Pain Makes You Beautiful
After seeing the movement and assessing the problem, rehab began instantly. He taught me how to do a squat correctly, placing a hand on a plane below my kneecap and telling me that if my knee moved forward it would be a violation.
“Touch my hand with your knee and you owe me a beer.”
Before creating his practice at Crossfit San Francisco, Starrett made a name for himself at San Francisco’s renowned Stone Clinic, where he partnered with an orthopedic surgeon to generate exceptional rates of post-op recovery by getting people to squat as soon as possible following an operation.
“It’s about early mobilization to restore your range of motion. Slapping a brace on the leg and putting it in isolation is moving backward. We want to get you moving again.”
Starrett told me I had been playing “Gas-o, Brake-o” for all my years of running and my knee could no longer handle it. My form, my tight hip flexors and my limited range of motion worked in concert to strain my knee. Instead of the joint gliding smoothly, it was being torn up with sheer.
I asked about the spooky way my knee was collapsing.
“Your brain shut it down to protect it,” he said. “Like blowing a fuse.” He darkly added that I was on the path toward a hip or knee replacement.
I was taking my first steps into the worldview of Kelly Starrett—a highly-caffeinated joy ride into the fluid relationships between mobility, movement, athletic performance and self-actualization.
“You need to get some relief by working the tissues both upstream and downstream,” he said, meaning my calf and thigh muscles. His favorite phrases come at you fast: Unglue the lower body. Mobilize. Line of force. Impingement. Grindy. Nasty. WHAM! Scower. Roll, slide and glide. Get tight! A day with grass-fed beef, champagne, heavy thrusters and metabolic conditioning is a winner!
And then, his mantra: Pain makes you beautiful.
To draw you into his vision, Starrett quotes psychologists Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow, power-lifting legend Louis Simmons and writer Robert Ludlum.
“I felt to get to really know Kelly,” Juliet told me, “I had to read ‘Dune.’”
But underneath the layered complexity of his thinking is the science of his “test-retest” formula: Do a test like an air squat, perform your mobility work, then re-test the squat to see if there’s a change. After he had me execute a specific two-minute stretch on my right hip flexor, he had me walk across the gym. For the first time in a month and a half I wasn’t limping.
Starrett said an effective stretch is one that yields an immediate result—that you only need a 10-minute bout of mobility work each day, but the trick is to do it every day.
“People have jobs and families and lives, and they have to train. But 10 minutes a day is doable, and you have to do it daily. No days off. Miss a day and you go backwards.”
In Aug. 22, 2010, Starrett, barefoot in shorts and a black T-shirt, took his iPhone into the backyard and turned on the video recorder. Then he quietly worked through two minutes and 35 seconds of his first “mobility WOD,” WOD being a Crossfit acronym for “workout of the day.”
He uploaded the video to a blog and pledged to publish a short video each day, holidays included, for an entire year, titling the first clip, “The First of Many Beatdowns.”
I asked him why he spoke in such a hushed tone in the first video.
“I hadn’t told my wife about it yet,” he said. “I hadn’t told anyone about it. I just did it.”
Despite the initial silence, it caught on. In 100 days Starrett’s videos were downloaded 750,000 times, and at the time of this writing he had surpassed the 1.4-million mark.
He pulled up his Google analytics to show me a global following.
“I’m not big in Somalia,” he said. “Guess there’s not a lot of pressing concern for movement dysfunction there.”
Starrett teaches Crossfit mobility certification courses across the country and occasionally overseas, yet he has unfailingly posted his video blog—every day—from Colorado to Florida to Denmark. Most videos are taped in his home gym.
There’s no editing and no polish to the videos, and the Starrett family, including playing children and curious dogs, have become primary characters in the series. The tools he requires of his viewers are simple and cheap; Starrett will tell you to go out and buy three lacrosse balls, for example, which typically sell for two or three bucks each.
Starrett has thousands of devoted followers, but one of them, Brian MacKenzie, can count Starrett as a student.
MacKenzie, an ultra-runner, first heard Starrett speak at a Crossfit certification in 2007.
“I’d worked in a physical therapy clinic before. Kelly started talking about the ball and socket of a shoulder, about the movement and amount of force being channeled through it, and I’d never heard anyone talk the way he did. He was a step ahead of things,” MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie and Starrett struck up a close friendship.
“We were talking the same language of mechanics and movement,” MacKenzie said.
The two had much to offer each other. For years MacKenzie had apprenticed under Dr. Nicholas Romanov, the sports scientist behind the Pose Running Method. After MacKenzie introduced Starrett to Pose running mechanics, Starrett was able to run long distances comfortably for the first time since he was 15 years old.
“What Kelly and I had in common is that we were both open-minded to question traditional methods and use ourselves as guinea pigs to try new things,” MacKenzie said. After six months of training under MacKenzie, Starrett, wearing a pair of featherweight Inov-8 running flats, ran the 28.4-mile Quad Dipsea ultra.
Following the mobility workout of the day is a bit like riding shotgun in a Mexican rental car driven by Kelly Starrett—he’s live fire all the way, coaching you through the drills with Robin Williams-like patter.
In a typical video you might follow Starrett and his jiggly camera into a Brooklyn Crossfit gym or through his kitchen while Juliet grinds coffee. I started following the daily workout when I got home from San Francisco and peculiar things began happening. Less than 10 days later I could bound out of bed like I did in my college dorm some 30 years ago. My limp had vanished.
Starrett says his mission is to make stretching sexy again—that he knows that if people register measurable upticks in how they feel and how they perform they’ll buy into his vision.
“It would be great if I was the strongman or the running guy,” Starrett said. “I’m not. I’m the stretching guy. Which is not that cool at first glance. But what do I really care about? Hot, dirty, nasty performance.”
This story first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Competitor Magazine.