I’ve just finished writing a program for my brother-in-law to help with his surfing and it got me thinking; From an athletic point of view, what makes a good surfer and what will help make a surfer better?
When writing programs like this, coaches go over a needs analysis to figure out the best way to make the most of the gym program, and in cases like this it’s very easy to get overly specific. As a Strength Coach it’s vital to understand our job is to make athletes better, with a greater capacity to perform in their given sport, not to recreate their sport. It’s also important to understand not to get caught up in chasing numbers and turning these guys into lifters, I could almost guarantee the top pros on the WSL don’t have impressive PB’s, because they simply don’t need to.
So what do surfers need:
Most of us still need a good serving of the fundamentals to form a solid athletic foundation, so this is the first thing I address. As with all my programs we address our 4 major movement patterns.
Squat – Unlike field sport athletes who display force downwards into the grass to jump, accelerate or change direction, Surfers display force downwards into their board to manipulate their way across a wave. This is a mixture of complex whole body movements driven by the lower body. Some sort of Squatting position is evident on all waves. A strong squat will deliver a powerful stance, a confident crouched position for those tight barrels and most of all allow a Surfer to display force into the board to move around a wave. All versions of a Squat pattern will be beneficial, but I suggest starting with a Goblet Squat. The front loading will help build the upper back which will help with posture and paddling.
Hinge – Powerful hips mean powerful turns! Deadlifts to build strength and Kettlebell swings to train fast dynamic hip extensions. This movement pattern will also build a strong lower back limiting that fatiguing back pain that can arise from long times in the water. Just make sure you’re using correct technique.
Pull – A very important movement pattern for surfers as it will have a huge carryover to paddling and therefore catching more waves. Pull ups should be considered the gold standard and loading pulling based movements should be a priority in the gym as the added external load (other than water) is limited when your surfing.
Push – Every time we duck dive or pop up there is a pushing action, so a strong push up will be very beneficial. Learning to control our trunk and shoulder movements during a push up is a must, so practice with perfect form and alignment before adding more reps or external load such as bands or plates.
Good mobility is a must for all athletes and surfers even more so. The positions that good surfers can get into are complex, dynamic and very often un-organised (i.e. not pre-determined). Without an ability to move through a certain range of motion your surfing and ability to adapt to a wave will always be limited. Whilst good mobility is a whole-body endeavor there are some movements that will have a greater effect.
Ankle – Ankle dorsi-flexion in particular, that is the ability for our knee to move forward over our toes. The good news is that our Squat exercise will help address the movement (and others).
Hip – Adequate hip extension will allow greater expression of turns whilst hip flexion, internal and external rotation will help with surfers move into odd positions without falling. The good news again is that our hinge movements when done properly will train full hip extension whilst hip flexion and external rotation can be developed through squats and deep squat sitting. Internal rotation can be addressed using inward knee rolls, shown below.
Shoulder – This is a big one for staying injury free. Good news again is that pull ups, actually just hanging from a bar, is a great way to improve your shoulder mobility.
Thoracic Spine – Call it trunk extension, lateral flexion and rotation, these movements are all beneficial; from paddling to creating and performing manoeuvres. Address these with mobility exercises as much as possible.
Here's a few vids that might help:
Trunk Rotational Power
The trunk plays a big part in helping create force which is then displayed into the board and into a wave. By “loading up” or rotating our shoulders independently of our hips we can create more power for impressive turns and manoeuvres. A simple med ball side throw is a perfect exercise to train this movement, really focus on the shoulders turning independently to the hips.
There are countless times when riding a wave that we may become weightless, from take offs, recovering from turns or even landing airs. Jump and land exercises in the gym, whilst not replicating the nature of wave riding, will help Surfers absorb force create stable lower body joints and improve their overall ability to manipulate their body to maintain their stance. I suggest starting with a simple vertical jump and land, focusing on absorbing into the landing and sticking for 1 second.
To finish up, start with the fundamentals – they transfer the best. Don’t get caught up with trying to turn your gym time into some weird bastardisation of surfing. Think about the quality of your movements at all times. Make sure you are working on mobility through your strength exercises and added mobility drills. Have fun, get strong, rip turns.