Why “Surf Training” is Total Pain

Currently there is a big trend in fitness, especially in Southern California, to market performance training as surf-specific training. Undoubtedly, coaches and trainers are marketing themselves as “surf trainers” because there is a huge value in the niche market of surfers that have been adopting the not-so-new idea of training for performance. Surf contest is totally pain if you are not enjoying at all.

Trainers marketing their services to one particular niche is not the problem I have–I think it’s actually pretty smart. The problem I have with the big boom of action sports training is all the misused applications of strength training. Surfing is a passion of mine, and I am very fortunate to be able to work with a talented group of surfers as a strength and conditioning coach; however, if you Google “surf training” you’ll probably find an image like this:

If you are a parent or surfer researching surf training programs and you see a picture like this advertised, you should be aware of this giant red flag.

The popularity of unstable surface training started roughly around 1999 or 2000 and was, and to a degree is still, considered the be-all and end-all of functional training. At first, research on the subject was scarce, and this idea of strength training on unstable surfaces skyrocketed with the belief that all these magical local stabilizer muscles were working overtime to keep the body safe and burning more calories.

The allure of using unstable training for surfing is that it is “sport specific.” But the idea of sports specificity using unstable surfaces for surfing couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ll use an example one of my mentors gave me quite some time ago: “Ice hockey players need to have a very strong and powerful lower body,” he said, “and their training absolutely must have a high transferability rate to their sport. There are many ways to achieve strength and power, but I’ll tell you one way hockey players don’t achieve it–by doing back squats in ice skates.”

The ridiculousness of the hockey example makes it easier to visualize the problem of unstable training on boards and balls to better one’s surfing. When I see “surf trainers” using these unstable modalities, I see a gimmick used to lure young surfers and their parents in their doors because it looks like surfing. Unsuspecting surfers and parents of surfers are willing to shell out cash for this “training,” but the research has now shown that unstable surface training has little to no transfer to the water. In fact, training on unstable surfaces may actually have a correlation between overuse injuries through faulty movement patterns.

Much like any sport, surfing is a highly specific skill that requires a lot of practice. The best way to work on skill acquisition is to do the actual sport activity more–in other words, just go surfing more. My job as a strength and conditioning coach is to prepare my surfers the best I can for the physical demands of the sport. If I only have my surfers in the gym two or three hours a week, I’d prefer to spend the time preparing them for the sport rather than wasting time trying to mimic surfing on dry land. My surfers will get better surfing in the water, become stronger, and develop more power and endurance in the gym. Injury prevention is also an emphasis in our training. The last time I checked, having a child jump onto a box with a teetering, unstable surface on top of it is not the picture of safe training. You’d think the risks involved coupled with the low rate of transfer of these exercises would make skipping them a no- brainer, but you’d be surprised how common these practices are.

A good coach or trainer will understand the physical demands of surfing and do everything in his or her power to prepare the athlete to effectively execute when in the water. Surfers need to be able to develop and absorb force in all planes of motion. Doing squats on an unstable surface with light weight not only doesn’t get them strong, but also makes them slower, weaker, and reinforces bad mechanics that can lead to injury. If unstable training is the bulk of your child’s program, you are not only receiving a large disservice, but you’re also at risk of reckless and irresponsible training.

The key to long-term athletic development in surfers is teaching them proper, flawless, basic, primal movement patterns and progress them steadily, but safely. Our surfers are not jumping until they can squat flawlessly. Our surfers do not bench press or use dumbbells until they can demonstrate a perfect push up. Our surfers are not doing advanced core training until they can do a perfect plank. This should go without saying, but it’s hard for me to believe when I see so many dangerous, advanced progressions being taught when these basic patterns are not mastered first.

I realize I may come off as the high-and-mighty, know-it-all trainer bashing everyone that uses a Bosu Ball or an Indoboard. I will be the first to admit that I, too, have used these implements in my training, but once I saw the research, I quickly adapted and found that focusing on the meat and potatoes of strength training got my surfers better results. It just makes more sense. I still occasionally use unstable training in warm ups to fire up my surfers’ central nervous systems, or I might use them briefly with young surfers to get them engaged or as part of a game to keep training fun, but the main goal is preparing them as the athletes they are. We get our surfers strong, powerful, and prepare their body’s energy systems to endure longer sessions or to manage the demands of greater physical output in a competitive situation.

I wrote this article to help educate surfers and parents of young surfers of the detrimental effects of poorly planned and executed “surf training” programs. The takeaway for surfers and parents is that if you want your surfers weak, slow, and less powerful, use unstable training. A poorly designed and unbalanced strength training program may even cause injury and the fact is that those programs and trainers are becoming far too common. If you’re looking to increase your surfer’s performance, consult a qualified strength and conditioning coach that understands human anatomy, physics, and the demands of the sport. Think smart, train smart, move better, and ultimately, perform better.