Kelly Starrett is a coach and physical therapist who has trained athletes for more than ten years at San Francisco CrossFit. His clients include Olympic gold medalists, Tour de France cyclists, professional ballet dancers, and elite military personnel. Starrett is also the author of multiple books, including Becoming a Supple Leopard, a New York Times bestseller. His blog, MobilityWOD, was once named one of Outside’s top ten fitness blogs.
In an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, Starrett and Ferriss talked about the habits, strategies, and training of top CrossFit athletes. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited by Outside.
Ferriss: What are some common mistakes of CrossFit instructors or trainees?
Starrett: I see people offering excuses when looking at human physiology: Oh, the reason you can’t squat all the way down is your hip structure. Oh, some people just don’t have long femurs, so they can’t take a poo in the woods and squat all the way down. And I’m like, What are you talking about? You should be able to squat with your feet together, ankles together, all the way down—that shows full hip function, full ankle function. You should be able to keep your back flat and legs straight and hinge over and pick up a barbell. But people are coming into the gym basically as demihuman. They have big aerobic engines, because that’s what someone said they should have. But they don’t even have 50 percent of the range of motion they should have.
We have to start a conversation. Yeah, you can squat with your feet turned out like a duck. You totally can. You can set a world record in powerlifting like that. But you know what you can’t do? You can’t run. You can’t jump and land. It really causes all these problems.
Let’s talk about the training-versus-athleticism conversation.
If you look at the original Fitness in 100 Words or Less, by [CrossFit founder] Greg Glassman, in there it says, “Regularly learn and play new sports.”
So that’s saying, OK, you have this skill set; let’s go challenge it in new domain. CrossFit is, for me, the single best integrated way of training I have ever come across. I’ve seen it refined. But I haven’t, to date, seen something that looks better at general physical preparedness. Like, I want my daughters to have a skill set and a base fitness and strength, and this is the model.
Would I have all of my NFLers do something that looks exactly like CrossFit? No. But I can still keep the tenets there. The problem is, sometimes we confuse the ability to perform a lot of work with the ability to be athletic. And one of my definitions of who is the best athlete is: Who picks up the new skill the fastest?
Do you think too many CrossFitters focus on working out and not practicing?
Well, totally. But let’s take it out of CrossFit for a second and look at running. Running is a very technical skill that we should be developing from a very early age. It is one of the tenets of being a good athlete. In fact, look at the NFL Combine. They jump, they have to bench press, which is a joke—that’s the one piece that’s a joke—but everything else is a run drill, change-of-direction drill. It’s about fluency, and economy of running, and changing mechanics. So if we look at most people’s running, how much actual skill development do they do in running? I mean besides tying their shoes.
If you had to remove three common exercises from CrossFit gyms in the interest of safety, what would they be?
First and foremost, all the movements in the training language are inherently safe if you have full range of motion and the motor control to do them. But the number-one most dangerous skill, though, is bench press, because people don’t have any internal rotation in their shoulder. You can press all day long: standing overhead military press, strict press. You’re going to fail safely. But when you fail in a bench press, that shoulder is going to translate forward. There’s your labrum tear.
I would also pull the rings out. What we see is that people can do movements that look like ring dips—they go up and down. But they don’t lock out. Their shoulders are in terrible positions.
If I had to pull out one more movement, I would say the butterfly kip, only because if you asked me to do a bunch of pull-ups, guess what I’m going to do? Butterfly kip. But I understand the principles, and I have good range of motion. It’s a completely safe position. But what we see is that people do not have range of motion—I ask them to put their arms over their head, for example, and they can’t do it—and they compensate.
Are there commonalities that you’ve observed in elite CrossFitters that people can borrow, emulate, or incorporate?
Most of them are obsessed with mechanics and really spend a lot of time refining those mechanics. Their positions are more effortless. People aren’t spending enough time working on full position, because we know you can get by at 80 percent. But show me you have full capacity—that’s the thing that these top athletes have.
I always use this example: Squat down with your feet together. Keep your heels on the ground, knees together. Can you do that? If you can’t do that, knees together, all the way down, chilling out on the bottom, like we’re at a campfire, then you are missing full-hip range of motion, ankle range of motion. One of those things is missing. And that’s the mechanism for your hip impingement. That’s the mechanism for your plantar fasciitis, for your bunion, for your torn Achilles, for your pulled calf. That is the fucking problem. And you should be obsessing about this. CrossFit, or any good modern strength and conditioning system, they force us into the shapes that are diagnostic.