Becoming a Supple Leopard – The First Two Weeks

I’ve got a post in the works about how I’m just now, after 31 years, learning to use my body correctly. It’ll be up on Friday.

As part of that project, I’ve enlisted the help of a book, because that’s how I roll. The book I’m using is Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard. There’s a bunch more in the post to come on Friday. But, the start of the project is to establish a baseline. You’ve got to know where you’re starting in order to get to where you’re going. (Or something.)

The Pretest

The first step on my journey to becoming a supple leopard was to take the pretest. You have to set a baseline to have somewhere to work from.

So last weekend, I enlisted the help of my wife to work through all the different ‘archetypal shapes’ in the book.

I’m going to post them here so you can see my ‘before’ shots, because, as Tim Ferriss says, before and after photos are powerful things. I’m also going to write up my impressions of my execution of each of the archetypal shapes, and make four-week goals for changes in those shapes.

All the shapes start with a neutral spine. This is the fundamental principle of becoming a supple leopard.


The first test is called the ‘overhead’. The ideal position is to have the spine neutral, the upper arms close to the head, the elbows locked, thumbs pointing back over the head. As you can see from the front view, I have some work to do with getting my arms closer to my head.


From the side, you should be able to see your ears. Mine are there, but the neck looks a little ugly.


In terms of practical application for triathlon, I imagine this will have an impact on swimming. I figure narrower shoulders are more hydrodynamic. Who knows?


Next comes the press. This is getting out of a pool. It’s getting up off the ground. It’s the bottom of a pushup.

Ideal here is to have shoulders back, neutral spine, elbows tucked in to the sides and behind the body.


My main problem with this one is that in order to get my arms in and elbows back, I have to throw my chest out. This is a common problem for me. In a few pictures you’ll see what I think is the culprit, and the area that’s been my main focus this week.


After the press, there naturally follows the hang. To me this looks like the second half of the underwater part of swim stroke.

The model for the hang is to have shoulders and spine in a neutral position. The elbows should be mid-chest, and the wrists should be behind the torso.

Things look okay from the front.


But check out this side view, and you’ll see a host of problems.


Shoulders are pretty high. Elbows look at little breezy. I’m having to work hard to keep my wrists back. And the line between elbow and wrist is a long way from the vertical ideal. The book suggests I’m missing internal rotation in the shoulder.

Front Rack

Next up was the front rack. This is two similar but different positions. The first looks like the top of a pushup.

The foreshortening is real!

My limitations here are mainly in being able to get my arms closer together. (I have another picture, taken after I saw this one, in which my arms are closer together. I think this one is a more accurate representation of where I am at the moment.)

Part two is to bring the hands up to the ears:


Not really sure about the execution on this one. I think I cheated in this first picture. (Also, check out the wonky shoulders…)

These two might be a more accurate illustration of where my shoulder mobility is:

Can you say ‘pain face’?


The key things here is that position should not be painful. One of the things Starrett is fond of saying is that the resting state of a human is pain-free. So there’s some things to work on there.


Squatting is where things got (even more?) interesting. The key element of squatting is generating torque in the hip joints by screwing the feet into the ground, and pushing the knees out as you descend.

As this picture shows, that’s not happening here:


Despite the smug grin, my knees are over my toes. And, more importantly, I’m holding on to the ground with the outsides of my feet, which is a no-no. From the side view, you can see a lack of hip range of motion. Ideally, the hip crease should be below the knees.


Lots to work on here.

The squat is also two separate positions. The second position is the setup for my nemesis, the deadlift.

With a flat back, you hinge forward at the waist. Unless you’re me, in which case, with a flat back, you hinge forward from the point at which your lumbar spine is apparently fused together.

Can you say ‘cyclist’?

On top of the kink, there’s a definite curve in my spine. The weird thing is, it feels flat. I think it might be a bit like that party trick where you lie on your belly and someone holds your hands over your head until the blood runs out of them, and when they slowly drop your hands, it feels like they’re going through the floor. When I finally get to a flat back in that position, things will start to feel even weirder.

Even when I took (great) pains to remove the curve, there’s still a kink right there by my butt.


Pistol Squat

Ahh, the pistol squat.

The archetype is to be at the bottom of a deep squat, heels on the floor. Then you take one foot and reach it out in front of you. Then, if you’re me, you fall on your ass.


Two pictures. Two thousand words.

With great concentration:


You can do it!


But look at that right heel. You should be on the ground, buddy. There’s some work on foot dorsiflexion to do there.


The archetype for the lunge is a vertical front shin, back knee behind the hips. I did okay on this test. In the first picture, which, like I said, I’m taking as the truest example, my shin is not vertical on either side. Also, I’m putting my weight through the outside of my front foot in both cases. (This is something I’m beginning to blame on my shoes, but that’s for another post.)

Questionable hand placement.



From these tests, I can see that I have a lot of work to do on mobility. Kelly Starrett’s approach emphasises joint mobility and proprioception over ‘stretching’. There are some stretching exercises in his book, but they are targeted at mobilising joints rather than (exclusively) lengthening muscles.

So far, I’ve done a week working mainly on that kinky low back. I’ve been hanging out with my roller under there and waving my feet around in the air (in a controlled way, not like a lunatic!). And today I saw Jill Miller retweeted this:


I’ve been doing exactly that! I was proud of myself.

Starting on Monday, I’m going to be doing this set of proprioceptive exercises while I’m guarding.

I’m also going to be working on some mobility stuff: mostly deep squats.

From the Book, I’m going to be working through the "14-Day Whole Body Mobility Overhaul."

I’ll post another batch of photos this weekend, and hopefully see a difference.


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