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Surfing 101

Surfing Paddling Technique

Tips to make your paddle stroke stronger and faster

Proper surfing paddling technique is one of the most important skills when learning how to surf. You spend most of your time paddling around during your session. Having the right technique will make your paddling more effective and less tiring.

If you have good paddling technique you will catch more waves and surf better overall because you’ll be catching the waves earlier.

Paddling is also a full body workout!  Almost all of your muscles are engaged when paddling, including your back, core, glutes, not to mention arms and upper body/shoulders.  Even your lower legs are engaged to keep them still and not dragging through the water.

Find the Board’s Sweet Spot

You should lie on the board so that the nose is only a few inches above the water. If you lay too far back on the board and the nose is way up in the air, your board wont plane across the surface and you’ll be pushing against the water. On the other hand, if you’re too far forward and the nose is under the water, you won’t go anywhere and you’ll probably just end up falling off or pearling. Most beginners make the mistake of being too far back on their board.

This is called laying on the “sweet spot” of the board, where the board will plane through the water with the least amount of resistance. Each board will have a slightly different sweet spot.

find your surfboards sweet spot

Arch Your Back a Bit When Paddling out to the Lineup

Once you’ve got yourself lying at the right spot on your board, the next step is to arch your back a bit so your weight is on the bottom of your rib cage. Your feet should be together and lifted out of the water so they don’t drag. This position is sometimes hard for beginners to maintain because of the muscles involved. You’re going to get tired quickly, but you’ll soon build up the necessary back muscles.

woman in black long sleeve shirt in water
Slight comfortable arch in your back when paddling around the lineup

Proper Arm Stroke

The arm stroke itself should be deep. Don’t “lily-dip!” Girls and women tend to be guilty of not extending their arms fully down into the water, but guys do it too! Girls do have the disadvantage of less upper body strength, but that doesn’t seem to stop the women’s pro surfers from ripping! As you paddle more, you’ll build up your muscles.

Check out my favorite YouTuber, Noel Salas, discuss how to paddle faster:

How to Surf Better Series "Paddle Faster" Ep 1How to Surf Better Series “Paddle Faster” Ep 1

Reach your arm fully out towards the nose of the board, cup your hands with your fingers spread apart just a little (don’t fully close your fingers), and bring your arm down through the water making a small “S” shape that goes slightly under your board. This is the most efficient way to paddle and is utilized by none other than Kelly Slater himself. Learn from the best!

Shift Your Weight Forward when Paddling to Catch a Wave

When you’re paddling to catch a wave and you need to get up to speed and get the board gliding fully, you will want to shift your weight forward, lose the arch in your back that you use to paddle around the lineup, and drive into your paddle strokes.

A good tip to get you in the right position for this is to touch your chin to the board.  This will get the board gliding at full speed when getting into a wave.  When I’m paddling hard to get into a wave I sometimes jam my chin into the board so much I have a bruise the next day – obviously you don’t have to injure your chin, but you get the point.

This is sometimes more difficult to master for beginners, as beginners have a tendency to overdo the forward position and pearl/nose dive.  Keep practicing.

Paddling in the head down/body shifted forward is not ideal for paddling around the lineup, which is why it’s good to also develop strength in your back to arch up a little and keep your head up.  Much easier on your neck!

surf paddling technique
Weight shifted forward to paddle into a wave

Keep Your Head Still

Keeping a still head when paddling helps to reduce excessive movement that produces drag.  You don’t want your body moving all over the place as it will cause the board to move around in the water causing excess drag.  You want your body and head as still as possible while paddling in order to streamline the board into forward movement.

More Paddling Tips:

Don’t use a butterfly stroke, where you paddle with both arms at the same time. It’s not really necessary, and you lose speed when you bring both arms out of the water. It’s more beneficial to constantly have an arm pulling you. If you make your strokes deep and powerful, you’ll need less strokes to gain speed. Sometimes you see people windmilling their arms at a thousand miles per hour, splashing around like a wounded seal, but they’re not really gaining much extra momentum. In fact, they’re probably slowing themselves down. Calm, deliberate strokes are the key. It also looks much better!

Practice in the whitewater first

Before you try to paddle to the outside, past the breaking waves, practice your paddling technique on the inside in the whitewater.

Once you’re good at pushing the board for momentum in the whitewater, you can start to try and paddle to gain momentum. As the whitewater comes towards you, climb on the board and start paddling towards shore. Once the whitewater catches you, grab the rails and hang on!

Use Your Back And Lats

Using your back and lateral muscles to help paddle will give you a stronger paddle stroke.  You’ll be relying less on your shoulder muscles to carry all the load.

Remember: Proper paddling technique is a huge piece of being a good surfer.

If you’re looking for our guide on learning how to surf, click here!

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

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[…] the sport you should try. One primary activity that most surfers do when out in the water is paddling. When paddling, your body is in a “plank” position. Paddling requires a lot of upper […]

Tone Def
Tone Def
13 years ago

Good discussion. I’ve never been a good paddler, and I can see some of the things I’m doing wrong now. That said, I mainly surf beach breaks, and whenever it gets above 4 foot, (1.5-2m) you will not get past the breakers unless you use your water knowledge and follow the rips out. Even if you can paddle straight out through the breakers, you will be so exhausted that your surf time will be curtailed. Another point I wanted to discuss was the use of kicking to assist in gaining forward momentum. Has anyone else found, when riding a shorter board, (<6 ft) that kicking can increase paddling speed particularly when getting on waves? I don't kick so much to get out back unless I get caught inside and am sprinting to beat the next set that's looming on the horizon….

13 years ago

For those who are asking about the S-shape paddle, I won’t go into how it’s done (other commenters have already gone into this), but it might help to understand it’s purpose.

Paddling in an S-shape underwater increases the effective amount of time that your hand is pushing against water, meaning you’re increasing the volume of water moved with each stroke. More water pushed per stroke = less strokes needed = increased efficiency = more fun! 😀

14 years ago

If you click on my name, you can see information on a pretty good fitness program designed specifically for surfers. The upper body and core exercises will make a big difference with your paddling.

14 years ago

Thanks for the explanation of the S technique 🙂

p. claire
14 years ago

when you are paddling for a wave, paddle like you mean it.

no pussyfootin’ around….or you are not going to catch that wave.

14 years ago

Awesome explanation Justin!! that helped out a ton.

14 years ago

I’ve tried the S-pull, and it works quite well. The way I like to think about it is this:

1. After your hand enters the water in front of you, let it sink a bit and start to pull it back toward your head – this is the start of the “S” near the rail on that side.
2. As it approaches your headline, bend your elbow and bring the hand to a “salute” (but under the board) – this is the first curve of the “S”.
3. Continue to pull, elbow bent, under your shoulder and toward the back.
4. As your hand approaches the end of the stroke, let it curve back out toward the rail – the second curve of the “S”.

Other important things:
-Slice your hand into the water at the beginning of the pull instead of slapping it.
-Make sure to reach as far forward as you can at the start and end the stroke as far back as you can. A lot of power will come from the length of the stroke.
-You’re not just using your hands to pull; make sure to feel the water against your forearms as well.
-Likewise, don’t just use your arm strength; use your back and core muscles as well.

I hope that makes sense. The main thing is not to “windmill” your arms through the water. Good paddling involves pulling back on the water, not pushing down on it.

Brian Vanek
Brian Vanek
14 years ago

I would imagine it would be drive your hand in near the nose then pull it out and around like an S so that your hand is exiting the water at the end of the S by your hip. Left hand would be an actual S shape, Right hand would be a mirror image almost like a round Z. I Usually used a U shape but I will try the S next time I am out

14 years ago

I would like to also ask for a clarification on the S stroking pattern.

14 years ago

Firstly, I love this guide, it is unbelievably useful. I am wondering, however, if you could clarify the S stroking pattern, I am having trouble picturing exactly what that means.

Geoff Ward
14 years ago

Good advise dude

Matt Mackay
14 years ago

Thanks, that’s good advise.. I didn’t know about the S pattern.. I’ll try it. I’m new to surfing and I find that paddling is the hardest part. I have little trouble getting into a wave and even standing up, but paddling out past the breaks kicks my butt.

I guess I have to get into better shape too..


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