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We’re watching Robbie Amell vault over boxes, run up walls, jump off 50-foot ledges, and swing from bars as if they were vines in a jungle and he were Tarzan. He’s sweating and his hands are getting rubbed raw. It’s a display of well-rounded athleticism rarely seen outside of a movie screen or an episode of American Ninja Warrior, and, most impressively, Amell’s out of practice with it.
“I haven’t done this in a year,” he says, in between heaving breaths. The 27-year-old actor, now starring as Firestorm in the CW hit series The Flash, began freerunning three years ago, but the demands of shooting movies, including last winter’s The DuFF and this summer’s Max, in which he plays an ill-fated Marine, have kept him away from it. He came back to Tempest Academy, a freerunning gym in Chatsworth, CA, yesterday to get his groove back before our photo shoot, and he’s still finding his bearings. But even though Amell’s movement may not be up to his standards, it’s far more fluid than most—especially grizzled gym vets with tight hips and bad shoulders.
It’s a harbinger, perhaps, of a new breed of superhero movie stars to come. Not only will they be muscular and six-pack adorned, as Amell is, but they’ll be able to move powerfully as well—akin to the way their characters do in outlandish action sequences, but for real. “Freerunning has helped me get in shape for roles,” says Amell, who might have qualified for pro hockey had he not changed paths to acting. The Toronto native stands 5’11” and weighs 165 pounds, and credits freerunning training with allowing him to perform complicated stunts himself. “On The Flash, I had to jump off a roof and kick a guy in the head. I wouldn’t have been able to pull that off before.”
And he’s not the only one—not even in his own family. His older cousin Stephen Amell also plays a hero on CW’s Arrow, a companion show with a story line that exists in the same universe as The Flash. He, too, is ripped, handsome, and into freerunning, and will star in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel. “My cousin got me into this,” he says. “It’s the hardest workout we’ve ever done.”
Freerunning was born from parkour, a sport that originated with the obstacle courses used to train France’s military personnel, according to JT Hiltibran, a freerunning coach at Tempest. “Parkour is about moving from Point A to Point B in the most efficient way possible,” he says—regardless of what bushes, holes, or walls may lie between the two. “Freerunning is more about style and expressing yourself through movement.” As a result, freerunners are known for their acrobatic tricks and showmanship, and the training— now a sport itself, where competitions are judged according to movement efficiency as well as the difficulty of tricks—is growing nationwide.
Amell sums up freerunning’s appeal as not only a way to learn how to pull off stunts like in the movies but also to experience camaraderie with other fitness seekers (as you see in CrossFit boxes). “That’s mainly it,” he says. “You get in shape just by being around other people and doing it with them.” To those who may be turned off by counting sets and reps or competing against others on exercises, freerunning offers calorie-burning and muscle-building activity without structure, obligation, or pressure to perform. “It’s so freeing to come in here and work out the way you want to,” says Amell. “Not just go to the gym and lift weights.” No two freerunning classes are alike, and there’s no specific curriculum.
Of course, freerunning does have the potential to promote a few anxieties: fear of falling to one’s death, for instance. But in spite of the risky maneuvers Amell performs for us, injuries are very rare. “It’s mental,” he says. “You’re going to be afraid to take a flying jump until you do it, and then you see it’s not that big a deal. So, in that sense, it’s really good training for life.” As for the learning curve, Amell says it took him a handful of hour-long classes at Tempest to get the basics down and be comfortable taking leaps and bounds. Once you get comfortable inside, running through a course with supervision, Hiltibran says, you can go outdoors for a real challenge. “You can use walls, ledges, rails. Your body is the limit on what you can do.”
The hardest trick of all for Amell remains the “cliffhanger,” in which the freerunner crawls laterally along multiple ledges of different heights by his fingers. Amell’s lats, shoulders, and forearms bulge as he attempts it, which is probably the muscular equivalent of performing hundreds of pullups. He makes a few passes at it, enough for us to get our shots, and then drops softly from the wall. “My dream role is to play Batman one day,” he says, which would be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy that began with a love of comic books. Whether or not Amell ultimately gets the call, one thing is for sure: He won’t have trouble scaling Gotham Cathedral when the time comes.
For Robbie Amell, the freerunning techniques that follow are only a warmup. But for everybody who doesn’t make a living bounding off walls and jumping over people, they’re enough of a workout on their own to build quickness, balance, and conditioning. Practice them at your own risk, or, better yet, find a freerunning gym like Tempest to get in-depth instruction.
Run toward a sturdy box or other obstacle and begin to jump a few feet in front of it—you should have to reach to touch the edge of it. Lean your torso forward and dive toward the wall almost as if you were diving into a pool in front of you. Touch the wall with arms straight and on the outside of your legs.
Tuck your knees to your chest and let the momentum carry you over the obstacle. If that’s too difficult, jump only high enough to place your feet somewhere on the obstacle and stop. Progress to putting one foot on top of the surface—then both feet.
Run toward the obstacle. As you approach it, push off with your left leg and kick your right leg up and out to the side. Allow the left leg to follow it. As your body passes over the obstacle, lightly place your left hand on the surface for support.
While in the air, bring your left leg in front of your body as you draw the right leg back. Land softly on your left leg on the other side of the obstacle and continue running fluidly. Don’t turn your hips over or you’ll land on both legs facing the obstacle. The goal is to keep moving in the same direction without slowing your pace.
Beginners should start with a simple safety vault, where you briefly tap your right foot on the obstacle for stability as you’re vaulting over it.
Run toward the obstacle and jump with your right leg, raising it above your hips. Let your left leg follow suit. As you pass over the box, touch your hands down on the surface next to your hips with fingers facing forward. Lean back and align your legs so your body takes a V-sit shape.
Push your body forward with your arms, spreading your chest, and kick both legs to help you off the box. Land on the ground upright, not leaning backward. To get the technique down, start by simply running and jumping up onto the obstacle and sticking the landing (imagine doing a running box jump). From there, try getting off the box by planting your hands on it and kicking your legs out to land in front of the box. Practice!
Make sure you’re wearing shoes that offer good traction. Take time to measure out how many steps you need to take to get to the wall and which foot you’ll jump off of. Run to the wall and place your foot on it at about hip level (that is, while standing)—if you place it too high, you’ll kick the wall and bounce off; too low, and you’ll slide down it. Speed up as you approach the wall—trust your foot. Reach with your arms as you move up the wall to grab the top and help you pull yourself over it.