Body image, meat, kinship and the primal are all expressions of a yearning for some sort authentic pre-modern human existence. The commingling of these desires has been expertly melded into palaeolithic fuelled Cross-Fit with the promise of an empowered ancestral human experience.
Movements need manifestos and Dr. Kelly Starrett has offered the global Cross-Fit community Becoming a Supple Leopard – it is a timely and opportunistic companion to the epidemic of injury caused by ‘movement faults’ and mobility restrictions that plague excited Cross-Fit devotees. Becoming a Supple Leopard is well structured, organised, and photographed. It is a well realised project and extension of mobilityWOD.com. Like many health and fitness-related coffee table format books, it will conspicuously adorn the abodes of urban fit-sters in some subcultural settings. The complexity and conjectures of Starrett’s underlying assumptions about the nature of the organism and his thuggish prescriptions will remain invisible to most of the fanatical mediocrity.
Becoming a Supple Leopard is organised in an accessible, sequential, regional and systematic manner targeted at the Cross-Fit community who perform a narrow spectrum of prescribed movement. Unfortunately Starrett’s basic conception of the body is erroneous. Starrett regards the body as machine – the organism is not a machine, not even a special sort of machine – it is at very least a self-organising ecology with characteristic non-linearity of physiological responses to input. Becoming a Supple Leopard is informed by a topographic reading of anatomy and biomechanics that appear to have undergone a radical systemic fasciotomy – leaving out this rich interoceptive and biomechanically significant tissue and locating performance in the command centre and red oxygenated stuff called muscle. For these and innumerable other reasons, the body is not easily or safely hacked and fixed by the brutish ministrations of smashing, voodoo compression/flossing, oscillation and contract-relax stretching in a disembodied void.
Becoming a Supple Leopard battle plan against the body is underpinned, most likely unwittingly, by a self-objectification and anachronistic mind-body dualism that is not biologically realistic. Starrett’s fixes look like a chimp tinkering with a supercomputer with a paper clip and perpetuates a senseless, unsustainable and thuggish embodiment he calls ‘performance’.
These ‘fixes’ have long and checkered histories in diverse clinical and performance fields – in our clinical practice we use the entire spectrum of these techniques to enhance functional outcomes based on specific clinical diagnosis and overall reading of the organisms needs and organisation. However inexpert hacking of postural and movement faults or launching a laissez-faire myofascial assault on specific tissues can unravel complex patterns of interdependence causing what many therapists refer to as ‘decompensation’.
The Supple Leopard’s armoury of fixes should be approached with extreme caution and sensitivity – many will produce effective relaxation responses, improve mobility, aid recovery from injury and help one navigate the logic, complexity and interdependence of purported ‘faults’. Starrett however offers no time horizon for tissue adaptation and remodelling which will inevitably lead overzealous and impatient devotees to insensitive application of fixes resulting in injury, decompensation and unravelling of healthy and comfortable systems.
Dr. Kelly Starrett?
Starretts formal training, and no, by his own public admission he has not written a doctoral thesis, has under-equipped him for the hugely complex task he has undertaken – to offer the global performance community a DIY-fix-it manual for the human musculoskeletal system. His enthusiasm might be intoxicating but it is often ill-informed, mechanistic and potentially injurious. His own embodiment models respiratory hyperinflation, excessive rhomboid recruitment, an overcooked thoracic spine, a bisected body schema with poor rotational coupling between upper and lower extremities due to excessive muscular tension and attendant loss of efficient and smooth fascial coupling.
Are these the traits of an embodied teacher?
No Leopard does this
Starrett highlights his deficient understanding of the complex balance of muscle tensions that support healthy breathing and posture when he advocates sustained abdominal gripping at 20% MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), disregarding compelling EMG and biomechanical data that have repeatedly shown resting posture to be maintained by 4-8% abdominal MVC. His ‘calculations’ neglects both resting muscle tone, intrinsic muscular and fascial stiffness which provide ambient and free stability.
Upon reading this recommendation I put the book down, overwhelmed by a sense of dread and clinical foreboding. This level of habitual conscious abdominal contraction is typical of patients with chronic low back pain. Starrett is advocating pathomemesis – a mimicking of disease or injury state – this advice should discredit his entire treatise. The suggestion, excised from the deeper and more subtle context of Mushashi, to ‘make your combat stance your everyday stance’, a state of persistent elevated resting muscle tone, contradicts his very own thesis that tension and open circuits are the main sources of musculoskeletal injury and dysfunction.
We have experimented in our very own ‘lab’- Cross-Fits new name for gyms, with some of the more obviously provocative and clinically suspicious fixes from Becoming a Supple Leopard and have found them to cause irritation and adaptive turmoil. For example distracted femoral internal rotation using a power-bands caused immediate and sustained low lumbar irritation because of the mechanical coupling and fascial continuity of the hip capsule, sacroiliac joint and deep ligamentous architecture of the pelvis and lumbar spine. Many of the other fixes are derivative and common practices – myofascial self-mobilisation, contract-relax stretching, taped mobilisation are not new or the intellectual property of Cross-Fit.
If Cross-Fit is indeed a global lab of interconnected and cross-referenced objective measurables derived from repetitive pro-inflammatory and outright injurious procedures then this experiment would not get ethical approval. Cross-Fit prides itself on measurables and objective outcomes – a sort of scientific credentialing. Starrett is highly selective and misrepresentative of the scientific literature he pre-digests for his readers – this is highlighted by his misguided prescription for abdominal bracing.
Becoming a Supple Leopard should not be confused by ‘proactive’ clinicians as a fashionable new book of rehabilitation and movement therapy. Mobility can exacerbate pain and reflexive immobilisation is a necessary strategy in many painful conditions. Rigidity and altered motor control often persist even after tissue resolution and this can be fuelled by the overzealous bracing advocated by Starrett. Though many of the fixes in Becoming a Supple Leopard are attractive they should be used with sensitivity and caution framed by a working diagnosis and reading of patient overall health status. The appeal and reach of Cross-Fit and this particular blue-print for musculoskeletal self-reliance is producing more and more athletes and patients riddled with excess and rigidity. In clinical practice I am seeing Cross-Fit patients getting better at a narrow bandwidth of prescribed activity but worse at embodiment.
His prescriptions may enable ‘athletes’ to continue smashing themselves with questionably functional and excessively repetitive regimes that are colourfully advertised by the visible and prolific use of Rock & K-tape, a tell tale sign that those at the top of the game are riddled with inflammation, overuse injury and dysfunctional motor control patterns.
Grooved and repetitively trained movement become materially and neurologically inscribed motor patterns that deform, distort and constrain biological complexity and intrinsic variability – the body adapts to a contrived, limited and prescriptive set of Cross-Fit politburo benchmark exercises.
A Cross-Fit athlete
Starrett claims that ‘We end up with a totally different athlete’ is right – a Cross-Fit athlete – rather than one adapted to a particular activity for which Cross-Fit is a tool for acquiring improved mobility and motor control rather than competing in the Cross-Fit games. Starrett’s ‘real life working conditions’ are again those of aspiring Cross-Fit competitors not the athlete in search of complementary training strategies. ‘Exposing holes’ in athletic performance is easy – holes are characteristic of and may even enhance specific athletic performance – it is simply not necessary for a competitive rower to perform hundreds of kipping pull ups.
‘We should be seeking thresholds where our athletes begin to breakdown’ – most people in Cross-Fit gyms are not athletes, just delusional and fanatically mediocratic – seduced by the idea that being part of Cross-Fit elevates them beyond the status mere gym-rats into evidence informed test-re-test athletes. ‘Breakdown’ is sadly where osteopathic practice begins – picking up the pieces and undoing some of the mechanist, and unrealistic imaginings, adaptive time-frames and programming that Starrett and others are promoting.
The label and credential of ‘functional’ can become a senseless and empty term that insulates the advocate from critique in an industry plagued by trends and fashion. If a functional movement is performed repetitively, eradicating natural variability and inducing rigid motor control, elevated resting muscle tone, dysfunctional breathing, chronic soft tissue injuries and a bisected body schema is it functional or merely a functional activity performed to excess and with a disregard for the material substrate of the body?
Is Cross-Fit a case of ‘assume the mistake and take it to the end’?