Whitewater Rafting Is More Athletic Than You Might Think

We are thrilled to introduce Julian Jackson as a contributor to the Cybex Blog. Originally from the Netherlands, Julian moved to Maine with his family at an early age and quickly developed a passion for outdoor sports. He trained to be a whitewater guide six years ago and has been addicted ever since. Julian also enjoys skiing and snowboarding, and is a certified personal trainer.

Photo: Courtesy of Julian Jackson

The Athleticism of Whitewater Rafting

People often ask me what it takes to be a whitewater raft guide. I tell them it takes a special someone to handle the level of control and responsibility, let alone the physicality of it. Pushing a raft down the river is vigorous work, and you must have a certain amount of strength and athleticism. For example, even just pulling yourself back into a raft after falling out is similar to a muscle up, though the water creates a different type of resistance so it is crucial to use your legs to kick with enough power.

Usually a 16-foot boat has six to 10 paddlers. The heavier these people are, the harder it becomes to steer a boat. Ideally the paddlers work as a team by staying synchronized, leaning forward, and engaging the hips while their paddles break the surface of the water. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Which Muscles Does Rafting Work?

While guiding a boat through the whitewater section of a river, the three main movements we teach are the draw, pry and the J stroke.

If I am guiding from the right of the boat and I draw, the objective will be to turn the boat to the left. The right side of my body will be engaged as I reach my arms and torso out of the raft, dig my paddle in the water and “pull” it towards me. It looks very similar to a person doing a lat pulldown from the side. The right latissimus dorsi is engaged, the trapezius, both biceps, core and the hips. 

A pry is a pushing movement so it will direct the boat to the right. Similar to the triceps press, the right elbow will be flexing while holding the shaft of the paddle. As the triceps extends the elbow, the arm pushes the blade in the water and away from the raft. This movement engages the right pec and anterior deltoid.

The J stroke is combination of both a pry and a draw. It is ideal for paddlers and guides to switch sides consistently to prevent neuromuscular imbalances and injuries.

Why Rafting Matters

I believe that whitewater rafting is one of the most underappreciated sports. Not only does it provide people with entertainment and the joy of the outdoors, but it's also a stunning experience and a great workout. Unlike CrossFit, strength challenges or tough mountain challenges, the rafting industry does not require athletes. You don't have to lift weights to enjoy rafting, though those with conditioned athletic abilities do open a window for more opportunity, enjoyment and safety. 

Julian Jackson Julian Jackson
Originally from the Netherlands, Julian now resides in Maine and works as a whitewater rafting guide. With a degree in health, he specializes in functional fitness, bodybuilding and powerlifting. Julian enjoys studying nutrition and believes fueling the body with proper foods and nutrients is vital to physical performance. As a certified personal trainer, his greatest passion is motivating others to adopt a healthy lifestyle.


Can't Get On the Water to Try Out Whitewater Rafting?

Train your muscles to excel at the sport in the meantime and improve your overall fitness with the Cybex Workout Center. These programs will help increase quickness, speed, strength, agility and stamina - all while reducing your risk of sports-related injury.



Cybex is a provider and manufacturer of premium commercial fitness equipment. Content featured in the Cybex Fitness Blog is meant to inspire healthy living and wellness and should not be taken as medical advice. As always, be sure to consult a physician if you are unsure of your individual exercise readiness or have a pre-existing medical condition. While these programs offer great benefits, there are many considerations that should be weighed before attempting any type of physical activity.

Comments (2) -

  • Th.Adamse

    7/23/2016 12:49:32 AM |

    Julian, het doet ons goed te lezen hoe goed je het doet, eigenlijk waren wij daar ook al van overtuigd, gezien je afkomst , met zo'n moeder! Wij , oma en opa,  zullen er ons niet meer aan wagen. Succes , hoor.

  • Sadie Anne

    8/1/2016 9:32:52 PM |

    Great article! Being from the New England I've been rafting many times before and can attest to the demand the river puts upon your body. The idea of this being a regular workout and part of an active lifestyle is intriguing. I look forward to more articles from this guy!

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