Program Considerations For the Surfer

When many of my surfing students find out I am a Personal Trainer I am quite often asked how they can improve their physical capabilities in order to allow them to continue to progress efficiently.

My answer if often very simple – Spend more time surfing! To improve their abilities a runner will run, a swimmer will swim and so a surfer must surf. However there are always other training modalities that can aid in the progression of a particular skill.

Surfing requires many different physical and mental attributes, as well as a working knowledge of the ocean. The requirement for co-ordination and the independent movement of limbs creates a challenge for all who attempt it. Below I have outlined the basics in program consideration for surfers to ensure your time spent training out of the water benefits your time spent surfing and training in the water.

In my time spent as a surfing coach, I’ve noticed two distinct stages at which people struggle most with their physicality in the ocean;

  • Those who are just beginning are in stage 1 or what I call the ‘deep water walking’ stage.
  • Those who have mastered the basics of board control, popping-up and ocean knowledge then move onto stage 2 or the ‘paddle’ stage.

In Stage 1 people are using a great amount of leg force and core control to allow themselves to remain standing upright in the broken waves (whitewater) and control a surfboard. Muscles such as calves, hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals and those through-out the feet are required to work explosively over a large duration of time.

In Stage 2 the core is once again used to stabilize the body whilst lying on the board. The erector spinae of the lower back become extremely important in lifting the chest off the board and allowing the arms/shoulders to rotate and paddle. The upper back, shoulders, chest and arms all combine to pull the hands through the water and propel the surfer forward.

Once in this stage it’s easiest to break the movements and muscles required down into 3 sections:

  • Paddle-out (Chest, Shoulders, Back)
  • Pop-Up (Chest, Abs, Back, Hip Flexors)
  • Surfing the wave ( Legs and Core)

In order to train the body to become more adept at the power, strength and co-ordination of these movements, it is important that our choice of exercises relate and to a certain degree mimic the challenges presented by the ocean. For this reason exercises which involve excessive support (those that eliminate core stabilization) i.e. Bench Press, Incline Press, Seated Supported Row etc, should be avoided. Instead use equipment that allows freedom of movement in multiple planes or directions i.e. cables, bands, medicine balls.

Also consider the fact that surfing is a multi-tasking activity. The brain is required to control our movements, but must also process a myriad of other things such as wave formation, effect of wind/gusts, other surfers etc. To best advance this skill, including multi-tasking exercises is most effective. Rather than simply throwing a medicine ball, do it standing on one leg. Or utilise a bosu ball (unstable surface) as support while doing things such as squats, push-ups or medicine ball work. Fitballs can also be extremely useful in this situation. As the ability of the individual increases, the concepts of load and progression can be applied to ensure improvement continues.

The above considerations, when combined with the study of individual physical requirements can lead to a very effective program.

These are merely some considerations that need to be made when investigating exercises to enhance the body’s ability to deal with the demands of surfing. This is in no way a recipe for program design. To design a complete program, there must be further investigation into the individual, their surfing environment and current level of competence to ensure a balanced and well-rounded approach.


After deciding to follow his passion for health and fitness into a career, Matt completed his Gym Instructor, Group Instructor and Personal Trainer qualifications. In 2008 he decided to take the next step and open his own Personal Training business that aligned with his high standard of client service. Book Matt for a session today!