Should you keep your fingers closed (cupped) or open when you paddle for surfing?

Open or Closed?

Fingers should be slightly apart when paddling. This helps a surfer to catch and pull more water when paddling. To be precise, the fingers should be 10 degrees or 5-8mm apart based on recent studies in elite swimmers.

Paddling, like it or not, you will have to do it when you surf. It takes up the majority of your surfing time. Unless you are riding one of those machine-made waves, you are most likely paddling or waiting for the waves 95 percent of the time. So you’d better do it right to save energy and make the session last longer.

One of the most frequently asked questions about paddling is whether you should keep your fingers closed(cupped) or open.

This is somewhat counterintuitive as it’s easy to assume the water will slip between the fingers. Instead, slightly separated fingers create water turbulence between the fingers, limiting water slippage. This helps you hold more water under your hands, producing more excellent propulsion.

However, while paddling, estimating what degrees your fingers are separated is difficult. By simply relaxing your hands and thumb, your hands will naturally be apart around 5-8mm. Relaxed hands also help the surfer save more energy. Constantly keeping fingers together requires a lot of energy and increases general tension in your upper body. Relaxed hands will help you to avoid that.

There is a lot to think about when it comes to paddling. Let’s look at some other aspects of paddling.

Should you use webbed gloves?

Do you really need webbed glove for paddling?

For most surfers, webbed gloves should be avoided. Webbed gloves are rubber/neoprene/silicon gloves designed to help surfers/swimmers pull more water. While it does provide sudden propulsion compared to when you paddle with your bare hands, webbed gloves may strain your shoulder muscles – rotator cuff.

The goal of paddling is to move as much water as possible for each stroke. However, pulling more water means working harder to generate power. A better way to improve your paddling power is to slowly build up muscles while your technique improves.

When you have not developed enough endurance and strength of shoulder muscles, adding sudden extra resistance from the webbed gloves may add too much stress for the muscles.

Some may suggest that putting fingers together will reduce the resistance, and you can use the webbed part when catching waves. However, putting fingers together will require constant unnecessary effort. Just like anything in life, avoid the shortcut. Building skill and strength always take time.

Here are some other tips to improve your paddling.

How much should you arch your back when paddling?

Generally, surfers should avoid arching their back excessively to conserve energy while surfing. As a guideline, a surfer should relax 10-20 percent from his maximum arched back position while paddling.

It’s quite common for beginner surfers to exaggerate their back curves when paddling. Keeping the back in full extension – full arched back – requires a lot of energy. On the other hand, if you do not lift your torso high enough, you do not have enough space for your shoulder/arm to go around. This causes excessive movement and strain from the shoulder joints. Keeping your back, shoulder and fingers relaxed will help you last longer in the water.

How to position yourself on a surfboard when paddling.

In general, when paddling, position your body close to the nose of the board so that the nose of the board is at the level of water or 1-2 inch above the water. It helps your surfboard be more hydrodynamic by placing it as parallelly as possible to the water’s surface.

The more vertically positioned board is, the more drag it will create when you paddle. If you look at some professional surfers, the nose of their board goes slightly under the water from time to time when they paddle. This is what you can practice.

You will notice that as you gain more speed when you paddle, the nose will start to come out of the water, just like the head of the speed boat lift when they go fast enough.

Secondly, a slightly forward weight will help you catch a wave easily. With a combination of weighing forwards and using a wave slope, you can let the wave push you early and catch it with less effort.

However, if you are too far forwards, this will cause you to nose dive on a wave. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut. To find a sweet spot, you must try your position by trial and error. Simple tip: Once you find a sweet spot, you can mark on wax where your chin needs to be. Then, you can go back to the same spot every time.

Improve positioning on the surfboard can make a world of difference

Do you paddle differently when catching a wave?

When catching a wave, a surfer should lower their torso closer to the board. There are two reasons for this position.

Firstly, a slightly forward weight will help you to catch a wave easily. With weighting forwards and using a wave slope, you can let the wave push you down the face of the wave early and catch it.

Secondly, it helps your put your arm deeper to pull more water. When you give 4-8 strong pulls to create explosive speed, having the whole arm down the water will help you to create more surface area where you can pull the water. The more water you move, the faster your paddle will be.

In conclusion

Paddling can be challenging, but relaxed hands can be a great start to making your paddling easier. Improving paddling does not happen overnight, nor comes naturally.

For example, swimmers often focus on tiny parts of a stroke during a training session and then move on to the next drill to improve different aspects of swimming. They work on the same drills for weeks and often go back to practice again. You should approach the paddling the same way.

Luckily, paddling is one of only a few parts of surfing that you can repeat until mastering. Be patient and keep those fingers relaxed!


My name is James, the person behind With 15 years of experience in surfing, I am excited to help you on the journey to becoming a competent surfer.

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