by Dan Edwardes
Stephane ghosting across the cityscape; Blane unleashing a ten-foot saut-de-chat; Forrest powering up a wall over twice his height in one fluid motion…
The traceurs at the top of the game seem to be able to make the impossible seem not only possible but downright effortless. Many observers of these and similar feats find themselves asking ‘How can they do that?!’ which, for some, then becomes ‘How can I learn to do that?’ The answer is surprisingly simple – perhaps deceptively so. The answer, if ever one manages to catch and question one of these individuals, is one word:Training.
Parkour is a hard path to walk, this much is clear to all who practise properly. And yet there are no great secrets to advancing along this path, no hidden teachings or esoteric mysteries. Apply yourself to the discipline through correct and methodical training, and you will see improvements. Continue in this manner and these improvements will multiply and solidify – it’s that simple.
But if that’s the case, why aren’t there a hundred Stephanes out there, or hordes of guys queuing up to blow Forrest away in a ‘muscle-up’ contest? Well, probably for two reasons: one, in truth there are very few who possess enough self-discipline to train hard; and two, even fewer know how to train productively. That is, to train in a fashion that will produce the desired results given enough time and effort; to train in an efficient manner so that one does not plateau early on and fail to reach one’s true potential; to train smart as well as hard. Too often you will see people courting danger by ignoring the conditioning work and then practising movements they are not yet strong enough to repeat safely – hence the host of injuries and long-term joint and ligament damage many budding traceurs fall victim to.
So how can we avoid these mistakes, and so begin to set our sights on attaining true excellence in movement?
Train hard, but efficiently
It’s not just the amount of time you set aside for the activity, you have to use this time cleverly. Wandering the streets for nine hours while including a few periods of vaulting/leaping/running does not constitute nine hours’ training. It is almost impossible, and certainly counter-productive, to train in any physical discipline for nine hours per day. Olympic athletes do not undertake that amount of training, for the simple reason that they would soon incur decreasing returns. World-class rowers top out at about 6 hours per day, and that is very cleverly managed. But spend two to three hours per day actually training – which means constantly moving, drilling, repeating – and you will find yourself not only satisfyingly tired but also improving at a rapid and noticeable rate.
A distinction is often drawn between the terms ‘training’ and ‘practice’. Training can be viewed as the work that goes into developing the ability to be able to practise well one’s chosen activity. Both are necessary components of any serious approach to a discipline. However, one must also be wary of over-training which can lead to a whole variety of overuse injuries and anatomical weaknesses. Again, be efficient – devote one day to conditioning the upper-body, then the next day rest the arms/shoulders while conditioning the legs and ankles. Maybe on the third day aim for minimal conditioning and concentrate more on fluidity and combinations of parkour movements. On the fourth day you could choose to work larger, more demanding, single movements in a more measured session. On the fifth day, rest – which is just as important a component of a training regime as the actual training; both being as essential to each other’s usefulness as night and day. Whatever your regime, have a strategy for improvement and carry it out.
Train smart, constantly locating and reducing errors
Twenty years’ training means nothing if it is one year of mistakes repeated twenty times! Equally, one thousand repetitions of the same poorly-executed jump will only reinforce the error. This is because whatever you do over any substantial period of time brings about a change in your body to find homeostasis, regardless of whether you desire or value that adaptation. You do what you train, in other words. If you train inaccurately you will move inaccurately.
Learn to pay close attention to the small things. When you jump and land, make it as accurate as you possibly can and repeat that over and over again until you can be that accurate every time. Do not be satisfied with even slightly-off precisions, or overly-noisy landings. Aim for absolute control, for complete silence. Aim to master the particular movement, whatever it may be, by refining and refining until no one but yourself can tell the difference between a movement you are satisfied with and one you know to be imperfect.
Force yourself to work most intensively on the movements/aspects you find the most difficult or unnatural. If you shy away from what you are not good at and concentrate only on the things you are comfortable with, you will limit your growth and your potential. Develop both sides of the body as equally as possible – to be functional, you must be able to move off both feet, to vault on both sides, to roll on both shoulders. You will inevitably favour one side of the body, but give time to developing your weaker side and your stronger side will benefit – this is because our bodies are sympathetic in nature: what happens to the muscles of the right arm has a direct impact on the muscles of the left arm.
You have to be your own coach whenever you practise. Observe yourself; analyse your own movements; be honest with your self-appraisal. Could that vault have been more controlled, with a softer landing? Could it have been more efficient? What can I improve on? There will always be something, believe me.
Train completely, developing your attributes
We suggest that a good amount of one’s training regime should include and purposefully aim to improve one’s physical attributes: attributes in this sense include strength, mobility, muscular endurance, cardio-vascular fitness, power and speed. Most of this falls under the broad heading of conditioning, and while all good movement will bring about positive changes in these areas, as your training becomes more serious you will realise the benefits of some deliberate practise for these attributes.
For the best results in your parkour performance, you have to be strong enough, in all ways, to be able to cope with the physical demands of the movements. This is what is known as practical strength and is rarely the sort of strength that results from hours spent on isolation machines found in gyms. Many times we have encountered gym-built individuals, carrying huge muscles, wanting to apply themselves to parkour and finding those same impressive-looking muscles to be hopelessly ineffective. There is a reason it is known as ‘counterfeit muscle’… You may boast incredible abs and huge biceps, but if you can’t pull your own bodyweight up and over a wall it just isn’t functional for movement.
It seems that the most productive type of conditioning exercises for parkour are those exercises that actually include aspects of parkour movement. As a prime example, I will detail what we call the ‘double-tap’ drill: find two horizontal planes, one above the other by anything up to a metre. These can be two railings, a wall topped by a railing, anything so long as you can hang on without your feet touching the ground (for instance, a perfect set-up would be a two-metre wall topped by a gap of two feet and then a metal railing). Hang on the lower plane, with your feet against the wall in an arm-jump (saut de bras) finishing position. From that position explode upwards with the arms, lifting both hands simultaneously to grasp the upper plane/railing. The feet may move upwards a few inches for balance. To finish the repetition, let go and drop in a controlled and quiet movement to again grasp and hang from the lower plane/wall.
Repeat this ten times and you have completed one set: aim for ten or more sets as part of one training session, and very soon you will discover new levels of power and confidence with your arm, shoulder, and back muscles. This exercise, while very simple, is perfect for developing the upper-body dynamism and resilience (in the up and drop motions respectively) necessary for fast wall-runs (passe muraille) and controlled arm-jumps. This and other compound drills (there are hundreds to choose from…) should be performed regularly if you want to experience demonstrable progression in your practice. Strong attributes lead to greater ease in the acquisition of skill.
Parkour is a relatively young discipline and as such the number of skilled teaching individuals is small. Access to these teachers is difficult. These two facts combine with the end result that the majority of the practising community (especially outside of France) are self-taught, imitating flashes of movement from online videos or television spots. Most just do not realise the amount of hard training and sheer effort that preceded these displays of physicality, and so head out to copy movements they are simply not capable of carrying out safely and correctly. The obvious failings of imitation aside, rarely, if ever, does this simply mimicry produce talented individuals equal to those they are mimicking. Moreover, for these unfortunate imitators injuries are far more likely to occur.
And just because it is difficult to find proper instruction in a discipline does not mean one should resign oneself to training incorrectly. It all comes down to how serious you are about learning. So there is no one capable of guiding you in your village/town/city… so travel! Get on a train, or even a plane, to Paris, or to London, or wherever there is a group of competent practitioners. There are willing teachers out there, even in the fledgling parkour world, so seek them out and draw on their accumulated knowledge. Just a few sessions with such individuals are worth months of ineffectual solo training.
There are no secrets to parkour, true: but this is a double-edged sword. It means anyone who wants to find the way can do so – but it also means there are no magical shortcuts along this way. If you want to follow it, you have to walk it.