Surfer/Fitness & Health Coach
Not quite fast enough.

Not quite fast enough. Photo: Dylan Robinson

The Inertia

If you can get to your feet quickly, and with no real faults, you’ve probably never actually considered what it takes to get to your feet or how to improve your pop up. But if you fumble, bumble, and clumsily get to your feet, one foot at a time, you’ve likely given it some thought, and been frustrated and pissed off in the process. This is the process; no internet surf fitness fluff in here.  This is how to improve your pop up.

Pushing strength and power, core integration, a bend pattern (hip pull), flexibility, and skill improvement–those are the foundations to improving your pop up in order of importance.  You’ll notice the skill is last. Where do most people start trying to improve their pop up? They start by performing the skill repeatedly, without first making sure the foundations are adequate.  This is what a lot of “functional” training attempts to do, unfortunately.  It neglects the difference between skills and foundations. Improve the SKILL by working on the the foundations (flexibility, pushing strength and power, core integration, bend pattern (hip pull).

The movement of a pop up is a skill, a movement pattern your body/brain connection has wired in, just like how you can slide the key into the ignition in your car without really having to focus on the movement. It’s hardwired.  The quickest way to change a hardwired movement is to make sure the foundational patterns of that movement are adequate or improved, and then you begin to work on the skill (actual pop up drills, or preferably, surfing).

If you’re having difficulty with your pop up, don’t start practicing pop-ups onto a foam roller or unstable surface just yet. As with any legitimate athletic or performance training, you find what’s limiting you, improve that foundation, and then let that carryover to skill improvement. Only when ALL the foundations and basic strength or flexibility requirements are met, can you start challenging the actual skill. That’s where some of the “functional” surf fitness exercises come into play, but most people just need to improve the foundations. And if you’ve got the foundations nailed, as a surfer and athlete, you’d be better off spending your training time improving some other skill or movement aspect, or surfing… not working on some overly technical and circusy  pop-up movement.


If you’re an older person or a desk jockey, check your flexibility
For most of the older crew, or those spend a lot of time sitting, it’s generally a lack of flexibility that brings out issues.  A simple test is the deep squat position. What that movement is showing is if you have adequate lower body joint mobility. If you don’t, it’s quite unlikely you have the joint mobility to get into a pop up position cleanly and quickly. There are orthopedic conditions, past surgeries, or injuries that make a deep squat position difficult or even problematic. Work with a qualified practitioner to find your limitations and capabilities.  The video below goes over deep squat positions, various stretches, and drills, to help improve pop up requirements.

What if you’ve got the flexibility, but lack the strength?
If flexibility isn’t the issue, then start looking to upper body pushing strength, the bend pattern (when you pull your hips and knees under your body, it’s a bend pattern), and also core integration. If needed, all this work can be done along with flexibility work.  For the ladies, the upper body pushing strength is generally the issue.  Everyone should be able to do perfect, clean, core controlled pushups.


Pop Up Exercises: Core strength foundations

Increase the basic movement and control of the pushup with a properly integrated core and alignment. That pushup can then be progressed for endurance, strength, unstable surfaces, power, speed, or whatever your body and pop up needs, but the foundation is that good ol’ perfect pushup.

The core and hip flexion work needs to be done with quality movement. Again, that word is quality. The majority of these pop up drills are reinforcing control of the spine and pelvis. Pay attention to keeping proper alignment, and regress the exercises if necessary. Most people start a few steps ahead of where they ought to. Quality before quantity, folks.

Reinforce the basic strength qualities.  Get a bit stronger.  Develop more core control, and hip flexibility.  Improve upon the pop up’s fundamental movement properties.  This will carry over into your skill practice.

How to practice pop up skills
There’s no need to get overly technical, or ridiculously functional with this. Get in the water and focus on quality pop ups. Really focus on the movements and consider the process. Where are you getting hung up? How are your feet positioned? Is your pressing portion too slow? Make changes where needed.

Out of water practice
Some solid ground work is a good idea if you’re having troubles. The goal is to be precise with these movements, not to fatigue the body. Think of trying to teach your brain this motor pattern, so you want the pattern to be perfect, and precise. If you practice pop ups well into fatigue, your form is probably falling off, and you’re getting a bit sloppy.  Maybe 4 – 8 reps will do just fine. Be sure to take a good rest period of around 90 seconds, as the nervous system and power output takes a bit longer to recover. 3-5 sets. You could spread the sets out of a training session, or couple them with another quality movement. Pull-ups and pop ups could be a good sequence.

I’ve worked with guys that had all the fundamental flexibility, strength, and power, but they had taught their body to perform that one leg at a time pop up, where you kind of drag one leg up at a time, and get up from that half kneeling stance–it’s completely inefficient. All these guys had to do was retrain the movement pattern and focus on quality solid ground pop ups for a bit. Carry that over to really focusing on quality pop ups in the water.


The pop up onto a Bosu ball is a good movement that most people should start doing. There are plenty of varieties of pop up exercises, just be smart about your training and find movements that actually do have a sport carryover.

As with any skill, it takes time to develop. It will. Put in some quality movement practice and training.

If you’ve got questions, get in touch on Facebook, and find more quality training, flexibility work, nutrition, and performance training at the  Surf Strength Coach website.


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