The Most Useful Fitness Book Ever?

The stuff we gravitate towards as our personal means of “getting fit” is often as pointless as rallying around other faulty belief systems — like Scientology, or “the Cubs.” Lost in the fray of strength training, lifestyle coaches, and Zumba! — and essentially lost since the development of agriculture changed our lifestyles — was the obvious regarding fitness: namely, that you are a human. Before you focus on anything extraneous like your golf swing, you should make sure you can do what a human is made to do.

Otherwise, you are a time bomb for injury and preventable surgery, and for difficult golden years.

My three-year-old son loves the Bronx Zoo, but not so much the stroller. So I carry him a lot, either on my shoulders or in my arms. Any parent knows what a day of that can be like — note how many are clutching their lower backs or rubbing their necks after packing up the car to leave, even the ones who are just worn out from a day pushing the stroller.

As a contrast, note that while at the zoo, you never saw, say, a lemur clutching its hammy, or yelling the lemur equivalent of: “F***! Cramp!” while trying to extend his toes.

Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard – he’s a Northern California dude, the title and tone of the book is best understood if familiar with his video clip site, — fills a huge void in fitness publications. Starrett focuses on the universal need, capability for, and benefit of proper human movement, and provides tips, tests, and benchmarks for reaching your full range of motion, and thus your physical potential.

I’ll call it the most useful fitness book ever written, and endorse it without reservation. (Full disclosure: I once interviewed Starrett for a Men’s Journal piece, and I am otherwise inclined to say nice things about him, since a tip he gave me a couple years ago allowed me to serve a tennis ball again without pain. But that tip is included on page 266 of the book — presumably I’d find it in there if I did not previously know him. And frankly, I’d recommend the book on that tip alone, as it provided instant relief and allowed me to stay on the court.)

This is not a manual written for either beginners or experienced athletes; it should be useful for most everyone, as few at any level of athletic ability have this base of knowledge. As primary as this topic is to general health and wellness, the dearth of information is just as conspicuous. Leopard could improve great-grandma’s quality of life as readily as it could have lessened the chances of Kobe’s Achilles tear, or Derek Rose’s shredded ACL. Further, Kobe might have been jumping a couple inches higher, defending the ball a split-second faster all these years, and as a result of the more efficient movement, might have kept his knees and ankles younger.

The heart of the book — useful to anyone who participates in the activities of walking, standing, or even sitting — is Chapter 2: Midline Stabilization and Organization. Everyone knows “keep your back straight,” and “squeeze your abs,” and commitment to those simple tips will save you a bit of pain and trouble. But you can do significantly better, and you will notice immediate results while doing something no more complicated than not lying down.

Again, I would recommend the book just for one tidbit of information. From the key Chapter 2:

A disorganized spine will lead to mechanical compromises. For example, I regularly run into athletes who look as if they have horribly restricted posterior-chain issues — specifically their hamstrings. Old school thinking would have us fix the problem by stretching those stiff cables running down the backs of the legs. While this may in fact improve hamstring flexibility, it doesn’t alleviate the back pain. What we’ve found is that if we simply organize an athlete’s spine into a braced, stable position, range-of-motion improves by upward of 50 percent. This is why we prioritize midline stabilization and good movement mechanics over mobilization techniques, because what often looks like tight musculature is really just the body protecting the nervous system.

The immediately following two pages offer Starrett’s “bracing sequence.” Last week, I took my stiff hamstrings to the gym to focus on Starrett’s bracing tips to the letter while attempting a deadlift PR. I never managed to beat 305 in the past, though in the past I had generally prepared to lift with little more than “keep your back straight” and “squeeze your abs.” This time, I used the “bracing sequence.” This time I lifted 325, and was able to repeat two more singles at that weight while maintaining a safe back position. Further — and you’ll have to try for yourself -– it all felt like it made sense. I wasn’t fighting against my hamstrings to get in a good position, or squeezing my abs just because. Every move felt like extra force applied either by my feet against the ground or my hands on the bar.

I have since been consciously checking my spine position occasionally throughout daily activities — like pushing a cart through the supermarket, or carrying a toddler — and noticing a significant easing of pressure on my knees and lower back after I reestablish the neutral braced spine position.

It’s pretty cool, and I’m excited to get my mid-60s father, with his kayaking hobby, to give it a shot this summer: that braced neutral spine position, along with everything else in this 400-page book, means he keeps up with the grandkids longer, and it doesn’t get more useful than that.

Purchase Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard