It seems logical that the best training for surfing would be, well, surfing. But are those three to four sessions a week enough to keep one physically fit in the water? Spending an hour inside a musty, halogen-lit gym can feel like a completely dissonant experience to sliding atop saltwater, but doing so could help your surfing in the long run.
Over the last few years, I've watched North Florida pro surfer Cody Thompson (whose physical fitness and surfing ability already had a high ceiling to begin with) continue to improve while spending a little extra time getting in shape out of the water. Thompson's moonlighted as a certified personal fitness trainer for the last few years and recently opened his own studio, Thompson Performance, where some of the region's best surfers–including Cody's pro surfing kin, Tristan and Evan–can be found sweating it out pre and post surf session. Thanks to hours and hours of weighted lunges, squats, and all other sorts of complex exercises, Cody’s turns continue to displace buckets of water, while his enormous alley-oops grow ever more enormous each year.
"Back when I was competing a lot, I was kind of getting my ass kicked,” Thompson tells me, sitting atop some kind of soft plyometric platform when I recently met him at his Atlantic Beach, FL studio. “I didn't know if it was because I wasn't surfing well, or because I was out of shape. I just felt uninspired and was really looking to feel better physically, which I thought would give me that mental edge."
It took Thompson years to dial in a proper routine, adapting the movements from popular exercises and making them functional for surfing. Today he says he'll work out no more than three times a week, never choosing the gym over a surf session.
“If someone asks how me to become a better surfer, I have a simple answer for them: ride more waves,” Thompson says. “But if you don't get to surf as often as you'd like, there are some exercises you can mix into your gym routine so you never feel like you're out of surf-shape.
“Training for athletes, rather than training for someone who just wants muscles, is always going to be different,” Thompson says about the movements he incorporates into his exercise routines. “Stick to the functional movements like squats, lunges, pushups, pull-ups, and rows. Master your bodyweight then progress with adding resistance. Don't waste your time isolating muscles on the fancy machines you see sprinkled throughout most commercial gyms. When possible, train standing up using a mix of staggered and single-leg stances to place demands on the core muscles that best mimic surfing. You should always be creating a challenging but safe training environment for yourself.”
With an eye toward helping you improve your health, fitness, and (possibly) surfing, we checked in with Thompson on some basic, approachable surf-specific tips, routines, and exercises that he's found beneficial.
Here are his top upper and lower body exercises, with an explanation about each below the video:
1. TRX Row (body weight row): 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps
“Paddling is essentially just pulling yourself through the water. So, if we can increase our pull strength and pull endurance, we can catch more waves and surf longer.”
2. Bosu Ball Push-up: 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps
“Use pushing movements to mimic a pop-up. The Bosu ball places demands on the upper body and core that are similar to the instability of a surfboard. Pushups on the ground are a great alternative. Decrease resistance by resting your knees on the ground. Increase resistance by elevating your feet above the ground.”
3. Band Rotation: 3-4 sets of 10 reps each side
“Surfing takes places in all three planes of motion–sagittal, frontal and transverse. You most commonly see sagittal plane movements when you walk into gyms. Sagittal plane is the typical up-and-down path of a barbell or body (like a squat or bench press) with no side-to-side or rotational movements. Rotational movements in the transverse plane have much more carry over to what surfers will experience in the water and it should be an important component in any surfer's training routine.”
4. Single Leg Balance Reach: 3 sets of 10 reps each side
“This is a great low-body stability exercise that can be done at the beginning of the workout. It covers all three planes of motion and will work the heck out of the stabilizer muscles while improving balance and motor control.”
5. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: 4 sets of 6 reps each side
“This is one of the best low-body strength exercises for athletes. It requires a lot of balance and uses nearly all of the muscles from the core to the floor. Because we are training each leg by itself, it limits the chance of forming imbalances due to bi-lateral stance training (you can't favor your strong side in this position). Also, the exercise doesn't require a super heavy load to get an effective workout. I'm not totally opposed to traditional barbell squatting, but this is a much safer option for athletes who may have back issues. The added hip stretch on the non-working leg is a bonus for increasing flexibility.”
6. Squat Jumps: 5 sets of 5 reps
“A relatively simple exercise that can add tons of power to your game. As surfers, we require tons of low body power. Not just for a big hack, but also for generating speed in small surf or loading up off the bottom of a wave to initiate a maneuver. Jumping onto a high box can provide the power benefits of the squat jump without the potential risks of landing incorrectly. I think there are great benefits in the landing portion of the squat jump, as well. As surfers, we are exposed to free falling from heights that require strong and stable hips, knees, and ankles to support us upon impact. Training for power alone is simply not enough. What goes up must come down, so train those landing mechanics while you're at it. Watch out for knee-valgus (knees tracking inward).”