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Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Becoming a Supple Leopard

Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance

by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza


This book continued, among other trends, the trend of me reading books with titles that earn me much mockery from my wife. This is the rough side of being a coach no one tells you about.

(That's not true. My wife mocks a lot of the my reading choices. At least, she mocks the titles. It's her thing.)

I first heard about Starrett because of the popularity of his MobilityWOD website, which offered a metric ton instructional videos on mobility for CrossFit, and physical training in general. The videos were pretty detailed and thorough, but I found it difficult to use the site, and didn't take much advantage of it. Still, the bits I saw seemed solid, and a lot of people I know said his work was excellent, so I figured I'd check it out in a more manageable (for me) form.

Becoming a Supple Leopard is a beast of a book, weighing it at over 3.5 pounds and topping 400 pages of extremely detailed info. If there was ever a book that deserved to be called comprehensive, this is it.

The book begins with Starrett describing the philosophy behind his movement system, and some of the general concepts that inform his training method. In short, Starrett believes that we live in an era where it's possible to tie together numerous previously disparate training methods and discover universal principles about how humans move, and how they train. There's way more to it, of course, but it's an interesting concept that at least provokes some good thought.

He then spends three chapters describing in great deal the exercises that make up the core of his system. Starrett divides all exercises into three categories, based on the amount of motion they require, and the kind of movement demands they make. Essentially, Category One exercises (like a deadlift) are simpler than Category Three exercises (like a barbell snatch). It seems like a pretty reasonable way to organize progression, and Starrett lays out his reasoning very clearly. He also describes each exercise in exacting detail, and you can probably learn some good cues and ideas just from this section alone. CrossFit athletes will find most of the major exercises they do in here, but there's a great deal of overlap for anyone who does barbell lifts or bodyweight training (there's not a lot of kettlebell technique here, if that is your baliwick).

After that, Starrett goes into some general concepts and terms around his mobility and movement system, before diving into a detailed breakdown of mobility exercises for just about every area of your body. The exercises are subdivided by different anatomical regions (the lower part of the arm, for example, is one section). This is big chunk of the text, and the part that most people will probably jump to first, but I recommend reading the whole thing through; there is a system here, and jumping around without understanding it will probably lead to you missing out on some important info.

Again, there is a lot of very detailed information in here about how to use various rollers, bands, balls, and other tools to help restore mobility and range of motion to just about any part of your body. It is a very comprehensive tool set.

All that said, the book's comprehensive sometimes works against it. While there is a table of contents, there's no index, which means that if you want to look at a specific issue, the best you can do is get to a general area and then start digging. That's fine if you're doing some general planning, but if you want a specific mobility drill to help with an athlete in the moment, you could use up precious time just flipping pages. And yes, this is the kind of book you'd have to bring with you to the gym, box, or whatever...there's no way you're going to memorize all of this stuff in advance, without a lot of practice or training.

Speaking of practice and training; there are some drills in this book that I'm just not comfortable doing. Don't misunderstand me...they may work. I'm just not comfortable inflicting them on myself. The major example here would be Starrett's recommendation to use resistance bands to create a distraction (pulling apart) in the joint. From what I can gather, the idea of distracting a joint to help moblize it is pretty common in PT practice, but I'm not confident about the idea of doign that to myself. Doesn't mean it won't work, I'm just hesitant to try it. Fortunately, there's loads of other options in here for me.

Finally, Starrett has a really idiosyncratic writing style. It's not quite as frenetic as his speaking (if you listen to him talk, he's enthusiastic, bordering on manic, about this stuff), but his writing is peppered with a lot of odd terms and language that I'm not familiar with. Some of it I think is drawn from the language of physical therapy, but some of it seems to just be his own thing, and some of that his quite silly. Calling our training partners "Superfriends" just feels goofy to me. There is a small glossary in the back of the book, which helps. 

So who is this book good for? CrossFitters will benefit a lot from it, as the methodologies here are so closely linked to CrossFit. Other strength coaches and athletes will probably find a fair amount in here that applies to their training. Martial artists and other athletes might have to monkey with the system a little more to make it work for them (Starrett uses the S&C movements as a diagnostic tool, and if you aren't doing those, you either need to start or find another way to identify problem areas), but they still should be able to take something useful away from this. Whatever your area of physical culture, you will have to put some thought into using this book. If you want a quick plug-and-play mobility routine, this won't help you. If you want a comprehensive guide to mobility strategies, check this out.

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