You probably already know this but surfing is not an easy skill to learn. Learning how to really surf a wave can take weeks or months depending on your skills, fitness, the conditions you learn in, and how often you practice.
I learned to surf at a relatively young age. Back then surfing wasn’t a big thing and there were almost no schools and few foam-top boards around – heck there were few surfers and surfboards in general, at least where I lived.
Nowadays, I see plenty of people of all ages and fitness levels learning to surf, and I’m amazed to see how quickly they start riding waves. Not only has the sport evolved a lot, but also the way it’s taught and learned.
The following are 15 no-BS steps that will help you learn to surf faster. They’re based on my years of experience and observation and coaching of newbie surfer friends. I wish I’d had this guide when I first started, it would have saved me tons of time and energy!
By the way, if you’re learning to surf, you should also check out this post about the best sunglasses I’ve found to actually go surfing with – as opposed to hanging out on the beach!
1. Get in shape
Surfing is physically very demanding. Most newbies think you need strong legs like for skateboarding or snowboarding. In reality, what you need the most for learning is good arms, shoulders, and back.
Why? You’ll be spending 99% of your time paddling on your surfboard in a prone position. After one or two hours of paddling, you’ll be exhausted, and your whole upper body will be very sore the next day.
So how do you prep for learning to surf? If you can, do a mix of push-ups, pull-ups, and dips. Cardio training such as running or jumping rope will also help a lot. And for balance, consider getting a surfskate or at least a balance board.
2. Go bodysurfing
Learning surfers often get in the waves for the first time with their surfboard under their arm. Because they need to learn to stay on the surfboard and paddle it, some difficult skills to master, they don’t get a chance to catch waves until MUCH later. Some give up surfing before they even get to that point.
I started surfing as a natural sequel to bodysurfing at the beach in the summer. Riding waves with your body is very natural. Just get in the water with the swimmers, and try to catch small waves back to the sand with your body in full extension.
Not only is bodysurfing awesome fun, but you really get a deep feel for the wave and the exasct timing for when to push into it. Once inside the wave, you can really feel its energy and momentum and you learn to steer and maintain speed.
When learning to kitesurf, body dragging (getting pulled by your kite in the water without a board) is a crucial step. Likewise, bodysurfing is an absolute requisite for anyone who wants to learn to surf.
3. Get the right gear
Choosing a surfboard is a complex topic, but for learning to surf it’s actually quite simple. You need a soft-top (foamie) surfboard to avoid bruises if getting hit by your board in the waves. If you’re in your 30s or older, see also best surfboard for older surfers.
What’s more, you want a surfboard that floats well enough when you’re lying on top of it, which means it needs to be long and wide enough for your height and weight. If your surfboard is mostly underwater when you’re on it, that will make paddling very hard and even more exhausting.
You also need a leash (leg rope), usually sold with the foamies in starter packs. When you become a more advanced surfer, you’ll pay closer attention to leash thickness and length. For now, a leash will just keep your surfboard from getting pushed back to the sand with every whitewater.
Finally, you may need a wetsuit – unless you live in Hawaii or Bali. If you learn to surf in the summer with warm air and water temps, you may still want a rash guard or neoprene top, maybe with long sleeves, to avoid sunburns and rashes due to prolonged contact with your foam-top surfboard.
4. Pick your beach
When learning to surf, ideally you’ll need a sandy beach with few rocks, small waves, no rips. If you don’t already know a beach where many beginner surfers hang out, just look for a nice swimming beach – the safety requirements for paddling out initially are basically the same as for swimming.
If you have several options, ideally pick a beach sheltered from the wind and which has a sand bottom with a mild slope – as opposed to a sudden drop which can result in harder breaking waves. You want to see small waves that break steadily and gently into soft by lively whitewater.
5. Set up your gear
Once at the beach, first set up your leash on your surfboard. The string that comes with the leash needs to go through your surfboard’s leash plug, and you strap on the other side of the leash to your ankle.
Put on your wetsuit/neoprene top/rash guard. If you’re learning to surf in the summer, don’t forget to splurge your face with abundant sunscreen – the sun is even more harmful in the water due of reflection on water. Consider wearing surf sunglasses to protect your eyes – see my article on choosing good sunglasses for surfing.
If you drove to the beach, you need a system for your car keys. Surfers often hide their car keys behind a wheel – NOT a good idea! I’ve seen surfers get their stuff stolen – one even had his rental car taken.
I have a duplicate of my car key just for opening the door, which I place in the key pocket of my wetsuit – or of my leash if I’m only wearing board shorts, while my original car key stays well hidden inside the car.
I generally put everything in the car trunk and avoid leaving anything visible inside the car, include my board bag, towel etc, so as not to reveal it’s a surfer’s car – they typically contain pricey surfwear and accessories.
Oh and if you have another surfboard, DO NOT leave it in your car in the summer heat at noon, it’ll delaminate and melt away!
6. Stretch & warm-up
People who start learning to surf, especially younger ones, often ignore this step. A beginner surf session is a hard workout, you’ll spend a couple hours engaging your core muscles, arms, back and shoulders trying to stay on your board and paddling – the latter also gives you a serious cardio workout.
To warm up, start with an easy run and some jumping jacks on the sand to get your blood pumping. Do a few squats and standing lunges to warm up your legs, knees, and lower back.
For hips and shoulders, newbie surfers often love to throw their arms around and swiftly rotate their upper body left and right, or bend down and back up. I find these movements too violent and prefer a static warmup which that really get your muscles going strain. Check out Foundation Training, works really great for surfing.
7. Practice popping up on your board
In addition to your stretch and warm-up before going out, you should practice popping up on your surfboard. Draw the shape of your board in the sand, lie down inside the shape, and practice getting up in one pop by pushing off with your hands without your knees touching the sand.
Initially, after popping up you may find yourself in a weird stance with your feet too close or too far from one another. Keep practicing until you land directly in the right stance – your natural surf/skate stance.
Popping up on sand is obviously easier than on your surfboard in the water (much less stable) but it’s very good practice and will help you a lot once you get to the takeoff stage.
8. Learn to paddle on your board
You’re now warmed up and ready to get in the water. Lie down on your surfboard and start paddling with your hands. Learn to balance on your board in prone position on moving water with small waves.
Try to keep your feet close together – balancing feels harder but paddling is more efficient. Take alternate paddle strokes with each hand. Don’t stretch your arms too far out, reaching no further than eye level. Don’t pull your hand too far back, only around hip level.
Practice paddling out across small waves – either lift your head and upper chest up slightly by pushing your upper body up, or flatten yourself on the surfboard to let the wave roll over your head.
9. Paddle into a wave
Practice changing direction while paddling on your surfboard and turning 180º. To turn, take a few strokes on the same side with your hand further away from the surfboard.
While paddling out, spot a wave coming your way and begin to turn the board around paddling to catch the wave. After turning around, start paddling energetically toward the shore when the wave is about 20 feet from you.
As the wave catches up, it lifts you up and your tips your surfboard into the wave, making it pick up momentum. Feel your surfboard glide into the wave and help .
In the wave, stay in prone position and steer your surfboard by pulling on the left or right rail with your hands. Follow the wave all the way until it dies out, resuming paddling whenever you feel you’re loosing momentum.
10. Stand up on your board
This is a big milestones newbies must reach when learning how to surf, getting up on their board in the water. And this is where bodysurfing and practice with popping up will help a lot.
This step starts just like the previous one but this time as you paddle into the wave, instead of staying in prone position, you pop up and stand on the board. Initially you’re likely to fall very quickly.
Many learners put their knees down before getting up. Remember the lessons from the sand and try to pop up in one shot. Crouching and getting low on your surfboard will help you be more stable and stand longer.
11. Learn to turn on your surfboard
Once you’re able to paddle into a wave, pop up to standing position on your board, and ride the board straight until you lose momentum, it’s time to learn to turn in the wave so as to stay ahead of the whitewater, in the green area of the wave.
To turn, you need to slighly shift your body weight onto the board’s rail (edge) on the side of your turning direction – e.g. right rail to turn right. The surfboard moving on the water is very unstable so the weight shift is very subtle.
Start steering your surfboard in the direction of the wave (e.g left in a left-hander wave) as soon as you pop up so you don’t get caught in the whitewater. On the other hand, when in the green area try to stay close enough to the whitewater so you don’t loose energy and speed.
12. Paddle out to the lineup
A major aspect of learning how to surf is acquiring the ability to paddle out through larger-size waves and whitewater. Two crucial skills are involved, strong paddling and duck diving.
Duck diving means diving with your surfboard under an incoming wave, which may be breaking before you or has already broken so you have to dive under the whitewater.
Duck diving involves pushing your board down into the water as deep as possible nose first using your arms, knees, and feet. It’s a very technical skill which the best surfers master perfectly. You can practice that skill in small waves first. Doing push-ups on land will help with this skill.
Effective surfboard paddling is a also crucial for becoming a good surfer. Practice your stroke and duck dive in diverse conditions, including messy waves, currents, and choppy water. These skills make up 50% at least of your surfing abilities.
13. Learn right of way rules
Learning surfers often get cursed at – or worse – for dropping in on other surfers who have the right of way. To avoid getting in trouble with the tribe, and perhaps getting banned from the spot, be sure to learn the rules before catching real waves.
The rules are quite simple: the surfer closest to the peak gets the wave, no other surfer should paddle into a wave if someone is already riding it. As a newbie, it’s very tempting to drop into a nice wave that’s breaking right where you are. However, always check if another surfer is already engaged further up the wave, between you and the peak (origin of the wave).
Sometimes, you may not see the surfer upstream until you already dropped in. If that’s the case, pull out immediately – and apologize when you cross the surfer’s path.
In certain cases, it’s not totally clear where the peak is or who started where and when. Generally, other paddling surfers will act as judges.
In some spots with a narrow peak and limited space, e.g. certain point breaks, there can be a lot of tension among surfers who fight for the waves. As a learning surfer, you’re best off avoiding these spots and instead choosing mellow sand breaks with ample space.
14. Get a real surfboard
At this stage you’re ready for a new surfboard. Foam-tops are great for learning to surf as they reduce the risk of injury and have high floatability, however they soon get in the way of your progress.
A foam-top will typically slow you down for paddling, are slow turning, and float too much for effective duck diving. You now need a hard surfboard with a slimmer shape.
Choosing the right surfboard for you is again a very broad topic. The size and shape depends on your size, your fitness level, and the type of waves you’ll be riding.
Generally speaking, bigger riders need bigger boards – though that may be in terms of length, width, and/or thickness. Fuller surfboard shapes are better-suited for smaller, softer waves, thin narrow shapes are great for faster, hollow waves.
There are also shapes for specific surfing styles – classic, longboard, big wave, skate-style, evolution, etc. The surfboard material – polyester, epoxy, sandwich, carbon, tufflite etc – can also make a difference in the riding feel and the suitability of the board for a specific type of waves.
So yeah, broad topic.
15. Learn to generate speed
Many surfing learners, after acquiring the basic skills of paddling into a wave for takeoff, popping up, turning, and riding the wave in the green, try to work on sexy maneuvers such as off-the-lips or radical snapbacks.
They’ll often go out and invest in an expensive, pro-shaped shortboard with a thin radical outline designed for powerful waves and advanced riding styles seen in hot surf videos.
However, any attempt to do radical bottom and top turns without the ability to generate speed will generally fail. I know because I’ve been there! Past the beginner stage, building up speed in the wave is THE single most important skill you need to improve your surfing.
Generating speed is a combination of correct timing and wave reading, pumping and carving motion with leading shoulder and full-body rotation, and constant positioning near the curl where the wave energy is.
If you’re learning to surf, the above 15 steps are the shortest path to wave riding proficiency. Of course, some of these steps will require time and effort to achieve the target result. Judging from my own experience of learning to surf, however, following the process in this order will reduce your learning curve and make you a real surfer faster than you think.