How to Improve Your Paddling While Surfing

How to Improve Your Paddling When Surfing

In a surf session a surfer can spend an incredible 54% of their time in the water paddling! The rest of the time we are waiting for waves and only a small fraction of our time 8% is spent riding waves. 1

Improving our paddling efficiency can make a dramatic improvement in our surfing. The better we are at paddling then the easier we move through the water improving your technique will mean you can catch more waves when surfing!

If you’ve ever wanted to know how you could improve your paddling then read on to find out more.

Firstly, it is important to introduce to you the 2 different styles of paddling and the discuss the different phases of paddling. Next we will learn more about the anatomy of our shoulder and back muscles that are involved in paddling and the exercises you can do to improve them. Then we will then analyse what are the key tips for how you can improve your paddling technique. With a a couple video examples by Rob Case of analysing the paddling of two surfing legends Kelly Slater and John John Florence. 

Surf Physio Physiotherapy for Surfers surfing injuries

Surf Paddling

Paddling can be divided into 2 main types. One where we are paddling to get out the back or move into position for a wave and the second sprint paddling which is used to catch a wave, duck dive under an oncoming set or to get out of someones way.

Improving your paddling efficiency can also reduce the risk of developing shoulder rotator cuff related pain (Surfer’s Shoulder). This ultimately means that you can catch more waves, be less injured and share the stoke of being in the water for longer.

Phases of Paddling

Paddling movements can be broken down into 4 phases:

1) Entry or Catch Phase

The entry or catch phase is the first part of your stroke when the hand enters the water. As your hand enters the water it creates a surface area and initial contact from which we are able create the drive to push our surfboard forwards through the water .

It’s important that your fingertips enter the water first, with a high elbow and a relaxed hand. This will enable less drag if your fingertips enter first rather than the palm of the hand (see the paddling video analysis below).

During the catch phase the Rotator Cuff and surrounding shoulder muscles begin to fire to preset and control the downward movement of the ball (humerus) in the socket of your shoulder (glenoid fossa).

The most important muscles to develop in the catch phase are our Rotator Cuff: Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis and Teres Minor. Deltoid and Latissmus Dorsi

2) Pull Phase

Allow your arm to sink down before initiating the pull phase. A common mistake is to start pulling too early at the initial part of the stroke, using excess energy and increasing the demand on the rotator cuff.

During the pull phase it’s important to have a slight bend in the elbow. This allows use our arm as a larger lever to pull water underneath the board and engage our chest muscles better.

The most important muscles to develop in this stage are our Pectoralis Major and Minor, Biceps, Latissimus Dorsi, Lower Trapezius, Rhomboids, Deltoid and Rotator Cuff.

3) Exit Phase

During this phase of the stroke helps we generate the propulsion and the forward momentum in the water. This phase is often forgotten in it’s importance and more powerful paddlers have a strong exit phase.

The most important muscles to develop in this stage are our Triceps, Posterior Deltoid, Trapezius, Rhomboids

4) Recovery Phase

This phase is important to allow relaxation as the arm swings through. In beginners we tend to see to much effort or energy is wasted during this phase. Allow the arm to swing round low and aim the hand to land close to the front rail before our fingertips enter the water again.

The most important muscles to work in this stage are our Deltoids, Upper and Lower Trapezius, Serratus Anterior and the Rotator Cuff.  

Paddling Phases while Surfing

Exercises to Improve Your Paddling

The following exercises help to strengthen the muscles that are involved in paddling when surfing.

Pull Phase

  1. Chin Ups

  2. Lat Pull Downs

  3. Single arm incline pull/row

  4. Prone Lying on a bench with cable single arm or alternating pulls or Internal rotation

  5. Rowing Machine


Exit Phase

  1. Cable straight arm shoulder extension

  2. Tricep extensions or Rope pull downs

  3. Cobra Push Ups

  4. Tricep dips Bench/Rings/TRX



  1. Prone double arm or single arm banded lat pulldowns with slowed recovery to starting position

  2. Prone Y, W or T movements with dumbbells

  3. Push up plus (Serratus Anterior)

Chin Ups on rings are excellent to develop lats and posterior shoulder strength for stronger paddling

Ring Rows Pull ups Surf Physio
Surf Strengthening Paddling

Triceps dips on rings are a challenging exercise to develop triceps and posterior shoulder strength

Interval Rowing can develop pulling power and cardiovascular fitness for paddle endurance or power

Rowing for Surfing Shoulder Strength and Endurance

Paddling Video Analysis

Key Points to improve your paddling:

  1. Reduce Drag:  Good body position on the board in the “sweet spot”. Keep your head still to reduce side to side sway, feet together. Allow for slight side to side roll of board along an axis to reduce drag.

  2. Fingertips Enter First:  Relaxed hand, elbow out of water as fingertips enter the water first.

  3. Focus Your Energy on Pull/Exit Phase rather than pushing down hard in the initial catch phase. Allow your hand to sink down 30 degrees before pulling to create more efficient propulsion. While pulling the water underneath your board make sure your arm has a slight bend in your elbow. 

If you enjoy the videos then check out more from Rob Case at

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