The waves are pumping, you’ve been watching surf edits for inspiration, and you have your new favorite board. It’s time to wax up and run to the beach. You are frothing so hard you couldn’t be bothered with a proper warm-up, so you rush a few stretches and just head straight for the water. Your body feels a fair bit stiff through your neck, shoulders and lower back as you paddle out but you assume that will all ease up as your session goes on.
Now you’re visualizing how those surfers looked in the videos you just watched. You imagine a smooth, effortless spring to your feet when the first wave comes through, but in reality you feel closer to an elephant barely getting his feet clear of the board. Whatever. You’re up and that’s all that matters. You do a few turns, just not with quite as much finesse as those pro surfers and with less extension, rotation, power and drive.
The waves are still perfect and just over an hour in your neck, shoulders, lower back and knees are shot. You decide to call it a day and head back in. A handful of younger, more fit and more agile surfers who paddled out before you are still surfing, showing no signs of fatigue or body limitations. You’re a bit frustrated with your stiff body but are stoked nonetheless that the waves were so good.
Years go by, your body feels more and more stiff. Your ability to freely move and surf as your mind imagines declines. Chronic muscle tightness leads to joint mobility issues, joint pain and sets the stage for potential joint injuries.
The dude in the story above grew up surfing most days of his youthful years, never saw the purpose of stretching and barely touched strength and conditioning coaching specific to surf related imbalances. Today he is only at the ripe age of 35, works at a desk all day and tries to go surfing at least 4-5 times per week. How will he avoid this fatigue and stiffness that starts to creep into his surfing over the years?
Surfing is physically demanding, repetitious (the majority of your time is spent paddling), imbalanced (you always have the same foot forward with the job of rotating your whole body) and often hazardous with so many elements to dodge – people, boards, rocks, dumping waves, sand bars and reef. Surfers need to maintain optimal joint mobility, muscle flexibility, soft tissue health, mental acuity and muscle strength. Techniques I have taught to professional and amateur surfers are drawn upon years of experience in physical therapy, exercise physiology, sports massage, calisthenics and strength and conditioning.
The most common surf related musculoskeletal issues we see are in the neck, shoulders, lower back and knee areas.
You spend more time paddling then you do actually surfing and once you’re standing up, surfing is mostly knee and back movement. Therefore, theoretically speaking your shoulders go first followed by your knees and back. After a while, you will find yourself with worn out muscles, ligaments, and cartilage. Then we almost forget about the neck that keeps your head up when paddling. So the neck will be another problem area.
Shoulder injuries are bar none the most common surf-related chronic injuries for surfers. To improve your shoulder movement and function you need to improve your posture and upper (thoracic spine) mobility first. If you sit at a desk all day, you are bound to have crappy posture. Poor posture equals poor joint alignment which equals poor, inefficient range of motion which equals poor, inefficient force production, tissue stress, muscle strain and joint grinding.
These are three of the most effective techniques to get you moving better:
Upper Back Towel Lie
The purpose of this technique is to improve your posture, open up the shoulders and restore some length to a rounded up, upper spine. This will help give you more upper back extension with your arms overhead, and therefore less strain in your neck and shoulders when paddling.
How it’s done: Fold a bath towel in half lengthwise and then roll up tight. Place the towel from the base of your neck down to your mid back. Your head should rest on the ground. Lift your arms up like two stop signs to stretch out your pecs and shoulders. Make floor angels. Rotate your spine gently. Place your hands behind your head. Lie for 2-5 min. It’s a good way to end the day before you go to bed.
Pecs on Ball
The pecs attach to the shoulder blades and sternum so when they get short, they will pull your shoulders forward. Forward shoulders screw up the shoulder blades, upper spine and rib mechanics, as well as all the associated muscles. When the pec minor gets horrifically stiff, it locks your shoulder into a forward position which is unstable for lifting, pushing, carrying and paddling.
How it’s done:
Using a cricket ball, lacrosse ball or tennis ball. Place the ball in the upper corner of your chest, bring your arm out to 90 degrees and then bend at the elbow so that you have made an upside down stop sign with your arm (internally rotated). Bring your knees to the opposite side to gain stronger chest pressure on the ball. Hold for 5 deep breaths before moving to another area of the pecs closeby.
For multi-angle, multi-directional shoulder stretching with strengthening. The weight plate helps stretch your arm into a deeper range of movement as well as providing a small resistance to conservatively challenge each new shoulder position with light strengthening. This restores blood flow and mobility to tired, sore surf shoulders.
How it’s done: Lying on your side at the edge of a bench/table with your knees bent up to 90 degrees. Rest your head on the bench and drape your top arm over the side of the bench, allowing gravity to gently traction your shoulder joint and arm. Move your top arm up and over your head, holding your shoulder down, and then move your arm out to the side as you rotate your torso. Continue the circle to end straight out to the side, then reverse directions to finish where you started. Keep this Zen style – use one slow, full inhalation to bring your arm out to the side, and then exhale to return to the start position. Complete 5 slow reps per side. If you find this too strong, the Shoulder Clock can also be completed on the floor which will be less of a stretch through the shoulders.
Practice these daily for a week and see what happens. Comment below if you feel obliged. Don’t be the dude whose surfing is limited by a stiff body. Get moving better.
Editor’s Note: For more from the author, go here.