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How to Perfect Your Pop Up: Surfing 101

Popping up is a fundamental aspect of surfing as it sets the tone of your ride. Learn how to initiate and pull off a pop up with our guide.

The dream of every novice is to ride barrels, bust airs, perform incredible tricks to the awe of onlookers, and return to the shore triumphantly. After all, that's what surfing looks like to a layperson who watches surfing competitions in the comfort of their home, and that's what's going to excite them.

However, once you paddle out in a surf spot brimming with beginners, what you see is probably a huge number of aspiring surfers paddling anxiously, trying to pop up to a balanced stance on their board, and falling down over and over again. Should you add a bowler hat and a walking stick to the mix, that sight might easily become a Charlie Chaplin movie.

Yes, tricks such as barrel rides and airs make surfing an amazing spectacle, but without putting hard work into fundamental skills like your pop up technique, you'll never realize your dreams. Pop ups are what determine the quality of your rides as they affect your balance, stance, and mental readiness to take on what comes next. So, you might want to take a couple of surf lessons to improve your surfing pop, or at least read our guide thoroughly.

Let's see what you should do to improve your pop up and what you shouldn't do.

Popping Up: Surfing Guide

How you pop up depends on what kind of surfboard you have simply because surfboards come in different lengths. The process might be a bit easier if you're a beginner since you probably have a longboard. However, be warned that as the length of the board decreases, the difficulty of pop up will increase.

On a longboard, your feet stay at the tail of your surfboard when assuming the pop up position. It means that you won't have to put in extra effort to stand. On a shortboard, on the other hand, your feet will be hanging down from the tail, which makes it harder for you to immediately step up and stand up.

Therefore, we'll base our guide on popping up on a shortboard. Even if you don't surf on a shortboard, you'll find the pop up technique described below immensely useful. It'll, of course, be a slow-motion version of events. In the ocean, everything will happen in a single fluid motion and in a matter of moments, so the theoretical knowledge you gain at the end of the article will count for nothing unless you practice a lot.

Step #1: Paddling

Shortboards have less volume and therefore are less buoyant than longboards. Additionally, they're more responsive to both your movements and those of the ocean, and they'll have less paddling speed. Therefore, if you're paddling into the ocean on one, there's a big possibility that you'll start paddling with powerful strokes, run out of breath or strength, lose your bearings because you aren't able to look at where you want to go, and end up at the shoulder of the wave you want to catch.

However, you need to know that if a good pop up is capable of setting the tone of a ride, your paddling is also capable of determining the quality of your ride, and paddling too much unnecessarily can never be considered efficient. Instead, you need to never lose sight of the wave you're aiming to catch. Then, go for it, and lie in wait in its pocket where the energy will lift you up to its lip and ease your takeoff.

Sticking to the flats and not knowing where to lie in wait for a takeoff also result in anxiety because you start fearing that you'll lose the wave. In such cases, we’ve even seen some start paddling in front of the wave as if they're in a race with it. It'll only create more anxiety, and you won't have the time to pop up.

So, learn how to paddle efficiently, don't strain your body too much, and be always aware of your surroundings when paddling. Remember, a good pop up relies as much on your wave knowledge as it does on your strength and flexibility. Make sure that you can feel the wave's energy and tap into it when popping up with our Surf Smart programs.

Step #2: Assume the Pop Up Position

What's the proper pop up position? Well, the awareness principle remains at the forefront. Your upper body should be arched upwards so that your head can be tilted forwards while keeping your hands flat on the board and feet hanging low down from the tail. That way, you'll be able to see what's going on around, where you are in relation to the wave, and which direction you'd like to head once you take off.

In addition to awareness, you need to position yourself on your surfboard in a way to allow it to be lifted by the force of the oncoming wave. In other words, you need to position yourself at the back of your board and keep its nose completely empty, free, and unpressured. That way, when the wave pushes you from behind, your board won't need any extra force to start moving along.

If you're close to the nose of your board, on the other hand, the forward momentum of the wave will lift the tail of your board up, and you'll be nose-diving even before registering what the hell just happened.

Step #3: Push Your Upper Body Up

Remember that your hands are flat at the midsection of the board, and you're lying along the board's stringer line. To be able to stand up, first, you'll need to push your upper body up, but make sure that you're pushing only your shoulders and chest. Your core should just stretch, while your pelvis and upper thighs remain in contact with the board.

That way, you'll be able to spring without throwing your surfboard off balance. If you let go of the pressure you apply at the tail of your board, though, the rush of the incoming wave will quickly dismantle all the work you've put in so far.

Step #4: Place Your Back Foot in the Chicken Wing Position

Before explaining what it is, let us tell you that the chicken wing technique isn't going to work on longboards as your feet will probably be already on the tail of your board. However, on shortboards that don't have enough length to accommodate your feet in the pop up position, you need to have this extra step to bring your feet onto the board.

There's a simple principle of the chicken wing technique: just because your front foot (which is generally the left foot unless you're a goofy-footed surfer) goes to the front doesn't mean you need to move it first nor should they be moved at the same time. Rather, you need to bring your back foot into the equation first, as pressure on the tail won't allow the wave to unbalance your board.

To bring your back foot forward and onto the board, you'll need to bend and slide your back knee forward through the rail of the board. In other words, your back leg should look like a chicken's wing, albeit only for a moment—hence the name of the technique.

Step #5: Spring

Once your back foot is on the traction pad, it means that you have enough pressure points to spring. You have your hands, chest, shoulders, and back foot to help you up. However, you need to make sure that only your back foot and hands are touching the board, which is important to create space between your body and the surfboard for your front foot to tuck in.

When the space is created, bring your front foot forward and your front knee towards your chest. Place your foot right on the stringer line in shoulder width to your back foot. Now, whenever you feel at ease and in perfect balance, you can just stand up and start riding the wave.

One thing to note, though, is that you should never look at what you're doing but only at where you're going. You need not worry about where you're placing your hands or feet; you need not check whether your lower body is still touching the board or not. Look at only where you're going, and the rest will be taken care of with ample practice and subsequent muscle memory.

Step #6: Maintain a Balanced Stance Once You're Standing Up

You might think that the hardest part is done now, and you can start riding the wave you caught in full glory. Well, that's probably what's going to get you. Maintaining balance once you stand up is not exactly a walk in the park, especially if you fail to position your feet perfectly and need to do a bit of a weight shift to find the proper surfing stance.

What we see novices do in such situations is this: when they're up for the first time, they forget that they need to keep their lower body compact and compressed with their knees bent. Rather, they're standing straight up from top to bottom with quite a bit of tension as if they're about to pick a quarrel in an airport queue. It's a bad habit that mostly results in a loss of control.

You need to make sure that your feet are parallel to each other in shoulder width, and your feet arches are right on the stringer line. Moreover, you need to bend your knees to compress and maintain the speed you gained. And, once again, you need to look at where you're going.

Common Pop Up Mistakes

There are a couple of very common mistakes that drive novice surfers awry, that make beginner surf spots look like the swimming pool of a kindergarten invaded by oversized and playful chimpanzees, and that are echoed in all the surf coaching retreats on Earth in constant cacophony. They are as follows:

  • Over-paddling: Paddling frantically might seem essential to catch waves before they wash you over, but it's a very common mistake that may negatively affect your pop up, duck dive, and overall surf session. Paddling efficiently, on the other hand, is an art form.
  • Not looking where you want to go: Sometimes, because you put too much energy into paddling, and sometimes because you're concerned about the wave or your own positioning, you take your eyes off where you want to go. In turn, you're off balance and probably off route.
  • Sticking to flat parts of the wave: There's energy in the flats, so there's no force that can lift you up once you're in the pop up position. If you want to learn to surf, you need to go to the pocket.
  • Not feeling the lift of the wave: A good pop up technique requires you to be in the pocket, yes, but it also requires you to feel the energy in the pocket and time your pop up accordingly. If you aren't able to tap into that energy, it means that there's a lot of work to do for you, starting with some Ocean IQ.

Wrapping Up...

Now that you have a general idea about the components of a good pop up, you can head to our tutorial on how to take your pop up from slow to pro. In that tutorial, the OMBE head coach Clayton Nienaber and our presenter and mentalist Anthony Laye break down bad pop ups and analyze the popping up skills of legendary surfers such as John John Florence, Kelly Slater, and Mason Ho. That'll surely provide a mind-opening and fun experience for anyone who wants to improve as a surfer.