MobilityWod.com’s fitness star, Kelly Starrett, is on a mission to prove that mobility work is a gateway to high-performance.
Kelly Starrett’s physical therapy office is not a mauve-carpeted affair, equipped with humming electro-therapy computers and XM radio streaming soft rock through Bose speakers. Instead, his office is a mobile container unit in a parking lot behind a sporting goods store, surrounded by Paleolithic training equipment,like tractor tires, squat racks and beer kegs.
“I like things gritty,” he says.
When required he will invite you inside—into the metal container that has an 800 number stickered next to the door should you want to rent or buy your own storage container. If Starrett decides to work on your injury-induced scar tissue, rather than reaching for an ultrasound machine or muscle stimulator, he will snatch a multi-colored chunk of rubber and, before digging in, address the curious look on your face by identifying the mysterious gadget in hand as a “premium dog toy.”
If you’re not confused enough, he will then launch into the following allegory punctuated by his flair for action-packed sound effects:
“I went to Mexico once and rented a car and abused it, playing ‘Gas-o, Brake-o.’ To play Gas-o, Brake-o I keep the gas pedal pegged to the floor and accelerate and decelerate with the brake. WHAM! I’m redlining. WHAAAAAH! until the car is about to blow up. So I swing into my hotel and park the car and a guy comes running up to me and says, ‘Señor!,’ pointing at the rear tire because it’s erupted into flames.”
Why is he telling you this?
“If you’re a runner with really tight hips and poor sliding surfaces in your joints, you’re running around revving your engine with the brakes on. Your playing Gas-o, Brake-o. And now your knee is on fire.”
And now you start to get it.
This is what Kelly Starrett needs you to know: With a few simple rules—a few basic ideas—you, the athlete, can be empowered and take responsibility for your body and health by using 10 minutes a day for mobility work, dousing the flame-erupting friction with “motion-is-lotion” movement.
“You cut your finger and you know what to do—you clean it up and put on the Band-Aid,” Starrett said. “Why not be able to work with your muscle tissue?” He emphatically adds you can learn to take care of your body in a way that will minimize injury risk, unleash untouched powers of performance and boost your quality of life until you’re “110 years old. BAM! World domination.”
Let’s get to work!
On Dec. 15, 2010, I landed in San Francisco and limped off the plane and into the SFO terminal. Like every walk for the previous six weeks, pain jackknifed through my right knee each fourth step or so and the joint would collapse, hyper-flexing, my leg buckling beneath me.
People stared. I probably looked like I’d been shot, or was leaving the scene of a bus-smashes-other-bus collision.
In 25 years of being a distance runner I have collected all of the classic injuries—Achilles tendonitis, piriformous sciatica, hamstring pulls, iliotibial band syndrome, runner’s knee. But with rest and ice they usually disappeared in a week or two.
The patella tendonitis (as it was hypothesized) of late 2010, however, was unshakeable. I feared being destined for surgery.
It was then that Brian MacKenzie, the founder of Crossfit Endurance, told me this: “Bro, you need to go see Kelly Starrett.”
My appointment was at 10 in the morning at Crossfit San Francisco, the gym Starrett and his wife, Juliet, have been running since late 2004 in the Presidio, and according to my directions was behind the Sports Basement and adjacent to Crissy Field.
A taxi dropped me off in front of the big box store, then I followed a mud path around the building, pausing a moment to take in the Golden Gate Bridge, shrouded in fog, that looms over Crissy Field.
Once in back I looked across the broad lot at the loading docks, metal storage containers, dumpsters and a rack of yellow kayaks. I did not see a gym until I looked at the southwest corner of the lot.
It was an outdoor gym with standard Crossfit gear: metal racks, tractor tires, large rubber mats, kegs, a punching bag and kettlebells.
I limped toward a group of athletes dead-lifting, stretching and hopping up and down on boxes.
While Starrett finished up an appointment I spoke to one of his coaches, Robert Tuller, a local ultrarunner in his 40s.
He pointed to a box that stood at 36 inches off the ground and, from a standing position, flicked up straight into the air and nailed the landing. He turned to me with a huge grin and arms in the big victory V and I got the implied message: “When was the last time you saw an ultra-runner do that?”
Never, I thought, knowing that most longtime and beat-up runners like myself can, if necessary, break out of our lug-and-slug shuffle and occasionally lurch onto a curb. Just then Starrett wrangled me by the shoulder and said, “Dude! Let’s get to work.”
Starrett is six-foot-three, 37, and has a raw-boned, youthful intensity. His nickname is Cape Buffalo but in the Crossfit universe he goes by “K Star.” His 220-pound body is spring-like, molded by years of the high-intensity mix of power lifting, gymnastics and anaerobic conditioning of Crossfit, combined with his previous career as a national-champion kayaker. The wear-and-tear from the 13 kayak workouts per week he performed for years sparked his romance with movement and how it relates to performance.
“There was a day I couldn’t turn my head. That’s when I was done as a pro,” he said.
His physical therapy practice is a cornerstone of his gym, and he’s worked with Tour de France cyclists, Olympic-gold medalists, military elites, extreme skiers and ballet stars, but hastens to point out the gym is just as much about “moms and dads.”
Family is a powerful theme for Starrett. His wife, Juliet, earned world champion honors in whitewater rafting and was a lawyer before the couple went into the Crossfit business. Starrett is the head coach of the gym and Juliet the chief executive officer. They live in Marin, Calif., with their daughters, Georgia, 5, and Caroline, 2, and two dogs from a rescue shelter. In the backyard are a hot tub and a trampoline.
The idea for the gym took root when they lived in San Francisco and tested out Crossfit exercises on their friends.
“When we opened the gym we had 40 members,” Starrett said. Now with 250 members, he estimates they’ve coached athletes through about 60,000 workouts.
“What I’m really proud of is that we built it in a grass-roots way. All of our coaches started out as members. I honestly like everyone who belongs to the gym. They’re all good people.”
I wasn’t the first runner to come to Starrett with a knee injury. Those 60,000 workouts have allowed him to easily identify sources of injury when he looks at a broken runner.
“Crossfit is a perfect medium for exposing your weaknesses and problems,” he said. I waited for him to ask me where the pain was. He never did. Nor did he ever ask me how it happened, how long it had been bugging me or what I’d been trying to do to it. He never even asked me which leg it was. He just had me do a basic knee-bending squat while he checked the flow of my movement for dysfunctional clues.
“By looking at how you move,” he noted, “I know what’s going on.”
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.