Muscle & Fitness/Hers

these indoor moves will help you master the Zen of surfing

Wave Rider: these indoor moves will help you master the Zen of surfing

Dimity McDowell

a FEW YEARS AGO, MARY SETTERHOLM, a former national champion surfer and current owner of Surf Academy in Santa Monica, CA, noticed that there were some seriously fit people enrolled in her learn-to-surf camp. “I could tell they were incredible athletes just from seeing their bodies,” she remembers, “but I didn’t recognize them.” Turns out, it was the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team, fresh off a gold-medal victory in the 1998 Olympics and a silver in ’02, ready to trade solid ice and skates for rolling waves and surfboards, at least temporarily.

However, while they looked the part–team captain Cammi Granato had made a point of learning how to hold her board properly on the beach, so she wouldn’t look like a fish out of water–their dominate-and-triumph mental attitude didn’t jibe with the ocean. “They were trying to beat the waves, instead of feeling them, and they were just getting obliterated,” says Setterholm. Granato was exhausted after 45 minutes of muscling through waves, and when she returned home, the elite athlete passed out for two hours. “You couldn’t have found better, more powerful athletes,” says Setterholm, “but working with, not against, the ocean is the most important part of surfing.”

In other words, the relax-dude-it’s-all-good surfer stereotype exists for good reason: The more you relax on the board, the better surfer you’ll be. (It’s also a stereotype for another reason: “Surfers are the most difficult athletes to train,” Setterholm admits. “You can’t get them off their boards and into the gym.”) That said, you definitely can become a much better surfer by focusing on sport-specific strength and endurance, balance and cardiovascular capacity while on land. That won’t guarantee a starring role in Blue Crush II, but you’ll certainly have much more confidence and satisfaction on the water.


The two skills a beginner must master before heading out to hang with the big guns are paddling and popping up. The former uses arm and chest muscles to motor you out, again and again, to where the waves are breaking; the latter is the (hopefully) smooth motion used to stand up once you’ve caught one. While both fall into the learn-best-by-doing category, you can perform numerous exercises and activities to speed up the process.

“Surfers spend more time paddling than surfing,” says Lenita Anthony, an exercise physiologist who surfs at least three times a week off the coast of San Diego. “Surfers take hundreds of strokes at a time, like a swimmer, so muscular endurance, not maximal strength, is key.” Anthony favors using a stability ball and an exercise band to strengthen arm, chest and shoulder muscles. A few exercises: First, secure the band so it is higher than your head when lying facedown on the ball. Holding one end of the band in each hand with your arms straight out in front of you, alternate pulling your hands straight back toward your toes as you bend your elbows–stopping when your elbow is bent a little past 90 degrees (the same range of motion you’d have when paddling). Up for more of a challenge? Do both arms at the same time.

Then, to strengthen the upper body and lower-back muscles–the key for holding your chest off the board as you paddle–flip over so your back is on the ball, feet flat on the floor, knees bent at 90 degrees, arms extended overhead holding one end of the band in each hand. With arms straight, pull both hands down toward your waist, slowly bending your elbows until your upper arms are snug against your sides. Aim for 15 reps of all these ball/band exercises.

If you’re low on equipment, Setterholm swears by push-ups, both the regular variety and her surf special: lying facedown on the ground, hands on either side of your chest, engage your abs and push back into downward dog (arms and legs straight, hips bent at a 90-degree angle so you’re in an inverted V position). Return to the start and repeat. For push-ups, do eight to 15 reps using good form; work up to three sets.

Both variations of paddling exercises tap into core power, the key for a successful popup. A rapid yet steady motion of pushing up on your arms and bringing your legs underneath you, the pop-up requires your abs and back muscles to be rock-solid. An easy way to practice pop-ups is to simply run through them on the ground. Another effective exercise is getting into a push-up position on the stability ball (it should rest under your feet if you’re in great shape, or under your shins if you’re a beginner). Pull your knees toward your chest, then push them away. Once you’ve mastered that movement, raise one leg in the air and repeat the same motion. Fifteen reps is your goal. And getting your om on in yoga at least once a week also promotes a capable core, not to mention a relaxed, supple body.


After you’ve mastered the two-foot “inside” smaller waves and are ready to head out beyond the break for the larger swells, balance becomes an even more important factor. Once up on your feet, says Anthony, also a Reebok Master Trainer, “To turn, you shift your weight as you drive your legs (down) and twist your body.” To prep for these moves, she recommends one-legged squats. First, do them on flat ground, holding on to a chair for stabilization if necessary. Once your knees can handle a 90-degree bend, move to an unstable surface, like a foam pad or BOSU. Lunges on the stability ball–one foot flat on the floor, the other behind you, shin resting on top of the ball–are also extremely effective. And you can increase the challenge by holding a medicine ball straight out in front of you. Doing squats on a Bongo Board with just your body weight is another good idea.

“Anything that challenges your core by shifting your weight from one leg to the other will make you a stronger surfer,” says Anthony, who recommends doing at least two sets of 15 for each leg exercise (pick one or two; you don’t need to do them all in one day). In addition, if your legs can take it, throw in a wall sit (back against a wall, thighs parallel to the floor). Start with 30 seconds and work up to a minute. “When you’re riding a wave, you never fully come out of the squat position,” says Setterholm. “You’re constantly pumping your legs without a full extension–it kills your quads.”

A final fitness component to surfing is cardiovascular endurance. Paddling requires a steady-state effort, while catching a wave, getting upright and staying in the wave are dynamic demands calling for an intense burst of energy. Running, cycling or stair-stepping will get your heart in shape, but it’s vital to mix in activities that involve your upper body, like swimming or rowing on an indoor machine. Otherwise, says Anthony, “Your arm muscles will fatigue before you can max out your endurance.”

To prepare for competition, Setterholm makes long-distance paddles from pier to pier, swims with a masters team and runs on the beach. During her runs, she throws in a series of “sandpiper runs”–short sprints toward and away from crashing waves–to up the intensity level. If you’re a swimmer, do one more drill: Practice swimming a full pool length underwater to prepare for the endless hold-your-breath intervals following wipeouts.

Finally, Setterholm often hits steep hills on her bike. Not only does the pedaling work her quads, glutes and hamstrings–all muscles needed to drive a surfboard–but it forces her mind to practice embracing difficult tasks. “I don’t really ride for the fitness benefit, but more to remind myself not to be intimidated by any wave,” she says, explaining the one lesson hockey star Cammi Granato didn’t need to be taught. “Most surfers sit and wait for the perfect wave; they’re constantly saying, ‘No, no, no’ to every one that goes by. I say, just take what the ocean gives you and go for it.”


IF YOU’RE ALREADY IN THE THICK of surfing season, no worries; to enhance your surfing time, squeeze as much of this routine as you can into your weekdays. Weekends are devoted solely to the waves. If you’re preparing for a surfing safari, start the program at least four weeks out to maximize your on-water time.

Monday: 45 minutes of cardio. If possible, swim or row; if you’re swimming, try for two separate underwater lengths during the workout. If you’re running, throw in five 20-second sprints or, if you’re lucky enough to be on the beach, do 10 sandpiper sprints.

Tuesday: 20 minutes of cardio (an activity different than Monday’s), followed by 30 minutes of weight training–aim to do as many major-muscle exercises on unstable surfaces, like a stability ball or foam pad, as possible.

Wednesday: Repeat Monday workout.

Thursday: Repeat Tuesday workout.

Friday: Yoga class.

Saturday: First option, surf. Second option, if it’s too flat, paddle for up to 60 minutes. Third option, if you’re landlocked, do 60 minutes of swimming or indoor rowing.

Sunday: Surf or rest.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Weider Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group