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Surfing 101: How to Cutback

Learning how to cutback is vital in surfing, as this maneuver is a critical turn in piecing together your waves with flow and style. Want to know how? Take a peek, snag your board, and give it a go.

What is a Cutback?

A cutback is a directional-change style of turn performed on the shoulder of a wave. This turn is meant to bring the surfer back into the pocket, which is the power section of the wave, to continue down the line with more speed and to perform other critical maneuvers.

As a surfer rides down the face and reaches the shoulder, they will lean into their outside rails to turn their board and their body 180 degrees, riding back towards the whitewash/the breaking lip. Once they reach the pocket, the surfer will then turn their board back down the line, often bouncing off the whitewash, to continue down the face in the critical section of the wave. When completed fully, this will look like one smooth figure 8.

Roundhouse Cutback Vs. Cutback

A roundhouse cutback isn't entirely the same as a standard cutback.

With a standard cutback, you're going to turn the board back down the line before you hit the whitewash. With a roundhouse cutback, you will use the whitewash to 'bounce' the board back around.

Basically, you are starting with a cutback and ending with a much more vertical snap in the pocket/off the whitewash to turn your body and board. This is a more technical and difficult cutback style and should be practiced only after you've mastered the standard cutback.

Why Do a Cutback?

You need to understand why you would do a cutback before learning how to cutback, as understanding the why will tell you 'when' to perform this turn on a wave.

The primary reason for executing a cutback is to regain potentially lost momentum on a wave. This lost momentum could be from surfing faster than the wave, ending up too far out on the shoulder, or from a wave that is too mushy and gutless. In both of these instances, the surfer could totally lose out on the wave due to loss of speed and sinking.

Utilizing a cutback will help to keep your board afloat these weaker waves/softer sections as you rebound or wait for it to hit shallow water and double-up on the inside.

A surfer might also use a cutback as a way to create flow and style on a wave, as this turn adds variety to the line and is the perfect set-up maneuver for other turns. So anytime you find yourself too far down the line or slowing down, a cutback is the best way to save you.

Step by Step: How to Cutback

Step 1: Identify When to Cutback

Using the knowledge above, your first step in how to cutback is to identify when a cutback is appropriate and/or necessary. If you see a weakening shoulder ahead of you or feel your board slowing down, prepare to cutback.

Step 2: Carry your Speed Into a Bottom Turn

When it comes to speed, you can't perform a cutback once it's too late, as your momentum won't carry through your 180-degree turn. You need speed to keep speed. This is why it is so essential to time your cutback right and identify when a cutback will be necessary before it is necessary.

As you feel yourself speeding down the line, and identify where a cutback is required, pump your board a few more times and carry this final burst of speed into a minor, shallow bottom turn.

A minor bottom turn is not vertical and is a mellower diagonal angle on the wave face. Don't surf too far down into the trough, and aim your bottom turn towards the upper 1/3rd portion of the wave. Shoot for your board's nose to aim at 10 O'clock, not 12 O'clock. For in-depth resources relating to pumping and bottom turns, visit:

Step 3: Adjust Your Body Weight

From the beginning of your bottom turn until you reach the top portion of the wave and start turning, you want to keep your knees bent, and body compressed low. As you ride up the face, begin to apply more pressure on your outside rail by:

  • Leaning into your heels for a frontside cutback.
  • Leaning into your toes for a backside cutback.

You also want to apply weight onto your back foot at this stage. This helps you to engage the fins, particularly your outside fin, so that they can move the surfboard in your intended direction.

Step 4: Open Your Body

When you reach the top of the wave and apply pressure onto your tail pad and rails in the direction of your turn, which is essentially the beginning of your cutback, you then want to begin opening up your body as your board begins changing direction. When learning how to cutback, every minute body position and weight change is important.

First, start by engaging and twisting at the hips, aiming them down the wave face as if attempting to rotate on an imaginary axis through your body.

Next, you want to open up your shoulders, as you will lead your cutback with your front shoulder and hand. Open up your chest and your shoulders as you turn your leading (front) shoulder in the intended direction. As you lead with this shoulder, you need to follow with your head. Move your head with your body- don't keep looking forward as your body begins to twist, or don't look too far backward, either. Stay centered in terms of your body position and head on the board.

To help open your chest/shoulders and lead your directional change, you can place your front hand into the water when executing a frontside cutback or your back-hand for a backside cutback to act as a pivot point.

As your weight shifts in this direction, make sure to keep that outside rail and fin engaged by leaning into this direction and decompressing your body a bit as you open up.

Step 5: Straighten Out

At this point, your surfboard should be heading back towards the breaking section of the wave towards the curl. Here is when you now want to even out your body weight and surfboard rails. Take some pressure off the outside rail (which is now technically inside) by evening out your body weight over the center of your board, and straighten out your board as you time the next 180-degree turn back down the line. Bend your knees again to regain balance, and add a touch more weight onto your front foot.

Step 6: Turn Back Down the Line

After the first stage of your turn, your nose is now facing the pocket. You are essentially riding backward on the wave, and it's your job to turn the board around again so that the tail is in the pocket.

Just before your board reaches the whitewash, you want to do the opposite of what got you there to turn back around.

For a frontside cutback, transition your weight back onto your toes, and use your weight on the back of your board to engage the fins around as you pivot on them.

For backside, place the weight on your heels.

Twist your body back towards the face as you lead with your front shoulder again. Use your head and look down the line nice and early, back towards the shoulder, so that your body may follow.

As soon as you are back into the pocket and riding straight down the line, you have successfully completed your cutback. Immediately begin pumping to avoid falling behind the whitewash and continue this new wave positioning into your next maneuvers.