Bodyflow: Parkour & CST
Circular Strength Training
Le Parkour (1), though crystallised into its current guise by Frenchmen David Belle and Yann Hnautra sometime in the 1980s, is a practice the roots of which precede records. It has drawn on a myriad of sources, been inspired by a number of notable individuals and evolved through several traditions to arrive at the modern discipline now referred to as parkour or free-running. Names and labels come and go, of course, and the outward visage of this discipline has shifted and modified itself countless times. However, behind whatever appearance has been fashionable at the time, at its core there has always existed an eternal constant – the means, the end, the method and the goal of parkour: Movement.
There has arisen fairly recently another training methodology that also focuses on mobility and motion in the body, though with its primary emphasis on health, fitness and longevity. This paradigm, known as Circular Strength Training (CST), was brought into life by Scott Sonnon, a US National Coach and Master of Sports who, in his time, has also won the Sambo World Championships – a Russian grappling discipline in which bouts can still be won by breaking the opponent’s limbs: needless to say, a difficult tournament to win. Using terms such as ‘Bodyflow’, ‘Flowfit’, and ‘Kinetic Chains of Movement’ it is readily apparent that Sonnon’s approach to training the body through corrected movement is not too distant a cousin of parkour.
Though they have both evolved as entirely separate disciplines, it is clear that parkour and CST methodologies share this essential understanding of the intrinsic worth of non-linear, dynamic movement. The overlapping fields between CST and parkour are numerous, and to identify and detail them all is beyond the scope of one article. Instead, let us find a model for comparison. Coach Sonnon has usefully identified three CST Fitness Standards in a recent article, and even a cursory glance at these benchmarks soon reveals the synergy that exists between parkour and the Circular Strength Training paradigm.
The first Fitness Standard is described as Work Capacity to Sophistication to Specificity to Flow. If we look at the fundamental physical attributes CST aims to develop, Coach Sonnon informs us that it “includes the critical elements of coordination, body control, agility, balance, accuracy, timing, rhythm and sensitivity which come from practice.” Exactly the same can be said of parkour, in which every movement requires and encourages development of most, if not all, of these elements. He goes on to say “CST measures fitness as the ability to recruit maximal multi-joint efficiency to move through multiple planes of motion with greater and greater ease compared to previous attempts.” Again, simply replace the acronym ‘CST’ with the word ‘parkour’ and you have an almost perfect definition of one of the principle goals of the discipline.
If we look at the fundamental physical attributes CST aims to develop, Coach Sonnon informs us that it “includes the critical elements of coordination, body control, agility, balance, accuracy, timing, rhythm and sensitivity which come from practice.” Exactly the same can be said of parkour
Of course, a wide range of sports and physical practices could also lay claim to the sophisticated goals that CST lays before us. The crucial difference, however, between most of these and parkour is to be found in the training and practice methods themselves. Both in training and in practice – for the two are very different things – the traceur is never attempting to work any part of his body in isolation, nor is he ever developing anything other than the most functional attributes and skills. The traceur does not bring weights or clumsy machinery to his sessions: his body is his one and only tool. The principal practice for a practitioner of parkour is to repeat and refine the movements of parkour, improving tensile strength, flexibility, and coordination as he goes, greasing the grooves in the musculature while increasing neuromuscular efficiency. The importance of proprioception cannot be overstated, and is constantly improved through balance exercises, night-training (read ‘sensory deprivation’), and spatial awareness drills.
“CST measures fitness as the ability to recruit maximal multi-joint efficiency to move through multiple planes of motion with greater and greater ease compared to previous attempts.”
This ‘natural’ approach to training goes back to the lifestyles of ancient tribal cultures, perhaps first properly researched from a fitness perspective by George Hebert (1875-1957), a pivotal figure in the history of physical education in the West who was struck by the natural attributes of the indigenous peoples of Africa, among whom no specific ‘training regimen’ was ever encouraged or enforced – Hebert noted that merely leading their natural lives of physicality and dynamism produced incredible specimens possessed of exceptional functional strength and agility. His ‘Natural Method’, which many regard as one of the forerunners of parkour, was a means by which to reproduce these effects in industrialised societies by “promoting the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move quadrupedally, to climb, to walk in balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.” Indeed, quadrupedal movement – moving with one’s weight evenly distributed between all four limbs – is a tool regularly used when warming-up in preparation for parkour.
Just as in CST, parkour practice encourages a gradual sophistication of attributes, through detailed specification as the freerunner goes deeply into the intricacy of his movement, towards an unconscious mastery of his own abilities. To achieve ‘the flow’ in movement is one of the Holy Grails of parkour: to link skills together into a seamless, dynamic whole facilitating instinctual movement over any terrain. (If this sounds anything at all like a kinetic chain, that is precisely because it is. In effect, parkour could be described as one long, explosive kinetic chain of integrated movements!) It is important to understand that parkour is not simply a collection of techniques – rather, parkour occurs when one is moving over terrain in a spontaneous and non-predictive manner, paralleling the ‘flow without thought’ of Prasara. To have this capacity to move at any time, along any plane, gracefully and efficiently is what the traceur seeks. And he trains for it by doing it.
The second Fitness Standard outlined in CST is the expedient ability to acquire efficiency in new skills, and more importantly innovatively create new skills. Coach Sonnon goes on to explain that a ‘skill’ is not something acquired by the mere rote repetition of a specific function, but is a result of physical, mental and emotional integration and is something best measured by how effortlessly one can complete a task. Efficiency, demonstrated through stealth training and lightness, is central to parkour. We aim to ‘make silence’ as we train, to go unnoticed as we pass through any environment and to leave no trace of our passing as we go. And anyone who practises parkour soon realises just how powerful the mind can be in restricting one’s own potential, as the art shines a bright spotlight on how much fear-reactivity hinders our every move: parkour is as much mental and emotional as it is physical.
And once this fear-reactivity is overcome, good parkour make impossible actions seem not only possible but also quite effortless. Obstacles and barriers are traversed in the blink of an eye, difficult terrain negotiated without the impediment of fear or anxiety, and what most would see as impediments to movement become partners and springboards along one’s route.
Coach Sonnon goes on to say that “CST’s secondary goal is to tap the idiosyncratic genius of each individual’s physical expression of fitness.” And this is no less true of parkour; innovation and adaptation are crucial. Parkour is often wrongly described as an urban sport or art, when the truth is that parkour aims to teach the individual to be able to adapt his movement to absolutely any environment, and in any situation. Practitioners are encouraged to train in built-up areas as well as in rural surroundings, upon coastal rock formations, within forests and jungles; indeed, anywhere that presents the opportunity for movement.
We must constantly ask the question of ourselves: just what can I do and how close am I to being able to do it?
Finally, we come to Fitness Standard Three: An Effective ratio of restorative forces to work forces. Here it is outlined that fitness must be measured in terms of one’s ability to perform a chosen task at any given time. Effectively, what this means is that we must have balance in our training methods in order to maintain a constant and high level of health and fitness, so that we are able to act whenever we want or need to. Parkour is a truly holistic discipline that offers the practitioner a new way to observe and manage the relationships between himself and his every environment, encouraging him always to be aware of the possibilities for movement and to appraise his own ratio of capacity to potential. We must constantly ask the question of ourselves: just what can I do and how close am I to being able to do it? The goal of training is to improve our standard of living, to enable us to get more from every moment and every activity, to help us explore our innate potential: To make us more capable, in the true sense of the word. A training method that detracts from this in any way is flawed at a fundamental level.
Parkour, as is commonly noted by newcomers, reaches into every aspect of one’s daily life. Many voice this as ‘having their eyes opened’. Practitioners soon come to look at their surroundings in a completely different and unfettered way. They step outside of the box and find that, in fact, there is no box and never was. It raises one’s awareness of the inefficiency and wasted effort that accompany most of one’s everyday movements. One learns to walk properly, to maximise the use of space on a crowded street, to foresee and avoid obstacles on a journey; in short, one learns to flow with the currents of life in a more harmonious and beneficial manner so that, as Coach Sonnon points out, “your very daily activities themselves become an extension of your training and practice.” This change comes about as much mentally as it does physically for, of course, the two are inextricably interwoven.
It is evident from this brief evaluation of the Fitness Standards espoused by Coach Sonnon that there is a powerful resonance between parkour and the various elements underlying the Bodyflow, Warrior Wellness and Prasara concepts. Practitioners of the CST paradigm and traceurs alike have noticed the connecting tissues between the disciplines, and indeed there are already those who incorporate both into their own training regimes. They sit well together, for in a sense they are cousins: Both based on continual, non-linear, non-contained movement; both dynamic and explosive; both concerned with overcoming fear-reactivity. They have evolved separately, yes, but separate and parallel is a more accurate description.
Diligent, intelligent practise and focused, regular training will bring about the realisation of this potential.
We all harbour immense potential for extraordinary activity. We all possess the innate ability to move with the seemingly superhuman attributes that both parkour and CST develop. The truth is, of course, that there is nothing superhuman about these activities – and there are no secrets either. Diligent, intelligent practise and focused, regular training will bring about the realisation of this potential. Whether you walk the omni-directional paths of parkour or seek to unleash your own Bodyflow through CST, you are on a road of self-improvement to which there is no end in sight.