How Surfers Can Avoid Shoulder Injury

By Corey Rovzar, DPT at One Nine Sports Medicine in Solana Beach

Summer is officially here, which means surfers can count on consistent south swell along California’s coast line. With plenty of waves and warmer ocean temps, surfing activity increases significantly over these summer months, and with this the potential for shoulder and neck injuries. Paddling accounts for over 80% of all the activity taking place during surfing, so it makes sense that many surfing injuries would occur with this motion. Here, we discuss some tips to keep you paddling strong and with good form to prevent injury. But first, let’s break down the basics of paddling. It turns out paddling a surfboard is a lot like freestyle swimming with the following phases:

1. Catch: moment when the hand enters the water

2. Pull: moving the arm through the water

3. Exit: transition between the hand in the water to out of the water

4. Recovery: motion of the arm in the air up until the catch

Poor shoulder mechanics during any one of these phases can lead to injury.

Most of these injuries are due to the repetitive nature of paddling which, if done with poor form, can compromise structures in our shoulders. Here are a couple of things you can do to allow for optimal position of your shoulder during paddling:

1. Keep elbow bent during the catch phase

This will allow for less demand on the rotator cuff muscles. In addition, make sure your hand enters the water fingers first rather than thumb first. Thumb first entry positions internally rotates the shoulder which can sometimes cause a pinching sensation in the shoulder.

2. Utilize the shoulder blade during exit phase

In physical therapy, we say we want to see retraction of the scapula combined with glenohumeral (the shoulder) extension happening synchronously to get your shoulder back. This means that as your shoulder moves back to get your arm out of the water, your shoulder blade is moving back at the same time.

3. Maintain synchronous movement during recovery

As the shoulder moves overhead, the shoulder blade maintains it position and rotates forward with the shoulder just before the catch phase.

What does your body need to accomplish this technique?

Mobility - Especially, extension and rotation of the thoracic spine, scapulothoracic joint (the point of contact between the shoulder blade and the rib), and glenohumeral joint. See our post about the importance of mindful mobility.

Strength - Rotator cuff and the muscles that help stabilize your shoulder blade

Neuromuscular control (the unconscious trained response of a muscle) - It could be that you have adequate mobility and the strength but you may not be using them properly while paddling. This can be trained!


These are just a few tips to keep you injury-free this Summer. Prevention is always ideal, but if you are experiencing pain or difficulty in your shoulder or neck in your sport, we recommend seeing a physical therapist.

More about Corey

Schedule Free Trial 

Schedule your next appointment with Corey

Solana Beach, CA 92075

(858) 848-6639


Dr. Dave Gerbarg

Dr. Dave Gerbarg is the President and Physical Therapist at One Nine Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy in Solana Beach. He specializes in sports medicine for teenage and adolescent athletes.