WTF is a Supple Leopard?!?!
By Nick Barringer MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (EIEIO)
Anybody got back pain? What about your shoulders? If so, I have something for you that might help out. If you are completely pain free (damn youth), keep reading as well because I’m going to try and keep you that way.
The key word is fascia; and no it has nothing to do with Mussolini. Fascia is the fibrous sheath surrounding your muscles (among other things) that, when healthy, glides smoothly across surfaces allowing for unimpeded movement.
The problem is our body adapts to poor posture and the positions we are in most of the time. Think hunched over a computer, leaning forward in kit firing your weapon, or sandwiched in the back of a vehicle or aircraft for hours on end. The fascia gets knotted up in these positions and can form adhesion—or, more scientifically, “gummed up”—so that it no longer glides smoothly.
You may be thinking, “So what?”
But take a second and try this experiment: First, raise your left arm overhead and bring it back down. Now take your right hand and reach across your body and grab a piece of your shirt or clothing under your ribs and hold it against your body firmly while raising your left arm overhead. You should feel how it is more difficult to raise your arm with the clothing pinned down; that is how your fascia works.
So adhesions formed in your back from poor posture can affect how you do other movements like squatting and lifting things overhead. Besides making these movements more difficult and less efficient it could cause you to compensate and take on alternative movement patterns that could lead to injury.
Enter Dr. Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist who’s book Becoming a Supple Leopard is like a how to fix poor movement for dummies. If you have an issue that does not require surgery, I would bet the good Dr. Starrett has a solution for it in his book. I will give you fair warning that some of the techniques can be a bit intense. The first time I tried mobilizing my thoracic spine with two lacrosse balls I thought I was having a religious experience. But when I checked my range of motion afterwards, I decided the discomfort was well worth it.
Now for the record I do not get any kickbacks or have any financial ties to Dr. Starrett as I have never met the guy. I am only mentioning his book because I tried it and it worked for me. Further more I tried it on my friends and it worked for them. Granted they will be sorely disappointed when they read this because when one friend asked me what I did after “fixing” his shoulder I simply told him I was a therapeutic ninja. I also may or may not have spit on my hands and clapped them together like Mr. Miyagi did to Daniel-son to conceal the pain of his injured knee after Bobby Brown did an illegal technique in the semifinals of the All Valley Karate Tournament. But we all know Bobby didn’t want to do that technique—Sensei Kreese made him do it.
So if you do not want to buy the book, much of the information is available free online like this very nice 4 part video on shoulder mobility drills.
Also, Dr. Starrett has over 500 videos on his YouTube channel covering a wide array of movement improving techniques to include a nice clip from a UH-60 pilot explaining how he adjusted his posture to experience the lesser of two evils.
If you are still wondering what a Supple Leopard is, Starrett explains that he used the leopard model because of it has full physical capacity at all times—plus it is just badass.
The bottom line is everyone can benefit from a little foam rolling as it is a relatively inexpensive way to keep your fascia healthy. Now if you find yourself wincing while breaking up adhesions in your fascia just remember what Sensei Kreese would say: “Pain does not exist in this dojo!”