PT on the Net Research

Healthy Surfers Shoulders


The following is an overview of the mechanics of the shoulder joint during the paddling portion of a surfing session. It includes a pre and post stretching and strengthen program, which will help maintain healthy and pain free shoulders. This article is not a prescription for rehabilitation, nor is it a diagnosis of injuries, but rather exercises that can help prevent overuse injuries by increasing strength, stability and flexibility for shoulders.

The overhead shoulder flexion motion used for paddling can create the same pain and overuse injuries as seen in athletes participating in other sports requiring repetitive overhead motion such as swimming, volleyball, tennis, baseball etc. Depending on a surfer’s skill and the type break they are surfing, roughly 45% of a surfer’s time is done paddling, 35% waiting and 15% percent surfing. During a surfing session a surfer can repeat the overhead motion 1,000s of times.

An exercise program that keeps the rotators strong and the shoulder girdle stable and flexible is good preventative medicine. There are numerous exercises to choose from, many can be read on this site. I will focus on exercises that surfers can do readily at the beach with the use of a beach towel and bungee. The exercises chosen are quick and to the point. I realize however, that it is idealistic to think that most surfers spend much time preparing for a surf session. Picture this - you’re a surfer, you drive up to the beach and see beautiful aqua blue 4-5 foot waves peeling off. Chances are you’ll be so excited to hit the surf, you’ll barely get both feet into your trunks, much less think about taking time to stretch. The ocean is a fluid and ever changing environment, surfers aren’t liable to give up one second of good surfing time! So a pre-surf stretch must be direct and effective.

The paddling portion of a stroke can be broken down into three sections, the catch and entry, the power stroke, and the release and recovery. Lying prone on a surfboard in proper paddling position requires the surfer to have slight extension of the torso. The erectors, rhomboids, traps and levalors are stabilizers in this position. Feet and legs are together. In the catch and entry portion of a stroke the shoulder is in flexion and the hand enters the water slightly externally rotated in a 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock angle (left hand, right hand). As the hand begins its power stroke, the arm adducts toward the midline with the hand coming under the surfboard, the elbow slightly bent. The hand then extends pass the hips as the elbow lifts out of the water. This stroke looks somewhat like a backwards “S” on the right side and a standard “S” on the left. Another version is the same in entry but the arm does not make an “S” stroke, but instead extends directly parallel to the torso, making a much deeper stroke.

In the release portion of the stroke, the hand is internally rotated and comes out of the water at hip level. In recovery, the arm can be either a direct abduction from the hip in a wide arcing motion to overhead position or internally rotated with arm bent as shoulder goes into flexion. This method would resemble a butterfly stroke.

Both techniques depend on the flexibility of the individuals’ shoulders and whether a surfer is riding a short board or long board. A short board is narrower and allows a limited amount of torso rotation – somewhat like a swimmer. It also allows a use of a kicking motion to get into a wave. The long board on the other hand, being wider, gives the surfer no body rotation and can affect the stroke in surfers whose arm length will not allow an “S” stroke under the board. While many surfers believe that swimming is the best exercise for surfing – and indeed one should be a strong swimmer if they intent to surf – paddling on a surfboard requires using muscles in a different matter. In swimming the swimmer generates much power from shoulder to opposite hip body rotation. Surfers do not have the same ability to rotate because they are prone on a surfboard. This makes paddling a more upper back and shoulder intensive movement.

The primary movers during the power stroke are latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major and minor; the secondary movers are the triceps. The release and recovery portion heavily engage the lateral and posterior deltoids.

The rotators cuffs and suprasinatus stabilize the head of the humerus in the g/h joint and assist the deltoids in the recovery portion of the stroke. The infraspinatus and teres minor are external rotators, stabilizing the humerus in the g/h joint and they are also active in the release and recovery portion of the stroke. The subscapularis is an internal rotator that stabilizes the humerus in the g/h joint and experiences heavy recruitment during the power portion of the stroke.

Special note on the below exercises: They are designed specifically for the shoulder and are therefore not designed as a complete stretching or workout regime for surfing.

Pre-Surf Stretch

  1. Arm circles 20x clockwise 20x counterclockwise
Stretch 1
  1. Interlace finger in front of you bring arms overhead with palms internally rotated and press over head. Lower hands so that palms are behind head then, alternatively place one hand behind an elbow and stretch hand toward the top of the opposite shoulder. Repeat 10x holding 2-3 seconds
Stretch 2
  1. Reach arm across chest pulling it towards you. Hold 2-3 seconds each arm 10x each side
  2. Interlace fingers behind back. Bend at waist lift arms overhead. Hold 2-3 second. Repeat 8-10x
Stretch 3
Stretch 4

Post Surf Stretch

  1. Hold towel with hands wide overhead. Bring arms behind you. If it feels strained or forced, widen hands on towel.
Stretch 1
  1. Hold towel in one hand, reach toward top of opposite shoulder, opposite hand internally and holds towel. Make like your drying your back.
Stretch 2
  1. Place hands at chest height on car (lifeguard stand, etc), bend at waist, keep arm straight and press chest below arms.
Stretch 3

Post Surf Strengthening

  1. External rotation with bungee. 10 x 3 sets
Exercise 1
  1. Three tier standing rows
    1. Anchor bungee at ground level. Row 20x
    2. Anchor bungee at chest level. Row 20x
    3. Anchor bungee at above head level. Row 2x
Exercise 2a
Exercise 2b
Exercise 2c

May the surf gods be with you! Aloha!

For more great ideas on surf training, check out Paul’s other PTontheNET.com surfing article, Surfers Bungee Swiss Ball Workout

Conditioning books for surfers

  1. Surf Flex by Paul Frediani
  2. Sick Surfers by Doc Renneker
  3. Fit to Surf by Rocky Synder