Why you should care
Because it would be nice to still do somersaults at age 90. Or even 32.
Done any squats lately? Are you capable of even one? Give it a try. Bend your knees until your calves touch the backs of your thighs, and keep your heels on the ground. Crying uncle? Cursing OZY? Don’t blame us — that position used to come naturally to people everywhere, and if you can’t hold it for at least 10 minutes, you might want to listen to what Kelly Starrett has to say.
A best-selling author, a physical therapist and a CrossFit gym owner, Starrett wrote a 6-pound, $35 tome, Becoming a Supple Leopard, that has sold more than 100,000 copies, putting it at the top of Amazon’s Sports Training category, where it has garnered almost 800 five-star reviews. His 2014 follow-up, Ready to Run, is No. 1 in Preventive Medicine. Starrett’s website, MobilityWOD.com, gets 28,000 hits a day. Starstruck bloggers dream of “KStarr” sightings.
But if he were just another trainer — and in this case, a rather striking one, with tattoos and a 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame — pushing yet another get-in-shape technique, he might soon be headed for the late-night-promo department. But Starrett believes modern Homo sapiens could learn to sit, stand, walk and generally move a lot better. “Every human being should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves,” he says. That motto may as well be sci-fi for the average person. And it just gets more unbelievable: Get movement right, he says, and your joints will last … wait for it … 110 pain-free years.
Maybe there’s a touch of showmanship to his claim. But it’s certainly alluring to his fans, who say he has exceptional charisma. “You feel like you’re secretly his favorite athlete,” says Brian Thomson, a San Francisco lawyer who was inspired by workouts with Starrett to become a CrossFit coach.
When we meet, the 41-year-old Starrett is wearing a MobilityWOD baseball cap and sweats. More typically, says a friend, he’s “the giant man in the undersize shirt.” Growing up in Colorado, he competed in kayaking, canoeing and whitewater rafting, eventually winning two national titles at ages 25 and 26. But the exertion took its toll. Paddling twice a day, every day, he lost sensation in his hand.
“I asked around, and they said, ‘Yeah, that always happens,’” he admits. That led him, he adds, to get a doctorate in physical therapy and open a CrossFit gym. The combination, he says, lets him teach movement under a wide range of conditions, all aimed at fixing and preventing injuries. He couldn’t be more meticulous about the details. Supple Leopard lavishes 18 pages on the proper form for squatting, three pages on chair sitting and a page and a half on standing — “feet straight, back flat, belly tight, head neutral and shoulders externally rotated in a stable position.” MobilityWOD.com posts daily videos on such esoterica as whether your toes should point forward or angle to the side when you squat.
Not everyone, of course, agrees with the approach. “It hasn’t been shown that posture is the leading cause of pain,” says Anoop T. Balachandran, an exercise physiologist at the University of Miami. Telling people they will be injured if they don’t correctly position themselves might cause anxiety that actually worsens pain, he says.
In response, Starrett acknowledges that there are no randomized controlled trials to show that living 110 pain-free years is possible or even that people should be able to squat. But he says his education and experience are persuasive. “If you can’t see change, there is not change. But you can measure change in range of motion, depth of squat,” he reasons. He has won consulting gigs with the military, Tour de France cyclists and the New Orleans Saints, among others.
Starrett believes he has tapped into the zeitgeist, with more and more of us looking for physical challenges in a deskbound working world. CrossFit — a Scotts Valley, California-based chain with more than 11,000 affiliates — provides that in abundance. Each day, its coaches dish up a new mix of exercises culled from weightlifting, gymnastics, interval training and other demanding disciplines.
But office-softened bodies that abruptly begin to run, twist and lift weights often break, and CrossFit has a reputation for pushing people too far. A 2013 survey found that three-quarters of participants had hurt themselves doing it, with 7 percent requiring surgery, according to the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. The rate is higher than in rugby and other contact sports, the authors found. For its part, CrossFit says the study in question “includes fallacious conclusions and unscientific language that presents the data very poorly.”
Starrett puts the onus on the individual participant: “The problem is your ego. It feels good to go hard.”
For now, he is working to bring his insights to nonathletes — including his daughters, ages 6 and 9. Starrett and his wife, Juliet — whom he credits with his success — have brought standing desks to the girls’ school in San Rafael, California, part of a larger campaign against the ills of sitting too long in the classroom. His next book, Deskbound, will aim to uncoil people from screens. For Starrett, this is mission-critical: “We’re taking a crack at solving the problems of the human condition.”
You can stop squatting now.