how to cutback surf
Min Read Time

The Cutback: Surf Guide

No matter your skill level or expertise, everyone has to have a cutback in their arsenal. The trick is to gain as much speed as possible and turn at the right moment. 

cutback surf

Without question, one of the most impressive-looking and cool moves that you can pull off on the surf is the cutback. A cutback maneuver is done when the rider relies on their rails for the change of direction. 

To the spectators, it just as well may be magic, but it’s nothing more than a power move that puts you right in the middle of the wave. That being said, there are a couple of ways to perform a cutback. 

This move is no small task, but if you dedicate yourself to it, you should be on top of it after a while. Let's take a look at the types of cutbacks that you can practice. 

The Roundhouse Cutback 

The roundhouse cutback is an insane maneuver that sends the rider flying in a 180-degree switch at the face of the wave. The board rises up from the surface and swirls into a figure of an eight before coming down.

The most important part to consider before performing this move is the wave that you are riding. If the wave is small and doesn’t pack much punch, then you want your cutback move to be quick and to the point.

Don’t exaggerate your movements because you will only end up losing speed, and the wave cannot carry you back in motion because it doesn’t have enough pull. 

When facing the opposite—a power-house wave—then you can go for a wide and prolonged turn because you can land further on the wave shoulder and continue straight in the pocket. 

Performing the Cutback: a Step by Step Guide

As with every move out there, there are things you need to pay attention to and things that should be ingrained in your being.

Let’s dissect the move step by step so that you gain a better understanding of what it truly means to perform a perfect cutback. Although the move itself in all its glory is an advanced surfing move, it can be simplified so that beginners and intermediate suffers can get a better grip on it. 

Step One

In order to perform a successful forehand cutback move, a surfer has to generate enough speed to be able to use the momentum to their advantage and perform a shallow bottom turn to change their direction at a drop of a dime. 

By going for a shallow bottom turn, you are putting yourself in a position from which you are able to cut at the right angle and align with the shoulder of the wave. 

Step Two

Once you reach the very top of the wave, you’ll have to use a lot of compression to glue yourself down. 

This is where the back foot comes into play. As you shift your weight on the back leg, you’re essentially digging in the fins and giving yourself a pivoting point from which you’re able to turn to the curl. 

Use Your Hands

If you’re just starting out or if you aren’t too sure of your technique, always bring your hands into the picture. By leaning down with your left hand, you should be able to open your chest and shoulders to the breaking point of the wave. 

Once you’re all set, simply apply more weight to your back foot, and you should be getting the indication of a turn. 

Step Three

It’s paramount that you remember to engage your upper body when going for a cutback. Not only does it make life a lot easier, but it also makes for synchronized motions that look exceptionally good on film. 

There isn’t that much to it; just remember that your upper body should end up facing the curl. You can start by turning your head and moving your shoulders in the desired direction. 

When you’re ready, just moving your hands in the direction of the curl can change your direction without applying much force or compensating.

Step Four

Now that you have the upper body all set, you should focus on the most important part of the move. Make use of your hips and feet to move to the pocket of the wave. 

You won’t have to force anything—the upper body motion will basically lead you to want to follow through and start turning your hips and legs. 

The secret? Keep your hips as relaxed as possible, let the motion take over, and don’t push for things that aren’t there. 

Step Five

Alright, we’re almost there. The fifth step is the landing move. You are going to experience a bounce when landing on the white water. 

This is quite normal and nothing to be alarmed by. Be ready for it and embrace it. When your board comes in contact with the white water, you should already be in a position to make the cut.

More on Body Posture

Your shoulder and upper body should already be facing the direction that you want to go in. So, as you’re heading back towards the shoulder, just put some more weight on your toes to deliver that final nudge of direction that will guide you home. 

Remember to keep your knees bent so that you are able to provide enough amortization on impact. 

The white water bounce should set you right up for the shoulder. Now you can turn back to it and carry on or bounce from the lip of the wave. Go with whatever feels more natural at the moment. 

Backside Cutbacks

cutback surf

alt text line: cutback surf

In many ways, a backside cutback can actually be an easier maneuver to master than a regular one. Don’t let the word “backside” intimidate you—it’s all about the flow and motion. 

You are facing the curl on this one, which should make it a lot easier for a lot of people to gather themselves because they are locked in with their surroundings. 

The backside cutback has a lot in common with the roundhouse cutback. Let’s run it down. 

In both cases, you have to rely on the decompression that you apply to your back foot in order to make the turn. 


That being said, you want to decompress before you dig in with that back foot again. You want to be able to measure the force and have a point of reference. 

So, once you decompress, you can press down on the back foot and put pressure on the board fins. This will have you at a pivoting point from which you’ll be able to turn to the curl of the wave. 

As before, you will want to remain relaxed and aid your movements by turning your chest and shoulders in your desired direction. 

Remember, the hips have to be relaxed, and the knees have to be bent. Hold the rail back and keep it towards the source of the wave. 

Tips on Performing a Cutback

Even though we went over the cutback step by step, naturally, not everything will go to plan. You will be faced with conditions and circumstances where you’ll need to adjust. 

Here are a few scenarios that you will most probably face at some point and some advice on how to navigate them. 

If the going gets tough, and you cannot get the right amount of momentum by digging your back foot in, then you can always drop your off-hand into the wave as a second cardinal point. 

Take What the Ocean Gives You

No matter what you do and how good you are, some waves will just not allow you to perform a cutback on them. 

It’s up to you to pot the right wave or rather spot the wrong one. You will need to get up on a clean wave in order to execute all the steps of performing a cutback move correctly. 

If you can manage it, it’s a good idea to hold the rail while you are turning. This down not only looks great in photographs, but it also makes for a smoother motion. 

Don’t Lose Speed

If you find that you aren’t getting enough motion on your turns and that you are struggling to complete them, then there is a good chance that you are doing them at an early point in the shoulder. 

To correct this, move further down the shoulder before you get into the cutback. This should place you at a steeper part of the wave when you turn and make for an easier turn on landing. 

If the going gets tough, and you cannot get the right amount of momentum by digging your back foot in, then you can always drop your off-hand into the wave as a second cardinal point. 

You Will Need as Much Speed as You Can Get

Remember that you should be going as fast as you can manage and bear. Going quicker will in no way hinder your turn; it will only add momentum to it. 

It comes without you being able to perform all the moves in a shorter span of time. The quicker, the better. We want as much momentum as we can get on cutbacks. 

This does not mean going out of control and compromising your technique because of super-high speed, but it certainly helps to go for a cutback surf when you’re moving faster.

Pivot Point

If you feel that you aren’t getting enough inertia when digging in the fins and applying pressure to your back foot, it’s probably a good idea to move a bit more towards the back of the surfboard.

You want to have your foot right above the power source of the turn. We know that you want to keep your food glued to the traction pad so that you are more stable on your turns.

However, if you can manage to keep your balance intact by placing your foot even further back, then that will only make the cutback turn easier for you.

Wave Riding

The way that you’re riding the wave has a lot to do with your cutback technique and how well you are able to execute it. You should always be mindful of where you are in relation to the wave and your surroundings. 

As with most things, there is a time and place for everything. So, if you pull one of those - wrong place, wrong time on your cutback you will probably make life a lot more difficult for yourself or fail at the maneuver completely. 

Your wave riding goes hand in hand with the way that you perform a cutback. Remember to always position yourself in the best possible scenario to succeed—pan things out if that’s something that can be done.

A Few Words Before You Go…

Like any surfing maneuver, you should always take time to adjust your upper body and front foot movements to the wave's shoulder wave face.

Many surfers find themselves in flat spots because they don’t pay attention to the front rail and the breaking wave and don't make good use of their front arm. Generate speed until you reach the full speed at which you feel comfortable. If you go at more speed than you can handle, you’ll end up as a foam ball.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching