Surf Fitness: How flexible and strong do you need to be - what you actually need and what's just bs
If you think you have an issue with your fitness or mobility for surfing, this guide will help you identify what may be the issue and give you the baselines to test it.
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The Full Guide
Do you ever feel your fitness or mobility is holding you back in surfing?
Does it seem like if I was just fitter, my problems in surfing would be gone?
Well, I want to one give you the knowledge and baselines of where you need your fitness, primarily mobility and strength, to be so you can surf effectively.
And then… I want to go against the common trend and say it’s not always your fitness or mobility that is your issue and that’s just a carrot on a stick or a band-aid fix.
There are drills in here so you can test yourself and see what you need to work on or if your fitness is fine and it’s something else you need to work on.
Lets’ get this out there
I personally think there is way too much BS with surf fitness.
If you have this problem do this…
If you're struggling to catch waves do this…
Then there is stuff like “here’s how to test it, but the movement to test it doesn’t even replicate what you do.
It seems and sounds like all the fixes to your surfing becomes to get more fit or get more volume.
That just bugs me.
There is 100% a level of mobility and fitness you need to surf effectively, but surprisingly it’s not anything out of the ordinary.
I will always encourage you to be better, healthier and fitter, but there comes a point where specific surf fitness is just a carrot on a stick or a bandaid solution that makes you feel better.
But stick with me here, I am actually going to give you everything you need, regardless of age, strength or mobility, so you know the baselines you want to aim for.
Anything beyond those baselines is just bettering yourself, which is amazing, but it isn’t a cure-all pill for your surfing.
What does happen when you get fitter, other than alround being healthier, feeling better etc, is that you build up more stamina and endurance. When you get tired after a long surf, you get sloppy, and technique drops. That is a good goal to work on in your surfing fitness.
The advice you need vs want
But first, where is this rant coming from?
First, too often do I hear surfers put themselves down and say oh they can’t surf well because of this or that. The typical comment is they aren’t super fit or they are getting older.
I hate seeing this happen and someone shoot themselves down. And assuming no major injuries or issues with the body, they can move well enough for surfing.
Secondly, I had a clip sent to me, asking for some advice and a second opinion after another surf coach had given some video feedback to someone.
I felt this feedback was damaging to the surfer and it’s so commonly said.
Anyways, the point is, the feedback started with, “oh you’re really fit, blah blah blah, but you’re struggling to catch the wave. I feel you need to go swim laps in a pool 3-5 times a week and work on your paddle strength”.
This is my issue, you can’t be fit and not fit enough at the same time.
You either are fit enough and have bad technique, are unaware, work inefficiently or you’re unfit. None of that is to make you feel bad, but telling someone to just get fit doesn’t solve the problem.
It may make you feel good, and again I encourage you to always be fitter and healthier, just it’s not the advice you need to fix the issue.
Rant over, excuse me.
Baseline strength and mobility
When someone shoots themselves down about their fitness or age or anything else, here’s what we run them through to see where they are at and if there is any issues and if mobility and flexibility may be an issue.
There are a couple of basic baselines you need and you can test these right now.
What you need to keep in mind for each movement
What these stem from is plain and simple, just ask this question for each movement:
- Can you do this movement easily?
- Is there any pain or discomfort when doing it?
- How is your range of motion, meaning, can you do the full movement or is it a partial movement?
- Do you have the strength to easily do the movement?
That’s it, there’s nothing complicated about it, it’s just a yes or no question.
Can you do it or not? It’s not yeah I’m 50% there, it’s I can do the full movement and that’s where it ends.
No prizes for overachieving or trying too hard. Plain and simple.
The movements you need to test
This is all grounded in your surfing, here are the movements you need to do, pain-free, without a loss in range of motion.
- Cobra Pose - done during your pop up
- Downward Dog - modified - done during your pop up
- Kissing the knees - stance and turns (back knee moves towards the front knee)
- Compressing into the knees - bottom turns
- Twisting - turns
- Leaning - turns
- Getting up off the floor
- General everyday movement
I’m not covering movements that are associated with really advanced surfing, this covers the foundations and everything from:
- Popping up
- Bottom turning
If you are doing some pretty insane surfing, you don’t need this guide and will hit those baselines anyway.
Ticking off the easy ones - General Movement and getting up off the floor
These are your first two to test or ignore and they are really just if you have any big alarm bells or not.
This is the main stage where if there is a problem here, go see a specialist. Get this fixed.
If you have any pain, lack of range of motion or issues in your day-to-day everyday movements, go get that fixed. That is either an existing injury or waiting to become one.
This is just common sense and has nothing to do with surfing.
Getting up from the floor
Being able to get up off the floor is an ego killer, it’s entirely directed at anyone recovering from a serious injury.
This is your first test, throw surfing out the window, this is just a test of basic strength and mobility.
If you can’t get off the floor properly, pain-free or without issue, there is an issue that needs addressing.
As I said, this is usually only for people rehabilitating old injuries.
It will kill your ego, you want to get back into surfing asap but if you force the issue here it will either knock your confidence, be a tough pill to swallow or risk an injury.
I’d rather you don’t go through that and enjoy the process of getting back to 100% fit.
If you can’t do this, your pop-up will be stuffed and paddling may or may not be an issue as well. That depends on your body and what condition it’s in.
It’s going to hurt if you get super excited to get back in and then you are met with an insane struggle.
Ok back to the average joe and what you need.
Cobra Pose - Paddling & Catching waves
This is entirely for you to comfortably paddle and do it well. To get proper technique and not lizard paddle.
This is for your paddling but also for catching waves. There’s a clear reason for this and it’s all to do with your technique of catching a wave.
When you’re paddling, you want to lift your chin and chest.
This is so you can see where you are going, what the waves are doing etc but more importantly this is so you can make space for your body to properly paddle.
Why this helps your paddling
If you are chest down and chin down, you are lizard paddling. This is incredibly inefficient. Try doing this on the flat ground with your chin and chest down, and then do it again with your chin and chest up.
You have no space to do an adequate stroke. Your limbs are more scratching the surface of the water and moving water sideways, rather than having the shoulder above the water to allow you to create a forward-moving stroke.
How this helps you catch waves
This here is how you should be paddling to catch a wave, you do this relaxed paddling to get back out because you know it’s the most effective way. It’s subconscious but you’ll see surfers doing this paddling out, looking effortless.
You are never going to out-paddle the wave or even get close to its speed. Your paddling is more about positioning yourself to catch the wave than it is about building speed.
Here’s what your cobra pose should roughly look like and full range of motion will be your arms extended to about 90% of the way. No need to lock the elbows, a small bend in them.
Where pain may come
Lower back, shoulders and traps, as well as your neck.
This position will test mostly your lower back. But important to remember that if you have issues with your neck or shoulders, mostly due to bad posture you may feel discomfort at the back of your neck or between your shoulders.
I’m not going to suggest all the stretches or fixes for these, there are already a million and one videos on how to do that on youtube, but if you have any issues, go see a specialist.
Downward Dog Modified- Popping up
This is not a full downward dog, it’s not about the stretch and more about the transition from cobra pose and lifting your hips up to create space for your legs to come through.
The higher your hips can get the more space, but this isn’t about who has the best downward dog.
Where you are looking is where you are going and looking down will cause you to aim down, probably nose-diving for stuffing it up.
For the most part, people are fine here, it’s more technique and not lifting the hips to make space during the pop-up or looking down that kills the pop up in the surf..
But if there is an issue, it’ll be your hips and if they are tight or weak then you should go work on those. Again, any concerns or pain, go see a specialist.
Kissing the knees - Stance and Turning
Kissing the knees is all about stance and is often a problem for people with knee issues.
The main idea is this pulls you out of pooman stance, brings your knees to the point where you are going, brings your hips, chest and shoulders roughly pointing where you are going and puts you in a neutral stance where you have better balance and control.
You can now see everything going on and respond or move in any way.
This is just your back knee moving in towards the front knee. The hips will rotate to accommodate along with the rest of the body.
Tight hips and knee issues can show up here.
If you have pain in the knee, check your stance and how you are doing.
This is one you need to play with to find your sweet spot.
By that I mean, the average surfer has a pooman super wide stance, this isn’t effective at all, this position will change where your feet want to be.
Make sure your feet are comfortable, not too wide of a stance, and your joints are vertically stacked - (one above the other) and you should be good to go.
I naturally have a tight stance, my legs are roughly shoulder width apart. If you have knee pain, film yourself, and look at your stance, if it looks awkward, it could be causing the pain by trying to extend the range of motion beyond what it can naturally do.
Your knees may not kiss, and that is ok. By kiss I mean touch, it will depend on your mobility, knees and how wide your stance is.
They just need to kiss enough that you bring your body front on.
Great! You’ve just found your neutral stance that everything in your surfing will stem from.
You can try this on land, skating and surfing and if you feel pain it’s either adjust the stance, film it to check or go see a specialist and work on the mobility.
Compressing into your knees - bottom turning
This is simple, no need to do insane deep squats or things that don’t happen in surfing.
From that same kissing the knees, neutral stance position, check that can you compress down into the knees without bending the back.
The average surfer is typical of bending their back rather than compressing.
You want to compress and extend out of your knees to create lift, especially during your bottom turn.
So the same thing, just see if you can compress down into the knees from that position and then back up.
Tight hips and knee pain again. Double-check your knees are tracking safely and not doing anything weird here.
Twisting - Turning
As again, neutral stance, all you need to do is twist to mimic part of a cutback or snap.
This is where if you have knee issues - like me - and they didn’t show up before, they may show up now.
By being in that neutral stance, kissing the knees, and being vertically aligned with your joints, you allow your twist or turn to connect from your upper body to your lower.
Meaning, that you look first where you want to go, then the head and shoulders follow, this connects to the hips which then connects to the knees and then the feet.
If you aren’t doing it right, you won’t feel anything in your knees or feet. Thus no signal to your board that you want to turn and just flapping your arms.
This will create torque, it’s what you want, but that torque will put pressure on the knees.
Pain here can be bad technique or a bad stance, play with that, but otherwise, knee pain will be a mobility limitation or another issue that needs attention.
Range of motion is tough here as this is more about how you open the shoulders and do the proper technique.
Your front shoulder will want to roll in, you want to roll it out, towards your back so it can open up and extend the twist further around.
Palm up facing the sky on your leading arm will do that. This is a good experiment to play with to learn biomechanics and how your front arm is locking up your turns.
A number on how far you can get around is a bit stupid as everybody is different, but for me, I can just get past 180 degrees doing that without overdoing it or causing any pain. Good enough.
Leaning - Turning
Neutral stance, everything stems from it. Same again but this time you will be doing a lean and doing a small compression, along with using your back arm to create the lean.
This starts with your back arm reaching down and forwards. You want the elbow to come down more than the forearm.
Your forearm in line with your elbow will give you a deeper lean and a deeper bottom turn.
This should engage your toes and your heels will lift. Play around with this again to understand those biomechanics and how this will impact your board.
If you didn’t have any issues before, you probably won’t here, it’s just a fun last drill to check and see.
If you can do all that
If you can do all that, fantastic, job done, move on, fitness is most likely not impacting your surfing.
Stamina and endurance may be an issue and being more fit, surfing for longer is a great goal etc, and for that swimming is recommended but any general fitness regime will help towards that. No need to go and make it complicated.
More surfing and paddling will definitely help with getting fitter and lasting longer. There really isn’t much else that can build that fitness for you. It really is a movement that doesn’t get replicated closely anywhere else.
Swimming is your best but even then that just isn’t the same. Surfing is surfing.
If you have any pain
Go see a specialist. Physio, doctor, etc any trained professional that deals with that area. They will help identify the pain.
To speak from experience, my knees are cactus, it’s a birth defect with knees twisted inwards, knock knee and my right knee is rotated inwards quite a bit. This is the knee I kiss with, it helps with kissing the knee and makes it look really easy but also puts pressure on it.
Physios and doctors helped me identify this issue for me years ago. I had two routes, reconstruct the knee by shaving the bone (doctors did not advise that) or build the muscle up around the leg and be aware and conscious to move the knee in a way it’s supported without compromising it.
When you kiss the knees, your front foot will be the main support, it's on the widest part of the board and is your accelerator to push down the wave. So my knee is ok in these positions.
At this point, I will have it for life and now it’s just at a stage of self-managing it and if I cause an injury to it, I need to listen to my body and rest it. No surfing, skating or running.
If you have any lack of range of motion or flexibility
Go search the movement or related movements and you’ll find a million and one stretches. The tried and tested, age-old methods for improving these areas are what I recommend. No need to reinvent the wheel because it’s surfing.
If your lower back is stiff, find a stretch to work that or see a specialist to help guide you.
It’s not rocket science.
If not fitness, then what’s holding my surfing back?
Bad paddling technique will just wear you out. Being the fittest person outside of the surf means nothing in it.
You don’t need to be a gym junkie to be paddle fit. Good technique goes a long way and then routine surfing keeps you at a good level.
The biggest killer though is losing technique due to fear, anxiety, stress or any other mental side of surfing.
It’s a distraction and will exhaust you if you are uncomfortable or cause you lose proper technique because you are responding to the wave dropping out
A story of three surfers and their fitness
I want to share a quick story, that highlights this point.
Our Head Coach Clayton Neinaber, a friend of ours and myself went out and paddled out at Currumbin Alley earlier this year. This is a point break that on the right tide and conditions, can have a big sweep, meaning a lot of paddling.
Our friend was by far the fittest, goes to the gym all the time and is very muscley. However, he had about a year or two of surfing under his belt.
I exercise frequently and consider myself fit, but I don’t go above and beyond with it. Then there is Clay, who doesn’t go to the gym, isn’t very muscley, is quite skinny and just surfs.
You’d think that with our mate's extra fitness he would do well, but in reality, that day went the opposite. See Clay is a master of efficiency and only doing what he needs to do, yes he is paddle fit, but on land, he was the least fit.
Our friend struggled that whole session, that’s partial because he is still figuring things out. Fitness will help with stamina, but you’ve got to know when to conserve energy and how to make things easier on yourself, rather than tire yourself out.
Older Surfers - I use to be fine, now I can’t pop up
I want to include this here and it’s not against older surfers, it’s a routine comment.
There are a lot of surfers who have done it all their life, as they get into their older years, say 60-70, I’ve had students come back and say I use to be totally fine, get the bigger waves and surf alright, now I can’t pop up to save my life, I need to fix my fitness.
Within 5 minutes, I’ll run them through all these movements and if there is no issues, it is generally an issue of lost confidence as they get older and have to compete with younger surfers. Or it's lost confidence in ability or fear, anxiety or stress about anything else.
It's a change in conditions and their attitude they aren’t aware of.
This isn’t just older surfers, this can be anyone coming back after a bad experience or any significant change. Rehabilitation on an injury especially. Mentally you are not where you were before.
This is so common but unspoken of, I know of some very prominent surfers who have gone through this and it kills them. They are down in the dumps because they feel they have gone backwards.
This isn’t easy to confront but sometimes we just need to step back and check that we aren’t holding ourselves back due to confidence, fear, anxiety or stress. If you don’t confront it, the problem may never go away.
Endless chasing fitness isn’t the one fix all in your surfing.
If you check these baselines of:
- Cobra pose
- Downward dog
- Kissing the knees
- Compressing into the knees
And you have no limitations or issues, you are fit enough. There is a tonne of gym junkies that are super fit but when they are in the surf, they are exhausted because they lack the technique and awareness or they are mentally out of their comfort zone and exhausting themselves by being stressed.
Any pain, go see a specialist.
Any limitations in movement or range of motion, check your form, film yourself, play with the movement and if that fails, the tried and tested methods to stretching will be all you need to work on it.
If you don’t have any issues with the movements and can do them easily on land but in the surf it feels impossible, it might be a good time to just check where your confidence, fear, anxiety and/or stress levels are at.
There is a heap of good ways to deal with those and the easiest is to talk to a mate, they may just be going through the same things or feeling the same issues.
So surf fitness, has this cleared the air and given you an easy baseline?
Are you going to try all these movements and see how you go?
I’d love to know, you can reach out anytime, either message me in the app or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Next week I am going to dive into how you can complete your turns properly and stop cutting them short.