15 August, 2013 15 August, 2013

Dry-Docked – (Shoulders) Looking After Your Paddle Power

You’d be astonished at the distance covered by surfers while paddling out for a session, and back out for another wave, and then repeating that as many times as we can till our arms feel like noodles.


That’s before mentioning all the paddling in one spot we’re doing as we fight the rip. So, depending on how many waves we’re catching, and at which spot (J-Bay for instance), it’s not impossible to believe that you’ve covered a few kilometres each session.

The point is that, as surfers, our shoulders get worked hard, and it’s not uncommon that we feel varying degrees of shoulder pain.

To explain how we can avoid being dry-docked by a bum shoulder, we asked Durban-based biokineticist, Schalk van der Merwe, to tell us more.


SHOULDER-CHARGED – Looking After Your Paddle Power
by: Schalk van der Merwe

So Dungeons has recently delivered the swell of the decade, and while the rest of us around the coastline marvel at the heroics of those who were ballsy enough to surf it, I can’t help but imagine how many surfers used the line, “I’d totally be out there if it wasn’t for my dodgy shoulder”.


Standing in the car-park watching fellow surfers frothing while they wax up their boards and get ready to paddle out into cooking surf is less than ideal, especially so when you are injured. What’s worse is knowing that it may be weeks before you can join them in the lineup again.

Surfing, like any sport, is best enjoyed when you are injury free. Whether you are preparing to paddle out into a ‘once in a lifetime’ swell, or at your local break on an average day, you don’t want to have to worry about aches, pains and niggles ruining your mojo out there.

The key with shoulder pain is to understand why as surfers we get it, and how to manage, treat and prevent it from coming back

Ever heard of the Rotator Cuff? Let’s have a quick look at what this consists of.


Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis, Teres Major & Teres Minor muscles that keep the ball of the arm bone in the correct position in the socket. They are extremely important in maintaining the stability and strength of your shoulder.

Most rotator cuff injuries occur from paddling incorrectly.

As surfers, we get over-developed shoulder muscles. This imbalance is actually what could be the root cause of the injury in the first place. When we paddle, we have a tendency to stroke and then pull our arms inward and toward our body. Repeating that motion for years will actually alter the natural alignment of our shoulders. This will lead to pain and discomfort.

Think of your rotator cuff as a wheel on a bike. If your wheel is out of alignment, it’ll begin rubbing up against the fork of your bike. At first, it might not be that big a deal, but over time, that wear and tear will make riding your bike harder, until one day, you physically just can’t do it anymore.


“But bru, what can I do about it?” I hear you asking.

From a rehabilitation point of view, there are the obvious things that one can do to alleviate the symptoms of a sore shoulder. Rest is the obvious one, but hey, I am yet to find a surfer who gladly accepts enforced time out of the water. Ice packs, anti-inflammatories and heat packs – these all work well, but are all short-term solutions to a potentially long-term problem.

You’re constantly pulling your shoulders forward in the water and over time, if you’re not actively working to correct it, your shoulders and posture will begin mimicking what you’re doing in the water on land.

As a Biokineticist, I would look at trying to correct any postural and muscle imbalances that occur. Everything is linked, and tight chest muscles or under-developed back muscles could lead to shoulder problems. It is important to have a proper assessment done to identify the root cause of the problem.

As mentioned in Dry-Docked before, a good program focussing on core strength and flexibility will go a long way in keeping you stoked and in prime shape to charge, whether it be at South Beach or Dungeons.




Schalk van der Merwe is a qualified Durban based biokineticist, who has extensive experience in working with rehabilitation of orthopedic injuries. Not only has he worked with many of SA’s surfing elite, but also has helped with the conditioning and rehabilitation of high profile sportsman and woman in all sporting codes. When he is not out at backline, you will find him at Kings Park Sports Medicine Centre (Glenwood Branch).



If you’ve got a surfing injury that needs some attention, why not try contacting one of Zag’s friendly neighbourhood biokineticists:

For KZN:
Schalk van der Merwe

For Boland:
Philip Nel
Le Roux and Nel Biokineticists


  1. brent
    18 August, 2013 at 10:15 am · Reply

    Hey – thanks for the article. Any suggested links on “good paddling technique” and cross training exercises to prevent imbalances in the shoulder?

  2. Schalk
    2 October, 2013 at 1:55 pm · Reply

    Hey Brent, Send me your email address and I will give you some feedback. schalkvandermerwe340@gmail.com Stoked to hear from you and help sort out you shoulders

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