For the athletes at the top of our sport, long gone are the days of simply ‘surfing more’ in order to compete at the highest level. You only need to scroll Instagram to see they now implement strict strength and conditioning programs. They’re athletes of the highest level; a huge contrast to the often fast and loose lifestyle of many pro surfers up until the early 2010’s. Whilst 99.9% of us may not be aiming to compete against Italo next year, there’s no doubt that taking inspiration from the current crop of top surfers and implementing some surf specific training can help drastically help our surfing. Especially for average surfers who don’t get in the water most days!
Keep reading for our ultimate guide to surf-specific training…
Unfortunately, surf specific training has a bad reputation, and fair enough… A quick Google of ‘surf specific training’ shows countless articles suggesting over-complicated exercises – often taking place on Indo-boards or yoga-balls, because balance, right?
Whilst exercises like this might look intriguing and very ‘surf-specific’, the reality is, they’re not. There’s a common misunderstanding that the exercise we do in the gym needs to replicate the sport as closely as possible, but this is not necessarily the case.
So, what exactly IS surf specific training?
As with many broad questions, the answer is ‘it depends’. A 16-year old frother who surfs 5x a week and competes at a junior level is going to need a very different looking training program from a 40-year old desk-jockey turned weekend warrior. That said, below are some of the training modalities and principles we find to be fundamental across all levels of surfing. Implement some form of training from each of these 5 facets and it WILL help your surfing.
Firstly, as surfers we need to be strong. Upper body strength is required to provide intense bursts of paddle power, allowing us to catch waves. Once we’re up and riding, strong legs will help us power through turns and hopefully displace some water. On a less obvious level, it’s also super important to strengthen the our joints and smaller stabilizer muscles which surround them. These strengthened joints will be far less prone to injury and much better at absorbing impacts – like freefalling from an 8ft lip like Gabriel Medina here.
Our favourite exercises…
For the upper body, the simple pull-up can’t be beaten to develop functional strength. Bands or pull-down machines can be used to make the movement easier if needed, whilst those with more training experience can add weight to make it more challenging.
During a 2-hour surf, you’ll spend most of your time in an awkward, extended position, squeezing your glutes and erector spinae muscles in your lower back with your arms flailing somewhere by your sides. With this in mind, developing a strong posterior chain (entire ‘backside’ of your body) is essential. For this, the Deadlift and variations of it are king.
When training for strength, higher loads and low reps are the way to go. Always making sure to use a controlled movement and strict form.
Most of us tend to have strength imbalances within our bodies – that is; one side stronger than the other. If you’re a regular-footer, live at a right hand point break and surf off the back foot, it should come as no surprise that your right leg is generating most of your power and will consequently be stronger.
To combat this, any surf-specific program should include a variety of unilateral (one-sided) exercises in attempt to ‘rebalance’ the body. Think Bulgarian Split Squats, Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts and Single Arm Rows. The one-sided element of these is great for improving your balance too.
2. Muscular endurance
Having a 1.5x bodyweight bench press and a 2x bodyweight squat is impressive. That said, if you’re unable to perform the hundreds of repetitions required to paddle out on a solid day at your local beach break, your newly found strength ‘gainz’ are fairly useless.
We need to ensure our shoulders can continue to contract without fatiguing to pull us through the water when paddling for longer periods of time. To improve this, we must ensure we’re not only completing high load, low repetition work, but also light load, high repetition work in order for our bodies to adapt and get used to contracting over and over. Supersets – performing one exercise followed immediately by another before resting – can be fantastic for this. A favourite of ours is performing a ‘pull’ movement immediately into a ‘push’ movement. Try Gorilla Rows (pictured) into push-ups with your hands still on the kettlebells. Having your hands raised will allow you to ‘dip’ lower, improving the range of motion in your shoulders whilst stretching your chest at the bottom of the movement.
3. Cardiovascular endurance
It’s no use being strong and athletic muscles if your heart and lungs can’t keep up. If you don’t surf at least a few times a week, you’re going to need to include some conditioning or cross-training sessions. These can be longer, slower pieces aimed at increasing your aerobic output (exercise that requires oxygen to fuel the muscles). The goal here is to improve the bodies response to things such as a long paddle out at your favourite point break. Or they can be shorter, more intense anaerobic bursts (exercise that is not oxygen fueled) – think sprint paddling to catch a wave. Including both is key to developing a surf-fit body that can withstand long sessions, and not be exhausted after the first paddle-out.
For those of us who train at home, combining exercises which spike the heart rate quickly (such as Squat Jumps or Burpees) with an ‘active recovery’ position (such as the Plank) can be a great way to replicate the peaks and troughs your heart rate will go through during a catching a wave, paddling back out, and then sitting in the line-up.
Enjoy running, cycling, playing tennis or Jiu-jitsu? Cross-training with other sports, exercises and hobbies is also a fantastic and sustainable way to improve your cardiovascular fitness.
You’ve no doubt heard about mobility. It’s somewhat of a buzzword these days. With gyms closed, the lockdown proved to be the perfect time for gym-goers to focus their time on something that most of us know we should do more of. Defined as: ‘the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion’, (as opposed to flexibility which is ‘the ability of a muscle or muscle groups to lengthen passively through a range of motion’). Essentially, increased mobility allows us to be strong in those hard-to-reach positions.
Unsurprisingly, this is highly beneficial to surfers. Think about performing a simple roundhouse cutback; we’re rotating our thoracic spine as far as it can go in one direction before throwing it back around the other way. The less we can rotate, the less radical that turn will be. We’re also putting our bodies in positions we rarely face during day-to-day life. Being mobile means we can reach these positions more easily, be stronger and more stable when we reach them, and decrease our chances of getting injured.
Aside from thoracic spine mobility, the two other key areas surfers should look to increase mobility in are the hips and shoulders. Not only because they are highly important joints for surfing, but also because these are the first ones to seize up as a result of our sedentary western lifestyles.
Our hips go through multiple plains of motion when popping up, compressing and extending to pump, and when rotating for turns. Any extra ROM (range of movement) and strength we can gain in these areas can only be beneficial.
We have 100’s of movements included in our Surf Development Programme (more info below). A great one for the upper body is Shoulder Circles against a wall.
5. Rest & recovery
Similarly to above, this is another area we all know we should dedicate some time to but rarely do. Foam rolling, ice baths, breathwork and the like will all improve your recovery time from a surf/training session. Though, arguably the most realistic thing we can do is to spend 5-10 minutes each day focusing on tight/niggly areas before they become bigger problems.
We offer mobility and stretching sessions during our Maldives Surf Coaching Trips; trust us when we say your body needs it after multiple sessions a day!
Why do most surf specific training programmes fail?
Now you know the fundamental elements of a good surf-specific programme should have, why not piece them all together to make your own? Firstly, knowing how to programme effectively is a skill which takes years to get right. Any programme can make you sweaty and sore, but creating one which ensures you’re making progress in your desired areas takes skill and time.
Secondly – and for the same reason why that ‘Get Ripped For Summer’ PDF you downloaded last March didn’t work didn’t work – you have no accountability. You could write an incredible surf-specific programme, but unless you’re an unusually consistent and dedicated individual, the chances of you seeing it through are slim. The human mind is a funny thing; it automatically places more importance on things we invest in. ‘Skin in the game’, if you will. You don’t just need a new programme – you need a coach who ensures you complete the work required.
Lastly, so many programmes fail to include the one training principle which ensures your body will adapt and improve: Progressive Overload (PO). Defined as ‘the gradual increase of the stress placed upon the musculoskeletal and nervous system’. Simply put, our sessions must become more difficult as we become more trained.
This can be done in a variety of ways;
- Lifting more weight. In week one you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps. Then, in week 4, you deadlift 70kg for 10 reps.
- Completing more reps. In week one you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps. Then, in week 4, you deadlift 50kg for 15 reps. This equates to more volume (reps x weight x sets).
- Completing slower reps. In week one you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps, taking 2 seconds on the lowering phase of the rep. Then, in week 4, you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps, taking 4 seconds on the lowering phase of the rep. This increases the muscles’ time under tension (TUT).
- Lifting with better form/without pain. In week one you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps. Your back is rounded, you have lower back pain, and can barely walk the next day. Then, in week 4, you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps. Your body mechanics are perfect, you’ve no pain and feel fantastic the next day. This is an often forgotten aspect of PO.
Imagine you don’t follow any of the principles above. In week 1 you deadlift 50kg for 10reps, which was around a 9/10 difficulty for you. You’ve placed your body under stress, and it will now adapt to this. Then, in week 4, you deadlift 50kg for 10 reps again, at around a 5/10 difficulty. As your body has adapted this weight is now almost considered a warm up; the body has no incentive or need to continue adapting and you end up plateauing and losing all motivation.
The Surf Development Programme
Introducing the SDP. The program was developed by Renegade Co-owner Dale (@Dalewallington) and his colleague Merit (@Meritfit) in their hometown of Ericeira, Portugal. Whilst most surfers they encountered wanted to improve their fitness in the water, they hated the idea of following a typical gym routine. They needed a program focused on functional movements, increasing mobility and recovery whilst minimising injury.
What does it include?
This 4-week online course begins with a ‘testing day’ consisting of strength, endurance and mobility exercises. Your results here aren’t important; they purely give us a metric by which we can measure your progress after the 4-weeks.
There are two SDP programmes to choose from. Our Level 1 Home programme is perfect for those who are new to training, or to surfers who don’t have access to a gym, as no equipment is required. Perfect for building up some stamina before marathon sessions in The Maldives!
For those who have trained before, we recommend our gym-based 8-week SDP Level 2 programme. This includes a mix of ‘bigger’ lifts which require barbells etc, as well as slightly more complex movements. As this programme contains more complicated movements, we don’t recommend those who are new to training take part.
Both programmes include 3x sessions a week which are all under 1 hour and are sent through an app to your personal account. After you make your account, you’ll be given access to the course on a week-by-week basis and will be able to see your progress between each session.
Every exercise is accompanied by an instructional video. Therefore, even if you’ve never heard of a ‘Single Leg Raised Glute Bridge’ you’ll be able to see the exact movement you should be completing.
In addition to the program, you’ll have access to both Dale through the chat function of the App. Here, you can send any questions you may have regarding the programme.
Join the programme…
Fill out the contact form below to get in touch and kick-start your surf specific training.