sessions at a challenging pace will absolutely torch your arms, shoulders, chest and back no matter who you are. As with any form of rowing, stand up paddling is a great addition to your upper body training program. Even as a stand alone workout you will be pleasantly surprised with both the muscle mass and definition that you gain. Your abs will also thank you but we’ll cover that separately. 

Cross training, rehab, recovery days

Has your day sport got you down?  Have you done your knees in with running or does the sight of that needle thin bike saddle make you wince?  SUP is great for cross training. There is zero impact on your legs and even if you are battling the dreaded desk-hunch, getting your carcass moving just feels good.

To strengthen and mobilise your shoulders gently choose a calm day with little wind and go for a relaxed paddle. A slow and easy SUP pace is great for off-days if you’d like to get some blood flowing to your muscles.  The motion will also get synovial fluid lubing up the joints. Structuring your recovery days can do wonders for your gains and fitness progress in the long run. Keep a SUP in your toolbox for this. It can be your main workout, an active recovery or a great cross training option to throw in the mix. Best of all, size will not stop you, big people can SUP too.

Balance, static strength and yoga

Standing up on a board on the water is challenging, especially at first. The more you do it, the better your muscles will become at holding you up and making the second to second micro adjustments to keep you there.  All of this is taxing on your body and even when you aren’t thinking about it, you’ll be working.

Yoga on SUPs is extra challenging because of this. Take your ability level in the classroom and dial it back 60% for your first session on the water. Nothing develops the bandhas like trying to engage them while performing asana on a paddle board (check out our beginners’ guide to SUP yoga).

Does a six-pack come with my SUP or do I buy that separately?

Glad you asked! I’ve been dying to tell you. I’m sure you’ve noticed the disgustingly carved abs of many SUP enthusiasts. You’ve also possibly wondered if a set of those comes along with your board automatically. Stand Up Paddle boarding is indeed a phenomenal core workout. This is especially so for the obliques which you’ll be engaging to stabilize and rotate to paddle to one side or the other.

Through using your abs to balance for prolonged periods you’ll also develop your deep core muscles. These are the ones you can’t actually see but allow people to do all the fanciest gymnastics tricks: the TVA or transverse abdominis.  Although you can’t see them in your six-pack, developing the deep core is an old weightlifter trick for narrowing your waist because it zips your torso in like a vacuum. Narrower waist? I’ll take it.

A strong TVA also helps with all kinds of static holds.  This strength is useful for yoga, handstands, ballet, horseback riding, rock climbing, Jiu Jitsu etc. Once you’ve got the knack, who knows what you’ll use it for!  All thanks to your SUP.

We all know what a 6 pack looks like so I won’t bore you with the anatomy sketch. Then again….


So, how many calories does SUP burn?

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but here I go. If you google something like “paddleboard workout calories”, you won’t find many answers coming from authoritative sources. By this I mean sports medicine sources like, say, the research departments of universities. You won’t find many of the articles in the search results citing those kinds of sources either. This is true of asking that same question for many sports.

The reason for this isn’t that SUP doesn’t torch calories, it surely does.  It is because calculating how many calories you’ve burned is an incredibly complex matter that can not be done with any accuracy through a simple formula alone. There are a lot of factors in calculating how many calories you’ve burned and whether they are effectively contributing to an overall deficit for weight loss purposes.

“There are three main components to energy expenditure, Kravitz explained: 1) basal metabolic rate, or the energy used for basic functioning when the body is at rest; 2) the energy used to break down food; and 3) the energy used in physical activity.”

“Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight” – Source

It also can’t be done with even remote accuracy through a fitness calculator

“Some devices were more accurate than others, and factors such as skin color and body mass index affected the measurements.

In contrast, none of the seven devices measured energy expenditure accurately, the study found. Even the most accurate device was off by an average of 27 percent. And the least accurate was off by 93 percent.”

“Fitness trackers accurately measure heart rate but not calories burned” – Source

My point is, if you are looking to SUP for weight loss don’t get hung up on calories in/calories out. You don’t need that or any other number to know you have exercised efficiently. If you do get off on quantifying and tracking your workouts, use a heart rate monitor. Those actually are pretty accurate and will give you the best gauge of exertion in useful terms. Plus, if you’re a gear junkie like me you can enjoy spending serious money on some of the jazzier GPS tracker versions to accompany your SUP travels.

The last reason you shouldn’t get hung up on calories burnt is that the best way to lose weight is to pick a workout you will actually do. You can painstakingly plan the most intricate, specific and effective workout on the planet. If it’s not something you’ll actually do then it doesn’t matter how good it is. On the flip side, finding a versatile physical activity that you enjoy and can be tailored to different levels of exertion will be far more useful to you. In the end, that is how you will burn the most calories from a workout. Stand up paddle boarding  is fun to do, you will enjoy it and because of this, you will do it often. The proof will be in your ever shrinking pudding.

I hope I’ve answered your questions about what your workout options are with a SUP.  I’d also love to hear suggestions for SUP workout routines if you have them. If you’re wondering where your lower body comes into all this, it is engaged in the stabilizing aspects. Your legs will definitely not be at rest in any paddle session. You’ll paddle with bent knees and this will exhaust your muscles. This is especially true if you paddle in rough water whether that’s open water or a river.  If that’s not enough, there’s no reason not to throw some lunges and squats into your paddle session as a method of pre-exhaustion or at the end for a final burn out on the buns.

No matter what SUP workout you go for, you won’t get bored and you won’t be stuck doing the same exact thing all the time.

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