The Best Possible Exercise for Surfing

Doing this is the best way to get better at it. Surpise! Photo:Matt Shepherd

I received an email this week asking a very simple question. It went a little something like this:
“Although a mixed bag of exercise-weight training, running, cycling, are all good – I am convinced that the rowing machine is the single best exercise that most mimics the muscles that surfers use – I am ready to turn 55 & my paddling/endurance has improved dramatically since using this apparatus – I would like to hear what you & other surfers think of rowing machines & what they do for exercise when surf is non-existent. Thanks!”

I am going to answer this as I would answer any question about exercise prescription. My intention is not to disprove or discredit the author’s experience, but perhaps more importantly, to change how this question is posed into something more useful. I am about to change how you think about exercise:
The body knows nothing of muscles, only movement. Principally because this question suffers from something called an “availability bias.”
Think of it like this: if you were told all your life that saturated fat was bad for you, this is the framework from which you would form your decisions about how you shop for food. Naturally, you would look for low-fat options. Sadly, this isn’t remotely true. The initial decision making was solid, it was just based on a false foundation.

Standard fitness practice and therapy models understand the body in isolation, commonly with single joints along with the muscle and connective tissue surrounding that joint. Standard fitness models commonly train muscles in isolation because of this, using a body building mentality, which is one reason why people are so commonly interested in muscle groups. It is easy to understand, and can be taught to just about anybody.

The reality is that the whole of the body works together. It is useful to look at individual parts when you are first learning what goes where, but as soon as you want to stand up and start moving, that analogy mostly gets chucked out the window. What the body does know however, are packets of information known as motor engrams (what you know as muscle memory), which is how your brain and your nervous system understands and interacts with the muscles and fascia in a sequence of firing (contracting and relaxing) as a joined up integrative thing. We can generalize these movements into squatting, lunging, bending, pushing, pulling and twisting exercises. I have written another blog on these movements here, and another specifically for paddling here.

Using basic principles of movement, and muscle joint action, a rowing machine fails pretty badly. I can’t see see any movement on a surfboard that mimics sitting in forward flexion, pushing back with your legs, leaning backwards and drawing your shoulder blades together with both arms at the same time.

The end phase of the pull is the only portion that involves extension and pulling, so you could argue that much, but it would be a lot of misplaced precision, at least in relation to other exercises that are more applicable, like swimming or resistance band training.

But wait! It is useful when you think about biomotor abilities. These are slightly more interesting, and more applicable as you can use this tool to answer your question a little better than simply looking at muscle action on its own.

The rowing machine is on a fixed axis, so therefore requires no real stability to make it work. If you push on it, it will slide (although actually rowing would be a very different thing). It takes a little motor sequencing, but not very much, doesn’t require power or strength loads, has no agility component, requires little-to-no flexibility.

Therefore, the rowing machine is a good way to isolate an endurance load, if you wanted to target that key area. It’s like a body builder isolating a bicep. But much like a body builder’s bicep, if the rest of your body doesn’t know how to use it, it becomes a big, useless muscle.

You will get a generic training response for endurance, but you still get a much better one by actually just swimming, as this now combines both movement skill with the biomotor ability you require. If this weren’t the case, you would commonly see Tour de France winners seriously competing in running marathon events (or lots of Kenyans pedaling up the Col de la Madeleine).

So if you wanted to train for stability, use a stability device like a swiss ball or Indo Board. If you want to train for strength, lift weights. If you want to train for power, throw a medicine ball around. If you want to train for flexibility, do yoga, or better still, improve your specific postural issues. If you want to train for endurance, by all means, pull on a rope repeatedly.

There is NO one single best exercise for surfing, other than surfing. Plain and simple, it is the best exercise you can do to improve your surfing.

If you have questions that you would like to see answered, please email them to me at

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