Parkour: Functional Fitness Through Movement

Kevin Senate House

Parkour: Functional Fitness Through Movement

Le Parkour[1], though crystallised into its current guise by a group of young Frenchmen known as the Yamakasi 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.

Put as concisely as possible, parkour is the refinement of one’s body movement during the interaction with one’s environment as one progresses though it. One ostensible ‘aim’ of the discipline is to be able to traverse any terrain as swiftly and fluidly as possible with efficiency, grace and precision. However, to say this is the only aim of this broad-ranging and eclectic practice would be to place a rather narrow definition on something which, in actuality, tends to defy such definitions. This ‘getting from A to B’ designation would exclude thousands of practitioners.

For example, for many practitioners the ‘goal’ of the art is simply to master their own physical vessel, to sophisticate their mobility and improve their overall agility. Some practise solely for reasons of health and fitness, while others do it for the fun of recapturing a childlike view of their surroundings. Yet more walk the path for more esoteric reasons, finding philosophy and contemplating ‘The Way’ as they go. In truth, most would admit to pursuing a combination of all these goals while perhaps emphasising one aspect above the rest.

Though parkour has evolved quite independently of other human movement training methodologies, it is evident that it shares the essential understanding of the intrinsic worth of non-linear, dynamic movement. The overlapping fields between such methodologies and parkour are numerous, and to identify and detail them all is beyond the scope of one article.

However, whatever one’s reason for training in parkour it has been seen to be one of the most effective forms of functional fitness training that exist today. Indeed, whether known or not by the practitioner, the primary ‘goal’ in training could be described as the ability to progress via sophistication of motor skills through initial specificity to eventual integration into the fluid ‘whole’ that is unbroken, effective movement. Looking at the fundamental physical attributes parkour aims to develop, they would include the critical elements of coordination, body control, agility, strength, balance, spatial awareness, accuracy, timing, speed, rhythm and the sensitivity which comes from practice, all of which are core to overall functional fitness.

In parkour we measure fitness as the ability to complete any given movement challenge or task placed before us. To do this we have to recruit maximal multi-joint efficiency to move through multiple planes of motion with greater and greater ease when compared to previous attempts. Otherwise known as ‘practice’.

Of course, a wide range of sports and physical practices could also lay claim to the sophisticated goals of parkour training. 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 can be seen as very different things – the traceur is rarely attempting to work any part of his body in isolation, nor is he looking to develop anything other than the most functional attributes and skills.

The principal practice for 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 or adverse weather training (read ‘sensory deprivation’), and spatial awareness drills.

Parkour practice encourages a gradual sophistication of attributes, through detailed specification as the practitioner goes deeply into the intricacy of his movement, towards an unconscious mastery of his own abilities. To achieve a natural, unthinking fluidity 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, looking to achieve the ‘flow without thought’. 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.

A secondary goal in training is the ability to acquire efficiency in new skills and, importantly, to innovate entirely new skills.

It is important to note 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, for example demonstrated through stealth training and lightness of touch, 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.

Once this fear-reactivity is overcome, good parkour makes 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 obstacles to movement become partners and springboards along one’s route.

An important part of this secondary goal is to tap the innate genius of each individual’s physical expression of fitness; innovation and adaptation are crucial. Parkour is often wrongly described as an urbansport 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 challenge and discovery through movement.

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. This is very different from the ‘peak and trough’ approach to training that many competitive performance sports employ, with their need to prepare practitioners to perform at their best only for a few short periods during the training cycle.

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, more functional 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 superfluous effort that accompany most of one’s everyday movements. One learns to think even of simple acts like walking as a means to train, 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 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.

We all possess the innate ability to move with the seemingly superhuman attributes that parkour can 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, which brings us closer to our true heritage as perhaps the most adaptable piece of organic hardware on the planet. Achieving this level of functional fitness brings about an improved standard of living and real enjoyment of our physicality, and not only while we are young but for as long as we be and we last.

[1] The invented word ‘parkour’ originates from the French parcours du combattant, a phrase meaning ‘course of the fighter’ which was the original term for the military-style obstacle courses now used by armed forces around the world. From parcours, meaning ‘course’came the altered ‘Parkour’, which was the second name used for the discipline after the original term ‘l’Art du Deplacement. David Belle, one of the original Yamakasi founders, credits his friend Hubert Kounde for having coined the word ‘Parkour’.

by Dan Edwardes