There are plenty of ways to get in shape, but few have captured a core following as dedicated as the art of parkour. This rigorous discipline is considered to be both a serious workout and a pleasurable challenge. Whether you have long held an interest in the sport or are learning about it for the first time, this guide will help you discover the nuances of parkour and why it is so popular around the world.
What is Parkour?
The term parkour (or PK for short) is becoming increasingly common throughout the world. For some it is a sport, and for others it has become a way of life. But what is this phenomenon and what makes it so popular?
Merriam-Webster defines parkour as “the sport of traversing obstacles by running, climbing, or leaping rapidly or efficiently”. David Belle, one of the creators of modern parkour, further describes it as “the art of moving through your environment as swiftly and efficiently as possible using only the human body”. In essence, parkour and related sports turn one’s urban or natural environment into an obstacle course in which you are encouraged to overcome various elements to reach your destination without any form of mechanical aid.
History of Parkour
French naval officer Georges Hébert noted the high level of fitness in people from primitive cultures. He determined these individuals remained fit through their daily activities, which included such basic movements as running, jumping, and climbing. After witnessing several events during his tour of duty, Hébert further determined that physical conditioning and mental strength of character were vital traits in difficult situations.
In 1903, Hébert was granted a position where he could test his ideas. Known as la méthode naturelle, Hébert’s methods continued to grow in popularity and refinement through the end of the first World War. After the war, he attempted to adapt his methods for physical rehabilitation and the physical education of youth. By World War II, Hébertiste centers were available throughout France.
Decades later, a young David Belle became fascinated with the idea of escaping from various dangerous scenarios. He employed many of Hébert’s techniques as learned from his father, as well as being influenced by other sources. The group he trained with dubbed their new discipline l’art du deplacement (or “the art of displacement”) in 1988.
By the late 1990s, videos of Belle’s parkour activities became publicly accessible. In 1997, Belle and his partner Sebastien Foucan left their group to focus on their own personal philosophies. One year later, Belle and Hubert Koundé named their new discipline “parkour” after “parcours du combattant“, which was an obstacle course used in training French military forces. Since that time, growing enthusiasm from public access to parkour videos on YouTube and other venues have led to parkour becoming a worldwide sport.
One of parkour’s pioneers has stated that one could not call himself a traceur until he has put his abilities in the service of usefulness. For those who follow the discipline of parkour, this is the root motivation behind the art. It is not the act, but the intent which defines where freerunning ends and parkour begins.
Imagine yourself in a crisis situation. A house is on fire, perhaps, and firefighters are not yet on the scene. There is a child trapped inside. What do you do?
For a practitioner of parkour (often referred to as a traceur), this is the culmination of their training. They will traverse the obstacles in order to save the child, if they are able. If not, they will do all they can to make it easier for firefighters to make the rescue. The discipline of mind and body, the preparation for being of use in a crisis – these are the goals and philosophy behind parkour.
Difference Between Parkour and Freerunning
Although both parkour and freerunning are closely related, they follow different philosophies of movement. When Belle’s former training partner Sebastien Foucan began referring to his variation of parkour as freerunning, Belle noted that parkour had the sole purpose of becoming efficient in case of an emergency. Foucan, meanwhile, defined freerunning as a method of urban expression. In simpler terms, parkour focuses on the principle of utility, whereas freerunning is more concerned with aesthetic movement.
The parent of both disciplines, l’art du deplacement, creates a blend of the two with an emphasis on developing the courage, strength, and capacity of the human body. This creates some confusion, as many practitioners of both parkour and freerunning will debate the usage of certain movements. However, it is generally deemed that most movements are a matter of efficiency and therefore cannot be limited to any one of these three disciplines.
What do I Need to Train Parkour?
Unlike many other sports, parkour does not require a large array of expensive equipment. The average enthusiast may begin training with little or no investment, making it easily accessible to enthusiasts of all economic circumstances.
There is no specific style of clothing required for parkour, although it is generally best to follow some simple guidelines. For example, in winter weather where layers are necessary, one should choose insulated but flexible materials. Long pants remain important during the summer as they provide shin and knee protection.
While it is possible to train barefoot, many brands now carry shoes designed specifically for parkour and freerunning. Nike, Adidas, and K-Swiss are a few of the top parkour shoe manufacturers. Buy what you can afford, but focus on flexibility and cushioning when selecting which shoes to train with. Check out our shoe guide to get our shoe recommendations.
Parkour does not use any standard equipment. Instead, the equipment is any object along your route. Fences, dumpsters, parked cars, potholes, trees, and any other potential obstacle will be used. As the concept of parkour involves using only the human body as a method of navigating your environment, there is no additional purchase necessary for training.
In the event you live where there are fewer training opportunities, you may wish to build your own parkour course. Common obstacles are vault boxes, climbing boxes, precision trainers, and bars. Designs for these optional pieces of equipment are available online.
Parkour is first and foremost a discipline based around utility. This requires the right mindset in order to properly train. New traceurs will often feel the urge to give up when faced with a particularly difficult obstacle. However, through practice and dedication, those obstacles become easier to overcome. This mindset of “I can” over the fear or contemplation of failure is a cornerstone of what parkour teaches its practitioners.
Where can I practice Parkour?
Unlike most other modern sports or activities, parkour enthusiasts are not limited to a specific location or season in order to practice their art. Parkour is generally performed outdoors, and is enjoyed in rain or sun, summer or winter, day or night. Thus, for many, parkour is the epitome of freedom.
Urban settings comprise the most common parkour terrain. Walls, pillars, and other obstacles may be found everywhere. Some traceurs prefer a specific location to train while others traverse entire neighborhoods. Occasionally, a new urban park will include structures that will make it ideal for parkour, and some cities even have official parkour parks. Most of the parkour videos you will see are of urban parkour.
While urban parkour may be more common, natural settings are also popular. These include deep woods, winding trails, and even fields. The latter is used mainly for tricking, while many traceurs feel that woodland makes for an ideal obstacle course. Natural areas may be more difficult to find, based upon your location, but they are also less populated. These areas tend to be more popular with traceurs who hike or camp often, as it helps prepare them for natural emergencies such as flash flooding or fires.
Limitations of Indoor Parkour
There are some traceurs who use indoor settings as part of their training. As parkour is best performed in an open environment, such activities are uncommon. Additionally, permission from the owners or proprietors of viable settings may be difficult to obtain. Indoor settings also tend to be more heavily populated, limiting movement and creating potential safety hazards. For these reasons, it is best to avoid attempting parkour indoors.
Parkour Gyms & Schools
There is one major exception to indoor parkour: the parkour gym. These indoor obstacle courses are designed specifically for traceurs who wish to learn or hone new skills. Here you will find bars, mats, wooden walls, and even rock climbing walls. Gyms evolve over time, improving their setups based upon patron feedback, and are a safe place for beginners to master their moves.
In addition to public access, many gyms double as parkour academies or schools. One of the most famous schools, APK (American Parkour) Academy, offers certifications in parkour. Their growing list of accredited gyms and affiliates have at least one certified parkour instructor on staff to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable experience. Other programs or schools may offer special beginner courses to children and teens, as well as adult classes.
Parkour Moves & Training Techniques
There has been much debate about whether a move should be considered parkour or freerunning. However, as the main difference between these disciplines is a philosophical one, many traceurs do not separate the literally dozens of moves into one or the other. They instead teach that the importance lies in using the most efficient move in the situation at hand. Thus, the following list reflects a handful of simple and advanced techniques which may be used for either discipline.
Basic Parkour Techniques
Most basic moves are very simplistic. Some may be practiced from a standing position, although they are performed while running during a parkour session.
- Landing – Parkour often involves jumping or falling from great heights, and learning how to land properly is the most vital skill a traceur must master. Landings may involve parts of the feet, the hands, or twisting and rolling to reduce impact. It is uncommon for traceurs to practice drops over eight feet outside during practice sessions due to the risk of injury.
- Roll – Many jumps and flips end in a roll. Rolls are used to complete partial flips, pass under elevated obstacles, or soften landings. In some cases, they may also allow you to change direction upon landing. Using rolls greatly reduces the risk of fracturing bones on a hard impact.
- Handstand – One of the most basic moves in parkour is the handstand. This is precisely as it sounds, and may be used for strengthening the body and improving balance and posture. Walking on your hands is a natural progression from the handstand.
- Wall-Run – Wall running is one of the most common and important moves in both parkour and freerunning and gives the impression of running horizontally along a wall. This move takes some practice to perfect, but the results allow you to quickly change direction, gain altitude for tall obstacles, escape a pursuer, or simply act as a transitioning move. There are many variations to the wall-run, making it one of the first moves a traceur should learn.
- Vaulting – Jumps are perhaps the single most common move in parkour, as some form of jump is involved in most moves. The vault is a key example of this and is one of the first moves a traceur learns. When vaulting, your body clears a fence or other obstacle at an angle, supported only by the hands. Kongs and dashes are two common forms of vault.
- Flip – Another important move with several more advanced variations, the flip may be performed forwards, backwards, sideways, or while spinning. It is a component for many more advanced techniques.
- Dyno – This move is used to gain altitude while scaling a wall by using the arms to propel your body upward and grab onto a higher ledge or handhold. Your legs provide distance and additional push during the move.
- Tic Tac – A tic tac is a basic move in which you step off of a wall in order to gain altitude or as a setup to help you overcome a second obstacle. It may also be used to change direction for a cat grab or other move.
- J Leg – Using your leg as a pendulum to gain momentum, the J Leg is used in many advanced flips such as kicking the moon. The move’s name comes from the J shape of the swing.
- Cat Grab – One foot touches the wall right before you grab onto a ledge or handhold, leaving you in a crouching position on the wall. It is useful for clearing a wall that you cannot vault over.
Advanced Parkour Techniques
Building upon basic moves, these advanced techniques are more complex variations that often involve spinning or bouncing off of objects. Many of these moves are considered to be simply adding flair to an otherwise basic move, a process known as tricking.
- Vertical Wall-Run – This more advanced variation of wall-running is used to help scale taller obstacles. The traceur runs horizontally at a wall, leaps, and then uses their momentum to continue running vertically before launching into a vault or other maneuver.
- Kash Vault – A combination of the kong vault and dash vault, this low-speed maneuver involves the traceur’s legs passing between their arms. While tricky for beginners, more experienced enthusiasts consider it an easy move.
- Kick the Moon – Swinging one leg like a pendulum, the body is propelled into a flip. This move requires less upper body movement once you gain mastery over it.
- Touchdown Raiz – Resembling a one-handed cartwheel with a mid-air twist, this move begins with a raiz and is often followed by a corkscrew.
- Wall Up – This advanced form of wall climbing allows you to scale a wall without the use of any tools. By kicking at the wall, you gain altitude. Your movements and momentum give you enough height to grab the top of the wall and pull yourself up.
The term “progression” in parkour refers mainly to the series of movements needed to achieve a specific goal. An example of a progression in which you are passing over a low wall may include the approach, a raiz before connecting, a flip or cartwheel over the wall itself, and a roll or corkscrew on the other side. Many advanced moves comprise of a progression of basic moves.
In the event you are having difficulty with a particular move, it is often best to break the move into its progressive components and practice each one that you are having difficulty with. For example, if you are having difficulty performing a wall up, break it down into its components: the approach, kick, leg-up, and grab. You might discover that you are kicking down on the wall or kicking too low, preventing you from being able to propel yourself upward. By practicing this step on its own, you will improve your performance on the entire move.
Another example progression uses three moves to scale a tall wall. On the approach, do a tic tac off of an adjoining wall into a cat grab, then use successive dynos off of ledges or handholds to continue climbing to the top of the wall.
Parkour Fitness & Conditioning
Parkour is physically demanding and may be dangerous if you do not take the time to properly condition yourself. Strength, endurance, and balance all help you improve both performance and safety. It is important not to rush into a training session without having properly prepared first.
Warming up & Cooling Down
Stretching is vital both before and after a workout, as parkour requires a high degree of flexibility. By warming up with stretches and simple exercises, your body will be more capable of handling the strain you are placing upon it. Likewise, by stretching afterwards and performing a few standard cooldown techniques, you will reduce the risk of waking up with sore or stiff muscles the next day.
Developed during the Cold War, plyometrics are a form of exercise that allow you to have bursts of speed and power. They are physically demanding and should not be performed without some existing level of fitness. As most plyometric exercises involve jumping and building a resistance to impact shock, these are a useful way to train your body for parkour. Sample exercises include:
- Plyometric Push-Ups – These are normal push-ups where you push hard enough that your hands leave the ground.
- Squat Jumps – From a squat, propel yourself into a jump, return to a squat position as you land and repeat immediately.
- Box Jumps – Find a flat surface at least 18 inches above the ground. Standing in front, jump onto the surface and immediately back down. Repeat this jump as quickly as possible. As you improve, increase the height.
- Lateral Jumps – Stand beside an object you are able to jump over. Jump sideways, and upon landing on the other side, jump back to your starting position. Repeat as quickly as possible.
Parkour is based off of techniques developed originally for the French military. As such, training in parkour may be paired up with several other disciplines in order to bring out its full potential. Parkour moves are being used to hone skills in martial arts, competitive acrobatics, and for preparing the body for sports competitions. If you are currently involved in a physically demanding sport or discipline, you may wish to add parkour to your training regiment to further improve your fitness level.
Parkour can be very dangerous if you do not practice your moves in a safe environment. Many basic moves can be practiced using exercise mats at home or in a regular gym. Learn the proper way to grip objects to avoid spraining a wrist or ankle. Also, it is a good idea to have at least one spotter on-hand.
Be sure to work on finger strength for moves that require a grip, such as the dyno or cat grab. You can purchase finger training tools at any music shop. Other home equipment such as a pilates ball may be useful in helping you to learn rolling positions and building up your core muscles to decrease the risk of a back injury.
The following websites are excellent resources for both beginning and advanced traceurs. They offer information, products, and courses; and most are maintained by experts in the field.
American Parkour – The official website of the APK Academy gives information on affiliated and official schools, certifications in parkour and freerunning, and other educational materials.