Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza is a lifesaver. This book explains how to: a) avoid injuries through correct body mechanics, and b) restore mobility to injured areas. After my experience I consider it essential reading for anyone, especially those involved in body-brutalizing sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo.
[This is an expanded version of the review I wrote for BJJ Legends]
This spring, the past 25 years of abuse from judo, jiu-jitsu, skateboarding, and sitting at a desk came to a head and my hip / upper glute / lower back went on strike. I was pointed in Kelly Starrett’s direction by Andrew from Dig Deep BJJ and after watching some of the MobilityWOD videos, decided that I needed a copy of his book. My experience with these exercises over the last month has convinced me that Becoming a Supple Leopard will prove to be worth its weight in physiotherapy, chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture receipts.
Will Supple Leopard Help My BJJ?
Yes. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is full of motion traps. Rounding your lower back while guard passing? Judo sparring with your feet splayed outwards? Forcing a rubber guard without enough hip flexibility? This leads to injuries, which sabotage your BJJ training by killing range of motion and making movement painful. Learning to move correctly will help you achieve and maintain a better range of motion, address sources of pain, reduce injury frequency, and train longer and more effectively. Cleaning up your form will also increase the amount of strength that you can put into your techniques for a given amount of effort.
What Supple Leopard is NOT:
- Replacement for your healthcare professional. Doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists, and physiotherapists spend large chunks of their lives in school for a reason. Don’t try to catch up by reading one book.
- Treatment for pinched nerves, or compressed or herniated discs. If you have one of those problems and try to fix it by smashing the sore area with a lacrosse ball, you might make the injury worse. If you have back problems, talk to a pro (doctor, chiropractor, physiotherapist) before jumping into an exercise program.
- Guide to post-surgery rehab. Have you had a knee ligament injury like a torn ACL? Becoming a Supple Leopard will be invaluable for breaking down the scar tissue that’s blocking leg flexion and establishing movement patterns that reduce risk of future injury, but jumping into these exercises before stabilizing your knee by strengthening the surrounding muscles is asking for disaster. Bring the book to your sports physiotherapist and let them help you put together a plan.
Becoming a Supple Leopard is a 400-page, 9’x11’ hardcover containing thousands of high-quality color photos. Kelly Starrett is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and through MobilityWOD has become somewhat of a crossfit saint. Similarly, Glen Cordoza needs no introduction to BJJ and MMA fans. Through Victory Belt Publishing he has co-authored some of the best martial arts instructional books on the market with collaborators like BJ Penn, Anderson Silva, Eddie Bravo, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Marcelo Garcia, Randy Couture, Fedor Emelianenko, and the list goes on.
Starrett couldn’t have found a better co-author than Glen Cordoza, who is adept at describing subtle nuances of motion in complex sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts. Just like Cordoza’s martial arts books, Becoming a Supple Leopard follows a logical progression, building a foundation then adding steps in a way that makes sense and is easy to follow. Below is a brief outline of the book’s flow.
What is proper posture, how is it maintained, and why is it important? Create a braced neutral spinal position while stabilizing the shoulder and pelvis.
Explains the concept of torque, the role it plays in physical activity, and its importance for stability, performance, and injury avoidance. Learn how to create the largest amount of force for a given amount of effort.
Analysis of Movement Categories
130 pages of detailed movement instruction. This is what Starrett refers to as the “formal language of movement” and these motions cover almost every movement your body needs to make if you aren’t a Cirque de Soliel performer. Movements are divided into three categories:
Category 1: Move from one position of high stability (PHS) to another, with connection (torsion force) throughout the motion (ie. squat, deadlift, standing up in someone’s guard).
Category 2: Move from one PHS to another, but with a speed element (loss of torsion force) in between (ie. jumping over a box, X-pass, 180 armbar from side control).
Category 3: Start in a transition position, move through a speed element, and end in PHS (ie. Olympic lifting, ippon seoinage).
It’s important to note that Starrett doesn’t expect everyone to perform all everyday movements with perfect Olympic lifting or ballet form. The goal is to ingrain these textbook motion principles into your muscle memory so that your body will default to the safest and most efficient possible motion pattern for a given activity.
Recognize potential problems by analyzing your movements. For each of the movements mentioned above, there are explanations (accompanied by photos) to the effect of: “if you’re having problem X, or your body does Y during this exercise, you have Z-type bad positioning or are lacking range of motion in your _____.”
Isolating motion problems means working through a series of exercises, ideally with someone watching to let you know whether you’re falling into any of the movement faults described in the book. If you’re doing any of those faults there are exercises to help work through them.
Treatment Concepts, Techniques, and Tools
Explains mobility systems (joint mechanics, sliding-surface dysfunction, and muscle dynamics), mobilization methods (banded distraction, pressure wave, flossing, flexion gapping, etc.), treatment program creation, and mobility tools There’s a long list of suggested equipment (heavy band, lacrosse balls, kettlebell, foam roller, barbell, keg, softball, soccer ball, weight plate, and voodoo floss band) but what you need will depend on the exercises you’re doing. My program uses a heavy band, three lacrosse balls (two of them taped together), and a foam roller (ABS plumbing pipe rolled in a yoga mat).
The Body’s 13 Muscle Systems
This is the meat of the book – 170 pages of muscle systems and treatments. Working from top to bottom, Starrett and Cordoza explain how to restore natural movement to your brutalized tissues through an extensive array of exercises that utilize the concepts and tools introduced in the previous chapter. The systems are:
- Thoracic Spine
- Posterior Shoulder
- Anterior Shoulder
- Downstream Arm
- Posterior High Chain
- Anterior High Chain
- Medial Chain
- Posterior Chain
- Medial and Anterior Shin
- Ankle and Plantar Surface
With Becoming a Supple Leopard, Glen Cordoza and Kelly Starrett have made a substantial contribution to athletes everywhere. The improvement I’ve felt in the month since putting these exercises to work has turned my year around. This is the book I’ve wanted since getting myself through my first knee surgery and ankle blowout in the ‘90s.
The best way to progress at Brazilian jiu-jitsu is to supplement what you learn from your instructor by identifying your weaknesses and figuring out how to improve on them. Likewise, while massage therapists, chiropractors, and physiotherapists help keep your body happy, the people with the longest athletic careers are those who take a proactive approach. Cordoza and Starrett have made it easier for everyone to perform self maintenance. Get yourself a copy of Supple Leopard, set aside 20 minutes each day for the rest of your life, and enjoy smooth, pain-free motion for years (or decades?) longer than you deserve.
Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance
By Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza
Victory Belt Publishing, 2013
ISBN 13: 978-1-936608-58-4