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Dream Job: John Gannon, Personal Trainer to a Surfing World Champion

by Glenn Cullen
Posted: December 04, 2015

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This personal trainer found a way to bring his surfing obsession to work with him. John Gannon tells us how he created out his dream career and why strength training is so important for surfers.

Parties. Big waves. The interminable use of the word “stoked”. You probably think you know what life at the top of the surfing world is all about. Sydney-based professional trainer John Gannon used to think he knew, as well.

Growing up near the beachside suburb of Maroubra and travelling the world with two-time ASP World Champion championship runner-up Taj Burrow, Gannon has led an eye-opening life that’s involved plenty of the above. But it’s also included hard work and long days – as well as a growing appreciation about what it takes to train and maintain the new breed of surfer.

Why I chucked in the day job…

I got bored working with corporates and people who didn’t want to get their gym gear dirty. I started doing some of the Paul Chek (an American sports physiologist) courses for training athletes. It really opened my eyes about how an athlete should train.

… and took to the road

A few years later, I was training some of the big-wave surfers who were down at Maroubra Beach and a job came up with Taj Burrow. I travelled with him full-time for seven years as his strength and conditioning coach. I made sure he tried to stay online with his eating and hydration. We took the holistic approach to being healthy because of all the travel from event to event around the world. It was a great, hands-on experience, but it was exhausting. I would spend eight to nine months a year on the road with him.

Why we need foundation training

I incorporate strength and conditioning work with what’s known as foundation training. What we do is pretty much ‘combat sitting’. The way we look at phones, the way we sit at desks, the way we sit to travel – we just spend too much time in that flexed position these days. Our bodies really suffer from being hunched over. Foundation training teaches you how to use your body better. Then when you’re in the gym you train better, and when you’re sitting you are more aware of the way you sit. One of the old parent sayings, to ‘sit up straight’, is still one of the best pieces of advice.

Focus on function over look

We weren’t always near a gym with Taj, so we tended to do a lot of bodyweight exercises. Single-leg work, chin-ups, push-ups, twisting movements. Surfers also don’t want to be sore the next day in case the surf’s good – and you can get that from gym work. Using your body weight, you’re less prone to be sore. They want to be light and lean, but still maintain that strength. It’s way better to have functional strength then to be too muscled – it leaves you injury-prone when you have big arms and big legs, but nothing in the middle to support it.

How Mick Fanning became the game-changer

With the strength and conditioning I think everyone took a leaf out of (three-time ASP World Champion) Mick Fanning’s book. He was the first one to really crack into it. Then everyone saw the results he was getting and how in tune he was with himself, and everyone started following suit. He warms up in front of people and it looks like he is preparing for a UFC fight. His competitors are pretty much psyched-out before they go in the water.

Brazil’s winning edge

One time it was the world party tour, now there’s a lot more money involved. The Brazilians, in particular, have this hungry-dog aura about them and will do just about anything to win. They don’t care about going out and getting hammered. Those kids grow up with nothing. A lot of American and Aussie kids have a sense of entitlement, feeling that because they were good juniors they can go out and be the best in the world ? but it doesn’t always work that way.

Surf training is for everyone

The surfing community has really picked up on the training techniques. Whether you are just with your mates having a friendly surf, or doing something more, there’s often a competitive edge. Obviously, surfing lots helps, but doing that foundation work for a stronger core will give you an advantage. It’s not just for surfers either ? everyone from school kids to corporate types need this corrective posture work.

Do what you love

You need to find your little niche in the health and fitness industry. There are hundreds of them. No-one is good at everything, but if you find something you’re interested in, focus on it and try to be the best you can be at it. Align yourself with good practitioners and work closely with them. Work hard – that’s the main thing.


Having recently become a father, John has returned to his Eastern Suburbs roots and now runs personal and group training sessions in the Maroubra and Clovelly areas. His programs tackle everything from foundation work to high-intensity fitness and surf-specific programs. He maintains a casual working relationship with Burrow who, at 37, is still on the world surfing tour.

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Glenn Cullen

Glenn Cullen

Glenn Cullen has worked as a journalist and editor for 20 years and traversed the globe covering sport, business and travel. He has written for media outlets as diverse as Qantas The Australian Way, AAP, Inside Sport and Australian Doctor to name a few. In his spare time he chases powder snow and wastes a silly amount of time tinkering with his road bike.


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