If you want to become good at Karate, train Karate
Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan Karate
Parkour is an art of movement, a method of training the body and mind through mastering adaptive, practical movement. It’s been seen at its explosive best in Hollywood movies, TV commercials, stunt-work and advertising campaigns for all manner of brands. The practitioners who carry out its incredible feats are all astoundingly fit, strong and physically capable athletes. They don’t work out in gyms, they don’t use machines or training tools other than their body, their surroundings and their creativity. As all-round ‘functional movement’ experts go, it’s hard to identify any community more capable than that of parkour.
And for anyone wanting to learn about true fitness, there’s a lesson in that. The buzzword ‘functional’ has become so misused that it now means next to nothing, and for effective training I favour practical movement over functional fitness any day of the week.
Parkour has a task-oriented approach to physical training, requiring constant adaptation and application by the individual, and is centred around a holistic approach to multi-planar mobility, body sensitivity, functional strength, agility and spatial awareness. To be truly functional means to be able to apply one’s physical abilities in a real-world environment, not solely in the sanitized confines of a gym or soft space, and the constant adaptation required to achieve this brings about a natural and true practical fitness based on applicable strengths.
Parkour means doing, not just training to do. That’s a vital point to grasp.
Whether it is known or not by the practitioner, the primary ‘goal’ of parkour 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 simply 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 (common term for a practitioner of parkour) is rarely attempting to work any part of his body in isolation, nor is he looking to develop anything other than the most practical attributes and skills. First and foremost, parkour is a practical movement discipline.
The principal practice for parkour is to overcome obstacles in your terrain, improving practical strengths, mobility, and coordination as you go, greasing the grooves in the musculature while increasing neuromuscular efficiency. It’s the constant application of complex-dynamic, non-linear motor skills to adapt to movement ‘problems’ that are self-set and self-solved. 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’s 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 an instinctive movement response to one’s surroundings. 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.
Skill is Holistic
A secondary goal in training is the ability to acquire efficiency in new skills, and more 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. 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 severely 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 stepping-stones 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 urban sport or art, when the truth is that parkour aims to teach the individual to be able to adapt his or her 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. Which is everywhere.
Fitness must be measured in terms of one’s ability to perform a chosen task at any given time. This means that we must have balance in our training methods in order to maintain a constant and high level of readiness, 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; if your movement training breaks you down and leaves you less capable over time, it simply isn’t a good training method.
Training for Life
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 practical movement ability 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.
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What a wonderful article. Functional fitness takes a quantum leap to “practical movement’. Takes the training out of the gym and turns it into the practise of fluid movement in any terrain.
Thanks Ross! I know you get it 😉