Jan 13, 2014

The CrossFit Bible

Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett

The benefits of regular exercise are well-documented and it's safe to say that more people now than ever have incorporated some form of physical workout into their schedule. This, along with the advent of rigorous programs like CrossFit, means more of us are sustaining various types of strain or injury, through improper technique, engaging in contact sports, or whatever else. Enter Kelly Starrett's book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, which has taken the athletic world by storm and couldn't have come at a better time.

Meticulously detailing how to "resolve pain, prevent injury, and optimize athletic performance," the book is a completely illustrated owner's manual for the human body, so, weighty. For those of us without serious injuries, temporary or permanent, there are basically two crucial ideas* in the book: spinal bracing & the double lacrosse ball peanut.

[Naturally, the photographic depictions of concepts are comprehensive within the book but Kelly is, for some reason, wearing a shirt in all of the pictures. I feel that is counterintuitive to demonstrating which muscles should be engaged at which time and how. So, being that I possess little-to-zero sense of shame/privacy, I've chosen to illustrate this article with photographs of myself, wearing only the super-short, Chinese running shorts I like to wear when I work out. I do not have perfect posture; my hips, back, and shoulders show the signs of having been a touring guitarist for over a decade. I do not think I have a great body that everyone needs to see; this isn't vanity.]

A Doctor of Physical Therapy, Kelly Starrett founded one of the first 50 CrossFit affiliate gyms, in San Francisco, and is the guy behind MobilityWOD.com. In case you don't know, CrossFit is a program of intense physical exercise whose practitioners pride themselves on "working through the pain" until their breaking point has been reached or even surpassed. Puking is common. This can (and does) result in a plethora of injuries, especially when moves are performed with incorrect posture. [Consequently, CrossFit is the subject of much controversy, which we'll save for a later article.]

So, what do you do when you hurt yourself exercising?

Spinal Bracing

The first thing you do is don't hurt yourself exercising. One effective way you can keep from hurting yourself is by becoming aware of your spinal posture, through spinal bracing, and focusing on maintaining that posture while engaging in your reps:

gif of Tyler Coe demonstrating spinal bracing posture sequence
Bracing Sequence
  1. Stand with your feet under your hips and squeeze your butt cheeks firmly.
  2. Tilt your ribcage so it's vertically aligned with your pelvis, as though building a tower or shelf.
  3. Exhale. Feel your abs contract. Your spine is now braced in position. Keep ab tension at ≈20% of your max.
  4. Add the skull by aligning your ears with your shoulders. Relax your shoulders, down and back. Maintain all.
Now, whether that seems overly complicated to you or not, the benefits of implementing this sequence into every stage of your daily movements, exercising or at rest, are innumerable. Perform this sequence before every set of moves in which a flat back is desirable (hint: basically every move except bear hug lifts), and greatly reduce your odds of harming your body. As an experiment, try to practice spinal bracing throughout your entire day. How many times in a day do you forget your posture? Simply take a moment to stop and go through the bracing sequence again.

squatting with spine braced demonstrated by Tyler Mahan Coe

Approximately half of Becoming a Supple Leopard is dedicated to illustrating maintenance of spinal bracing throughout all manner of common athletic movements, as well as showing you the various tendencies you may have to "fault" out of correct spinal posture. The other half of the book concerns maximizing "mobilization."

Mobilization can be thought of as flexibility but it's not so much "Can you do full leg splits?" as it is, "Can your arms and legs move in all of the directions they should?" Whether your full range of motion is being hindered by tension or pain of muscle or joint tissue, Becoming a Supple Leopard has page after page of methods for working out what the exact problem is, repairing the damage, and restoring your range of motion. Based on the reception it has received in the athletic community, the most revelatory of these methods seems to be using lacrosse balls in various combinations of PNF stretching and self-massage. (Think Rolfing without another person involved.)

Lacrosse Balls

Lacrosse balls, it turns out, are the perfect self-massage tool. You need to own three lacrosse balls to work through the protocols in the book. [Or buy a 6-pack for you and a friend.] One to use by itself, for addressing localized areas of knotted-up tissue in all areas of the body. The other two get taped together (use athletic tape) for use on your spine, like so:

Tyler Coe holding double lacrosse ball peanut in hand

There are about 200 pages of this book that depict how to use lacrosse balls to fix restrictive tissues in the body. We all carry tension in our shoulders and back, so I'm going to use that area as an example of how this works. In many of the protocols in the book, you will want to relax onto the massage tool, or alternate between flexing and relaxing onto the tool. In my examples here, you do not relax onto the massage tool.

gif of Tyler Coe demonstrating use of double lacrosse ball peanut

Remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer has a chiropractic practice of pushing people over backwards onto a trash can? That's pretty close to what you're gonna want to do with your taped-together lacrosse balls. Laying on your back, place your massage tool so that one ball is on each side of the spine and between a pair of vertebrae. Engage your core and lay back onto the tool. [If you've correctly performed this step, your spirit animal should manifest itself on the physical plane of existence. As you can see, mine is the North American Dwarf Panther.] Hug your arms across your chest or raise them overhead. Drive your heels into the floor to lift your butt, if you want more pressure on the tool. Wiggle around, keeping your core engaged. Do this with the massage tool between vertebrae pairs all along your spine. You'll likely find a particularly sensitive section. There's your trouble area. Focus time here.

Tyler Coe demonstrating use of lacrosse ball to mobilize shoulder blade

For the shoulders, apply the same principle as the back, using the single lacrosse ball. Laying again on your back, place the ball between one shoulder blade and your spine. Keep the muscles of your shoulder engaged, as you previously did with your core, and reach your arm straight out above your head, then over your trunk to the opposite hip and finally straight down over the immediate hip. Keeping your shoulder engaged means your arm will stay straight throughout movement in all directions. Reposition the lacrosse ball and repeat the above steps all around the shoulder blade. Do your other shoulder. This will hurt. I'm sorry and you're welcome.

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?


*DISCLAIMER: In no way does this article make the claim that one need not purchase Becoming a Supple Leopard because these are the only two worthwhile teachings of the book. Exactly the opposite. If either of these ideas are interesting to you, you will no doubt greatly benefit from reading and working through the entire book. Buy it. 


  1. like what your doing bro, good info

  2. like what your doing bro, good info