How to Improve Your Paddle Power and Get Properly Surf Fit

surf fitness

We all know the importance of being fit in the lineup. There’s nothing worse than missing waves due to a lack of strength in the arms. Struggling to make it out in bigger surf (especially when it’s good) is frustrating. And getting caught inside because of poor paddle power is guaranteed to ruin a potentially good surf.

If you’re fortunate enough to surf everyday, then maintaining peak fitness is easy. But for those who have to endure spells away from the ocean, or those new to the sport, it can be harder to stay in shape.

Various websites regularly lure us in with claims of getting us surf fit in 10 easy minutes, or claim to show us stretches that will keep us limbered up and surf ready when we’re away from the beach. But here’s the bad news. They don’t work. Not properly. Sure, you’ll feel good for a few minutes and you may have an extra degree of flexibility in your upper groin, but I can guarantee that when you find yourself fighting a strong riptide in a pumping swell, you’ll wish you did a damn site more than a few stretches.

It’s not all bad news though. Getting surf fit is not necessarily time consuming, it’s just about making sure you’re focusing on building and maintaining strength in the key areas. It’s not easy and there is no quick solution. But with hard work and a concentrated focus you should find it’s possible to enter the water primed for catching waves.

Try some of these exercises to ensure that you stay properly surf fit while away from the water.‍


Just hitting the pool for a few lengths of front-crawl is not enough. You need to find out how far you can swim and assess your base level of fitness. Remember, you’re trying to build strength, which ultimately will be reflected in increased speed and improved stamina, so you need to be monitoring your times to ensure you’re pushing yourself. It’s useful to replicate the pattern of a surf session which is a mixture of steady paddling and faster more powerful strokes, so swim like that in the pool.

Here’s a really simple but effective swim programme:

10 x 25m @ steady pace front crawl

1 minute rest

2 x 25m @ fast pace front crawl

2 minute rest

If this is repeated 3 times it should take less than 30 minutes. The key to building strength is to make sure you’re getting faster, so time each session and aim to bring down your times. Twice a week is enough to not only maintain fitness but will ensure your paddle power is improved.

Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are the closest thing to replicating the motion of paddling that don’t involve getting wet. Used correctly they are an excellent tool for building strength in the shoulders. Again, it’s important to establish your current level of fitness so that you can ensure progression. Fitness bands come with different levels of resistance which can provide good development as you get stronger.

surf resistance bands

Replicating a surf session is the key, here’s a suggested simple programme:

4 minutes steady ‘paddling’

1 minute rest

2 minutes sprinting

1 minute rest

Repeat this 3 or 4 times and you should have worked your shoulders as hard as if you were paddling through decent sized waves.

Board in the Pool

This is an extreme way of improving your paddle power. It’s also a failsafe way to make your neighbours think you’re mental, but it’s by far the best way of staying prepped when you’re away from the sea. Unlike swimming and using resistance bands, this method keeps your neck and back muscles sharp and ensures the muscle memory of paddling is maintained. Simply anchor your leash around a solid fixed point… and paddle.

JJF duck dive swimming pool

If it’s good enough for John John…

The beauty of this is you can tailor your preparation to specific surf destinations. About to spend some time in Indo’ surfing distant reef breaks that require a long paddle to reach? Then devise a programme that begins with a long paddle. Heading for a punchy beach break with a small but powerful impact zone? Then focus on fast and powerful paddling exercises. This system obviously requires a relationship with an understanding swimming pool owner, but the pool needn’t be large, just big enough to fit a surfboard. And I wouldn’t take your newest sled into the chlorinated water, an old beat up board is probably best.


Simple free weight exercises can be a good way of building explosive strength. The one-armed dumbbell paddle probably most closely replicates the motion of paddling and will help to build the muscles required to build surf strength. Start in a lying down position with your legs and head in a prone position and a dumbbell in one hand by your chest. Maintain your prone position whilst extending your dumbbell arm forward and retracting your opposite arm in a paddling action. Repeat for the other arm.

dumbbell paddle surf

The action of the dumbbell paddle closely replicates the motion of paddling.

Running or Cycling

Muscle strength is all very well but unless it’s coupled with a decent aerobic level of fitness you’ll be out of breath before you’ve had a chance to utilise your muscles full potential. Running or cycling are great ways to maintain overall fitness and will also strengthen your legs in preparation for powerful turns in the water. As with all of these exercises, the emphasis should be on progression. There are so many apps and accessories available for tracking speed and distance that monitoring your pace and progress has never been easier.

‍Now here’s my caveat; I’m by no means a fitness instructor or expert, these are simply things that I have personally found to be most effective in preparing for surf trips. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself so hard that you end up injured. One thing’s for certain: if you design and follow a solid and effective programme you’ll give yourself the best chance of hitting the water in good shape and hopefully catch more waves!

Tom Keyes

Recently returned to the UK after several years chasing waves in Asia, Tom takes inspiration from living on the doorstep of Cornwall's finest beaches to write articles and features on all thing surf related. Regularly featured on Surfing Sections and The Inertia his work has been viewed and shared by... Read more

1 Comment
James Buchanan

Paddling and bands are not similar….. paddling you pull then push the body forwards… bands the opposite.. you pull the band to you! Pull ups and dips are better… jump up if you have to!


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