We’ve all had the feeling at one point. That feeling when all you can see is whitewater and oncoming sets, and your arms feel like they can’t move. You’re trying to paddle, but you don’t seem to be moving forward, and that damn burn in your arms and shoulders just won’t subside.
Of course, the most efficient method to improve your surf paddling endurance is to be in the water, and paddle, and then paddle some more. But, for most of us, that’s not always possible. What we can do is try to mimic the biomechanics and energy pathways that paddling requires. I would also recommend just going for a paddle, even if it’s flat, and get in some on-the-water paddling time.
Here’s a good surf paddling workout for the next time you’re in the gym:
That video gives you a circuit of exercises that, when performed correctly, will drastically improve your capacity in the water. I do want to stress, however, the importance of having the necessary flexibility in your upper body to accommodate strength and power. If you’re tight, bound up, and have restricted joint movement, adding strength and power movements to limited range of motion is a good way to tear joints apart. Don’t do that. Get flexible.
Paddling is a combination of what we term “open-chain” and “closed-chain” movements – pulling movements to be more specific. Open-chain means you’re pulling an object towards the body, like a one-arm cable pull. Closed-chain means you’re pulling the body towards a fixed object, like a chin-up. Paddling is a combination of those movements, which is why both types are used in the workout circuit from the video. Using a combination of closed-chain and open-chain movements in a workout has more of a carryover to paddling.
Power, Strength, and Endurance
Surfing requires all three – and flexibility, and back endurance, and core control – but alas, this is about paddling. Those three bio-motor profiles are trained differently, and require different reps and intensities. Power would be high-speed movement, moved rapidly, as fast as possible over a short period of time: bodyweight pull-ups as fast as possible, high speed, one arm cable rows, or med-ball slams. Strength is high intensity, lower reps (less than 6-8), and producing high amounts of force at slower speeds. For some, a bodyweight chin-up may be a strength emphasis. Heavier, lower repetition one-arm bent dumbell rows are an option, as are barbell bent rows. I would recommend you have some solid training background behind you before attempting lower rep loads. And lastly, endurance: higher repetition for longer periods of time.
In the video, I use alternating straight arm lat-pulls, and follow it up with jumprope to further tax my anaerobic capacity (shorter duration higher intensity). If you want to focus more on aerobic capacity, you could jumprope slower for longer periods, or use a row machine.
The options for surf paddling endurance workouts are really quite expansive. What is most relevant is that the movements, exercises, duration, and speed of movement hit on the required physical skill sets that surfing requires or that you’re lacking in. Be smart with your training so you can reap the rewards in the water.
For more training ideas and full programs, take a look at my Full Surf Training Program: Surf Training Success.