Prone or Surfing Paddling Technique

Advice from the world’s best on how to maximize your stroke and catch more waves by Dr. Tim Brown.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that to be a good sufer you must possess an effective, strong, fast paddle stroke. Ever wonder if you’re using the most effective paddling technique? I certainly do. Especially if I’m paddling out in waves of consequence and you see the telltale dark, ominous shadow moving towards you from out the back!

We’ve received quite a few comments regarding paddling, so it’s just a natural progression to speak a bit more in-depth about the subject. I reached out to some of the best surfers in the world and asked their opinion on what are the keys to an effective, efficient paddle stroke.

The tips are seemingly simple, but implemented properly, they should upgrade your ability to catch more waves, have more fun and, with some of the training advice we’ve provided over the past few months, make you feel better while doing it.


1. Keep relaxed. When you’re paddling, don’t tense up and get all stressed. Relax the shoulders and keep everything loose. People tend to miss a wave or get frustrated and you see them thrash or look like they’re chopping wood or something. Keep it simple and stay relaxed – that’s the best way to move along quickly.

2. Hand position. People ask me all the time how I hold my hands and fingers when paddling. Do I keep them close together or have a slight gap? I personally just relax the hand and it tends to have a slight gap. If you keep your fingers together, it feels unnatural — like you have to try to keep them like that.

3. The catch. Have you ever watched a good swimmer’s stroke underwater? Maybe you should. You want to try to copy the same stroke that they are doing under water and transfer it to your stroke on your surfboard. (Especially if you are thinking of paddling Maverick’s after that last swell!) Here’s a youtube example of this.

4. Feel the water. Yes, that’s right — feel the water. You need to feel the pressure of the water against your hand from the time it enters to the time it leaves the water. The more you feel it, the harder it is on your arms but the faster you will go.

5. And if you are after that extra edge and want to take it to the next level, try to grab a paddleboard and do a couple of sneaky training sessions to strengthen your stoke.

KELLY SLATER [Nine time World Champion]

1. Place feet together
2. Paddle with your stroke under your board, almost compressing water against the bottom of your board.
3. Keep chest/head up so you can see and then lunge down into the stroke when needed.

LUKE EGAN [Former World Tour surfer/ Parko’s righthand man]

1. Touch your chin on your board when paddling for a wave.

JOEL PARKINSON [World Title runner-up]

1. The more hollow the wave, the deeper and harder the paddle stroke.
2. The mushier the wave, the more you want to stay on top of the water with a lighter, less-water-penetration, quicker stroke.

MICK FANNING [Two-time World Champion]

1. Long, powerful strokes. Pull from the lats.
2. Head not too high.
3. Switch on your core for stability.

GREG LONG [Big Wave Champion]

1. Position yourself on your board correctly. Where you actually lay will be different depending on what type of board you ride, but each board has a sweet spot. You don’t want to be too far back on the board. This causes the board to be too high and makes you push through the water. If you are too far forward your nose will pearl into the water. You want to be perfectly centered so when you do start paddling your board is on a nice, even plane.

2. Get a full arm extension with every stroke. I often see people who do an awkward, chicken-wing paddle where their arms enter and exit the water prematurely. Your hand should be entering the water at the full extension of the elbow and never before.

3. When you are at the full extension of your stroke, your fingers should be held tightly side by side creating a cup or paddle with your hand. Do not slap the surface when your hand enters the water. It should enter in a graceful diving fashion.

4. As you pull through your stroke, try and get your arms as deep as possible. I like to create a slight “S” motion with my stroke bringing my arms down the centerline of my board. Try and keep your wrist and forearm in one line.

5. Pull through your stroke in one continuous motion until your arm is fully extended behind you. Again, do not prematurely pull it from the water. In doing so, you lose power and your stroke is ultimately much less efficient. Not to mention you look like a chicken.

6. When you pull your hand from the water, do so in the same graceful fashion as when you entered. Splashing or throwing water behind you is wasted energy.

7. As you become a more advanced paddler you can get even more power from your stroke by implementing your core strength into the paddling motion. As your arm reaches forward your torso will slightly lift forward with it. As your arm pulls back, so does your torso adding even more muscle and power into your stroke.

ERICA HOSSENI [Top female surfer]

1. Long, deep, full arm strokes use less energy expenditure for longer sessions.
2. Place your chin to the board when paddling for a wave. This keeps more momentum and speed going when you pop up.

MATT GRIGGS [Surf trainer/fitness expert]

1. The focus: Don’t sprint! Paddling should be looked at as your rest time. Riding waves is the explosive part, so you don’t want to arrive out the back only to catch the perfect wave and have nothing in the tank to ride it. Paddle efficiently, breathing calmly through your nose. Breathing through your mouth inspires flight or fight response which can make the body rigid, inhibiting recovery from your last wave and potential on your next one. If you paddle calmly with the right technique, you will go faster anyway.

2. Technique: Work in your natural range with correct posture and communication between every muscle. Literally, “feel” all your muscles working, not just your shoulders. Don’t reach too far out or you’ll shut down the communication between muscles and feel disjointed. Not only does this fuel imbalances in the body, but this lack of balance in the muscles will carry through to your feeling of balance on your board when riding a wave. Keep your head in line with your spine, feel your core stabilize and use your lats so it’s not just your shoulders doing all the work. Your muscles should feel open with support from the rest of your muscle community, not rigid and alone in the workload.

3. Training: The best training is to pay attention to correct technique when you are doing it. Maintenance of balance is the next focus so a good exercise would be Superman postures daily as well as stretching through shoulders all the way into the neck to keep the movement free and easy.

LAYNE BEACHLEY [Seven-time world champion]

The most effective training for surfing is surfing — and the same goes for paddling. Very few people do exercises that correctly develop the muscles and endurance levels required to surf for a decent period of time before fatigue sets in. If you can’t access the surf as much as you want to because, let’s face it, there are only so many hours in the day, I recommend the following exercises to keep your body strong and relatively surfing fit even while you are out of the water:

The Plank – a great core strengthening exercise which will essentially activate all the muscles you use when surfing (shoulders, abs and legs).

Swimming — including hypoxic breathing, which will increase your lung capacity and confidence to remain calm when being “rag-dolled” underwater.

Push ups – you’d be very surprised how many of these you do during an average surf session.

Squats – it’s important to have good leg strength to help you stay standing. Considering the amount of effort the average surfer exerts to first get out the back and then catch a wave, the last thing you want to feel when you finally get to your feet are jelly legs.

I’ve taken some of the fittest athletes in the world surfing, including as Martina Navratilova, and the overwhelming common theme is the early onset of fatigue due to the repetitious motion of paddling. (Surely you have seen the size of her shoulders!) 85% of surfing involves paddling so becoming a strong paddler will certainly enhance your time in the water.

One of the downsides of getting older for a surfer can be the loss of normal mobility. For instance, look at a 12-year-old get up and walk away from sitting in a chair. They are fluid and move without restriction. OK, now watch a forty or fifty-year-old get up and slowly start to walk away — a completely different look. The kid is off and running with ease, while the adult is still trying to combine the standing up with moving, using muscles that are stiff and tight and that do not function as they did when they were used to moving and being flexible. Perhaps you have morphed into the “guy/gal behind the desk” because over time you have molded to a corporate image while sacrificing the very mobility and fitness that provides you with the ability and energy to surf, move and recover like a kid. It makes it so much harder on you to paddle and surf when you have limited mobility/flexibility.

Most of us know that the guy who has a hard time picking up his chest and head off the board is probably not the guy that is going to paddle-battle you for a wave. It takes so much energy and extra effort for him to even paddle out, let alone to be able to be efficient and functional as a surfer. This “tight” surfer will spend at least twice the amount of energy to accomplish the same in the water as someone who is flexible and mobile enough to paddle in proper posture without straining their neck, shoulders and/or upper back.

If you have a tight upper body and you try to paddle, it’s as though you are trying to paddle with an extra 50 pounds sitting between your shoulder blades and pushing your chest, neck and head down to your board. You can handle it for a while, then fatigue sets in and surfing stoke diminishes because it’s just less fun when your body is opposing your commands.

Dr. Clay Everline, a medical doctor specializing in water sports and sports medicine on Maui, adds these factors to the mix:
It is not always speed, endurance or power, but position that gets the wave. Wave selection is probably one of the most important factors in paddling for waves. Conversely, knowledge of a given surf break (currents, swell direction, bowls) will influence how much strenuous paddling is involved in getting out to the lineup.

Legendary shaper Dick Brewer noted that a professional surfer can plane a shortboard and get into just about any wave with only three or four well-timed and well-executed strokes. Whereas beginners can be caught inside for twenty minutes on a good-sized day before even getting to the lineup…if they make it at all. That is why it has been stated by many surf-philosophers that nature is a better regulator of crowds on big days than any intimidating local.

The only other muscular endurance and postural factors I can think of to help you paddle are:

During the pull-through phase, avoid hyperflexing the wrist (causes flexor carpi ulnaris tendonitis), over internally rotating the shoulder during pull-through (causes impingement) and focusing on pushing water back with triceps. Triceps endurance conditioning may help for long paddle expectations.

Low back hyperextension should be mitigated. The most dangerous complications of this can manifest in novices with surfer’s myelopathy. Prolonged back hyperextension for hours can pinch off the blood supply to the spine and cause paralysis. Most cases have been seen in Hawaii, presumably due to complications of air travel with this condition. Novice surfers appear to be predisposed to this condition as they have undeveloped core musculature relative to the demands of surfing and potential for dehydration (Aviles-Hernandez, J Spinal Cord Med 2007; 30(3): 288-293), in my opinion from not being properly acclimatized to their environment. Core muscle condition may also play a part in speeding recovery and preventing further episodes.

Some serious scientific paddling research


Leave a Reply