In this ridewithlocal how-to guide we will discuss five surf training exercises that will help you develop the paddling power you need for surfing success. Want to know how to catch more waves? Ride with Local’s expert local surf guides around the world can help. So can surf strength coach Cris Mills and his dry land training recommendations for surfers. Read on.

Surf Training Exercises for Paddling Power to Catch More Waves

You see the swell line rolling in from a few hundred meters out. It starts peaking right on that perfect bank, with a wall lining up ready to get smacked. You whip your board around, dig those hands in for a couple of solid paddle strokes, waiting for that feel of momentum. Instead you feel the wave sliding from underneath you. In a desperate attempt you start the dreaded two arm paddle. It’s too late, it’s gone, and you watch as the wave of the day slides down that perfect bank. Bummer.

You need more power in those arms of yours. You want more paddling power to catch more waves. If you get that sorted you can stop doing that flailing two arm paddle stroke that isn’t beneficial or efficient. More power potential in your paddle stroke means more ability to catch some solid waves. By doing some focused surf training exercises, you can easily develop a stronger, faster, and more powerful paddle stroke. And you can do it all while you are on dry land, frothing for your surf trip. Here’s how.

Check Your Shoulder Health

A healthy shoulder is an important pre-requisite for paddling power. Would you want to put a hot rod motor on a broke down chassis? Of course not, it would tear the thing apart. The same goes for your shoulder joint. If you throw power and torque into a joint that doesn’t move well, has pain, or is out of alignment, things will get worse, probably painful, and potentially expensive with some trips to a surgeon.

First step is make sure your shoulder doesn’t hurt. If it does you’ve got no business reading this and need to go see a physical therapist. Simple. It isn’t free, but it is money well spent. Pain free? Good, you can start with postural endurance around the shoulder girdle.

“T” Cobra Position For Shoulder Mobility

You want to be able to lift your torso off the board to get your shoulders high above the water so you don’t have to stress your shoulder to reach forward in your paddle stroke recovery phase. You also want flexibility in the shoulder in this position.

The cobra position is one of the best surf training exercises to get you started. (If you don’t know the cobra position, it is a classic yoga pose. Lying on your stomach, use your back muscles to lift your torso up as high as you can, pressing your pelvis down and pulling your spine into a backwards arch and reaching your head up to the sky.

Your goal is to be able to hold this position for 3 minutes non-stop. If you can’t get there, break it into chunks. Once you can do the 3 minute goal with hands by your side, take those arms further away from the body. Try to get your arms into a T-position, reaching away from your body, with thumbs rotated towards the sky, and hold for 1 minute. When you can bang out 3 to 4 sets of that, you’ve got some solid work capacity around that shoulder girdle. It’s a necessary base for paddling power to catch more waves.

Suspension Strap Triceps Extension Surf Training Exercises

Your triceps muscle, on the back of your upper arm, extends the arm allowing you to reach forward. It is a key driver to your paddle stroke. If you can throw on a bit of speed endurance to that muscle, it will make each paddle stroke far more efficient.

Coach Cris demonstrates surf training exercises - triceps extension with suspension straps
Suspension Strap Triceps Extension

You could go for a normal triceps pushdown, the common exercise you’ll see someone doing in just about any gym, and you will benefit. However, if you have access to some type of suspension trainer, this choice of surf training exercises becomes far more dynamic. Using the suspension strap requires a lot of core control, which is another factor in paddling power. (TRX is a popular maker of suspension straps, but you can just hang a webbing strap or even a piece of rope off anything you can find that will support your weight and put a loop in the end of the rope to put your hands in.)

Think back to that hot rod motor and a beat up chassis again. If you have no core control, but a powerful paddle stroke, there will be energy leaks. That leak means less power.

Adjust the rope so you can lean forward at about 70 degrees with your arms bent over head and your hand hands in the loop and then extend your arms lifting your body weight. Here is what it looks like:

The key to this drill is maintaining core tension, and consistent speed. You’re not moving as fast as possible, but it’s still moving at a decent pace. All while keeping that core tight. Use a 1-1-1 tempo for the tricep pushdown, meaning a 1 second push, 1 second pause, 1 second return phase. If you feel your speed slow down, adjust your body to a higher angle so there is less resistance, and you can continue with your optimal speed. Do 3 sets of 15-20 reps with a 45-60 second rest period between rounds. Keep that core tight!

Swim Training for Surfing – Speed Burst Drills

Hop into the pool and swim as fast as you can. Workout done.

This surf training excercise is nearly that simple. Power and speed output is what your goal is, not swimming at a slow pace for 30 minutes. Freestyle is the stroke you’ll be implementing with this drill, but feel free to warm-up with whatever stroke will float your boat.

Speed Burst Swim Drills Surf Training Exercises
Speed Burst Swim Drills

At this point you’re warmed up, the shoulders are feeling good, the heart rate has increased, the lungs are working, so it’s time to do some burst sprints. 25-50meter bursts. Throw in an occasional 100 meter. The basics are this: swim that distance as fast as you can. That’s why this warm-up is so important. You’re swimming at nearly 100% effort, so you better have some healthy shoulders, and have gotten that body moving properly before your first burst.

Do 6-10 sets of burst sprints with a 1 -3 minute rest period. As your workout progresses, or if you’re doing some 100meter bursts, you’ll want to shift closer to a 3 minute rest. That’s important from the aspect of recovery. You want to go into your next burst fully recovered, so the muscles are ready to go at nearly 100%.

This is not endurance work, this is speed and power work. 1-2 workouts per week is sufficient, and it’s highly recommended you do some upper body stretching and mobility work on your non-training days. Joint health, longevity, and durability are some key words, so take note.

As mentioned, you better have some healthy shoulders for this. Do not throw burst intervals on top of cranky shoulders.

These type of swimming drills are a key player in improving your paddle power to catch more waves.

Two Types of Speed Pulls for Surf Training

Dig that arm through the water, and move it with some speed and power. When you are charging a wave, you will take 6-10 strokes, absolutely massive digs, throw your feet underneath you, free fall for a second, get that rail to grab, and let the lip throw over you. Woooooosh. It’s damn good feeling. Imagine that while you are working out.

Heavy, fast, and powerful pulls are what’s needed to build this type of strength output. The suspension strap triceps exercise hit the back of your arm for extension. Now we will hit the bicep muscle on the front of your arm for contraction. You’ve got two options, both are beneficial, but require different equipment. One – Suspension Strap Speed Pulls and Two – Dumbbell Bent Over Row Speed Pulls

Different pieces of equipment with a similar outcome; more paddling power to catch more waves.

With both of these exercises you should use a weight or body resistance at an angle that requires effort to move, but you can still move it quickly.

In both versions of the speed pull, the key is to use your latissimus dorsi muscles. This is the big paddling muscles that’s in your armpit and connects down into the low back. A key to getting this muscle engaged is to think about having a tight armpit and as if you’re pulling your elbow down towards your hip a bit as well. Basically don’t hike your shoulder up towards your ear when you pull. This basically ruins the movement, sets you up for neck and shoulder problems, turns off the lat (key pulling muscle for paddling), and just makes you a gym kook. Tight lat, tight armpit, and strong pulling all equates to more powerful paddling.

Suspension Strap Speed Pull

With the suspension strap, place your body at the correct angle where it still takes some effort to pull, but you can still explode yourself up and between the straps. You will be leaning back facing the sky, pulling yourself upright with the straps. Then you’ll slowly come back to the starting position, set the shoulders, and boom, pull again.

Strap Speed Pull Position One Surf Training Exercises
Strap Speed Pull Position One
Strap Speed Pull Position Two Surf Training Exercises
Strap Speed Pull Position Two Surf Training Exercises

Bent Dumbell Row Speed Pull Surf Training Excercises

For the Bent Row Speed Pulls you’ll first need to be absolutely aware of keeping a flat back position throughout the movement. If you miss this step, your low back will not be happy camper, and that’s bad news for your surfing. Start with both feet on the ground, one hand firmly planted on a bench, chair, or platform, and the other arm doing the work. Get the core tight, align the spine, set the shoulder, and boom, pull it fast and hard.

Aim for 4-5 sets of 6-8 pulls with a 1-2minute rest period between sets. Take a few seconds between each rep to make sure form is spot on, the shoulders are set, and you’re ready to pull with speed.

Conclusion – Surf Training Exercises for Paddling Power Get Results

More power in the upper body, stronger pulling, and the ability to scrape into a couple more waves is certainly a good thing. With focused training on a few key exercises for surfing, you’ll be able to boost your pulling power easily, which equals paddling power, and that will lead to catching more waves! The skill, wave reading, and timing, that is up to you (and your expert surf technique coaches that you can find on but with these surf training exercises your body will be up to speed.

Cris Mills – The SurfStrengthCoach