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Strength Training That Actually Works for Surfing

By Mike Mahler

As you are enjoying the warm water and the beautiful scenery, it starts heading your way. You get excited as you see the wave coming and start paddling in the opposite direction as fast as possible. You have the technique and you have been here a thousand times. However, as you attempt to explode on your board to ride the wave, something really lame happens. You do not do it fast enough and the wave like your life passes you by. You reconcile yourself by saying that you are just here to enjoy the weather and it does not matter if you catch a wave or not. Ya right, surfing and missing waves is about as fun as riding a moped. Both are fun until your friends find out. The lesson that you should be learning is that technique is not always enough. You need strength and conditioning as well. Yes, surfing is a great workout. However, do not have the illusion that you can rely on it as your workout. In addition to making you a better surfer, a solid strength and conditioning program will allow you to recover much faster from your battles with the waves. You will be less prone to injury and will have more stamina to stay in the water longer and actually have fun rather than pretending you are having fun as you miss waves all day long and then go home beat up. Lets get started.

I know what you are thinking don’t people lift weights to get big muscles like Bodybuilders? What is a bodybuilding routine going to do for me? First, strength training is not bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is a form of training that focuses on making the muscles bigger. Strength and conditioning are not taken into the equation. Obviously you want to train like an athlete rather than a Venice beach bodybuilder. A recipe of curls and bench presses is not going to carry over to surfing. You already know this and that is why you avoid gyms like “The Thunder From Down Under” show in Las Vegas. What do you need to be a better surfer? One, you need explosive leg strength. You need to be able to go from lying down to jumping to your feet on a moving board in the blink of an eye. Two, you need core (back and abs) strength for stability while you are on the board. Three, you need muscular endurance for stamina to get you through a hard day of surfing. By focusing on these three components you can personalize strength training to your goals and reap the rewards. Lets get into each component further.

Just about every athlete needs explosive strength. This is the ability to fire muscle fibers quickly. This allows you to get into motion fast and generate some serious power. The most dramatic example of explosive strength training is Olympic Weight Lifting. Olympic weight lifters are incredibly strong and flexible. They have to move tremendous weights from the floor to the shoulders and then overhead. In addition to maximizing the amount of weight they can handle, they have to learn how to get under the weights as rapidly as possible. In addition to being strong and fast, they have to be flexible. The strength and power that Olympic lifters have is a perfect fit for surfing. The only problem with Olympic lifting is that it takes a great deal of time to learn. You require an OL coach to get you up to speed as it is not something that you want to attempt to learn on your own or from an article or DVD. Fortunately, there is an alternative that is much more seamless. You can do similar lifts for explosive strength with dumbbells or kettlebells. Kettlebells are rustic looking weights that looking like cannon balls with suitcase handles on them. Doing explosive exercises with kettlebells such as snatches, swings, cleans, and push presses will develop a great deal of rapid hip power and explosive hamstrings to get you on that board before the wave hits in a blink of an eye. I think that kettlebells are superior to dumbbells for explosive strength development, but if you only have access to dumbbells, use those. Either way you will derive tremendous benefits. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to have you focus on three exercises for explosive strength: Knee Jumps, the swing, and the clean and push press.

(Click here for visuals on these exercises)

Knee Jump

This is a powerful bodyweight exercise that you can do to develop explosive hamstrings. Kneel on the floor and sit back on your calves. Breathe in and jump to your feet. You have to do this exercise without thinking about it. The more you think about it the more you will believe that it is not possible. Just explode and move fast. This exercise is either done or not done, there is not in between. To generate some momentum sing your arms back and then forward rapidly as you jump to your feet. Get back to the kneeling position gently and repeat. Breathe out forcefully as you jump forward. Do three sets of five with one-minute breaks.


Place a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your feet. Bend your knees slightly and push your butt back as if you are trying to sit in a chair behind you. Keep your eyes forward at all times. Grab the dumbbell with one hand and swing it quickly between your legs as if you are trying to pass a football to someone behind you. Reverse the direction quickly and swing the dumbbell to chest level with a straight arm. As you do so drive through forcefully with your hamstrings and hips and make sure that you lock out your legs as you project the weight in front of you. As your glutes lock out, tilt your pelvis up. This will protect your lower back and keep the emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings. Breathe in as your swing the bells between your legs and out as you swing it in front of you. Do three to five sets of five reps with each arm three times per week. Take one-minute breaks in between each set. Focus on moving the weight as quickly as possible and driving through explosively.

Clean and Push Press

This is a full body exercise that works just about every muscle in the body. In addition to developing explosive strength and core strength, you will develop full body synergy and you will love the carry over to surfing. Place a dumbbell or kettlebell between your feet. Get in the same position that you were in for swings. Grab the bell and take it your shoulder in one swift movement. This is not a curl, do no attempt to muscle up the weight. Use your legs to drive the weight to your shoulder. All of the power comes from the lower body and the arm is just going along for the ride. Once you have the dumbbell at shoulder level, squat down a few inches and then quickly revere the motion. While doing so drive the dumbbell overhead. Lower the dumbbell back to your shoulder and then take it back to the starting position. Breathe in as you clean the bell to your shoulder. Then breathe out as you take the bell overhead. Do three to five sets of five three times a week with one-minute breaks between each set. Again, focus on moving the weights as fast as possible with proper form.

The next component that is critical for surfing is having a strong midsection and lower back. The trendy term for this area is the “core.” While you do develop some core strength with swings and clean and push presses, you will do yourself a favor by working on a few more exercises that will develop a powerful core. Again to keep things simple, I am going to have you do the Turkish Get-up for the core. This exercise can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells.

The Turkish Get-up

This is an excellent exercise that builds shoulder stability from several angles and will turn your mid section into a wall of steel. In addition, you will learn how to go from a lying position to a standing position against resistance. Lie on your back on the floor and press one dumbbell to the lockout position. Lets use your right arm to illustrate. Keep your eyes on the locked out dumbbell at all times and make sure that the bell remains locked out through out the duration of the drill. Bring your right leg in and use it to pivot to the left. Roll onto your left triceps and use your left tricep and right leg to push forward, as your push forward, push your left hand into the floor and drive into the bottom position of a lunge. Stand up to complete the repetition. Now reverse the motion to go back to the starting position. Do two sets three with each arm. Once you have the motion down, speed up the movement.

The Final Component for enhancing your surfing game is muscular endurance. Without stamina, you will not enjoy surfing anywhere near as much as you could. After a few waves, you will be spent and the closest that you will get to riding waves will be sleeping in a waterbed. To develop muscular endurance I am going to have you do some high rep swings and deck squats.

You already know how to do the swings as that was addressed for explosive strength. However, for muscular endurance you will be making the swing less explosive and more fluid so that you can do 15-20 repetitions per set. You still want to drive through with power and follow all of the technique tips. However, with higher repetitions, the focus will be more on momentum management rather than power generation. Get the bell in motion and then get into a nice rhythm to keep the set going. Your hamstrings will be friend with this full body cardio enhancer.

The Deck Squat

This is a fun bodyweight exercise that I picked up from top strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline, author of “Power To The People.” Squat all the way down and then roll onto your back. Let your feet touch the floor behind your head and then quickly reverse the direction. Slam your feet into the floor and get back to the bottom position of a squat. Stand up and then repeat. Try doing two to three sets of 25-30 to develop tremendous muscular endurance. To make the exercise even more effective add a pushup to the squat. After you do a repetition squat back down and get into the pushup position. Knock off a pushup, bring your legs back in, roll on your back and then get back into the squat position. This exercise is a full body smoker that I like to call the “Body Blaster.”

Here is a program that you can execute to reap the rewards of strength training for Surfing


  • Knee Jump 3×5
  • One-arm Clean and Push Press 3×5 l,r (left and right)
  • Turkish Get-up 3×5 l,r
  • One-arm Swing 3×5 l,r (focus on explosive power)
  • Deck Squat 2×25
  • One-arm Swing 2×15 l,r (Focus on muscular endurance)

Try the above program for a month and let me know how it works for you. Chances are you will be catching more waves in the real world rather than in your imagination. Also you will have more stamina to lose the “one-minute man” title that has been following you around.


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