Since opening Crossfit Box #27 (there are now >7000) back in 2005 Kelly Starrett (call-sign KStarr) has become one of the superstars of the Crossfit world, particularly with his work on movement and mobility.  He is currently on tour in Europe delivering his message and I had the great pleasure of attending his one day seminar at the equally excellent Crossfit Thames in Canary Wharf, London.  Kelly’s background is as physical therapist and he clearly has a passion for movement.  Working with athletes and coaches from numerous disciplines from powerlifting to yoga, he has proposed a “unifying” model for safe and efficient human movement.  He has also developped a range of techniques for self-maintenance that go way beyond classic stretching.  At he shares, largely still for free, his vision and techniques.  His affable style plus the fact his approach really works, have earned him a big following, from top international athletes to creaky old masters like me.

Relatively little of the day, maybe just 30% during the afternoon,  was spent on the mobilization techniques, with just one exercise by technique to make sure we knew how to do it properly.  Lacrosse ball rolling the lower back, banded distraction of the hip, voodoo wrap of the knee, and super friend quad smash.  The key lesson was harder, tighter, longer than you probably do already, and a little a lot if you are going to have normal tissues.  For those who have been following KStarr for a while, nowadays he is really emphasising the effectiveness of the banded distractions and voodoo flossing and prioritizing the joint mobilizations above tissue work.  The San Francisco Crossfit approach is that mobilization is the athletes repsonsibility outside of the WoD time since the workout is published and each athlete should know what they individually need to focus on. They do however have regular “Margherita and Mobility” evenings; apparently a drink or two is an effective adjunct to all these techniques!

The bulk of the day was spent on the importance of correct position for the body to work safely and efficiently, and looking at the fundamental movement patterns and positions for the spine and primary engines, the hips and shoulders.  The website and Becoming a Supple Leopard book do cover these, but the seminar joined the dots and revealed in a truely eye-opening way how much difference you can make if you get it right.  Kelly has developped a very simple model for safe and efficient movement:

  • Movements have start and end positions, if these are good, then any issues on the transition between them tends to fix themselves.  Movements which are a cycle (eg running), often starting position problems are due to a problem in the finish position of the previous cycle.
  • There are three basic types of spinal position, but all of them should be done with an appropriate level of bracing: we heard “point toes, squeeze butt, inhale from belly, tighten stomach” a zillion times during the day
  • The hips and shoulders are primarly engines for functional movement, these are strong and stable if you can introduce torque to the joint, and in turn this stability will reinforce your spinal bracing.  If the position involves a flexed hip/shoulder joint (eg squat, or overhead), the joint should be externally rotated for stability (“knees out”, “armpits showing”), and conversely extended joints will be most stable in internal rotation.
  • There are four archetypal shoulder positions (overhead, press, hang and front rack) and three archetypal hip positions (squat, lunge and pistol). Athletes should strive to achieve and hold these positions effortlessly, but this requires full range of motion in the hips and shoulders.

The body is very good at twisting, turning and compromising (elbows, wrists, spinal position) and getting over restrictions to get into position the wrong way.  KStarr was much less dogmatic than I expected about having to get it right at all costs, but just made it clear that a sub-optimal was less efficient and more of an injury risk, allowing you to reach your own conclusion.  He was not an advocate of banning movements based on possible mobility issues in the athlete community (eg SDHP, American KBS), but rather educating athletes and scaling the movement as needs, just like any other dimension of scale like weight, reps, etc.

My key takeaways from the seminar:

  • Pay even more attention to position with correct bracing and torque at the beginning and end of movements, there really is some “low hanging” performance “fruit”
  • Test restest mobilizations to find the ones that make the biggest difference for me in getting to those good positions, try new ones regularly and move on from ineffective ones
  • Identify and work on my one or two worst tendencies/limitations systematically, and reap the benefits.

For once it’s actually great being old and creaky, because unlike Rich Froning who apparently has got 90%+ of this movement efficiency in the bag, I have reams on untapped potential and also now a set of tools I really do now understand to access it.

Kelly was a great host, working the room and greeting people in the morning, sticking around and answering questions at lunch, and conveying a genuine passion for his subject area.  He’s a guy full of positive energy and pretty busy: several new books on the horizon (that he didnt even mention) and several new courses in planning (advanced, injuries).  His thinking is also getting more mainstream: there was a US TV network filming at the seminar.