Off the Wall: Climbing for Parkour
WHY YOU SHOULD BE CLIMBING SHIT. OFTEN.
Without a doubt the best training for parkour is more parkour. However, this is not to say that the odd injection of alternative training methods can’t help speed your development in specific aspects of physicality relevant to the traceur. Sprint training, weightlifting, acrobatics… all can bring great benefits to what we do. Far from being off the wall, cross-training has proven to be of great value to a host of professional sportsmen and women from all disciplines.
Further, climbing is quite simply a huge part of parkour. The simplest initial description of parkour from the founding days in France was ‘running, jumping and climbing’. So right there it’s an entire third of the movement method! Climbing is a fundamental practical form of human locomotion, and if you’re looking to master your movement across all types of terrain there are quite a few obstacles out there which simply can’t be overcome by any method other than some pure-form monkey business.
Climbing has experienced a dramatic change from the original outdoor practice to today’s discipline with a heavy reliance on indoor climbing centres to refine one’s skills, condition and learn the ropes (I’m not even trying to put these puns in, honestly). Simple concrete indoor walls with single, immovable holds were first created to accommodate climbers desiring to train during the winter months. Apparently the French then reinvented the indoor wall system by utilising interchangeable handholds upon wooden walls, allowing for climbing routes to be varied and altered at will.
With crash-mats below every surface, indoor bouldering is a relatively safe way to climb and relieves the climber of the need for ropes, harnesses or safety equipment. Hence it has become an excellent method of physical training and conditioning, most specifically for climbing itself. But bouldering has also become a discipline in its own right, with the aptly named buildering (you guessed it – climbing buildings) then seen as an offshoot of that.
And, let there be no doubt about this, climbing rocks…
Ok, bad pun; but it really does. The physical benefits of regular climbing sessions are enormous and very swiftly apparent, and it has a considerable and beneficial knock-on effect upon one’s movement abilities in general. Climbing requires the combined use of many chains of muscle, connective tissues and joints all at once, firing stabilisers everywhere and demanding fascial tension across the whole body from fingertip to toe as you maintain all manner of positions.
It necessitates not only moments of extreme tension but also the ability to relax parts that aren’t being used in order to conserve energy and thus be able to complete longer routes, and efficiency of muscular effort and economy of motion are both vital to a climber’s success. Not only does it rapidly improve the strength of one’s finger tendons, arms, shoulders, back and latissimus dorsi muscles, it also works the legs and the trunk as the more experienced climbers learn to spread the strain across the whole of their body in order to master the tougher routes and problems.
So what will climbing do for you? Well, prepare for some really useful gains by hitting the walls two to three times a week for some serious forearm-burning, finger-wrenching scaling. Let’s look at a brief overview of the beneficial physical effects that regular climbing practice brings about.
Climbing is a sport composed of multiple and various small movements that rarely, if ever, require a singular maximal burst. Simply to remain on a wall and resist the pull of gravity requires the use of several muscles at once, while many other muscles operate to maintain balance and stability. We climb for two to five hours at a time, obviously taking numerous breaks to recover from the individual climbs, and these long sessions make strenuous demands upon the body’s endurance. With more and more experience of climbing, an individual will gradually acquire the ability to string together many series of movements upon a wall, raising one’s endurance to new heights.
Flexibility & Mobility
Climbing puts your body into an endless array of unusual positions, requiring impressive mobility and flexibility particularly in the hips, but also in the ankle, knee, spine and shoulder joints.
Rotation of the hips is used in several fundamental techniques which enable a greater reach and easier transitions, and the arms and upper body are put through the entire range of motion across multiple planes and with plenty of torque throughout most sessions.
Climbing is effectively one long, varied mobility drill that requires you to load joints and chains of joints in all manner of positions, which promotes a robust, bulletproof body all around. And who doesn’t want that?
A climber moves and adjusts herself working both with and against gravity with every move along the wall. Transferring and manipulating the bodyweight in this way puts constantly varying significant and loads on the muscles, building strength in an adaptive and practical way while avoiding any repetitious or overly-linear movements. The appeal is obvious. Not only the upper body is put through its paces during climbing, but many movements also place great demands on the gluteus muscles, the quadriceps, the calves and the hamstrings. Of course, hand and forearm strength improve enormously, which translates perfectly to the movements of the arm jump in parkour and especially the ability to climb up and over, also known as a top-out.
Balance and Stability
To excel at climbing you have to become very good at knowing where your centre of gravity is and precisely where your bodyweight is at any given time, and to understand how this will affect, prevent or enable the next move. Much of staying on a wall is balance, spread across the lower- and upper-body, and you’re often required to maintain stability perched upon tiny footholds no more than a centimetre or two wide. Often not even that. Proprioception and sensitivity, particularly of the hands and feet, improve rapidly. These advancements then transfer very nicely across to precision work and balance drills in parkour.
Most importantly, the strength one develops through climbing is entirely practical – by this I mean it is not strength developed in isolation or along a single linear pathway. Nearly every movement of climbing involves some kind of firing of many of the major muscle-groups, and this builds the typically lean, powerful, efficient musculature possessed by so many elite climbers. Combined with regular parkour training, climbing helps to generate the confident strength the traceur requires in order to approach jumps and catches without hesitation. Furthermore, it helps inoculate you against any trepidation you may have when moving at height – a real bonus for the traceur grounded by fear.
That sub-heading got your attention, didn’t it? But it’s true: climbing is one of those activities which requires you to take regular, short breaks in order to let the lactic acid wash out of those fatigued muscles so you can have another crack. And those short breaks provide, if nothing else, a fantastic opportunity to drink tea. All climbing centres have tea on tap (it’s the law in most countries I believe) and, as science has proven beyond question, there is no drink more restorative than a steaming mug of British Builder’s Tea. For me, that’s actually reason enough to go climbing right there.
Climb often, climb everywhere
You don’t have to limit your climbing training to indoor bouldering, of course. Climbing centres are fairly widespread, and hold endless fantastic ready-made problems to solve as well as a usually very generous and helpful community of climbers willing to give much-needed tips and pointers to anyone starting out, and so they can be a huge benefit to your forays into the world of ascending stuff. However, as always I strongly recommend applying yourself to a ‘real-world’ environment as soon as possible. Urban and rural settings provide countless obstacles to climb, and that includes that evergreen source of climbing possibility – the humble tree! There is so much benefit to be gained from climbing trees regularly, due to their non-uniform shapes, variable surfaces and limb-size, and unpredictable levels of tension and spring. Regular contact with bark, moss and dirt can also help boost the immune system, so that’s an extra little bonus they throw in for free.
So that’s why you should be climbing shit, and climbing often. We’re natural climbers and we’re damn good at it with a little practice. Various studies have proven that children who climb trees for fun as they grow up are far more likely to develop the strength to be able to pull and move their own bodyweight around, without ever spending any time in a gym or formal training environment, than those who don’t.
One word of warning though: as with all new endeavours, don’t overdo it to begin with: climbing on small holds can be hugely demanding on the fingers, and damaged finger tendons will put you out of the game for months so go slowly and build to the harder problems gradually. There’s no rush.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned those damn campus boards… 😉