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  • Mitchell Rothbardt

Surfs Up!

A few weeks ago, my friend Ross asked me if I would write up a program designed to help him with surfing. This is actually pretty interesting for a few reasons. You see, there is bit of controversy in the fitness world about training on what are called “unstable surfaces”. Unstable surfaces are the things you see at the gym like the Bosu Balls and stability balls.

Bosu ball

A few years ago doing exercises while standing on these types of things was all the rage. It was considered “functional” training. It was thought to activate the core and increase balance. What we know about this now (Eric Cressey has written extensively about this is that it really doesn’t do anything. In fact it may actually hinder athletic development to train like this due to the fact that your force production is extremely compromised. In other words, you simply can’t move much weight while standing on one of these things. The current thinking really makes sense when you think about it. When do you have to adjust, with both feet, to the actual surface you are standing on? When a running back makes a cut, for example, they certainly need dynamic balance because they are moving, but they are not just standing still. It just has no carryover. The only sport I could think of where this might not be the case was surfing.

My issue with surfing was that I have never even been on a surfboard before and, as such, I wasn’t really familiar with the unique demands of that sport. I thought that maybe this was a situation where a case could actually be made for using unstable surface training. What I decided to do was go to, which is an outstanding website for fitness professionals. A lot of very experienced professional coaches post on that site and are, thankfully, always ready to help. Anyway, I put up this post:

Hello. I have a client who is a surfer and wants me to write a program for him. I know generally what I want to do. Standing compound exercises, thoracic mobility, emphasis on core, etc. My question is, would this sport be one where using those silly bosu balls and other unstable surfaces might make sense? The argument against is usually that the client is not performing on an unstable surface while playing football, basketball, etc. but in this case they are. Any thoughts?

What I got back was very interesting. A poster by the name of Aaron Brooks wrote this:

Are you a fellow surfer? I would include rotary exercises. Just because you have to balance on a surf board does not mean you should do balance training. Most surfers do not have that issue, that is if they already know how to surf. Beginners are different. Surfers will need more explosive type movements, hip and ankle mobility and again rotary type exercises. Surfers’ main concern is paddling and catching the wave, having the ability to explode up from a prone position and stick the feet position. Next it is about having the ability to make abrupt turns as snapping off the lip of a wave and if they are lucky enough to catch a long ride have the muscular endurance to finish the wave. Hope that helps. I have worked with top professional and recreational surfers in San Diego.


That was very interesting to me and something that I hadn’t thought of. As far as training, though, it certainly makes sense. Think of it this way: We know that the best way to master a certain skill is to practice that specific skill. That’s called the “Specificity Principle.” To apply that to this, if you are at the point in your surfing ability that you can’t perform the basic task of effectively balancing on the surfboard, you should be surfing to work on that. It is a task that is intrinsic to that activity. To use another sport as an example, you wouldn’t try to think of another excersise to help you learn to catch a baseball, you would just play catch. The gym is to help with more general traits that can be improved, such as strength and conditioning. In other words, a good training program can help you balance more effectively or catch a baseball better, but it can’t help you if you don’t know how to do those tasks to begin with.

Ross had also mentioned to me that he was having some shoulder issues due to sitting at a computer desk typing all day. If you have read about these kinds of issues much you know that if he has some shoulder issues from sitting all day, odds are he also has some hip flexor tightness and therefore some postural issues in his hips and therefore his low back. What this meant as far as writing the program was that I needed to focus on a few things. For the surfing aspect: explosive exercises, shoulder conditioning, rotary exercises, core strength and stability. For the postural stuff, thoracic mobility, hip mobility, scapular stability. Really, to a large extent I was looking at hips and shoulders. Sound familiar?

I asked Ross how many days a week and how long he could spend in the gym and I also asked him if he had any other injuries. He gave me those answers and I went to work.

I decided to divide everything into a four-day push-pull split. That way even if he only went three days a week he could still just keep going through Day 1, 2, 3, 4. I knew that I wanted each day to have a core rotation and stability exercise and I also knew that I wanted hips and glutes to get worked in some fashion each day. I came up with a plan that also included lat-pulldowns and some overhead pressing until I thought that if Ross had some shoulder issues, he might also have a shoulder impingment which would give him some pain when lifting his arms overhead. It turns that this was the case so I decided to take out all of the overhead moves and replace them with different rowing variations. It meant that the pushing days would have a pulling exercise, but they would all be different variations. I used seated rows, standing rows, face pulls, and inverted rows. What this will hopefully accomplish is strengthening the muscles in the trapezius and the serratus areas as well as others, to help bring the scapula back to optimal position. It will help counteract the fact that the shoulders are in front of him all day in internal rotation.

Some additional aspects of the program are only a 60 second rest between sets, (for conditioning purposes), as well as a Mobility Circuit for a warm-up and some cardio work at the end which alternated between 10 minutes of intervals at a 20 second work/40 second rest protocol on one day and 20 minutes of steady state cardio at his target heart rate the next.

The mobility circuit is a series of stretches/movements that help develop range of motion and mobility in the major joints in our bodies. Mainly hips and shoulders. It is something that sometimes gets neglected, although it should be a very important part of every training session. For Ross I made sure that it had a good helping of shoulder work. Basically the circuit functions as a warmup although I don’t like to refer to it as that. In most people’s minds a warmup is something that gets rushed through so the “real” work can begin. The reality, however, is that for many people this circuit is more important than the “main” workout. At least at first. For Ross, as with many people, the purpose of it is really to get the hips and shoulders mobile in the proper way again. To get the hips and shoulders out of the flexed position that they are continually in.

I programmed the cardio work alternating an interval day with a steady state day mainly because doing intervals more than twice a week is very tough at first.

Another thing to realize is that this program is really only for one month of training, assuming he does four workouts a week. I have ideas about how I would like to build upon what we have, but I won’t know specifically how that will go until I get feedback from Ross on how the program is working. There is a very good chance that things will need to be adjusted before the full cycle is complete. Like many things, you just don’t really know how something may or may not work until it is tried. The program will change as he adapts to it and as his goals and condition change.

Here is the program listed out:

Day 1:

A1 Squat 3 sets of 8 A2 Push-Ups 3 sets of 12 B1 Walking Dumbell Lunge 3 sets of 10 C1 Seated Cable Row-Neutral Grip 3 sets of 10 D1 Plank 3 sets of 30 sec. D2 Corkscrew 3 sets of 12

Day 2:

A1 Deadlift 3 sets of 8 Reps B1 Standing Cable Row 3 sets of 10 Reps B2 Cable Rotation 3 sets of 12 Reps C1 Pull Through 3 sets of 12 Reps D1 Curl-Grip Lat Pulldown 3 sets of 10 Reps E1 Side Bridge 3 sets of 30 sec.

Day 3:

A1 Windmill Lunge 3 sets of 3 Reps B1 Standing Cable Chest Press 3 sets of 8 Reps C1 Dumbell Jump Shrug 3 sets of 8 Reps C2 Plank 3 sets of 30 sec. D1 Face-Pull 3 sets of 12 Reps D2 Reverse Wood Chop 3 sets of 12 Reps

Day 4:

A1 One-Leg Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift 3 sets of 10 Reps B1 Suitcase Deadlift 3 sets of 8 Reps C1 Inverted Row 3 sets of 10 Reps D1 Burpees 3 sets of 15 Reps D2 Cable Rotation 3 sets of 12 Reps E1 Reverse Crunch 3 sets of 12 Reps

The letters beside the exercise (A1, B1) represent the order of exercises. When you see A1, A2 that means you do one set of the A1 exercise and then one set of the A2 exercise then back to A1 etc.

Well, that’s about it. I hope I was able to get across the steps I went through to design this program. It is really the kind of detail and work that I intend to put into each program I write. People are different. Their goals, their bodies, their needs. You can’t just write one program for everybody. There are certainly principles that are universal, but how you apply them is different for everyone.

Please let me know if you have any comments or questions at all. You can leave comments in the comments section here or email me at I promise to answer you back. I would really love to be able to do a mailbag post, but I need questions for it.

Talk to you soon.

Mitchell Rothbardt (coming soon)

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