Building an Injury-Free Body with Mobility Expert Kelly Starrett

Great interview! After reading Supple Leopard  I consider Kelly Starrett an industry pioneer with a gift of making the complex simple.

-Chris Vlaun

Kelly Starrett, Doctor of Physical Therapy and co-owner of San Francisco CrossFit, is fond of saying humans beings should be able to perform maintenance on themselves. In Starrett’s mind, the days of seeking physical therapy to merely resolve pain and are over. He believes that if we can understand how to get ourselves into proper positions for any activity — whether it’s our elbows in a push-up, foot placement for a squat, or shoulder position when we’re texting — we can minimize injury and maximize performance. This would translate to running faster, achieving downward dog more fully, or even more efficient flip turns in the pool.

A former whitewater slalom paddler for the US Canoe and Kayak Teams, Starrett led the Men’s Whitewater Rafting Team to two national titles and competition in two World Championships. He’s now a sought-after speaker and educator, traveling all over the world and lecturing audiences from college strength and conditioning coaches to members of the military. At home in San Francisco, clients of his orthopedic sports medicine practice have included world champion rowers, Tour de France cyclists, Olympic weightlifters, and ballet dancers.

Starrett’s methodologies evolved alongside his involvement in CrossFit, which he discovered in 2004 when it was still an obscure strength and conditioning program. He became an early adopter, earning a certification to coach and opening one of the first CrossFit gyms in the country. Even though he’s been producing instructional content for the CrossFit community since 2008, Starrett is best known for, a website he started in 2010 with one video demonstrating how to deepen one’s squat. MobilityWOD now contains three years worth of daily video posts on everything from knee pain and shoulder extension to breathing mechanics and post injury rehab.

We caught up with the mastermind behind MobilityWOD to talk about his new book (Becoming a Supple Leopard), injury prevention, and why ballet dancers should deadlift.

How did you first get interested in physical therapy?

I was at a ski race camp [in Austria] with the reigning world champion, diagramming the arc of the turn, and I remember being like, “I love this, I understand this, this is it: Making the complex simple. Show me the constituent parts and I can do it. Let me understand the process.” I’ve always been obsessed that way. Always.

I quit the [kayaking] national team and moved to San Francisco, where I realized that I needed to go to grad school. This is crazy, but I literally had a moment of satori. I was out surfing and… I heard God’s voice, I saw the spheres, I was like, “Oh, I guess I have to go to grad school.”

How did you discover CrossFit?

I was Olympic lifting once a week with a guy in [South San Francisco] in [the basement [of an old gym]. The first semester of physio school, I was looking for information on how to Olympic lift with dumbbells and I was searching the web. I saw this website, CrossFit. This was early, early CrossFit. And I think there were four or five CrossFit [gyms] in the world. I saw this website and was like, “Whoa, this is interesting.” I read the little manifesto and tried a workout.

I’m a good athlete, I’m a fucking good athlete. And I got crushed. It was “Cindy*” I was devastated. The work secret is out of the bag now. CrossFit has already fundamentally changed the fact that people’s intensity is higher. Now there’s P90X, “Insanity.” People are working harder. This was the dark ages, no one was doing it.

*Note: Cindy is a popular CrossFit benchmar workout consisting of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats.

What made you want to combine physical therapy and CrossFit?

As a Physio, it was perfect because I was getting all this classic medical Western thought diagnosis stuff and I was forced to deal with the dissonance of, “This is how I have to learn how to move. I have to be a better Olympic lifter. I have to learn the tenets of power lifting. I have to be more fit. I have to be a skilled runner.” And at the same time I [had to] reconcile that with what I’m understanding and learning about with rehab. And they were clearly disconnected.

I don’t want to say I am the first person to do this, but I had never seen anyone mobilize someone’s hip to improve something that wasn’t painful. People weren’t doing mobilizations for position. They were stretching, but they weren’t understanding why we were stretching.

I started tinkering with mobilizing a guy’s hips because he was an MMA fighter and he could get into guard better and I wondering if that would work for squatting, too. The physical therapy texts are not about performance or rehab or diagnosis or even injury prevention. It’s about the techniques we use when someone is injured.

The whole medical system is predicated on, “Oh, your issue is resolved and you’re functional.” And it should be, “Oh, you’re out of pain, functional, now go solve the rest of it on your own.”

How did come about?

I started teaching some friends. Some little gyms were like, “Can you do a shoulder thing?” And I would talk about shoulders, I would talk about knees. I did this one day course down in Santa Cruz, it was called “A Day with Kelly Starrett: Chasing Performance.” And all of a sudden I have this kind of image. “Why am I seeing the same things in my physical therapy practice? Why is it that no one knows this?” Then I was like, “Well, I can change that! Here’s what we do: I have this iPhone, I have Blogger, I am going to put up a video a day for a year.”

Soon it started to gain momentum and people found out about it. And I realized people needed templates, they need recipes, they needed examples. I needed to make a case.

Can you talk about mobility to stretch and stay loose versus mobility to optimize performance?

Do you have what we know as the full range of motion for the human being? That’s decided. We know how much elbow flexion there is. That’s not debatable.

What’s interesting is how we can divest ourselves of the fact. It’s like, “Hey, it’s okay that I don’t have the range of motion to do this sport, it doesn’t matter because I can still do the sport. It’s okay if I’m at 50 percent of my capacity as a human — that’s okay because I’m still a human.”

And I think that’s the problem, that we’ve sort of made this case where we’ll be like “Well, I can roll out a little bit, stretch, bend over, pull my hamstrings a little bit, I’m not so stiff. Great, goodbye!” I don’t think people are going after the corners. We’re leaving this 20 percent margin of function. So, we were confusing the fact that we didn’t have pain… with the fact that we were working at peak efficiency.

I only know a handful of people that are working at 90 percent of their efficiency. We’re so robust that you can buffer bad diet for decades and it doesn’t matter. You can move like crap for decades and it doesn’t matter. What does that tell you about the resiliency of the human being?

Are some people naturally more or less flexible?

Watch kids crawl — look at all the hip flexion. It’s all the same. You have infinite potential as a child. It’s very level. That’s why you don’t see any difference between boys and girls in middle school, dude.

Kids in the playground just tear off at recess, right? Do they have to activate their glutes? No, they have all that potential. They can put their arms over their head. You know they have full ankle range of motion.

When do we lose this innate mobility?

Not teaching movement practices. Why aren’t those kids in gymnastics? Why are [kids who take gymnastics] little cheetahs the rest of their lives? Remember those kids? They learned to backflip and they can always do a backflip? And they can jump off the trampoline and they can do all that crazy shit? I think that’s why—talk to any coach, they’re like “Oh, yeah, your kid has to be in gymnastics. Period.”

You say people should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves. Is there one thing that people ought to do?

Protect your nervous system. That’s it. What is it about your spinal positioning that’s wretched? I’m less worried about how stiff your calves are because the number of calf injuries and the number of Achilles injuries [are] low compared to the number of back tweaks and hip tweaks. If you have one thing to do during the day, what is it that you can protect about your nervous system? Your nervous system is your limiting factor. Period.

What is the one movement for that?

I’d say the single most significant thing is to… get people to stop sitting. The “smoking” of our generation is sitting. A treadmill is not the answer. The answer is not to sit. So, you need a cheap-ass barstool and a higher desk and you can lean and put your foot up and change position and just by removing that stimulus alone, life would change.

Is there such a thing as sport-specific training?

My ballet dancers don’t want to deadlift heavy. They have to deadlift, but, like how do I improve their [dancing], right? My male dancers need to be better overhead so they’re not broken when they’re holding their partner. So, the real thing I think is interesting is [that so much of] this is transferable to anything that’s important to you.

You know, I have an idea about what it means to be the best human functionally but people don’t want to work so hard. Have a deeper understanding of what it is you do. Like, if you love to go, you know, fight and you like boxing — box more efficiently, I think that’s where the scalability is; the revolution of it.

How can an athlete know if their programming is safe?

Because you get better at your sport. And you’re working at the limits of your positional understanding. If you have full range of motion or are working towards it, then chances are you’re going to be very protected. It’s built in. Because you’re not going to dive into the pool and dislocate your shoulder because for the last month we’ve been pressing, we’ve gone overhead a gazillion times.

Thanks for your time, Kelly, and looking forward to seeing your future projects!

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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