Like the increase in size of incoming sets as a storm swell arrives, the growth of surfing’s popularity has been nothing short of mesmerizing.

Surfing is experiencing one of the largest growth surges in its history. Board-Trac, a surfing industry market research firm, estimates that 2.4 million Americans, 1 million more than reported in 1998, now surf. The growth and accessibility of surfing schools, the advent of foam boards for beginners, and increased media attention (such as that garnered by the 2002 movie Blue Crush) have contributed to the expanding participation in what used to be considered a fringe sport.

Today’s surfing public is definitely more diverse than the surfing public of a decade or two ago. For example, women, who constituted only 5 percent of the surfing population in 1995, are now the fastest-growing segment at 16 to 22 percent, according to Board-Trac. It’s also not uncommon to find gray-haired veterans, middle-aged soccer moms and preteens surfing at the same break.

If you live on either coast, you may already have a few clients who surf. If you don’t, consider the number of potential surfing clients in your community who might be ready for a program geared specifically to their needs. Surfing schools, especially the ones that cater to women, sometimes offer conditioning programs that you could offer to direct or visit as a guest and for which you could work out a cross-referral arrangement.

Even if you and your clients live in a land-locked part of the country, you shouldn’t toss this article aside. By no means are the benefits of the exercises discussed in this article confined to surfing. As you read about the physical demands of surfing, think about their similarities—in terms of strength, agility, flexibility and endurance—to the physical demands of other sports and activities in which your clients do participate. For instance, swimming, skiing, waterskiing, snowboarding, wakeboarding, kayaking, canoeing and even beach volleyball are similar to surfing in their specific movements and injury
patterns. Read on with an eye toward choosing or tailoring exercises that may suit the needs of your client and discovering new ways to break old routines by incorporating training sessions that focus on your client’s favorite outdoor activity.

Why Condition for Surfing?

As anyone who surfs will tell you, no amount of fitness can be substituted for less tangible skills such as wave knowledge and timing. The ability to read and anticipate the ever changing ocean environment is learned only by experience: the soggy dues that surfers pay in the form of wipeouts. However, as Uriah Mirandon—founder of Surf Sessions, a surfing school in Del Mar, California—puts it, “Not having to worry about being strong, fit or flexible enough increases your learning curve, promoting your confidence and allowing you to enjoy your time in the water more fully.”

With its hallmark gradual erosion of fitness, “weekend warrior syndrome” is perhaps even more common in surfing than in many other recreational sports. For weekend surfers, this not only affects performance negatively but also increases the risk of injury and may jeopardize safety. Even if your client surfs almost daily, the “workout” factor of a given surfing session depends on the conditions of that particular day. A lull in surf conditions that lasts several weeks leaves your client in less than tiptop shape for bigger, more challenging swells.

The Physical Demands of Surfing

Although a number of training programs could be beneficial, a surfing-specific workout should have some common threads tying it to the actual demands of the sport. The more your client sees a connection between her workout and her sport, the more motivated she will be to adopt it passionately.


Core stability and neuromuscular training must rank high on the list of priorities in a conditioning workout for surfing. The ocean is clearly one of the most unstable environments in which sports are performed. Riding waves requires one to react quickly to this unstable, changing environment with dynamic, multiplanar movements while maintaining core stability, balance and coordination.

The foundation for surfing fitness should be land-based functional training programs, and the application of today’s functional training equipment and methods is obvious: Balls of all types, core boards, foam rollers and pads are perfectly suited for exercises that enhance a surfer’s proprioception.

Surfing-Specific Strength

Surfers spend significantly more time paddling than actually surfing, so upper-body strength and endurance are essential. Depending on the conditions and surf spot, paddling outside the break and into the lineup can really test these qualities. The lats, pecs and triceps provide the power for paddling. The rhomboids, levator scapula and erector spinae act isometrically to maintain trunk extension. The deltoids are largely responsible for the recovery portion of the arm stroke.

Dan Mori, surfing instructor and competitor in the World Qualifying Series, points out that an inefficient paddling technique can contribute to premature fatigue. “Sometimes, you see a surfer paddling with his chest on the board and his arms flailing around to the sides. He has no power and wastes way too much energy,” he says. Either poor mobility in the low back or poor endurance in the spinal erectors can impair paddling technique and lead to early fatigue.

Strength in the lower body is also important for leg drive and power. Squats and lunges are great exercises for surfers because they replicate the semicrouched position required in critical sections of the wave.


Flexibility in the leg, hip and back muscles and mobility throughout the body are also crucial to surfing success. “Flexibility is essential,” Mori stresses. “It’s why some surfers look like they’re moving in bits and pieces and others appear to be performing one fluid movement on even the most radical maneuvers.”

Because flexibility is so important in surfing, many surfers such as Encinitas, California, professional Jeremy Sherwin practice yoga. “Yoga gives me just about everything I need: flexibility, balance and strength,” he says. Sherwin surfs almost daily yet feels that his performance suffers when he does not practice yoga regularly.

Paul Frediani, a personal trainer in New York City and the author of Surf Flex, feels that yoga is the perfect presurfing warm-up. “An 8-to-10-minute routine of yoga sun salutations will warm up the body’s core and stretch muscles in a manner specific for surfing, emphasizing flexion, extension and rotation of the spine, hips and legs,” he says. “It will also charge up the neuromuscular system and promote deep breathing to clear the mind and relax the body.” Performing this routine again but more slowly after the surfing session is a good way to improve flexibility. (For a complete look at how to perform the sun salutation, refer to “Yoga for Athletes,” IDEA Personal Trainer, January 2002, pp. 18-26.)

Cardiovascular Endurance

Although cardiovascular endurance is important for performance, surfing itself may not provide adequate cardiovascular training. Swimming, an obvious choice for a surfer’s cardiovascular conditioning, improves cardiovascular capacity not only centrally (in the heart and lungs) but also peripherally (in the paddling-specific muscles). However, some clients may be more likely to suffer shoulder-overuse injury from the combination of surfing and swimming, especially if the swimming is all freestyle.

Incorporating more than one cardiovascular activity helps ward off injury and create balance. Activities such as rowing, cycling and running are great for the cross-training benefits that they provide. Extended paddling sessions on the surfboard and paddling relays can also serve as enjoyable cardiovascular alternatives when the surf is flat.

Injury Patterns

Given the thousands of strokes that surfers perform over time by paddling, it’s no surprise that overuse injuries to the shoulder are common. Stephanie Hoffman, MS, PT—the owner of La Jolla Shores Physical Therapy in La Jolla, California, and a surfer for more than 20 years—sees the same type of injury in swimmers, kayakers, volleyball players and even rock climbers. “Chronic overuse of the internal rotators from paddling changes the length-tension relationship with the scapular stabilizers and rotator cuff,” she observes. “Over time, this imbalance can lead to injury.”

SI joint strain and pain in the low back, midthoracic region and neck are also common. Because the scapula is the link in the kinetic chain that connects the trunk to the shoulder, shoulder injury prevention actually starts with core stability and then involves scapular stability (Johnson 2003).

A preventive program to address the potential overuse injuries of surfing should include lumbopelvic stabilization, scapular (rhomboids, serratus) stabilization, rotator cuff strengthening and anterior shoulder (pecs, long head of biceps)

stretches to counterbalance the overuse patterns of surfing. On the United States Surfing Federation Web site, Frediani outlines a series of shoulder-strengthening exercises and stretches that can be done after surfing. (See “Resources” on page TK.)

Surf’s Up!

Preparing your client to meet the physical demands of surfing will increase her enjoyment of and longevity in this sport, which has a great history and great cross-training possibilities for her.