I’m guessing you have a bias towards parkour.
I did. I categorized it as a bunch of young people tricking off of objects in a way that appeared more exhibitionist than anything. But I’ve now come to realize that I was focusing on all the things that were missing from the parkour concept (it must be the engineer in me) and not the actual movement.
Recently, I interviewed a handful of coaches at APEX Movement, an outfit with a rapidly growing footprint here in Colorado. With five gyms (4 in Colorado and 1 in California) and some impressive marketing, APEX is on an upward trajectory.
I wanted to learn what parkour is, who is doing it and how it stacks up as a movement based fitness concept.
First, some background:
[Parkour (French pronunciation: [paʁˈkuʁ]) is a holistic training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training. Practitioners aim to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible.They do this using only their bodies and their surroundings to propel themselves; furthermore, they try to maintain as much momentum as is possible in a safe manner. Parkour can include obstacle courses, running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping, rolling, quadrupedal movement, and the like, depending on what movement is deemed most suitable for the given situation.](1)
Here’s a nice little introduction to parkour by Ryan Ford, founder of APEX Movement:
Who’s this for?
Specifically, ages 8 -1 2. Children in this age bracket make up the majority of gym goers at APEX. When you think about it, it really isn’t all that surprising because youth are already doing similar movements in the playground. The difference is that now they are under supervision.
And young people are good candidates for methods like parkour. They are encouraged to play and to improvise. True, they are given some drills and instruction on technique when first starting out, but after that, there is ample opportunity to play. There will be plenty of time for kids to mature and have the disciple to study more technical methods like traditional resistance training.
Ages 13 – 18
Let’s move to the right a bit and take a look at the middle school and high school kids. They are becoming a little more competitive than their preadolescent counterparts and if we are talking about high school boys we may as well acknowledge that their accepted level of risk skyrockets! But here’s a key point, boys and girls of this age bracket are more likely to be competing in team sports. And in team sports, what’s the primary goal of training? It’s to develop agility and speed. This is an important training stimulus for young people. Developing motor control and proprioception is very useful for sports, resistance training and, well – life in general.
A parkour gym, with proper coaching, has the potential to be a great teaching tool for kids of this age.
So what the adults? That’s the big question because adults are usually the ones looking to shed a few pounds and they are the ones filling bootcamps and group training classes around the country.
Can parkour help adults lose weight?
In my opinion, it depends. Can it enhance your movement such that other exercise activities may become more enjoyable? Sure. Can it make fitness more fun? Absolutely. Parkour can even bridge the training gap for adults that compete in obstacle races like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and others. But I think it would be tough for the weight loss crowd to find success in parkour. The concept just has too much improvisation and not enough structure to be the basis for a progressive weight loss program.
But perhaps the biggest benefit for adults is simply reintegrating an understanding of movement into their health and fitness regime.
adults can benefit the most because they have generally lost more creativity, fitness, and courage than most kids. – Ryan Ford
I completely agree. Almost every American needs to improve their movement quality and parkour can help. You don’t need to become a ninja, but cross training and having a ‘parkour Saturday’ is worth considering.
I worked with Travis Lee, one of the parkour trainers, at the Loveland APEX Movement gym. We began with some unique warm up movements and locomotion drills. If you think parkour is all running, think again. There are some very cool quadruped movements going on here. In fact, a closer look into parkour-styled locomotion would be a great subject for a future post, but for now, let me focus on two fundamental parkour movements that really stood out.
1. The roll
Super simple, right? You can probably roll and tumble and do a somersault, can’t you? Well, we all used to be able to, but one thing the parkour folks (and the martial arts community) know and understand well, is how to roll.
Travis had me squat down at an angle, place my hands down in front of me and instructed me to initiate the roll with my shoulder and follow the ‘soft tissue highway’ – the pathway along your back from one shoulder to the opposite glute. This technique is very practical because you’re saving your spine from unnecessary impact and instead using your soft tissue to absorb the loading.
Travis then took me through some rolls initiated from walking. Say you tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and fell. What if you could transition into a roll and conserve your momentum? The ultimate progression is, of course, to initiate a roll from a running pace.
2. The vault
I’m guessing you were vaulting over all sorts of objects as a child and then when you ‘grew up’ you suddenly stopped and started working out like an adult based on societal norms. Whether it’s vaulting over a fence, box or any other structure for that matter, vaulting is a great movement tool to have in your back pocket. And just like the roll, it’s a ton of fun!
And yes, there is a technique. Travis showed me some tweaks to my own movement to ensure that I maintained my momentum and kept my CG in an optimal place. But it’s not just about conserving momentum. Preventing injury is also important. And by beginning with the fundamentals that Travis teaches, your risk of catching your foot (or tibia!) on the box/rail/barrier is mitigated.
So it seems that there is some method to the madness. Parkour isn’t just kids jumping around randomly and behaving dangerously (let’s ignore some of the more irresponsible YouTube videos for the time being 🙂 ). Because in the gym, guys like Ford and Lee are really trying to establish a progression and show that parkour is scalable and supervised.
Admittedly, parkour is not the grand unified theory of all things fitness, and it doesn’t intend to be. Not one of the coaches I interviewed claimed that parkour was the singular answer to everyone’s unique fitness problem. For instance, parkour athletes don’t carry heavy things. Nor do they pick heavy things up off the ground and lift them over their heads. These are fundamental movements that we all need to do. But again, parkour doesn’t set out to be an umbrella fitness program (does one even exist?!).
Now there is one area of concern that I have with training young people in Parkour. And that is specifically any movement that resembles a depth jump. A depth jump is a plyometric exercise to enhance overall power. To perform this, you would jump from a box of about 18″ or so, absorb the landing and then immediately go into another jump – whether that’s jumping onto another box or a broad jump. And this is perfectly safe for well trained athletes, but the problem with training youth is that their bones may still be in a developmental growth period.
The issue is that the epiphyseal plate (a plate of cartilage found on the end of long bones when they are still growing) can be fractured under severe stress. This sort of injury can really get you into trouble and cause developmental problems(2).
But from what I saw at APEX, the youth class was training with kid-friendly impact levels.
“There are plenty of great ways to train your body safely and effectively at ground level,” says Ford.
And one clever method employed at the gym to keep youngsters from testing themselves beyond their capabilities was the tactic of employing ‘level bands.’ Just as in martial arts, where you would start with a white or yellow belt and move your way up the color spectrum, APEX parkour is divided into levels. In this context I don’t think a young kid would feel pressured to compete at the level of the older kids.
Bottom line: There is some great stuff to be had with parkour. The rolls, the vaults and the inherent body control throughout all the movement is useful. And quite frankly, it’s things that should be enveloped by many of primal fitness methods.
With Motus, I am constantly evolving my list of methods and philosophies from which I borrow to create my own unique programming. I’m adding a splinter of parkour. And innovative strength trainers would be wise to take a page from the parkour playbook. After all, most of the coaches I interviewed could perform a strict muscle up on the rings. They are doing something right.
And maybe there could be some parkour inspired weight loss programming. One could dream up some very cool HIIT clases by throwing in a few parkour moves. Conversely, the parkour community should be open to learning from the strength training folks – imagine a parkour inspired facility with the following toys: Rings, parallettes, barbells and kettlebells. Those (4) tools plus the boxes, pipes, crash pads and walls found throughout a parkour gym would keep just about any client healthy, challenged, and – you guessed it, having fun.
There’s that word again – fun.
In Ford’s video at Tedx, he uses the word play a lot. That when you walk by a handrail you should vault it. Not all that different from what us strength geeks hear from the old school guys – that you should never walk by a pull up bar without knocking out a few.
But the big takeaway is that parkour is movement. Whether it’s manifested as play, challenging combos, or something very simplistic, it’s still movement. And that being said, all of us interested in movement based fitness methods owe it to ourselves to visit a local parkour gym to at least experiment.
Just before I was about to leave the gym, I spent a few minutes watching the kids class wrap up. There were a group of 5 young boys being led by an instructor through some drills. These kids were jumping, rolling, swinging from bars – they were having a great time. They surely wouldn’t considering themselves engaged in any type of workout, but they were moving.
But what I noticed is what they weren’t doing. They weren’t watching TV. And they weren’t playing video games. Instead, they were moving and they were having fun.
To succeed in fitness you must adhere to two rules:
1. Build good habits
2. and keep your energy levels high
These kids are on the right track. They are associating fitness with fun. That’s a valuable hormonal connection. In this sense, parkour is a success. I look forward to seeing where parkour leads and how the APEX folks can package it.
What’s your take? Has parkour changed your outlook on fitness? Have you lost weight incorporating parkour training? Let’s hear about it in the comments below.
HuffPost: We tried it: Parkour
(1) Parkour. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 28, 2014, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkour
(2) Baechle and Earle, eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008 (p 148).
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