Nov 3, 2016
Surf’s Up
Jonathan Brown

On the water, surfers rely on their upper bodies for paddling, lower bodies for explosive movements, and core for torque. On land, their training should reflect this.

This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Until recently, the idea of land-based training wasn’t largely accepted by surfers. There was a mentality within the surfing community that strength and conditioning would make athletes bulky, slow, and tight, restricting their flexibility on the board and throwing off their timing. In fact, if you told surfers 10 years ago that they could increase their performance by hitting the weightroom, many would have laughed at you.

I should know, since I started training competitive surfers around that time. Back then, I only worked with a handful of ambitious local pros who were looking to reach or stay at the top. I showed them how proper training could lead to better results in the water, which got them to embrace my teachings. As they improved, so did my influence within the sport and the number of athletes I was able to work with.

Today, I train athletes from all over the world, and every professional surfer in the World Surf League (WSL) does some form of strength and conditioning. Now, the question isn’t: “Should a surfer incorporate land-based training?” It’s: “What type of training is best?”

At Extreme Athletics in Costa Mesa, Calif., we’ve achieved optimal results with circuit-based workouts, and we use periodization and muscle confusion for programming. We’re proud to have played a role in shattering some of the misconceptions surrounding strength work for surfing, and we’ll continue to do so.


To understand the shifting attitudes about land-based training in surfing-and how they have influenced the work that we do-you have to look at surfing as more than just a high performance sport. There are few sports that have a collective culture as strong as surfing’s. It’s hundreds of years old, with a rich history dating all the way back to early Polynesian societies.

However, surfing is still in the early stages of being considered an organized sport. After all, it wasn’t until 1964 that the first modern surfing competition was held. More established “traditional” athletes had long adopted different forms of strength and conditioning, but the last thing a surfer in the 60’s and 70’s wanted to be was traditional.

Since then, it’s been 52 years of the sport evolving and athletes continually setting the bar higher. As younger, more athletic surfers fought to make it to the top, the ones who had already reached it were looking to extend their days in the sun. This competition led many to strength and conditioning work, which proved to be effective in helping them reach their goals.

One of the advantages of surfers coming around to strength work now is that the science of training high-level athletes has never been better. Kinesiology has given us a different perspective when watching our athletes. Of course, we monitor their overall performance, but we also assess their energy needs, exercise physiology, movement patterns, and any imbalances that need to be addressed. When applying these observations, we focus on the biomechanics of surfing and the demands the sport places on the body. This tells us what muscles are used and in what way.

Then, we can design training accordingly. The structure of our workouts is just as important as the exercises that we do. We know that surfing is comprised of a series of intermittent actions, so we use high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in the form of circuits to reflect this. In addition, there is solid scientific research pointing to better conditioning adaptations using HIIT.


When constructing our circuits, we include exercises that target the upper body, lower body, and core. A circuit generally consists of four to six exercises, and athletes complete three to five sets of each circuit. Athletes go through a 15 to 20-minute dynamic warm-up before we begin, and they end with a five to 10-minute cool down at the end.

A recent study found that surfers spend three times as long paddling in the water as they do up on the board, so we use paddling-specific exercises either first or last in our circuits to mimic the energy demands of surfing. Focusing on building muscular endurance, the exercise selection needs to have a mild resistance component with a high frequency of reps that can be completed in a short period of time. We usually aim for 20 to 30 reps, or 10 to 15 per arm.

One of our go-to upper-body exercises is called “band swims.” To complete it, an athlete lies prone over a physio ball and performs a modified version of alternating lat pulldowns. This movement directly trains the muscles used in paddling, and reps can be completed at about one per second, meaning athletes can get a lot of them done in a short amount of time.

Because of the amount of time surfers spend paddling, the musculature that internally rotates their shoulders tends to get over-developed, making it a common injury area. To combat this, we double up on exercises that externally rotate the shoulder, such as renegade rows without a push-up.

Moving to the lower body, we break our training up to target two muscle groups: prime movers and stabilizers. The prime movers that we focus on during our circuits are the soleus, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, and gluteus maximus. Prime movers are used for the larger movements in surfing, like building speed by transitioning from the base of a wave to the top, pushing through a turn, or going above the lip of a wave when completing a top turn. Smaller, stabilizing muscles are used to maintain balance and control during these actions and include the gastrocnemius, abductors and adductors of the upper leg, and the gluteus medius.

To prevent muscle imbalance, a mix of power and strength exercises for the prime movers needs to be coupled with proprioception training for the stabilizers. We feel that including both in a single circuit teaches our athletes how to transition from one area to the other, which reflects the demands of surfing.

Reps for the power movements should stay in the four to six range, and tempo should be high, while athletes do six to 10 reps for strength exercises at a moderate to slow tempo. Exercises for the stabilizers require 12 to 20 reps with a slow, controlled tempo.

A common surf-specific exercise we use for building lower-body power is called a “top turn plyo.” Athletes start by placing one foot on the top of a plyo box with the other foot on the ground. They then jump and rotate 180 degrees, switching the position of their legs. This movement closely mimics the action of a surfer performing a snap turn off the top of a wave.

Two of our favorite exercises for building strength in the prime movers are dead lifts and front squats. These are important because of their similarity to frontside and backside bottom turns in surfing. If a surfer is facing the wave they’re riding, they are going “frontside.” A frontside bottom turn should project a surfer in and up the wave. Likewise, when their back is to the wave, they are going “backside.” Backside bottom turns should project the surfer back and up the wave. Mechanically, dead lifts put the body in the position for a frontside bottom turn, while the front squat stance is similar to the one used when going backside.

Bottom turns are largely regarded as one of the most important aspects of high performance surfing. A solid bottom turn creates the speed that the athlete then translates into a powerful top maneuver. A shaky bottom turn can slow an athlete down or throw them off balance, resulting in a less dynamic top turn and reduced point values. Strength training the prime movers used in bottom turns has been proven to increase muscle-firing synchronicity, which produces better coordination for athletes to use in their top maneuver.

Power and strength work for the prime movers fatigues these muscles. This allows for greater activation in the stabilizers, so it’s the best time to put our athletes on proprioceptive equipment, such as Bosu balls and Indo boards. When using these tools, resistance can range from bodyweight to moderate weight-I suggest utilizing bodyweight for athletes who are new to weight training and moderate resistance for more advanced athletes.

A squat with rotation is a simple stabilizing exercise that meets the needs of surfing. While athletes are on a balance board, have them squat and rotate their trunks as far as they can in one direction. Then, have them stand and repeat the rotation in the opposite direction. This exercise also creates stronger connective tissue in the ankle, knee, and hip joints-all common injury sites for surfers.

The last step in our circuit training is to work athletes’ cores, which we consider to be the cornerstone of surfing. All maneuvers on the water revolve around torquing the body in and out of rotations, making lumbo-pelvic-hip (LPH) complex work a top priority. The National Academy of Sports Medicine breaks the LPH complex into two areas, stabilization and movement. There are six muscles involved in stabilization: transverse abdominus, internal obliques, lumbar multifidus, pelvic floor, diaphragm, and transversospinalis. The eight involved in movement are the latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, illiopsas, hamstrings, hip adductors and abductors, rectus abdominis, and external obliques.

Because we train most of the muscles in the LPH complex during our other circuit movements, we use core work to dial in on the muscles directly related to rotation, such as the transverse abdominus and internal obliques for stabilization and the rectus abdominis and external obliques for movement. Reps for core work generally fall between eight to 12.

One exercise that can hit these target muscles-and is frequently included in our circuits-is the negative Russian twist. I’ve seen many different forms of a Russian Twist, but this one is a personal favorite. The eccentric motion keys in on the slow-twitch, stabilizing musculature, while the concentric explosive motion develops the fast-twitch musculature of the movement groups.


Peers in the strength and conditioning profession often ask us how we implement programs for surfers. We have found that both periodization and muscle confusion work well. Is one better than the other? Yes and no. Like most things in fitness, it comes down to the individual athlete and their goals. Regardless of which strategy athletes choose, though, we still incorporate circuit training.

Periodization is often the best option for professionals in the WSL because their events are set far in advance. They know when and where they’ll be surfing and have a general idea of what to expect based on the types of waves commonly seen at each location.

Knowing these details ahead of time allows us to dial in our training. For example, a number of our surfers competed in this year’s U.S. Open. We knew that conditions weren’t going to be perfect based on swell forecasting and previous experiences at the site. The waves were going to be smaller, weaker, and inconsistent, meaning athletes would need to create their own speed and may only get one to three turns on a wave.

Therefore, our training for the Open focused on fast-twitch conditioning and stability work. Overall, our athletes had good showings and were happy with the training we provided.

For pro-am or youth surfers, the dates and locations they choose to compete in vary, so they need to be ready for anything on the water from week to week. The constant need to rise to the challenge and adjust to what’s put in front of them makes muscle confusion a better programming option. The goal of muscle confusion is to change athletes’ workouts daily so their bodies learn how to adapt, and we make alterations in area of focus, exercise selection, loads, reps, and sets.

In addition, compared to the top athletes of the sport, pro-am and youth surfers often need a wider range of training. Using muscle confusion keeps their workouts new while focusing on a variety of muscular and neuromuscular systems. It’s fun for the athletes and produces great results.

What does it take to become a championship-caliber surfer today? A lot of hard work, both in and out of the water. We are always happy when one of our athletes tells us that they’ve improved while training at Extreme Athletics. Ultimately, this feedback is why we love what we do and feel lucky to help surfers enjoy a sport that we’re passionate about.


Surf-specific agility is not like training agility and quickness for land-based sports because exercises have to be directly applicable to what athletes do in the water. Here is a sample circuit we use to train agility in surfers:

Down the Line Drill

1. To start, set a small hurdle two to three feet away from a solid wall. Two feet in front of that, place a Bosu ball (dome side down), then another hurdle, another Bosu ball, and one final hurdle. The setup should run parallel to the wall.

2. The surfer grabs a medicine ball and lays down perpendicular to the setup (facing the wall) with their hands on the medicine ball.

3. The surfer pops-up holding the ball. (Pop-ups are how surfers go from laying on their boards to up and riding. It’s a similar motion to a burpee, with a 90-degree rotation.) They are now facing the setup.

4. The surfer jumps over the hurdle, landing in an athletic stance. Then, they rotate and throw the ball as hard as they can against the wall.

5. The surfer catches the ball, jumps onto the Bosu, and throws the ball again. Have them repeat this pattern until they get to the end of the line.

6. At the end, the surfer lays down in their starting position (facing the wall). Then, they pop-up again facing the setup. If done correctly, they should pop-up in the alternate stance and throw from the opposite side.

7. Repeat the drill two to three times.

Jonathan Brown, PES, CPT, is the Owner of Extreme Athletics, a personal training and fitness facility in Costa Mesa, Calif., that specializes in surf-specific land-based training. Using his education and experience, Brown looks to bring training for alternative sports into the mainstream. He can be reached at: [email protected]. To learn more about Extreme Athletics, visit:

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