Category Surf

Pop Up Like A Pro

Each wave is chance to begin again

Words by Rod Perez with Lystra Bisschop

“A’ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hãlau ho’okãhi: one can learn from many sources.” 

This old hHawaiian proverb remind us that learning to pop up like a pro is accomplished in numerous ways.

A “pop-up”, also known as a “snap-to” or “take off”, isn’t like its name suggests. Instead, it’s more of a “flow-through” as surfers don’t jump or snap into position. When a pro performs it-blink and we’ll miss it. Even in slo-mo, their tanned athletic bodies blurt from paddling positions to the iconic sea-god or goddess stance while they’re gliding along the wave. This image has been devoured by surf  fanatics (and non-surfers) for eons. Still, we never tire of surf clips with powerful waves-harnessed by perfect manoeuvres. Would this flawless moves be possible with an average pop-up, and what is it needed to gain that smooth connective flow?

Depending on our age and stage, we may hesitant to ask for help or receive advice to improve something that frustrates us. Is there stigma attached to perfecting a pop-up? Like it’s a kook’s lesson we should’ve already learnt. Although “practice makes perfect” can perfection be relative or even tangible for surfing amateurs, or those of us returning after lengthly absences or surgery? Practising pop-ups is part of the process of getting back in the water after an injury or long-term illness.

Other variables, such as height, weight, shape, strength, ability, core and stability, can also influence the way we take off. And how it looks and feels will define the rest of the ride. For a successful pop-up, we need to know how to paddle and position ourselves on different wave speeds, shapes, and sizes.

Observation is a popular source of learning because we gather information about the process (human activity and behaviour). Do pro surfers pop-up exactly the same way? Watching and analysing how the pros do it, is an important strategy, other than actually surfing.

Although there’s no universal technique, many experts achieve a flawless pop-up through consistent methods that have similarities. Comps in waves pools with waves of similar size, speed, and shape, allow us to record, sloooooow-it-down and analyse what the pros do. Several of them placed their hands down on the board evenly. Others prepare early for the pop-up by placing one hand low on the board with the elbows and/or backs high, and their hips are tuned-ready for the feet to swing into position. Some pros plant their feet simultaneously, like Steph Gilmore, Joel Parkinson, Gabriel Medina, John John Florence and Michel Bourez. Whereas others place their back foot into position nanoseconds before their front: Carissa Moore, Kelly Slater, Kolohe Andino, Jordy Smith, Matt Wilkinson, and Filipe Toledo. All of these pros have a flawless flow with slight variation on how they get there, which can depend on the wave’s speed, size, and shape.

Surfboard selection is another source of knowledge as it can impact performance. Picking the right shape, construction, size and volume, can definitely help. High volume boards give a better flotation, is a paddling, good gliding, and perfect instability that improves the snap into our feet. Time in the ocean helps glide awareness, that is, the moment where there’s enough pedal speed to get us onto a wave when the pop-up is executed.

We tap into three knowledgeable sources: elite surf coaches who break down the pop-up technique. Former CT competitor Jay “Bottle” Thompson shares his highly valued coaching tips: “Always look to the direction where you want to go. Arch your back like a cobra and slide on through, and when your front knee’s hugging your chest line, then plant your feet. Remember eyes are always up.” Having scored a perfect ten on tour (J-Bay South Africa), Jay knows what it takes to pop-up like a pro.” Ocean knowledge and timing is the most challenging and important. It’s ideal to have a good upper body strength and flexibility through to the back, shoulders, and chest.”

Sydney surf coach Matthew Grainger imparts some of his vast knowledge. “A good pop-up is when your feet land light and flat-footed in the correct position on the surfboard. The surfboard also lands or takes off in the correct part of the wave ( top third of the wave if it is a fast wave.)” Matt delves deeper:  “You want the surfboard to be gliding effortlessly and trimming with speed when you land on the board after the pop-up. Make it better: stronger core, mobile hips, shoulder stronger for strength.” Matt’s passion for coaching is evident as he fires off tip after tip. “Have more mobile upper spine region so the front foot glide through-stronger lower lumber region. Mobile neck as well. Good paddling technique as well.” 

Ivan Villaba, a surf coach from Spain, shares from his 20+ years in competitive surfing, “When you are practising, it’s important to keep looking to the front, and not to your chest or hands,” he says. “A good tip is that if you are doing a series of five or 10, try the last one with your eyes closed (keeping your head high) but thinking about what are you doing. When you close your eyes, it’s easy for your body and mind to memorise and understand the movement.”

Practising pop-ups is only beneficial if it is done correctly. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for further failure. Filming our pop-up method is a great starting point, preferably in the water.

Then evaluate the potential problem by asking the right questions: Am I paddling strong enough to manufacture enough speed to get to the gliding stage? Is my board angle down the wave? Do I arch my back or are there strength or mobility problems (that is, I look bunched up)? Do I have any timing problems? Is my core strong or weak? Do I have a smooth transition? Are my hands simultaneously position beneath my chest? Are my arms strong enough to press my body high so there’s enough room for my front leg to swing through? Do my feet hit the deck at the same time or do I step through one  foot at the time, and how balanced am I when that happens? Do I have pain, past injuries or operations, like shoulder, hip, knee, or ankle weakness that impedes the flow of my pop-up?

Once this has been evaluated, it will take time and diligence to train (or re-train) the muscles. Practice it in slow motion until the muscles memorise the right technique, before speeding up the process. We are creating pathways from our brain to our body-memorising that movement until it’s automatic. 

Practising pop-ups on land (in a gym setting or at home) is where most people begin or need to return to after injury. Then, practice pop-ups on a foamie in small surf conditions to drill that muscle and body movement in a real-life scenario with less chance of injury, then on a decent-sized wave.

Yoga poses can help strengthen muscles, extend joint range, and helped develop some muscle memory. But doing yoga, or lifting weights, will not be enough by itself. Getting expert advice on the right training is important.

The more mobility, space, freedom, and power, means the better we move. For example, a tight ankle and hip can make it difficult for the front foot to move forward quickly into the right position. The tightness of the thoracic and shoulder will restrict the arch of the spine, push pattern, trunk rotation and paddling pattern. All these restrictions can not only make us slow but increase the risk of injury. Specific exercises can activate the nervous system to strengthen the right muscles and ligaments to keep the body stable.

There are four main joints: ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder. They are all connected and have an affect on each other during the flow movement, which is called a kinetic chain. In order for the body to connect and work in harmony, it’s crucial to do core exercises.

A strong core enhances balance and stability as well as preventing injuries, such as, lower back pain and neck pain. When our core is weak, our bodies will compensate-creating dysfunctions like poor posture, poor balance, low endurance for standing, shortness of breath, and others. Core is needed so there’s flow in the synergy chain across the body between the lower and upper limbs.

Body strengthening and conditioning for take-offs isn’t just for beginners (or kookslammers). Surfing improves with small consistent steps-more flexibility will make a significant difference. Improving our pop-ups means one step closer to that flowing style. Blink, and we’ll miss it-that blurry miracle of gliding on water (or depending on your diligence: going heinie over head over heinie over head, ‘till we’re spewed on the beach and shuffling to the car). Here’s to new beginnings.


The Below Video is a great discussion with a good friend Brad Geralch regarding surfing, pop ups and surf movement.