Becoming a Supple Leopard: Book Review


(quick note: A disclaimer: one of the reasons I’ve been able to read BASL with such apparent speed–it’s nearly 400 pages and just went on sale a couple of days ago–is that I helped with the content editing in one of the final phases of the creation of the book. So I actually had a chance to read the raw contents before it was laid out into print form.)

It was the summer of 1992, and I was back from San Francisco to visit my folks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was in my halcyon days as a marathoner, with a 2:38 PR, and raced year round in the those glorius intermittent spaces when I wasn’t swamp-crossing through an injury.

During that visit I was hampered by an illiotibial band problem, a sharp pain on the outside of my right knee that was hard to run through. I made an appointment to see the  physical therapist in the area that was known as a runner’s physical therapist—not just a doctor of physical therapy but a guy you also saw on the starting line of the local 10ks. In the early 1980s, when I was still in high school, I recalled seeing him hanging out with a diet Pepsi after working out at the Nautilus gym. People were always coming up to ask him for advice on how to handle their injuries, or what kind of stretches they should do.

A golden rule for the injured runner is always to see out treatment from doctors who are runners. For obvious reasons. For one, they know that just walking around OK is not enough — you want to run. As the story goes, a limping runner walks in to see their non-running physician and asks for helps, tells the tale surrounding their problem, and the doctor squints a bit before stating the stupidly obivous: Stop running.

The doctor who runs, of course, gets it, is empathetic to your woe, and tries to help you maneuver around the problem and get back on the road, back to the task of being a runner.  This golden rule is actually a “law,” in the 700-page opus, “Lore of Running,” by Dr. Tim Noakes, a combo ultra-runner/MD who writes the following in his laws governing running injury: Law 8: Never Accept As Final the Advice of a Nonrunner (MD or otherwise). 

So I was abiding by the law, seeing a physical therapist who was a fellow runner. It was the first time I had ever had an appointment with a PT so wasn’t even sure what to expect.

During the appointment, the PT began to talk about what he believed was a growing problem in the practice of modern physical therapy: relying too much on technological gadgetry. He said it was his opinion that the art of  PT  had suffered greatly PT increasingly relied on machines like ultra-sound and muscle stim. Machines had driven a wedge between the doctor and the patient, he told me. A patient comes in with an Achilles tendon problem, and he said he rarely if ever put his hands on the patient’s ankle. He just warmed up the machines and started zapping away, and told the patient to ice a lot and take Advil. That’s what he did for me: ultra sound treatment on the right knee and some talk about the stretches I should do.

I don’t claim at alll to have any real comprehension or expertise on the where the standards of physical therapy are or were. But this story of my hometown PT 20 years ago was in my mind when I first went to meet Dr. Kelly Starrett for a similar reason a couple of years ago. This time my knee seemed on the verge of complete system collapse. I sensed I was a candidate for knee replacement. (Starrett, it should be noted here, had run the Quadruple Dipsea and thereby passed Noakes test.)

Starrett never asked me where the pain was. Rather, he had me try and perform a simple knee bend at San Francisco CrossFit. From that movement, that took all of a few seconds, he apparently saw everything he needed to see. Which, I should add, struck me as completely odd. Rehab began in the next few seconds when he began to teach me how to do an air squat correctly, from foot position, to midline stability, to the path of the knees, to the loading of the correct muscles, to the correct head position, posture, how I focused my thinking, to bracing my spine. He also taught me what he called “the couch stretch,” one of the backbone mobilizations that was taught and re-taught frequently on–an incredibly painful mobilization that I was expected to hold not 10 seconds, not 20 seconds, but two rather teeth-splitting minutes for each leg.

A sticker that was on the door of Starrett’s physical therapy office.

He then spent about five more minutes  with the most high-tech device in his PT office (aka storage container), digging underneath my kneecap with the prong of a hard-rubber dog toy. While he was working he was carrying on a casual conversation with a fellow coach. I was in such pain I wanted to bite into an electric rail.

It was a brand of physical therapy that was almost exactly counter to the well-meaning PT who had worked on me back in Iowa. It’s worth noting that the Iowa PT session did exactly nothing for my injury and Starrett’s session not only sprung me free of the injury but helped me push a reset button on my health in a life-changing way.

I have brought up these stories to help make one of my key points about Starrett’s new book, “Becoming a Supple Leopard.” In Starrett’s education as a physical therapist, he brought with him his gift for a sort of X-ray vision that saw through the noise and to the deeper relationships between how we move and the results in terms of health and performance. He has synthesized his medical training with thousands of hours of coaching and thousands of hours of being an athlete with a talent for seeing and understanding the inner workings of movement. His diagnostic tool for assessing my situation, as I mentioned, was to watch how I did an air squat. What he was looking for, why, and what he determined I needed to do are thoroughly explained in the book.

Since then,  as much as I’d studied the MWOD and interviewed Starrett, and also attended his classes as San Francisco CrossFit, the 397-page vehicle that is the book has provided me a huge new level of insight in terms of how Starrett thinks and what Starrett sees. Anyone reading BASL who thinks that the push-up is just a simple Basic Training way to build your pecs and arms is going to experience a kick to the head. While most athletes and coaches who buy the book are expecting (and will get) a reference on how to assess and address specific problem areas with specific solutions–whether its an injury-thing, a range of motion limitation or a motor-control problem–my favorite chapters are the ones that layer in the way Starrett sees the movement world, like the chapter on “Midline Stabilization,” “The Laws of Torque” and the chapter on “The Tunnel.” There is also the overarching system he calls “The Movement Hiearchy.” These are the ones you notice have had an impact on you when you’re walking down the street and you see someone walking ahead of you with a brand of spine-shearing mechanics. You see it and you wince with pain at what you now know is a core-to-extremity violation.  You start seeing this stuff everywhere you go now, even though it’s been there all along. At an outdoor restaurant the other day I took a quick look around and was somewhat horrified at the way everyone was slumping at their tables.

Kelly Starrett coaching at a CrossFit Mobility certification.
Kelly Starrett coaching at a CrossFit Mobility certification.

(This experience helped me form a theory about why Starrett is legendary for the amount of coffee he drinks. He has to. He walks around a world drowning in dysfunctional movement patterns and he can’t turn off his brain. He can’t not notice it. In fact, when he watched the movie “Lincoln” he walked out of the theater so stung with the image of Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln hunch that he couldn’t help from replicating it, drawing the request from his wife, “Please tell me you’re not going to walk around like that all week.”).

Although it’s easy to imagine that the first generation of readers will mostly be CrossFitters, Olympic lifters and powerlifters—the lifts, rowing and kipping are some of the signature athletic movements that Starrett bores into within the book—the book will appeal to just about any coach or athlete you can think of. I am curious to see how this book impacts the physical therapy world. Again, while I know little about the working school of thought in physical therapy, I do know that the PT back in Iowa would have loved this book.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.