Kelly Starrett is a physical therapist and expert on movement and injury prevention. Here’s his take on the current state and future of CrossFit.
Kelly Starrett is a physical therapist, author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, owner of San Francisco CrossFit, and creator of MobilityWOD, a resource for helping athletes address the issues that limit movement.
Q: What do you think about the latest developments of the CrossFit Games?
The Games have turned into a really interesting performance festival with new technology, new ideas, and innovations in equipment. It’s fun to be a spectator and tap into the current thinking about training and conditioning.
Another aspect of the Games that excites me is the examination of human function. What we’ve seen the past few years are athletes exceeding expectations of what’s possible physically in terms of strength and metabolic demand, skill sets, and overall function.
With the programs changing just enough year to year, it’s forced athletes to become generalists.
Whether we like it or not, the central tenant of GPP (general physical preparation) comes down to asking yourself the question, am I keeping an eye on all the aspects of my physical self? Am I challenging myself with new skills or new sports?
Q: You’ve worked with elite athletes from almost every sport. What sets top CrossFit athletes apart?
One hallmark is that they were all excellent junior athletes that played lots of sports.
There’s a rich history of competition and aerobic based work, so many of these athletes come in with a nice sport specific skill set and aerobic base that’s used to being tested. What we’re finding is that you can’t fake your aerobic package.
There’s been a good coach recently, Mark Rippetoe, that says it only takes two weeks to get in shape, but that is so not reality.
What we’re seeing is that it takes decades to optimize an aerobic package. Just look at world class cyclists who are peaking in their mid-thirties.
The generalist athlete tends to be very durable. There are obviously some speed wobbles on the way to mastery, but these athletes have the ability to survive that.
What’s interesting to see is the refinement of skill and technique. The best athletes are the ones who are competent technically and are the best movers.
It turns out that using great technique and stabilizing the core and spine is not only the best way to stay healthy, but also the best way to compete at the highest levels by being the most mechanically efficient.
Q: Is non-specific sport training something you think necessary for building physical longevity and performance?
When we talk about traditional training, we’re usually talking about high-rep skill training in a specific sport. We need a balanced strength and conditioning model that’s very thorough.
I’m seeing that all the best practices across sports are starting to look very similar. What’s good about CrossFit as a base practice is that it doesn’t really leave many metabolic or skill holes.
If we look at CrossFit as a GPP to compete in other sports, sometimes people become excited about fitness as a sport and forget about using the fitness.
My only critique would be that people have forgotten about the original tenant of CrossFit – having constant exposure to new skills and sports, not just fitness. People must get out of the gym, apply their fitness, and see where they’re at.
Q: You’re known for breaking down athlete movement patterns and what you call archetypes. Is that something you attribute to CrossFit?
I’m grateful that I had some formal physio training at the same time I discovered CrossFit, because those things grew up into two gigantic trees with root systems that intertwined.
It made me think about how we could improve how we think about sport performance and physio together. Having all that pattern recognition and having worked in so many other different sports made me identify dysfunctions across many different populations.
Q: You’ve seen the progression of CrossFit and the CrossFit athlete over 13 years. What’s allowed them to advance, break PRs, and continue progressing?
There used to be a time where you could just outwork everyone and leverage your mutant self to do amazing things and compete at the highest level, but that ship has sailed.
What we’re now seeing is real refinement in programming and adaptation to programming.
Athletes and coaches are now very sophisticated. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes now at the highest level that would shock the person looking in from the outside.
The overall workload has really increased. There used to be a time where you could train once a day and qualify for the Games, where now it’s a full time job for the top athletes, working out multiple times a day in many different training domains.
What we’re seeing in the Games is the consummation of over five years of really high-end training. That’s definitely one of the common denominators.
At this elite level, we’ve seen things like nutrition, recovery, and hydration become very sophisticated just to maintain this level of intensity and high amount of workload. It’s not just about working hard anymore.
Q: Is training for elite CrossFit athletes different from the traditional CrossFit WODs?
The CrossFit model has always been extremely flexible.
The idea of GPP for the average CrossFit consumer is short and fast. Work on a skill, work on a strength, have a lift, then get in some conditioning. This allows us to program infinitely.
What people are not doing is pulling up really big heavy volume and smashing themselves day after day. That’s not what it looks like at all. Periodization, progressive loading, and systematic training methods are becoming more mainstreamed.
Because CrossFit involves using heavy 1RM-style movement in addition to heavy metabolic work, there are specialty coaches that are being sought out to program for high-level CrossFit athletes.
What we aren’t seeing is top-level athletes just doing random WODs. That’s not what it is. These athletes are still challenging their skill sets and endurance while doing multiple movements, but there are multiple pieces to every day’s training plan.
Q: Let’s talk injuries and career longevity.
I think we’ve seen a lot of longevity in the careers of elite CrossFit athletes, but once in a while something freakish happens.
But if we look at the actual numbers of people participating, that number is very high, and the number of tweaks and outlier injuries is very low. Sometimes I can’t correlate an injury that happens during strength and conditioning movements into being a CrossFit injury.
What really good programming does is force us to move consistently in multiple motor patterns so we’re fluent in lots of different pillars. Very thorough programming is looking at the position that the body’s in and asking, “Are we spending time in this range?”
Q: Freak injuries happening in sports is nothing new. Freak things that happen on the main stage like the Julie Foucher injury causes people to point fingers.
That’s just like Kobe Bryant tearing his achilles!
Q: Exactly. And instead of blaming the NBA for setting up Kobe for injury, fans accepted this as part of the game. But as soon as the same injury happens in CrossFit, people want to point fingers at the system.
The research has shown that CrossFit is as safe as any other sport and much safer than sports like running.
I’m being completely honest here. The key is looking back and having a fundamental conversation about the things that we can control, and identifying the mistakes that we made.
As a physio, I’d say that 98% of the problems we see orthopedically are preventable. What people miss sometimes is that real sport is a chance to test our abilities from our training skills.
That’s what sport is. If we redline, then we go back and we should be able to figure out where the holes and deficiencies are.
Training is a chance to run the diagnostics all the way through. We’ve moved beyond answering the question, “Are we getting stronger and faster?”
Really good training is also saying when you fatigue or default, you have the ability to fix it. Training is the place to identify the problems, so that when we test it in competition it can work for us.
We should be able to see everything there is to see in the gym. When we get into competition, there shouldn’t be any surprises.
Q: The most intriguing thing about the CrossFit model is the ability to perform under heavy metabolic fatigue.
People need to perform under fatigue in sport and their daily lives. Figuring out what an athlete’s default mechanism is when they reach failure is pivotal both for performance and long-term safety in any sport.
That’s right! Look at Rich Froning for example. When Rich gets tired, his mechanics actually become better.
In the Games, everyone is really good in the first couple workouts because they’re fresh. The differences metabolically between these guys and girls are very small.
One of the reasons the Games are so long is that it rewards efficiency and mechanical competency. The athletes that are really efficient will have more energy on the last day. They’ll have better success in the last workouts. No different than any other sport.
It’s crucial to understand that we can always push as hard as we want to push because we want to get a task done.
We must take the ego out of it when we train. When I see you on the edge of your technique or when your technique is about to falter, you’re either done, or you rest, or you decrease the load.
We have to get out of the mindset that we’ll just do more work because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do.
The idea that we work until we lose quality has to be forgotten. That’s the key concept.
Yes, there are still gut-checks in the gym that are about grinding, but it’s not about grinding in a bad position and hurting yourself. Everyone can work hard, but now people are starting to test intensity by the ability to maintain robust positions.
Q: It’s almost like the runner’s mindset of just finishing a race just to say you clocked the mileage. Their goal is to finish, not to actually run with a high quality gait.
I’d say that the runners are the epitome of this old school notion that you run until you break, then back off and run until you break again.
If you talk to the best runners, they talk about refining their technique at the end of a race just the same as it was at the start of a race.
Q: What would be some of the top pillars for people to stay safe and perform at a high level for the long run?
The things that we’ve been saying from the beginning would still hold true. It’s consistency; it’s mechanics. We got so excited about working hard that we forgot about position integrity and technique.
CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning system which means that we prioritize spinal stability and midline stabilization first.
Having a braced, organized spine before all else is key. Have that spinal position locked down? Great! Keep it and do a squat, keep it and do a push-up. Keep that spine and overhead squat.
And suddenly you realize that you’re using the same engines to challenge the spinal positions on top of other methods like load, speed or conditioning to further test that stable and foundational position.
One of the things we did in Supple Leopard was define the root positions and root mechanics of the spine, shoulder and hip. If you master those, suddenly you’re able to train agnostically. Understand these things and everything else become knowable.
We have to have full range of motion in nearly every position. That’s where life is. Lay out and catch a ball and you’ll figure out quickly that your shoulder isn’t in that nice packed shoulder position like on a bench press.
All we’re asking people to do is to get back to a baseline level of movement and range. People need to be able to get into positions to do whatever they want to do physically.
If the only way someone can squat is by turning their feet out, then he’s going to have problems going up to jump on a box or change directions.
Having good mechanics is what we need. Just squatting more poorly will not help us in that way.
Q: There are movement paradigms and philosophies out there that state that everything needs to be perfect before we put it to work.
I don’t think that’s the way the world operates. Honestly, I think it’s a little bit naive.
Just look at the military for instance. They’re a great example of the need to work and train, while also trying to get better, and improve position and function simultaneously.
That means not everyone has the ability to squat hip-crease-below-the-knee to start for example. But we don’t maroon people there – we try to progress people. The most important thing is to start, and then you can begin to refine positions.
Q: First time a new person walks through the doors of your box, what does the process look like to get them training?
We hand them a bar and we make them snatch.
Ha! No, that’s not true! We always start with basic spine mechanics and making sure they can achieve this position in straight up and down standing.
We teach all our category-1 movements, meaning movements that have the same strong and stable start and end positions, like a bodyweight squat. From there we are sure to remove the speed component and work only in bodyweight.
Once we give people the central idea of stability, we teach them the strong and stable start and end positions of the basics like the squat, pull-up, push-up and deadlift. This happens in three hours working with a coach one-on-one or six hours working in a small group before you’re able to come in.
Once they’re in, it’s still a process. Sometimes people feel like they didn’t get a good workout. That’s an easy fix: I just introduce them to the spin-bike or erg. I tell them to save five minutes for me afterwards and tell me if they got a good workout!
We don’t use tools, we just get started with the basics. Our athletes get a sense of what they can and can’t do pretty quickly, and the things they can’t do we continue to scale it, work on it, and progress.
Q: How do you program for a client who still has glaring mechanical issues?
People don’t come in with one restriction, they come in with ten!
They’re really poorly prepared for this. What we focus on is the mechanics of the day. We drop in a few mobilizations specific to the day’s workout to work on improving positions.
After classes, we teach the tenants of mobilizing in things like our soft-tissue specific classes that has really become part of the culture of our gym. Training isn’t limited to strength and conditioning. It’s also about being able to do things like mobilizing and managing soft-tissues.
We knock some things out specific to the workout, and we save the rest for the next day. After a while, these days add up and we really ingrain a movement practice in with our athletes that improves their health and performance.
Q: No days off when it comes to body maintenance, right?
Oh yeah, but you have to be able to check your ego. Most people don’t realize how badly they suck. Sure, they can work hard, but they do suck. Once we take the suck-brake off, then they’re really able to work hard.
We don’t classify this stuff in terms of injury prevention; we classify it as enhancing performance. We show people that they’re leaving performance on the table, and that’s what really sets the hook.
Q: If you were the king of CrossFit for a day, what would you do?
Here’s what I would do and the analogy I’ll make: What would you tell yourself 20 years ago? I’d tell myself to chill out. I work in a mindset of unconditional positive regard, and that’s how I coach and teach.
Ten years ago it was a lot more simple. Now, as young coaches come in, there’s no substitution for seeing lots and lots of repetition. Just be patient.
Sure, there were a bunch of guns pointed at CrossFit early on, but it was because it was developing. Any system, as it matures, refines. All you have to do is watch the coaching and athletes to see this refinement.
Be patient with the process. The process works all the time. You just have to let it work.