Editor’s Note: The state of surf training is in a very contested place. This is one side of the argument that favors training on a stable surface over surf-specific training. We hope that The Inertia Health can be a platform for discussion, and we hope that this discussion ultimately leads to progress. 


Photo: Tommy O’Brien demonstrates a proper use of rail and power. Photo: Patrick Eichstaedt.

With the amount of money on the line from contracts and endorsements, professional surfers must take their training more seriously than ever, with many focusing on land based training programs to gain any advantage possible. If you’ve been on social media lately, it appears as though there are two ways of thinking when it comes to training for surfers. One, train them like the athletes they are, or secondly, utilize “surf-specific” movements and unstable surfaces to mimic their environment

So, what way is the right way, or at the very least, most effective?

First, the athlete needs to have clear and concise goals they are trying to achieve. From here we can figure out what type of program and protocol to implement. Unstable surface training, like BOSU balls, is typically associated with athletes recovering from injury. However recently, it seems the public perception is that if a training program doesn’t use these tools, it isn’t a surf program.

Here is where we need to focus on: proven strength and conditioning protocols that train athletes as, well…athletes. Sport-specific focus (surf-specific training, soccer-specific training, baseball-specific training, etc.) is clouding the judgment and common sense of professionals and the public across the board. Let’s use the old but effective analogy of a hockey player performing squats on ice in ice skates. This sounds ridiculous because it is. So why are we still seeing surfers jumping on BOSU balls when they can’t even perform a squat or lunge properly on a stable surface?! Why does this not seen as equally ridiculous?

OK, let’s actually get some science in here to back this up.

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Thelen Worrel throwing more spray than his tiny frame would suggest is possible. Maybe he’s been strength training. Photo: Paul Greene

The brilliant minds at the Hurley Surfing Australia High Performance Centre have done some great research and studies specifically with elite surfers. One study was designed to determine the association of scoring potential with regards to a surfer’s lower body power and strength. It is apparent that large amounts of water displacement (spraying buckets), not only looks cool, it also influences judges towards giving higher scores. The only way to increase the amount of water you can displace is to strengthen the lower extremities and increase hip strength and power. These are improved to a much greater extent when traditional strength training and conditioning principles are followed; this means that unstable surface training is less effective.

Researchers from the same facility performed a study to specifically look at the effects of stable surface versus unstable surface training and the outcomes of strength and power assessments. Unstable surface training resulted in a decrease of 6.5% in lower body power, whereas stable surface training produced an increase in lower body power by 5.7%.

Performing resistance exercises and balance training on unstable surfaces seems logical for strength coaches, since surfing is performed in a dynamic environment. However, as a surfer generates and increases speed across the wave face, the level of instability decreases; this follows a basic physics principle that states as velocity increases, so does the stability between the board and the wave face. While balance is an important attribute, it should not receive the major focus from strength coaches at the expense of developing lower body strength and power.

Another key point to take home from this study is that it is important to consider that maintaining basic postural control (e.g., standing on unstable devices) while under a high proprioceptive demand is likely to only develop proprioceptive abilities in that specific context. It is unknown whether this translates to increased performance in able-bodied (uninjured) surfers or to such a specific and variable task as surfing.

It is also unclear if this type of unstable surface training will provide any adaptations when applied to the elite surfers, as they most likely already possess these skills due to their elite level and highly developed sensorimotor qualities. In this regard, elite athletes would likely benefit more from sensorimotor skills such as visual and vestibular challenges as opposed to strictly proprioceptive-based methods. When the goal is to increase strength and power in surfers, stable surface training should be the go-to method for coaches.

Another study performed in 2013, from researchers based out of Germany, found that lower limb activities performed on unstable surfaces result in decreased force production and a reduction in lower limb muscle activity. This study is unique in that it is the first of its kind to measure jumping and landing (plyometric) movements on unstable surfaces, a fact that is relevant for surf coaches.

The main findings of this study conclude that unstable surfaces produced significantly lower drop jump performance, significantly less neuromuscular activity of leg musculature during drop jumps and landings and trunk muscle activity was unaffected by surface type. The conclusion of this study is the plyometric exercises should be performed on stable surfaces rather than unstable surfaces if enhanced jump performance is the fundamental goal.

These are just a few of the examples of sound research that dispute the efficacy of unstable surface training when the goal is increased lower body strength and power. With that in mind, the use of unstable surfaces should not be the representative factor of a “surf-specific” program, in fact quite the opposite. The public and “surf coaches” need to continue to educate themselves, and look to the research, to increase the chances of attaining what is best for the surfer. Simply because a sport is performed on a dynamic surface does not automatically mean that the subsequent training protocols should be performed on an unstable surface.

The original article and complete list of sources can be found here at Nakoa Life.


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