Surfing Tips for Beginners

Man and woman practicing surfing on the beach

Getty Images / Dougal Waters

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Maybe you've always dreamed of catching a wave—or maybe you were inspired by surfing's debut in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Either way, it's a great time to learn the water sport.

Surfing involves riding the waves while you're upright on a surfboard. The sport originated on the Hawaiian Islands about 200 years ago. Today, there are a couple of different types commonly practiced:

  • Shortboard surfing: Boards that are under 7 feet long are known as shortboards. They're easy to maneuver, which makes them great for doing tricks.
  • Longboard surfing: This style, also known as Malibu surfing, refers to using a wide board that's more than 9 feet long. Longboards are very stable and, therefore, less maneuverable.

Here's what to know about the benefits of surfing, plus tips to get started.

Benefits of Surfing

John Gardner, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer and CEO of Kickoff —an online fitness coaching platform—says he's always happy when a client is interested in surfing. It's a great activity, he says, for numerous reasons:

  • Paddling into the water provides a robust cardio workout.
  • Surfing strengthens the shoulder and back muscles.
  • It improves balance and coordination.
  • It helps strengthen the core and legs, which need to be fully engaged in order to keep standing up on the board.
  • It's a lot of fun and a great mood booster.
  • It's an excellent full-body workout, as it engages all the muscles during the activity.

Jack Craig, a certified personal trainer with Inside Bodybuilding, adds that surfing is "an excellent workout that's relatively low-impact, despite the exertion that comes with it." Plus, it's exhilarating, he points out, which encourages many people to stick with it, as opposed to a less exciting activity.

"The best part about surfing is that the early basics are pretty easy to learn, and you only need your body or a low-cost boogie board to master them," Craig says. "After learning the surfing basics, you can try getting onto a longboard, which is the last step of learning how to surf."

How to Get Started

Just like every other new activity, learning how to surf requires adaptability and determination. You probably won't be perfect the first day you take to the water, but that doesn't mean your skills won't improve with practice.

Strengthen Your Upper Body and Core Muscles

All these muscles will be utilized while you're surfing, and you'll find adjusting to the sport much easier if you've already been focused on strengthening them, Gardner says. Stretching regularly can also help. Consider working with a personal trainer to develop a targeted program that will help you prepare for surfing.

Take a Class

There are many options for surf instructors in areas where the sport is popular. Google your options, or ask surfers you see on the beach where they learned and if they have any recommendations. Taking classes is a helpful way to learn and perfect the fundamentals of surfing.

Practice on a Foam Surfboard

This tends to be a better idea than learning on a traditional polyurethane (PU) board, says Marc Bromhall, founder of Beginner Surf Gear. Newbies are "always surprised by how hard, yet fragile PU boards are," he notes. "They’re very easy to ding, even when you're walking them from the beach back to the car. But at the same time, they can inflict serious damage if they come into contact with another surfer at speed."

A soft top (foam) surfboard is easier to carry and much safer to use in the surf, Bromhall says. "Don't forget that as a beginner, you're going to be falling off the board a lot," he says. "Once you’ve got the hang of surfing and are comfortable handling your board in the water, you can move onto a traditional hard top board."

Get Comfortable in the Water

"Every wave isn’t going to be great, so learning how to recognize good opportunities and bad ones is the first step," Craig says. "Now, you don't want to learn to read waves by watching pro surfers in competition—unless you live in California it’s unlikely your waves will look like that. Instead, see if you can find local surfing clubs or amateur surfers in your area on YouTube, and learn how they study the surf and assess the waves."

Wear a Rash Guard and Sunscreen

This will prevent skin irritation from the surfboard and, of course, sunburn, says Alex Fogg, Coastal Resource Manager at Destin-Fort Walton Beach in Florida. It's important every single time you hit the water.

Wear a Leash

"No, I'm not referring to a dog leash," Fogg says. "I'm talking about a tether from the surfer to the board." This prevents the surfboard from floating or "riding" away when you fall off after riding a wave. he says. Without it, your board could harm others by hitting them.

Seek Out Friendly Waves

You don't want to be staring down a 6-foot wave on day one. Instead, "practice at a beginner’s spot where the waves are more friendly and it’s easier to focus on technique without exerting too much effort," Gardner says.

 Practice the Pop-Up on Land

When you eventually hit the water, you'll have to do a pop-up, which is like a push-up, to get onto your feet. Practicing it on land can help you get better at the motion—which will soon become muscle memory. You can also try the move in a pool or waveless water, Gardner suggests. And a tip: "Bend your knees when popping up, and not your back."

Use Lots of Surf Wax

It's "a beginner surfer's best friend," says Dylan Sims, head instructor for Ride On Surf School in Destin, Florida. Wax gives you traction so you can stay on the board while you're surfing the wave, he explains. Waxing your board before attempting to surf could help give you that extra bit of grip when you're struggling to balance.

Don’t Give Up

Take this advice from Gardner to heart: You will wipe out, many times while learning to surf. Everyone does. Be persistent, and keep working at it, and soon you'll be riding the waves as you imagined.

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  1. What Is Surfing? Academy of Surfing Instructors.