It's summer. You decide to go somewhere where you can finally try surfing. You book tickets; you line up lessons. Boxes: checked. You show up, and your first lesson goes really well! You stand up a few times, and you actually ride a few waves! You're hooked, and you can't wait to surf again tomorrow. Just one small problem: You wake up in the morning and you can't lift your arms above your head.
It happens so often it's almost a cliché. On days two and three, you can barely keep your face off the nose of your board. You have no power, no speed, and you bob around getting pummelled by waves that roll in. This is no way to spend the summer holidays, and it's no way to learn to surf (or get back into surfing). The good news is that it's avoidable, and by doing the right exercises you'll be able to stay in the water longer, which will help you learn faster, and have more fun.
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When you see clips of surfing on TV or in the movies, it's pretty much always the same thing: somebody is standing up on their board, gliding down the face of a wave, and carving it up like a Thanksgiving turkey. That leads people to think that surfing is largely dependent on leg-strength. Ha, no. Well, yes, once you've been surfing for years and you find a long wave and you have the ability to do a lot of turns on it, then leg strength is important; but for you, my beginning-surfer friend, don't even think it. Here's the unglamorous secret: Surfing is more than 95 per cent paddling.
"So? No big deal, I'll just swim laps to prepare," most people think. While swimming is great and it can be good surf-training if done right (which we'll get to below), it's not as close an analogue as most people believe. Ergonomically speaking, swimming is far superior to surfing, when done right. Your head and the rest of your spine stay in a pretty straight line, you twist your whole upper body so you don't have to reach back too far, and, of course, you are kicking (and counter-balancing) with your legs.
In contrast, when you surf, you are lying on top of the water's surface. You have to constantly engage your back muscles to keep your head up so you can see where you're going. Because your head is out of the water, you have to support that weight yourself. You have to paddle wider than you'd naturally want. You want to keep your body as stable as possible, because you have a rigid board under you, so you can't counter-balance; if you wobble too much, you fall in.
In other words, there's more to it than meets the eye. Here are a few things you can and should do, none of which require any fancy equipment. These are aimed at the beginning surfer, but they're just as good for those who've been out of the water for a season and are looking to get back on the horse.
Surfing uses your lats (latissimus dorsi) like crazy. For those unfamiliar, your lats are the "wing"-like muscle group on the sides of your back that taper down to your waist. They are, essentially, your pull-down muscle-group. Every stroke you take you're reaching up, grabbing a scoop of water, and then pulling it down to your waist. Repeat that enough, and they will start to burn.
One of the simplest and most effective exercises for building up your lats is the plain old pull-up. Grab a bar that can support your body weight, and put your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from you. Bring your shoulders down first, then slowly raise yourself up to the bar, hold for a second, then slowly lower back down to your starting position. That first squeeze to bring your shoulders down at the beginning is important. You don't want to use momentum for this exercise. Slow and steady will be harder, but it's safer for your body, and it will net you better results. Three sets of eight to twelve reps is a good goal.
If you can't do any pull-ups, that's ok. You can put a chair under the pull-up bar and use one leg (or two) to take some of the weight you so you can do a full set. If you have access to a gym, you can instead use the lat pull-down machine, setting it at a weight that allows you to do the recommended sets. You can also use fitness bands if you don't have any other options.
Upper Back / Backs of Shoulders
This is what kills everyone after your first time surfing. You will have muscles throbbing that you didn't even knew you had, and it's almost always the backs of your shoulders and your upper back (including the back of your neck). This is because when you're paddling you have to arch your shoulders back and keep your head up. It gets very exhausting very quickly, especially because this is a muscle group most of us just don't use very often.
Lie flat on your stomach with your legs out straight behind you. Now slowly bring your shoulder up and back, taking your head with them. Try to keep your head in alignment with the rest of your spine — you want to try to avoid crunching the back of your neck. If you realise you're looking straight down, use your back muscles to bring your shoulders up higher (it's kind of a reverse-crunch). Now bring your hands off the ground, turn your palms down, then very slowly arc them back and forth, so you're alternating between having your down hands at your sides, and having them reaching out in front of you like Superman. It should take you at least five seconds to bring your hands from one extreme to the other. Start with three sets of 60 seconds, then try to work your way up to 90 and 120. When that gets easy, add a one or two pound weight.
In the video above you can see a sort of advanced variation on the exercise. Definitely try it without any weight at first. Bodyweight alone will be enough for most beginners. He does an excellent job of illustrating the position your head and shoulders should be in.
OK, now we can talk about swimming. As we noted, while the body mechanics of swimming and surfing are different in a lot of ways, there is certainly some very nice overlap. For starters, swimming is one of the best ways to train your lats for surfing, even if the positioning is slightly different. But more importantly, it can get you used to huffing and puffing while paddling through water. The problem is that most people just stick to their slow, comfortable lap-swimming routine and are then surprised that they're exhausted when they're on their board. A few alterations can help bridge the gap.
For starters, use your legs as little as possible. This will take some getting used to, but when you're surfing your legs can't help you paddle (unless you're padding a short-board into a steep wave, but that's not something beginners need to think about). You want to simply be dragging your legs behind you, but you may have to kick here and there just to keep them level. A pool float pinched between your knees or ankles is the best way to do it, if you have access to one.
Now here's the other key. Surfing is a lot of slow paddling around to keep yourself in the right position, but it's punctuated by periods of absolutely furious sprinting. You'll be cruising around when suddenly you see there's a big set coming and you need to paddle like crazy for the horizon or you're going to be wearing it on your head. Or suddenly you see the perfect wave coming, and you've got to scratch like crazy to get yourself up to speed so you can get into it.
Sound familiar? Yup, it's real-life interval training, and if you haven't been practicing it, you'll burn out very quickly. So, do your normal cruise-control laps in the pool, but then suddenly go all out for the next 25 yards, then back to cruising. Eventually, you should work yourself up to more frequent sprints, and sprints that last 50 yards or more. Not only will you getting a fantastic workout, but if things turn hairy in the ocean (and they often do) and you find yourself in a dangerous situation, you'll be better equipped to get yourself out of it.
Chest and Triceps
OK, you've been training, and you're a paddle machine, and lo and behold you've actually managed to stroke yourself into a wave. Now what? You've got to get to your feet. In surfing, the transition from prone to standing is known as the pop-up, and you want to spend a little time in it as possible. You want it to be a quick pop, basically.
Your standard push-up is about the best exercise you can do to build you pop-up muscles, with a couple small tweaks. For starters, you want to practice keeping your hands directly under your chest — the board you're surfing on may not be as wide as your shoulders are. Second, while normally you want to do push-ups nice and slowly, to get the best "pop" you want to work on explosive power. Explode up from the bottom, slowly lower yourself back down, and repeat. If you can safely do clap push-ups, do 'em, as that's a great indicator for that explosive pop.
One of the trickiest things about surfing when you're starting out is just keeping centered on your board while you're paddling as hard as you can. All of that wobbling and readjusting is just wasted energy (as is falling off your board right when you're about to catch your first good wave).
A strong core is absolutely essential for stability, especially when you're on an unstable surface (i.e. a board on top of the water). A standard plank — with your elbows down, and your spine in a perfect line going all the way down to your heels — is one of the best surf exercises you can do. Not only is it great for your abs and the stabilising muscles in your trunk, but that gives you another opportunity to build up strength in the back of you neck (which, again, will be killing you if you're not ready for it).
Shoot for three sets of 60 seconds at first, and then work up to 90. As it becomes easier, try it while alternating lifting up one leg, or one arm. You should also be doing a side-plank. You're rotated to one side with one elbow down, and you try to keep your hips, legs, back, and head in one straight line. Do both sides, again, for three sets of 60, working up to 90 seconds.
That should be more than enough for most beginners to start with. Of course, as you get better there are more and more things you will want to do. Leg strength will become more important as you stand up more frequently and for longer periods of time (squats and wall-sits are great for that). As you start being able to turn and torque your board on a wave, you'll want to do more rotational strength training (like Russian twists), and you'll need to work on your flexibility too.
And, of course, practise your pop-ups, practise your pop-ups, practise your pop-ups. Drill them until you don't even have to think about them. Surfline has a great step-by-step description in the link above, and there are a million YouTube tutorials too. The importance of drilling this can't be understated.
The exercises we've given you are just barely scratching the surface, of course, but we wanted to keep this as simple as possible for the newbies. If you're a veteran surfer and you've got a favourite exercise or two, leave 'em in the discussion section below, and check back next week for another Fitmodo.