Improving Your Stroke With Movement Doctor Kelly Starrett

Why do your elbows hurt after you paddle? What’s up with that restricted motion in your left shoulder? How the heck do you get rid of that nagging lower back pain?

It’s questions like this that keep Dr. Kelly Starrett up at night. Training twice a day, 300 days a year with the Whitewater Slalom Canoe US National Team “made my hands numb and stopped me from being able to turn my neck,” he says. Starrett was determined to not just treat the problem, but to also find out why his body was freaking out. While working on a clinical doctorate in physical therapy, he found the answer to this and the cause for most injuries: poor movement patterns repeated over and over again, and a lack of total body mobility.

Since then, Starrett has been knocking over long-held assumptions about how we should sit, stand and move like an NFL linebacker attacks tackle dummies. The daily videos he posts to his website MobilityWOD.com have become a must-see for everyone from pro athletes to weekend warriors, while the San Francisco Crossfit gym Starrett runs with his wife, Juliet, provides him with a ‘lab’ of willing specimens to help him advance “The Mobility Project.” It’s amazing what a few minutes a day using a lacrosse ball, stretching bands, and some of the mobility tools Starrett has developed can do to increase range of motion (and therefore athletic performance), reduce pain and prevent injury. And when you combine this with re-learning how to move? Get ready to go beyond what you thought your body was capable of.

In addition to coaching Crossfitters – including three time men’s CrossFit Games champ Rich Froning – Starrett works with Olympic athletes, MMA fighters and watermen. His 2012 book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, instantly hit the bestseller lists and he’s working on two more: one on running and the other on the dangers of sitting too much in incorrect positions.

Somehow Starrett found time to talk with us about why he likes SUP, where to start with post-exercise mobility, and why most of us are standing on our boards wrong. —Phil White

SUP mag: How did you get into SUP?
Starrett: I’ve been paddling – canoeing and kayaking – since I was 12 and have been surfing a long time, so when SUP took off I thought, “Yes, I’m home!” It forces some deep motor learning, which is good for other sports. You’re getting a lot of immediate feedback from the board, from the water, from the paddle. The real magic is how stable the boards are. I took my daughter out surfing with our SUP boards when she was 7 to Bolinas, our local surf spot. As soon as the board got up to plane, she looked over her shoulder at me, felt the board become stable and popped right up without wobbling. It’s the perfect gateway drug for surfing. We were out at a lake and we towed this SUP board behind the boat. My daughter and I surfed the wake together – it’s the best tandem board in the world. It’s so fun, and it’s great to see that watermen can suddenly make a living as watermen again. That was our whole thing – the best watermen win. ‘Can you surf? Can you ski? Can you paddle outrigger? Oh, we’ve got boogie boards on this closeout break today.’ And SUP boards are another great waterman tool.

SUP mag: What’s the first tip you’d give our readers about paddling technique?
Starrett: Standing on a board is not an efficient stance for moving it. Lying prone or kneeling is far more effective in terms of generating torque with stable shoulders and hips, even though standing up is more elegant and potentially much better for your body. If you’re going to stand, I see most people with their feet in an even position. This stance creates all kinds of problems, but it’s the one beginners default to. Your knees can bend inward— what we call ‘valgus knee.’ And then, the forward and back motion is terrible. Shoulders start internally rotating. The butt’s sticking out too far. The back is overextended.

Starrett demonstrates improper and proper form.

Starrett demonstrates improper and proper form

If you stagger [your feet] a little bit, you have more stability and can generate much more torque off the front and back feet. We don’t teach kids to surf with a square stance – it’s a staggered stance because that’s more stable. Switching your feet in a staggered position is so easy on the current boards. You’d switch sides on the paddle and take a couple of strokes off side without a huge loss of power to keep the board moving before you switch your feet. The mistake would be switching feet right away before your paddle is in the water, because you’d lose the ‘tripod’ contact with the water.

SUP mag: Tell us a little more about why a square stance encourages poor mechanics.
Starrett: If you look at competitive paddlers, their stance is pretty wide out near the edge of the box. It’s similar to a squat stance in Olympic lifting. To create torque in that shape through a stable hip, knee and ankle, they’re screwing their feet into the board, externally rotating them. Because of the torsion through the hip, the back is more mechanically stable, and there’s better energy from the shoulders. The problem is that it’s an aggressive position that’s hard to maintain. They’ll drop down into a quarter squat but after a while the knees go forward, which loads the quad and collapses the ankle. If the arch collapses – it’s more toward the outside or the inside and is no longer a neutral foot shape – and then you’re knock-kneed, and you’ve got a problem with dysfunctional knee and ankle positions. Suddenly, you can’t generate as much torque through the hip. And practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. So if you’re reinforcing bad mechanics on the board, that’s going to transfer into everyday life, even though paddling is meant to improve your quality of life.

With a staggered stance, it looks more like a lunge. I’m able to create a little more torque off the front foot and a lot more off the back foot. Putting the hips into this position makes it easier to lean forward at the hip and get more hip drive into the paddle. I can twist more effectively because I haven’t cut off the hips and am not just twisting from the shoulder any more. It’s now efficient like a correct kayak or rowing stroke. People are going to balk at this – “You think I should change my stance? Isn’t that harder?” Yes, maybe it is hard to get used to, but just because it’s harder doesn’t mean it isn’t better.

Elite paddler Danny Ching with a slightly staggered stance, mid-twist.

Elite paddler Danny Ching with a slightly staggered stance, mid-twist.

SUP mag: What does a staggered stance do for shoulder position versus a square stance?
Starrett: Because hip function is better, it’s easier to keep the torso upright. With the stiff-legged ‘a-frame’ position people adopt, they’re sticking their butt out too far. As soon as they start hinging forward instead of twisting forward, the shoulders internally rotate and they start looking for stability through the blade. Versus [with the staggered stance] being able to create stability through the paddle, when I reach out and drop the blade in the water, I’m set up to unload the board onto the paddle more effectively. People are falling and chopping instead of reaching and dropping the blade in the water.
I don’t know how many million hours I spent on stroke technique, but why would I throw all of those blade theory mechanics away just because I’m applying a blade to something else? The technique is the same because the shoulder is the same. Especially when we look at longevity, because you have to come out unharmed, whether it’s one rep or a million reps. If your knee hurts or your ankle hurts, something’s wrong, you’re doing it wrong. Paddling can give people better quality of life, it’s fun, it’s accessible. But once you get beyond “Are you doing it or not?” mechanical efficiency really matters. It’s everything.

SUP mag: Where should someone who has no clue about mobility start?
Starrett: Maintaining the body is like owning a car – you have to take care of the whole thing. You can’t just drive it until it blows up— even though that’s what I did, and what people on every national team used to do. But to start, I’d say go after anything that hurts. If your shoulders are stiff, then go after your shoulders. If you’re pulling a ton and your pecs, lats and traps are fried, then work on those areas.

For the distance guys, calves and feet are sore from gripping the board for hours, so they should hit those. Just start doing 10 or 15 minutes a day. You can’t just go paddle, get a beer with your buddies and go back to work. Do you ride a horse wet and put it away wet? That’s a good recipe for killing your horse. It’s not just about mobility. You must have a systematic approach for your body. Sleep, nutrition and hydration are also crucial.

SUP mag: What gym exercises benefit standup paddlers, particularly to strengthen the shoulders?
Starrett: It’s about movements and positions, not exercises. One of the reasons we advocate strength training is because you’re practicing creating a stable shoulder off a fixed object. It’s the same concept when paddling. If I understand the principles, the technique becomes universal – pulling on the blade is pulling on the blade. Doing a pushup correctly, a ring row, a chest to bar pull-up, you go through the same positioning as with a paddle – teaching your body how to create a stable shoulder with an implement, and to generate torque in this position. The reason the top of the shoulder goes crazy when people get their arms over their heads is because they don’t have overhead fluency. It’s not “Can you do 50 pull-ups?” but, “Can you do one pull-up right?”

We can get you fitter, we can get you to generate more force on the paddle, but really what we’re trying to do is reinforce a stable shoulder position. It’s the same on the water. We look at spinal position and trunk first because they’re the engines of motion. That’s why a lot of surfers are huge CrossFitters. It’s not just about working harder – it’s about achieving better positioning and retaining stability in unstable conditions.

Check out the paddling-focused video Starrett recorded for SUP mag by clicking here.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which Kelly will show you some go-to, SUP-focused mobility exercises.

For more information, visit: MobilityWOD.com
Click here for more Paddle Healthy.

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