John John Florence followed his mother into the ocean when he was two and paddled out at Pipe when he was five. So needless to say, JJF was a product of a unique set of circumstances right from the start.
“Surfing’s the most difficult sport in the world. It’s so hard to learn,” he said in 2015. “It seems like in every other sport you can pick up the basics really quickly, whereas surfing takes you a long time to get it going. It’s a limited resource. Surfing’s hard because it’s totally different every time. You’ll never ever be on the same wave.”
You probably didn’t grow up with Pipe in your front yard or a cool mom pushing you onto waves by the time you had barely started walking. You may not have expressed exceptional talent as a grom, had the chance to travel the world surfing with your family or become the youngest surfer to compete in the Vans Triple Crown at 13.
You likely had to get a “real job,” maybe tied to a desk, sitting on your ass way more than what feels natural. You may watch professional surfers like John John and imagine how you can best impersonate them on a wave the next opportunity you get to surf. But you also probably have tight, stiff muscles, and maybe an increasingly flabby butt with joints that need some grease.
Recreational surfers typically get injured because their bodies aren’t well equipped for the demands that their weekend or holiday surf sessions place on otherwise sedentary or stressed out bodies. Some professional surfers place a heavy focus on strength and mobility training to maximize their natural talents, while others like John John have been known to stay away from gyms, opting instead to simply surf as often as possible. It’s a luxury the average weekend warrior and non-professional can afford. A well-structured mobility and strength training program is paramount to form a solid base of stability, endurance, strength, power and fluid movement for this group of surfers.
A surfer requires mobility to get into a variety of body positions, strength for short bursts of power as well as endurance for longer paddles and maintaining a controlled position during each ride. A surfing strength and conditioning program could involve a combination of strength endurance, speed strength (fast/explosive movements) conditioning, plus loads of stretching, soft tissue and mobility work.
More important than working on how much weight you can lift, or how long you can run, is how much movement variety you have. I have been taught the principles of strength and conditioning programming and am often asked to write periodized programs for athletes, including surfers. And although these types of programs have merit, it’s not how I like to work.
Something like a simple hip mobility drill that you can do pre-surf or at any time of the day to break from the computer can help your surfing tremendously. You may find that you can’t do this initially or that it is way harder than it looks. In the video below, focus on the hip internal rotation stretch (leaning over the front leg). In the second version, aim to actively internally rotate your forward leg (heel and back of the knee pointing upward) to increase the stretch into hip internal rotation. The transition should ideally be completed without the use of your hands and ideally heels are kept on the floor in the middle squat position. At no time should your knees hurt while doing this – the inward and outward rotation should originate from your hips. If you do not have the mobility profile to complete this without pain, leave this drill alone and focus on improving your hip mobility first (I teach these in my Fluid Surfer book). Watch the video below, there are 2 versions of this mobility drill, each shown at three reps per side. The pace is in actual (recommended) time, so watch it through.
Getting stronger in your bench press or back squat is great for developing muscle in the exact plane of movement that a bench press or back squat offers, with the direction of force moving through your body exactly as the barbell does and little else. If you get stronger in your bench press or back squat, you may feel like your pop-up feels stronger, or your legs feel like they can handle more grunt on the wave. But a bigger key to better surfing is moving smoothly and athletically when imperfect movements are presented to you on a wave.
Surfing is imperfect and every wave is different. You cannot become a better surfer in a completely controlled, structured gym environment. Although I do teach my athletes the traditional lifts (ie. deadlift, squat, pull-up, military press, etc), I also see their limitations and go beyond traditional strength training to incorporate imperfect, full range, multi-directional movement. I like to give my athletes a great variety of movement, challenging their bodies from multiple angles and full-range joint positions, as well as going heavier in the traditional lifts. Simply put, the more movement variability you have, the greater control you’ll have over your body while surfing.