One question I’ve been asked countless times over the years by fitness professionals, physiotherapists, sport scientists and general public alike is how do you (parkour practitioners) not break things, explode joints and generally cripple yourselves taking all those impacts from jumps? And looking through the lens of many recent models of human movement – typically those that deconstruct and treat the body as an automaton – the question is an obvious one, as it just doesn’t seem to make sense or adhere to prevailing theories of what the human body can safely withstand. So how do we do it?
All good parkour practitioners know, empirically and intuitively through their training, that the body is exceptionally good at absorbing, redistributing and redirecting force IF one’s movement patterns and biomechanics are healthy, good technique (read ‘form’) is observed and sufficient whole-body strength is in place. Most practitioners wouldn’t know, or need to know, more than that – they know it works, it feels good, and they continue to grow more capable in movement year after year. Does it contradict traditional theories? Probably means the theories weren’t accurate then.
But science does have a tendency to catch up with the trails humans blaze through experimentation and application, and the recent understanding of just how much our fascia does has unlocked a piece of that puzzle that has mystified so many observers of parkour.
Put simply, the entire body is an incredible force transmission system and it is NOT only the muscles that are absorbing and expressing these forces. How much a muscle can absorb can, to a degree, be isolated and measured and to treat that as the limit of what a body can absorb would be to limit quite severely the understanding of our true potential.
The body is a whole, that much is clear and obvious, and if it is allowed to act as a whole (by avoiding the deconstruction of movement skills or the unbalancing of the body through over-development of certain areas to the detriment of others) it will naturally act as one large, interconnected system of coiling and uncoiling springs.
Landing forces – those which are not redirected away from the body first – can and should be absorbed and distributed throughout the entire body of connective tissue, allowing seemingly extreme impact forces to be handled without damage and in fact then utilised through recoil and elasticity to empower the next movement. Utilising these ‘free forces’ – ground reaction force, momentum, etc. – parkour trains the practitioner to redirect much energy away from the body, often through a well-timed roll, and to have the correct form upon landing to absorb any force remaining in a manageable fashion.
Jumping is one of the most fundamental forms of human movement, and is something we do so naturally and well as children and then typically stop doing as we grow up, thus losing our connection with this hugely powerful action. Most people limit their jump experience to quite limited forms such as the linear and mechanical ‘box jump’ so often seen in gyms, but this just isn’t enough. Running jumps, broad jumps, precision jumps, drop jumps, rebounds, strides… the list of jumps we can master goes on and on, and it’s precisely that variety in movement that creates the true athlete. Parkour has helped put jumping back on the map and everyone would do well to rediscover this incredibly potent activity.
For a recent scientific study into ground reaction forces and absorption in parkour landing techniques, see http://www.jssm.org/vol12/n1/17/v12n1-17pdf.pdf
The Biomechanics of Landing and Rolling
Landing Pads of the Feet:
Almost without exception, every single landing you make on your feet should be on the front part of the sole of the foot, where the toes meet the foot proper. It’s not called the landing pad for no reason. Landing flat-footed or on the heels means you are unable to use the lever muscles of the ankle and lower leg, or initiate the proper absorption chain, which results in huge amounts of shock driving into the knees and lower back. Land on the balls of the feet and you will initiate a chain reaction from the foot upwards throughout the entire body to absorb and distribute the impact. Further, you will have better balance and stability upon landing.
If you can use more muscles, fascia and connective tissue to absorb the impact of a drop, this will spread the shock throughout the whole body and lessen its effects considerably. To do this you have to teach your body to recruit chains of muscles and connective tissue rather than simply one or two isolated muscles. It takes time and repetition of the technique at low levels for the body to acquire this ability and to understand and enable the critical timing of when to fire the absorption chains – which is actually just before the impact occurs, because ground reaction force happens faster than the body can react to it. Hence the body must already be firing its absorption chains in anticipation of the impact. Subtle, but hugely important.
Have a ‘relaxed firmness’ when you land, similar to a sprinter before they explode from the blocks; don’t lock the legs or the body as you hit the floor. Most of your anatomy is elastic and if allowed to relax into the movement it will absorb and redistribute the impact very well. Think of a brick and a rubber ball: drop a brick and see it smash into the ground as the impact shudders through it. Try it with the ball and see it compress and absorb the impact, bouncing back to redistribute it outwards and away. You want to be like the ball. Your hips, knees and ankles should flex a little the instant before impact.
To make the best use of your anatomy you want to redistribute the impact over as many muscles, tissues and physical levers as possible. This is how a car’s suspension works. To do this, those structures must be aligned correctly above each other and this comes from proper form and execution of technique. In brief, think of a good squat and work backwards, but you want the feet to be hip-width apart or less so as to line up the shock-absorption chain correctly. Your arms should be trailing behind you as you come into the landing, thus keeping the back fairly straight and balancing out your entire body as you connect with the surface. Upon landing the arms will swing naturally and loosely forwards.
If able to perform a roll after a landing from any significant height (and anything above head height may well require this), do so. The roll in parkour is a diagonal roll from one shoulder down and across the back to the opposite fleshy part of the side of the hip. The vital element is timing: the body must transition into the roll immediately, using ground reaction force to spring forward into the roll before the legs collapse and all the impact has to be absorbed by the body. The purpose of the roll is to direct force away from the body by changing vertical momentum to horizontal momentum. Get the timing wrong and the roll may look wonderful but it won’t serve its intended purpose.
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