Most people’s bodies are not ready for surfing. They have poor mobility, strength and motor control issues thanks to our ever so convenient modern lifestyles. Surfing has movement prerequisites, and if your body can’t move in ways it needs to, injury or suboptimal surfing performance is the result.
Surfers need to be fluid, agile, strong, fit, physically and cognitively responsive to an ever-changing, sometimes dangerous environment. Surfers need to be prepared for heavy waves, long paddles, competitive sessions, wipeouts and spontaneous offers from mother nature.
Groms and younger surfers under the age of 25, typically will not experience mobility issues as their bodies are more yielding and adaptable. However it has been shown time and time again that surfing creates strength and mobility imbalances in long-time surfers since their sport places asymmetrical loads upon the body. For those that purely surf and have no supplementary training, the repetitive actions of surfing will result in muscle imbalances, joint restrictions and structural changes. If a young surfer does not start to address whole body imbalances early by ensuring every joint in their body functions at it’s optimal and birth-right range of motion, chronic injuries are inevitable later in life.
Older surfers typically did not have a regular mobility and movement practice to compliment their surfing lifestyle as, in the past, stretching was considered unnecessary and a waste of time. These days, older surfers turn up to my gym to work with me as clients and they are rewarding to coach because their bodies are so ready for change.
Not all stretching is equal
It is true that some forms of stretching will not effectively improve your range of motion. Think of that guy that warms up with a few hamstring and side bend torso stretches before he heads out in the water and then reports years later that stretching never did anything for him. The truth is, improving your flexibility is hard work and the most effective way you can improve your flexibility is through using active (strengthening) means to achieve a greater range of joint motion. In other words, we want to be able to build muscle tension and generate force from expanding ranges of motion, rather than just sitting passively in a stretch, in order to improve our mobility.
To be clear, flexibility is not the same as mobility. Training for mobility will help to improve your flexibility but the same is not true in reverse. Flexibility is a passive range of motion (for example, how high someone can push your leg up in the air) and mobility is an active range of motion (for example, how high you can actively lift and hold your leg up in the air). Having a large amount of flexibility does not safeguard you against injury and may actually increase your chances of getting injured. Having a large amount of mobility can safeguard you against injury as you have more control over your joints in space and you can receive and generate forces from, at times, awkward positions which are common to surfing.
Enter Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) and Kinstretch. FRC and Kinstretch consider the science behind human biomechanics and human physiology. This movement system will prepare your body to be able to do whatever it wants to do. It looks at how the human body is supposed to move and then restores optimal joint function followed by increasing movement capacity, body control and expanding your available ranges of motion. Kinstretch is based on FRC but can be applied in a group setting and generally teaches more advanced techniques.
An example of a kinstretch routine targeted to surfers is below, with music by Juzzie Smith. This video has been sped up by a factor of four, so keep in mind that the actual techniques are significantly slower and deliberate – strength being a key requirement of each movement. Also, only one side is demonstrated in this video to keep it short and sweet. It is important to practice both sides.
FRC Techniques for Surfers demonstrated in this video:
- Shoulder flexion + external rotation circles from quadruped (small circle CARS)
- Shoulder CARS quadruped
- Scapular CARS
a) forward b) upward and c) backward bias
- Hip 90/90 kinetic stretching PAILS/RAILS
- Hip 90/90 PRL hip flexion + external rotation
- Hip 90/90 PRL hip abduction + internal rotation
- Hip 90/90 hip flexion knee hinge
- Hip 90/90 hip abduction knee hinge
- Hip 90/90 trail leg hovers (hip extension, internal rotation, abduction, external rotation, flexion, adduction)
- Prone Shoulder Swimmers
Music by Juzzie Smith, “Jamming”.
Joint movement discrepancies found in surfers
When we get better at surfing, we get worse at general human movement. Certain joints get ‘loose’ and certain joints get ‘stiff’. In very advanced surfers, I see a hyper-mobile lower back (from lots of torso rotation), limited shoulder flexion coupled with shoulder external rotation and stiffness through the hips – particularly external and internal hip rotation. To prevent injury in surfing we need to improve the load bearing capacity of our body’s tissues to a level beyond which they will be exposed to, maintaining the health of all our joints to optimise general movement and surf performance.
The most prevalent high-injury areas in surfing include the shoulders, lower back, knees, ankles and neck. The best way to prevent chronic injuries to these areas is by increasing your active, usable mobility, which includes owning strength within a wide range of joint motion. Key areas to work on:
- Overhead shoulder mobility – full range shoulder flexion. Pecs, lats, shoulder internal rotators and shoulder posterior capsule all need some love to help increase your overhead shoulder mobility.
- Anterior pelvic tilt and sway lower back postures are common. Hip flexors tend to get super short and hip rotation (internal and external rotation) are common focus areas.
- Neck extensors overuse and deep neck flexors underuse, compounding an existing “desk-neck” posture and leading us to mimic our turtle friends.
- The lower spine can become too mobile from years of rotating through the lower spine and hips to move the board. This is essential to good surfing but we can take some quality control methods to keep the spine strong and the upper spine, shoulders and hips more mobile.
Why your body will thank you
You can’t build stability, endurance, strength or power in joint ranges that you don’t have. Developing the optimal joint range of motion (mobility) therefore takes priority over stability, endurance, strength and power in an inadequate range of motion.
First, check whether every joint is working as it should. Find a good FRC or Kinstretch provider and get yourself assessed. Having an 10-15 minute effective mobility routine can fit into your day as a warm-up before a surf, before a workout, in the morning before you start your day, during the middle or end of your day. Whatever works, just get it done. Allocating at least 1 full hour for mobility work per week in addition to your daily routine is ideal to keep your practice honest and effective. A coach can help you spend more time in the ranges that you won’t naturally go to yourself.
Regular movement feeds nutrition to your joints which are not regularly used in surfing, which helps to maintain joint health and integrity. The greater positions and joint angles your body can move and control, the greater your capacity to adapt to surfing situations without snapping, straining, tearing, popping or cracking something. Losing joint range of motion can significantly impact the body’s ability to react to surfing’s challenges acutely or chronically over time. Move better to surf better and enjoy staying in the water for years to come.
Sydney Strength & Conditioning
IG Account: @sydneystrengthconditioning