paddling surfboard


The Proper Paddle Technique Explained

Paddling is arguably the most important aspect of surfing. In fact, we probably spend 90% of our time in the water on our stomachs paddling, not on our feet riding waves. So, whether you are you a beginner surfer who can’t seem to figure out a natural paddle technique, or you’re an intermediate or an advanced surfer who always seems to run out of steam on tough paddle outs, improving your paddle technique will ensure you have a better time in the water.

how to paddle on a surfboard


Either way, this article how to paddle on a surfboard is for you. Learn the proper technique that will have you gliding, streamlined on top of the water’s surface, and save your shoulders from that dreaded burnout pain. Whether you’re paddling out right in front of our Caribbean surf camp, or your surfing at home, these tips will help get you to the lineup as quickly as possible, fresh, and ready surf.


1. Start with a proper warmup

Paddling can be a bit of a workout, so you should warm up accordingly. Either when you hit the sand, or before you head out of the surf camp. When you paddle, you engage your shoulders and upper back, so be sure your warm-up activates both of those muscle groups.

Additionally, when you paddle, sit in the line-up, and ride waves, your hips are in a closed and locked position. It is crucial for longevity to perform exercises and stretches that will open your hips.

2. Timing is everything, don’t rush

When you arrive at the beach and strap your leash on, don’t just sprint into the water and start paddling madly. Relax, sit down, maybe stretch a bit, but most importantly watch the water.

What are the waves doing? How often are sets coming? Is there a channel to paddle out in? These are all things you must ask yourself and answer before entering the water. Wait for a lull between sets, and head into the water. Walk your board out until you’re in about chest deep water and then hop on and paddle.

surf paddle technique
surf paddle technique

3. Position yourself on the board correctly

Bad positioning plagues many beginner surfers, causing unnecessary drag and therefore hardship during their paddle out. If you’re too far towards the back of the board, the nose of your board will tilt up in the air, slowing your paddle.

Contrastingly, if you’re too far forward on your board, the nose of the board will sink underwater causing unnecessary drag. Find that sweet spot on your board, where the nose is gliding just above the surface, in calm water and remember where you are in reference to a marking on the board (like the logo).

4. Elongate your reach with each stroke

Like swimming, when you learn how to paddle on a surfboard, your body should be as long and stretched out as possible.

With each stroke, you should extend your arm to its furthest possible length. Short and rapid movements will leave you exhausted, while long reaching strokes will send you forward, gliding efficiently over the surface of the water.

5. Move slowly

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast?” It applies directly to paddling. If you’re at a full sprint trying to paddle out, you won’t make it. You will tire long before you reach the lineup. Slow and smooth long reaching strokes will propel you quickly and efficiently.

7. Don’t overreach on the follow through

Surf Paddle training
Pool paddle training at Swell
When you’re executing the “pull” phase of your paddle stroke, be sure not to drag your hands too far back causing downward (not forward) momentum that will slow your paddle. To execute proper paddle technique, pull your stroke back to chest level, then lift your arm straight out of the water and repeat. When you pull further than your chest, the last portion of your stroke will push your board downward causing you to lose your momentum with each stroke.

8. Keep your elbows high

If you watch 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater paddle, you’ll notice how effortlessly he moves through the water. Part of his technique that stands out is that he consistently keeps his elbows high. From the moment Kelly brings his hands out of the water, to the moment he extends his reach, he leads with a high elbow. Keeping your elbows high will increase the effectiveness of each stoke, by keeping your hand and forearm in the vertical position from the start of the stroke. Essentially, it will allow you to move more quickly with less effort.

9. Drag your thumbs

This tip goes hand in hand with the previous tip of keeping your elbows high. If you keep your elbows high, your hands will naturally be low. The idea here is to not bring your hands too far out of the water. When your hand exits the water, it should almost drag on the surface next to you as you bring it forward for the next stroke. By dragging, or nearly dragging, your thumbs in the water as you bring your hands forward for each stroke, you save energy by not engaging your traps. This will allow you to paddle harder for longer and prevent you from burning out due to soreness.

10. Keep your legs and feet in control

While it may be instinctual to kick and try to propel yourself forward, it will actually slow you down. Instead, keep your feet together with your ankles side by side as you paddle. While kicking your feet might help shift your weight forward to actually catch a wave you’re paddling for, when you’re paddling out you do not want your weight too far forward. So, keep those feet still!

11. Keep Your Head Still

Again, if you watch world champ surfer Kelly Slater paddle, his head is still. This may seem inconsequential, but it has a tremendous effect on speed and efficiency in the water. Any swimmer will tell you that keeping your head still will keep your weight centered, not moving it from side to side, reducing drag and increasing speed. The same principle obviously applies to surfing. If your head moves to you right, your body will follow, taking you off your trajectory, digging your rail into the water, and ultimately slowing you down.

12. Your spine is your fulcrum

Similarly, to swimming when you paddle, your spine acts as a fulcrum as your body moves ever so slightly from side to side with each stroke. This slight movement is not intentional, but a byproduct of the reach. To ensure you’re moving correctly, it is best to envision you are moving with a metal rod going through your body from head to tailbone. As stated previously, your head should stay still while you reach out each stroke.

13. Spot the wave and react

The final step to a good paddle out is a proper duck dive or turtle roll. As you paddle out, constantly look out to sea for oncoming waves. When you spot a wave headed your direction, whether it is whitewater or a cresting wave, you’ll want to initiate your duck dive or turtle roll approximately 2 meters from the breaking wave.

Video how to paddle on a surfboard

Just like with any aspect of surfing, practice makes perfect. The best exercise for increased paddle strength and efficiency is paddling out to surf as often as possible. Now that you’ve learned how to perfect your paddle technique, take the next step in progression and learn to properly duck dive and turtle roll by checking out our blog on paddling out!

This article on how to paddle on a surfboard is part of the surf technique series for beginners.
Other articles in this series are:

More info on external websites about how to paddle on a surfboard:

Paddle like Kelly Slater

Interested in learning all the essentials of surfing in an action packed water sport holiday in the Caribbean? Have a look at the surf holiday packages we offer, inlcluding our 1 week learn to surf holiday

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  • “Think of Swell as the anti-surf camp. There’s plenty of surfing, of course, but the similarities to other surf camps end there. For starters, the rooms are stylish — more boutique surf retreat than reggae-loving surfer digs. Then there are the legendary breakfasts (omelets, pancakes and crepes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and fruit bowls). Structured surf lessons take place each morning, with an instructor alongside you and the head surf coach watching from shallow water, ready to offer learn to surf tips between riding waves. If you are serious about learning to surf, then Swell should be on top of your destination list. Highly recommended!

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    Designed with the discerning surfer in mind, Swell is far from a crash pad. The spare clean lines, plush bedding, modern photographs and funky furniture say ‘boutique surf retreat’ but the pool, ping-pong and foosball tables and social vibe suggest otherwise. A huge wood communal table is the center of the hanging-out action, after all the surfing is done. Highly recommended!

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