Balance: Parkour’s Master Discipline
The Master Discipline
Balance is possibly the most fundamental aspect of good parkour practice. Here we are not referring to having a good ‘balance’ between the different exercises and actions – though this is also important, of course – but rather the actual ability to maintain proper balance at all times. Good balance carries over into every aspect of parkour: it is vital for precision landings, crucial for moving swiftly on narrow surfaces, and critical for the proper and effective execution of every type of vault. Having good balance and a refined sense of body position is of great benefit to one’s parkour, and is essential to preventing falls and bails.
Good balance is dependent on many different factors, some of which are biological, and almost all of these can be improved. Balance is associated with sensory input from the eyes, the correct functioning of the balance system of the inner ear, and the sense of position and movement in the feet, legs, and arms. The last is what is referred to as proprioception, the body’s ability to orient itself in space without relying on visual stimuli. Balance underlies everything we do in parkour, and simply cannot be practised enough. With good balance all other movements become much easier, and for this reason it is considered to be the master discipline.
What is balance?
Our ability to balance and stay upright in any given situation relies upon an extremely complex and intricate combination of factors, involving the visual, auditory and musculoskeletal systems. The inner ear balance system works with the eyes, muscles and joints to maintain orientation or balance. For example, visual signals are sent to the brain about the body’s position in relation to its surroundings. These signals are processed by the brain, and compared to information from the vestibular and the musculoskeletal systems. Within the inner ear, a complex series of tubes, fluids, and sensitive hairs works to help the brain detect our body’s movement and position, including perceptions of up and down, side to side, and circular movements. Taken together, these various and continuous streams of information enable us to maintain and regulate very precise balance, even during movement.
Since good balance and body orientation depend on many factors, there are many methods by which we can improve our balance. Because balance in even standing and walking is, at least partly, a skill that can be learned and is largely dependent on good general physical condition, we can improve our overall sense of balance by participating in any number of physical activities. The more active sports such as climbing, football, biking, tennis, weight training, or even bowling can improve balance by strengthening muscles and joints and improving posture. Activities such as ballroom dancing require both good body awareness and hand-eye coordination, and thus are also able to improve dramatically one’s basic balance skills. Low-impact activities such as aerobics, Pilates and water-sports, as well as several Far-Eastern exercise programs such as yoga and tai chi, utilise techniques to synchronise breathing and body movements, and this too has a positive effect upon one’s balance.
Proprioception requires the constant, accurate assessment of the body’s position in space, and is facilitated by the contraction of numerous small stabiliser muscles as they make tiny adjustments to regulate balance. In effect, balance is as much about effective and efficient recovery from imbalance as anything else. Using these muscles over and over again improves our general ability to make these constant slight corrections in balance, and so a broad variety of types of movement will produce the best results.
But amongst all these various methods for improving balance, parkour stands out as containing perhaps the most varied and therefore complete approach.
The practitioner of parkour must learn to balance and move on rails of all dimensions, upon walls and miscellaneous obstacles of varying thickness and angles of inclination, and upon surfaces of widely-differing grip and traction. He must be able to shift the balance of the bodyweight as he vaults over barriers and fences, and he flirts constantly with the edge of imbalance every time he leans into a precision jump or pushes off for a cat-to-cat action. Furthermore, he must be able to maintain and control his balance and orientation whilst in mid-air to enable a safe landing from vaults, drops and other jumps.
There is no way around it: good parkour necessitates good balance. So what specific training methods can we use to put us on the fast-track to excellent balance in movement?
The incorporation of some or all of the following types of drill into one’s training programme will, over time, bring profound improvements to one’s balance and, accordingly, to one’s parkour.
- Cat-Balance : This manoeuvre is the act of quadrupedal movement along a narrow surface or railing and is excellent for improving grip strength, stability, overall balance and proprioception. With the weight centralised and equally distributed between both arms and legs, this activity requires the constant use of stabiliser muscles along the whole body to maintain balance and poise. Simply find a solid railing, or thin wall, and practise moving in Cat-Balance until the action becomes familiar. Take regular breaks to stretch out the legs, as this activity places considerable strain on the quadriceps muscles.
- Slow Crouches : A simple yet very effective exercise for static balance that can be performed anywhere: standing with legs shoulder-width apart and body relaxed, raise yourself up onto the balls of your feet and then slowly crouch down until you feel your butt touch your heels. Hold this position for five seconds then stand up slowly, still positioned on the balls of your feet. Repeat the exercise for sets of five. Slow crouches like this help to develop the leg muscles while also engaging the stabiliser muscles around the lower leg to maintain the poised ball-of-the-foot stance.
- Rail Crouches : These are exactly the same as Slow Crouches above, but this time you should find a solid horizontal railing to crouch upon. Practise this exercise first standingperpendicular to the railing and then in-line with the railing to access different muscle-groups of the leg. As your balance improves, increase the length of time in the crouch to ten seconds.
- Rail Walking : Exactly what it says on the tin. Practise walking along railings of varying width and material, until you are comfortable with even thin, round railings. Learn to walk with your feet in-line with the rail, and maintain proper control during every step. Be precise with your movements, and try to minimise swaying and wobbling as you go. For extra difficulty, stop to add in some crouches along the way.
- Post Hops : Stand atop a solid post or bollard on one leg. Then, in one swift motion, swap feet in place so that you are standing on the other leg in exactly the same spot. Keep the knees slightly bent when doing this, and sink your weight down into your foot. The weight should be over the ball of the foot at all times. Try this exercise atop posts/bollards of varying width and height until you are comfortable. If you can find several bollards in a row and close enough together, practise walking across them with small jumps, taking off and landing on one foot whenever possible.
The wonderful thing about balance is that it is a skill you can be developing almost all of the time, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. When out walking, keep an eye open for raised kerbs or low railings you can walk along instead of using the pavement. If waiting for someone, find a bollard you can practise Post Hops on. Even if there are no obstacles within sight, a few Slow Crouches done regularly will begin to add up.
And it goes without saying that every training session should include some balance work. This master discipline is so very fundamental to parkour that it warrants nothing less than total commitment.