Mobility? Who’s got time for that? You want to get big, get fit, get fast, get shredded, and get back to your life.
“If you run a race horse around and put it away wet, the horse gets pneumonia and dies. But I’m a human being! I’m not a horse. I’m not weak,” says mobility coach Kelly Starrett, bestselling author of Becoming a Supple Leopard. “If I sneak out at lunch and run my 5K, go to SoulCycle, do my Peloton class, and then come back and sit at my desk, I can do that. I can climb Everest with one lung. You can eat a chocolate doughnut and smoke a cigarette and still win a world championship once in a while—and you can do that for a while because the human body is so durable and so tolerant.”
But only for a while: Eventually, you’ll break down. Then you’ll want mobility. And if you want to move better, you’ll want Starrett’s advice. Maybe no one else on Earth is more knowledgable about mobility—or, at least, no one has communicated more information to the masses about it.
In 2009, the founder of San Francisco CrossFit launched MobilityWOD, a daily video series that helped Crossfitters and other fitness folks care not just that they moved, but how they moved. Since then, he’s written three books on mobility, including Becoming a Supple Leopard. MobilityWOD has since evolved into The Ready State, a website and coaching platform to help people move better.
But even with more than a decade of helping men move better, Starrett says we’ve got a long way to go before we’re all moving like liquid.
“People have become very sophisticated within the vertical [of mobility] … and I ask, ‘well, how’s it going? How are we doing the last decade? Do we have fewer musculoskeletal injuries? Are we less obese? Are we less diabetic? Less depressed?” he asks. Choose any metric, he says, and it’s clear we have a long way to go. Here, he talks about how you can start to get there.
When you look back at the past 12 years, what have you learned that you wish you’d known at the start, so you could have shared that knowledge sooner?
One of the things we haven’t done a good job of in the past 10 years is we’ve really said that “pain is a medical problem.” And what we know is, one, that’s a patent untruth because if you go to any gym and ask, “are you pain-free?,” then people say, “no.”
If we say that pain is a medical problem, then I’m only going to go see a physician when pain is so bad that I can no longer do my job, when I can’t occupy a role in society. So if your back hurts so bad that you can’t go to work, that’s a medical emergency—but what happened in the 15 days or three weeks before that? You didn’t see a physical therapist. You tried to self-medicate with bourbon or THC.
We have a right to take a crack at fixing ourselves. But we have to be given the right information, and that is what we did not understand—the power that we had when we really started this conversation.
If we’re going to get the most out of sports performance, we have to have people who feel safe, who feel acknowledged, who feel like members of the team, who sleep and ate whole foods. All of those things that you thought were complex messy psycho-emotional, psychosocial components of the human being, those are just as important as how strong you are.
The good news is that humans are so durable and so tolerant that when we improve one aspect of that system, oftentimes we see up-regulation through the whole system.
Since we have a right to “take a crack at fixing ourselves,” you’ve said that “all humans should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves.” What’s one specific maintenance thing most guys should be doing for their mobility every day?
If you wanna have the most bomb-proof, healthy tissues, you need to move more during the day. When you walk more—you’re decongesting your body. You have two big circulatory systems: Everyone knows about the heart, lungs, arteries, veins, capillaries. But you’ve got the lymphatic system on the other side.
And the lymphatic system is your sewage system of the body—all the proteins and the dead cellular debris, and all the normal turnover. Anything that’s too big to go through the capillaries goes out through the lymphatic system, and those things are pumped up and driven out through the system by muscle contraction.
So if you sit on an airplane for a long period of time, what happens to your ankles and feet? They swell up! That swelling is congestion. That is you not pumping and squeezing your calf and foot muscles. Guess what happens when you go ride your bike at lunch and then sit at the desk and drive home—and then don’t move because you “already exercised,” then we have a sort of failure to consummate the whole cycle. You don’t finish the training cycle. The tissues get congested, or stiff, or inflamed, or whatever word you want to use.
One of the other mistakes that we make a lot is that we train hard for an hour, because that’s the typical training duration, and then we go back to our life. We don’t actually move very much. And that hour of training isn’t actually enough to accumulate total movement fatigue—so we have problems with sleep latency. So now we don’t fall asleep, we don’t stay asleep, and we don’t sleep very densely because we’re not tired.
Walking is a really powerful way to kind of move the cellular waste through the sewers of your body … and it will help you accumulate enough non-exercise activity to fall asleep at night. If you want to have better gains, you should walk more. People say 10,000 steps, but it’s really more like 8,000. But if you hit 7,000 steps one day, and 10,000 the next day, you’re going to be fine.
If a guy wants to start foam rolling, when should he be doing it? Before his workout? After?
If you’re training hard, don’t roll at the gym. Use the gym for your gym time. Instead, when you get home, when you’re watching TV in the evening, pull out the roller, pull out the ball, and roll on it.
What should you roll on? What’s stiff today? I don’t need an app to tell me where to mobilize. I need to ask myself, “what feels stiff? What feels tired?” And then let’s begin a conversation with our tissues.
Just like in the gym, we don’t train the same muscle group every day. We don’t train every energy system every day. So we don’t have to mobilize the whole body every day. Well, today, let’s go five minutes on the right quadriceps, and five minutes on the left quadriceps. Tomorrow will be calves. The next day’s hamstrings, and the next day is chest or my triceps. And suddenly, what you realize is holy moly, I have a plan for kind of going head to toe.
How do I know if I’m rolling “right”? How hard should I be rolling?
You should be able to take a full breath on any tissue that you’re working on. If you’re getting a massage and can’t take a full breath, that person’s going too deep. If rolling on a roller takes your breath away, you’re going too deep. Maybe the roller’s too hard or you’re using too much pressure.
So what we can do there is use our breathing as a really nice kind of diagnostic tool about what’s going on. If I can’t breathe, then my mind might be telling myself, “threat.” I’m in a fight-or-flight response. So the first order of business is, if you’re rolling at home, make sure you can breathe.
So let’s be more specific: As you’re rolling around, I want a five-second inhale and a five-second exhale, because it turns out that’s a really good way to get my brain to chill out. If I find something I can’t breathe on, I can do some other things: One of them is called tempo, which means we slow down. And the other thing is an isometric. If I find something that hurts on my body, or I can’t breathe, I can stop there, take a four-second inhale.
I contract the muscle for four seconds, and then I exhale and relax for eight seconds. I’m teaching my brain that I can breathe in this position. Then when I contract, I’m actually creating a way for it. Then as I exhale and relax, that’s tempo. That’s me softening the tension.
How long should those foam rolling sessions last?
I just want you to commit to 10 minutes of working on your body, whatever needs the most attention. Ten minutes per day is a really reasonable amount of time, and I can do that while I’m watching TV. Now that’s 70 minutes per week, and that really started to aggregate into a massive amount of time and change.
What we found is that if people did 10 minutes, obeying these basic rules of, “Can you breathe? Can you contract and relax?” And if you go side to side across the muscles and tissues, now up and down … what we found was people end up spending a little bit more than 10 minutes, they got major change, and they were able to make themselves feel better.
What’s something everyone should do every time they squat?
I need you to feel like you’re balanced between the ball of your foot and your heel, and I need your feet to be as straight as you can make them. I need your ankle to be in the middle of your feet. Now: Squat.
With the front squat, back squat, overhead squat, give me a goblet squat … that foot position shouldn’t change . The foot pressure shouldn’t change, and when it does, it’s because you’re trying to get some arbitrary depth or because it’s too heavy. Then you are no longer practicing great squatting technique. You’re starting to compensate, which means you have a choice here: You can say, “Well, I need to get fit so I’m just going to keep doing it, and it doesn’t matter because if I’m just fit or I’ll have abs.” Or you stop.
You rest a little bit more in between sets, or you make the load lighter. Or you squat higher. But I need you to feel when you are starting to break down, or when you’re starting to compensate away from best expression of the human.
Another movement mega-mind, Alwyn Cosgrove, talks about how a half-kneeling position can “lock down” the lower back—so if you have too much lower back extension when you shoulder press, you can now press overhead without risking the lumbar spine.
Are there other positions or tips like this that can help? If I have some mobility issues that I know about, but want to keep training while I’m improving them, what should I do?
What I want you to do is: Stop when you start compensating. The opposite of good technical movement is compensatory movement. Remember, you’re gonna bench today no matter what. And if you you can slam your shoulder forward, or if you’re running, you can slam your heel into the ground and turn your feet out like a duck, collapse your arch and use all these fancy structures in your shoe and your custom arch support. You can still do that for a while, until you can’t.
When I ran a gym—and I ran one for 16 years—on squat day, everyone’s squatting today. But our squats are going to look different: [One person is] going to goblet squat. [Another is] going to front squat. [Another is] squatting with feet turned out a little bit. We want to get you moving to the best of your ability, and help people understand the best expression of the movement.
Louie Simmons [of Westside Barbell] invented something called “conjugate training.” What that means is we’re squatting, but tomorrow, we’re using a different bar or we’re going to change your stance. And the next week we’re going to change it again. All these bars and stances have different maxes, and they have slightly different loads on the body. We’re still fundamentally challenging the same pattern, but the principles of the pattern stay the same.
You don’t “win” fitness. Just because you had an all-time PR on your squat—you almost died, but you made it—that doesn’t mean that was an effective technique for later when you’re running or playing rugby.
So it’s OK to deadlift off blocks. It’s OK to squat to parallel. It’s OK to floor press instead of bench pressing off the bench. It’s OK to do a landmine press instead of pressing overhead.
One example that fits with what you’re talking about: You’re seeing a lot of people squat deeper right now with a slant board. You’ve written that you like them. Why?
What’s great about a slant board squat is that suddenly, people are squatting with their feet straight. Does anyone turn their feet out like ducks while on the slant board? No. Because they don’t have to.
[The slant board] takes some of the skill out of it and suddenly your back is straight up and down. Having your knees over your toes is not a one or zero sort of thing. People are realizing that they can do this slant board squat and they don’t have to worry about their range of motion holding them back.
No one is back squatting 500 pounds on a slant board, but it’s a great assistance exercise. It’s like doing leg extensions or other assistance work. It’s helping to make it a skill again. You’re learning that ability to have your feet straight. It’s a great assistance exercise after you squat or deadlift—if you have a frozen ankle and no dorsiflexion, it’s great.
And why is having your feet straight important?
First, you have better transfer of power, better expression of force. But more important, it transfers better to things you theoretically care about—riding a bike, skiing, running, playing tennis.
Really, why are you squatting? Just to have big quads? You don’t even have to squat to get big quads! We know that you can just go do a bunch of leg extensions and hamstring curls—you can do all that, and have a huge physiology. But you’ll have no skill.
That’s fine [to not squat with your feet straight] if your whole life is going to be squatting. But what happens when you suddenly have to jump or cut or land, and you’ve been hiding your lack of range of motion?
One thing lots of guys are practicing more is sitting at home. For guys who are working from home—temporarily, or as their “new normal”—what can they do to feel good and stay mobile?
Let’s be super clear once again: I want you to walk more. Take Stan Efferding’s advice here: Every time you eat a meal, you have to walk 10 minutes. That’ll give you 30 minutes of accumulated walking per day. That’s gorgeous.
My second favorite thing is to work on the ground. Scoot right up to your coffee table, and sit on the ground. When your body says fidget, change—side saddle, 90/90, high kneel, squat, sit cross-legged … you’ll see as well, I can get a ton of end range hip range of motion while I’m sitting on the ground.
Third: Sometimes, get yourself a bar stool and perch. You don’t have to stand. You can just perch, which is just sitting at the end of a bar stool—it’s a legitimate way of standing.
Why? What do the best office environments look like? Variety. Create movement-rich workspaces: So you can sit on the couch for a while, then sit on the floor for a while, then stand at your counter for a while, then sit at your desk for a while. I want you to have as many movement options as you can.
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