Everything You Know About Fitness Is a Lie
Credit: Frederik Broden

The black pupil of Kevin Brown's right eye, blinded by the radiation beams targeting his cancerous tumor, joined his healthy eye in gazing right through me – not into my thoughts, but into all the old injuries and weaknesses I'd felt flaring up as my training got more serious. There were the sore knees, from heedless high school jogging, and the pain they now caused from doing my squats. There was that stiff shoulder, wrecked from college water polo, now buckling under heavy bench presses. And Brown seemed to see it all without even laying a hand on me.

Brown was an athletic-rehab specialist, a legendary decoder of the body's imbalances and compensations. He'd worked with everybody from Kelly Slater to Joe Montana to members of the Lakers to some of the world's finest rock climbers. He was the guy every athlete dreams of meeting, who can tell you exactly why your lower back likes to spasm, exactly which element of your exercise life is going to push it over the edge into injury, and exactly how to fix it, for good.

I'd first heard about Brown from the same guy who told me about Rob Shaul: Christian Santelices, the Tetons mountain guide. This time Santelices called to tell me his friend Kevin Brown's cancer had metastasized and that dozens of Brown's devoted clients were flying to Santa Barbara to crowd into Brown's training studio. Even Shaul was coming. Brown had never written a book, Santelices explained. He'd never made any meaningful notes, but he had a gift for building the injury-proof athlete and for reconstructing bodies badly broken on the field of play. Everybody who'd known Brown wanted to preserve that knowledge before he died.

It was quite a lineup: a three-time member of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team who'd once landed a ski jump so hard she shattered her kneecap and femur and was told she'd never walk again, a legendary California big-wave surfer who'd crushed his spine in a ghastly headfirst wipeout, a world record–setting power lifter whose quadricep ripped off at the bottom of a deep squat. Their meetings were documented in an 18-hour DVD featuring all of these people telling, in essence, the same story again and again: how they'd always felt strong until that big accident, how every conventional doctor told them they were screwed and that it was time to buy a walker, and how this Brown guy found the secret to stitching them back together again, making their muscles work so well they rejoined elite competition.

But I didn't fully appreciate Brown's gift, nor his core insight about the athletic body, until I flew down to Santa Barbara myself and walked into the bedroom in which he was dying. As soon as he shook my hand with his long, pale fingers, Brown began decoding me, reading the very curvature of my back and the way I moved to reveal injuries I'd not thought about for 20 years, along with injuries I was guaranteed
to get, soon, if something wasn't done.

"Somewhere inside every man's body," Brown told me, lying in a La-Z-Boy, "there's a weak link, a weak muscle waiting to fail. My job is to find that muscle and make it strong." Every big joint in your body, Brown explained, has what are called prime movers, meaning big muscles that govern the main action, like the biceps and triceps. But every joint also has a bunch of little stabilizer muscles. Sedentary lives, camped out in office chairs, allow those stabilizers to atrophy, raising two problems: First, if you have powerful prime movers from doing muscle-isolation machines at the gym but weak stabilizers because you rarely get to play a sport, you can't access all your strength when you, say, bang off a mogul on a ski hill. "It's like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe," Brown told me. The prime movers fire big, but the strength dissipates en route to the core. Second, and worse still, the strength of the prime movers can shred your unstable joints.

Brown talked briefly about the life list he'd ticked off in the days since learning he would soon die: a final climb of the Grand Teton on his 50th birthday, a final dawn-patrol surf. He had even taught his nine-year-old son to rock climb. He returned to the matters at hand, telling me that my weak knees and shoulder, my tight neck and spastic lumbar, were absolutely typical of a middle-aged recreational athlete with a desk job who spends all day slumped over and slack and then goes out and plays hard. Ignore this stuff, he said, and keep training, and I was guaranteed to get injuries that could set me back for a year. The good news, Brown told me, was that joint stability in each area could be traced to a remarkably small number of tiny stabilizer muscles. And while you could spend a fortune on physical therapists, trying to get them to tell you the same thing, you could also just start exercising those stabilizers. "I'm not reinventing the wheel here," Brown told me. "This is just better-mousetrap kind of stuff."

Kevin Brown died four weeks later, in November of last year.