Can’t Pop Up on a Surfboard? 10 Common Mistakes

The pop up is one of the most important skills in surfing. Surfers usually practice the pop up for the first time on the beach because it is a great way to learn to stand up on level ground.

Once you are in the ocean it becomes far more more difficult to pop up when you are lying on an unstable surfboard and speeding towards the beach.

I was helping a friend learn to surf and she asked, “Why Can’t I Pop up? What am I doing Wrong?”

Learning to pop up from a prone position to a standing position is one of the hardest movements to master in surfing. The most common mistakes include not being ready, miss-timing the push up, popping up to your knees, incorrect foot position and looking at your feet.

If you find it difficult to pop up or want to get rid of some bad habits, keep reading to review some common mistakes that may be impacting your pop up!

10 Common Pop Up Mistakes

1. Your Surfboard is Too Small

Often, beginner surfers try to learn surfing on a board that is too small. This can slow your skill development.

Using a surfboard that is too small is one of the most common mistakes that almost all surfers make at some point in their surfing career. Most of the surfing industry marketing is geared towards promoting small, sexy looking surfboards that are similar to specialized sports cars that aren’t practical for everyday use.

In addition, trying to figure out which surfboard is best for you is confusing because professional surfers use very small surfboards (less than 6 feet long) that are difficult to ride unless you are an expert.

If your surfboard is too small, you are making it harder on yourself. Put simply, it is challenging to paddle, pop up and catch waves on a small surfboard even for the pros.

For beginner surfers, it is easier to learn to surf on a big, stable surfboard. Most surf schools teach adults on foam surfboards that are 8-10 feet long because big surfboards provide more flotation and stability.

So make it easy on yourself and practice your pop on a big surfboard. Once you start progressing you can transition to smaller surfboards as you gain experience and confidence.

2. Weak Paddling Position

Paddling for a wave is the first step to a good pop up. But before you can start paddling you need to start in a strong, engaged, stable position when lying prone on your surfboard.

Some of the common paddling mistakes that will impact your pop up include:

  • Lying on your surfboard with your head down
  • Spreading your legs apart and dragging them in the water
  • Not maintaining a stable position with an elevated chest

Most of the mistakes occur because surfers become fatigued and tired and put their head down to rest on their surfboard.

If you watch most advanced surfers, they are paddling with their chest up, legs together and back engaged. This is the optimal paddling technique.

It will take time to develop the strength and stamina to maintain this position for the entire surf session, but it is integral to being in the correct position in advance of the pop up.

3. Not Being Ready to Perform

The pop up is a very explosive movement. When you are paddling and feel the wave picking you up and propelling you towards the shore you need to be ready to pop up with strength and speed!

Popping up on a surfboard is a cross between a Yoga flow movement and exploding out of the blocks in track and field. It is a split second of strength followed by a well coordinated positional movement.

You will often hear other surfers shout words of encouragement right before you catch a wave. Shouts of support helps get surfers psyched up to perform.

Optimal performance is a combination of mental and physical preparation. It is important to practice the physical movement of popping up but also to develop the mental cues that tells your body what to do.

A good friend of mine shouts out loud when he is about to catch a wave. It is a bit of an attention grabber but it spikes the adrenaline and gets his body primed for the effort.

Shouting out loud might not work for you but it is important to develop your own performance cues. I did a survey of some local surfers to determine what other people think about when popping up:

  • Shouting out something like “It’s Mine!
  • Counting paddle strokes quietly (1,2,3……Up!)
  • Visualizing a smooth pop up
  • Thinking positive thoughts

4. Miss-Timing the Pop Up

One of the most common mistakes is miss-timing the pop up or not popping up at all.

It is fairly common for beginner surfers to feel unstable when riding a surfboard in the prone position (lying down) and find it difficult to pop up while being jostled about by the wave.

Most beginners learn by surfing unbroken waves which is also called whitewash. Surfing the whitewash is an easier way to learn because unbroken waves don’t have a steep face and you can ride in a straight line towards the beach.

The white wash will usually roll into the shore for several seconds, which gives surfers time to pop up and ride the wave.

But sometimes the speed and momentum of catching a wave makes you feel like you are glued to your surfboard unable to move and you miss the best opportunity to pop up or you don’t stand up at all.

Don’t worry this is a very common feeling! It takes time to develop the muscle memory required to make your body pop up automatically. The best thing to do is practice your pop ups on land regularly.

Try practicing pop ups on land everyday and you will be surprised how quickly it becomes second nature.

5. Incorrect Hand Placement

Incorrect hand placement during your pop up can make your surfboard unstable, create drag in the water and make it impossible to gain the leverage to pop up to a standing position.

The three most common incorrect hand placements during the pop up phase are explained in the table below.

Incorrect Hand PlacementProblem it Creates
Grabbing the rails of the surfboard Increases resistance because your fingers will drag through the water
Placing Hands Too far ForwardYour arms are used as brakes to brace against the forces of the wave rather than creating an upward force to pop up
Hands Too Close TogetherCreates a smaller surface area of balance and makes the surfer unstable

Placing your hands in the correct place on the surfboard will make popping up much easier.

The easiest way to orient your hands is to think about doing a push up. After you feel the push of the wave, slide your hands underneath your chest with your fingers facing forward.

Quick Tip: Maintaining a proper paddling position with an elevated chest will provide the space for your hands to slide under your chest.

6. Popping Up to Your Knees

Popping up to your knees is a mistake.

Often, surfers will pop up to their knees as way to get half way up and then try to stand up from a kneeling position. This is very difficult because the surfboard will start to bounce around when you are on your knees and it will almost be impossible to stand up.

I have seen many surfers use their knees to pop up when they first start surfing but it becomes increasingly more challenging when the waves start to get bigger.

Using your knees during the pop up may seem like it makes it easier in the beginning but it will develop bad habits over the long term.

Quick Tip: Getting to your knees when popping up doesn’t make it easier. It actually makes it more difficult.

7. Foot Placement is Too Far Back

It is important to remember that when you are learning to surf on a large surfboard, your feet should stay shoulder width apart and slide forward when popping up. This is important so that you stand up with your feet on the “sweet spot” of the surfboard.

Many surfers make the mistake of standing up with their back foot on the tail, which pushes up the nose and makes the surfboard unbalanced.

But there is good news! This is the easiest mistake to fix. You just have to think about sliding your feet farther forward and you will find the optimal foot position in no time.

Keep in mind that you will usually find the correct foot position quite quickly by trial and error. Because every time your feet are in the wrong position you will probably bail.

But don’t get discouraged because every surfer places their feet in the wrong position at least a few times every time they go surfing.

8. Looking Down at Your Feet

It is a little bit unfair to talk about the importance of foot position and then tell you not to look at your feet!

But looking down at your feet is a common mistake that will affect your pop up. Keep in mind that the pop up is meant to be quick and dynamic so you shouldn’t be wasting time trying to watch yourself execute the movement.

Looking at your feet will also cause your body to be bent over which will throw off your balance. If you pop up and manage to stand up while looking down, you won’t be able to make the small adjustments necessary for a successful ride.

The best way to combat the urge to look at your feet is to always keep your head up. If you sit on the beach and watch a group of surfers taking a lesson, you will hear the instructors yelling “head up” to remind people to look where they are going.

Another benefit of keeping your head up is that it will be impossible to look at your feet at the same time.

9. Bending Too Far Over at the Waist

Another mistake surfers make is standing up with their lower body in the correct position and their upper body bent at the waist.

Bending at the waist usually occurs when a surfer is having trouble with balancing and doesn’t feel comfortable enough to raise their upper body.

In addition, bending at the waist is used to compensate for other challenges with the pop up movement.

If you find yourself ending up in a position with a bent waist right before you bail, you should take a step back and practice the start of the pop up movement.

The best advice is to pop up into a low crouch with your knees bent and your upper body erect. Once you have gained your balance rise up with an engaged core and maintain your upper body posture.

Read on to Step 10 because it is related to this issue

10. Not Turning Your Hips

You can do everything right during your pop up but you may be heading for a colossal wipe out if you don’t turn your hips at the end.

It may seem insignificant but turning your hips helps engage your core, reset your upper body and anchor your feet to the board. It is the last movement that solidifies your body in the optimal riding position.

I don’t want to confuse you but sometimes expert level surfers will stand with both feet pointing forward on a surfboard in order to hang ten, which is standing on the nose of your surfboard with ten toes hanging over the end.

But most often when you see a beginner surfer standing on their board with both feet pointing forward it is right before they are going to wipeout.

Focus on twisting your hips as the final movement in your pop up and it will help you get ready for the ride.

Check out the video below of hanging ten and other trick moves.

Step by Step Guide to the Perfect To Pop Up

Now that we have reviewed the top 10 mistakes that could be affecting your pop up, let’s review the steps to ensure success every time you get up on your surfboard.

  1. Keep your head up, chest raised and feet together
  2. Maintain a strong, engaged paddling position
  3. When you feel the catch of the wave , slide your hands under your chest and push up
  4. Bring your legs underneath you and lead with the front knee
  5. Plant your feet softly and turn your hips
  6. Surf!

Check out the video below for a demonstration of the pop up technique. The video reviews a couple of different variations of the pop up. Try both and then chose whichever feels right to you.

In conclusion:

Mastering the pop up should be your number #1 goal.

Practice at home, practice at the beach and practice when you are in the ocean.

Surf, Have Fun and Repeat!


I am the person behind Surfers Footprint. Thank you for taking the time to read through the post! If you want to know more about our story, scroll down and click on ABOUT SURFERS FOOTPRINT at the bottom of the HomePage.

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