Parkour: A Crash Course

By now, legions of gamers have already solved the new challenges in Assassin’s Creed Liberation, the latest offering in the popular action-adventure series. But you don’t have to play the game to appreciate the amazing physicality of the protagonists, who negotiate hostile terrain with ease–whilst fending off and avoiding foes, of course–via a mind-boggling series of jumps, vaults, climbs, rolls and swings. 

Parkour, as the art is known, isn’t part of Assassin’s Creed by accident. The profile of this dynamic discipline has been on a steady rise over the last two decades, thanks in large part to user-based video platforms like YouTube and high-profile films like Casino Royale (2006) where parkour legend Sebastien Foucan leads James Bond on a thrilling free run through the streets of Madagascar. 

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Parkour athletes are as powerful as they are precise, as skillful as they are strong. Physical therapist, parkour practitioner, former America Ninja Warrior contestant and author of Mad Skills: The World’s Largest Illustrated Exercise Encyclopedia, Ben Musholt, knows that those committed to getting from A to B, obstacles be damned, need to be super fit both as a requirement for success and an insurance policy for the inevitable stumbles.

Assasin’s Creed Parkour Video:

Casino Royale Parkour Chase:

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“Part gibbon, part mountain goat, elite parkour athletes demonstrate tremendous upper body strength, explosive hops and amazing sure-footedness,” he says.  “Flying up walls and airing over rooftop gaps is no easy feat and to move like they do parkour athletes need to be springy, highly coordinated, and have a supernatural awareness of their bodies in space.”

In other words, don’t discount the athleticism of these fringe physical artists. At least not until you have successfully attempted your own stunt reel. 

And while you may not be keen on racing over low fences or reaching balconies sans ladders, everyone can benefit from the main elements of parkour-inspired training: power, speed, agility and flexibility. Here, Musholt explains what goes into outrunning 007.

Next: What Makes a Parkour Athlete? >>

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THE DNA OF A PARKOUR ATHLETE

When you see the characters in Assassin’s Creed sprint over tabletops or tuck-and-roll a 20-foot leap, you might be seized by the incredulity of it all. Couldn’t he have just taken the stairs? But once you are able to focus on the purity of the movement and appreciate the sheer physical demand of parkour, you’ll be far better off and, perhaps, more interested in giving it a try. Maybe consider the four most important rungs on the double helix of an elite parkour athlete before you start careening over park benches.

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1) Relative Strength

How well can you wield your own bodyweight? This is the first question you should ask yourself.

“Number one, you need a strong foundation of basic bodyweight skills,” Musholt says. “Your pull-ups, push-ups, and full depth squats need to be super clean, without any cheating.”

2) Explosive Strength

Since there’s a lot of jumping in parkour, you need to be able to…well…jump and stuff. Happily, this is a skill that can be built with proper training.

“You need a heavy dose of plyometric training in your routine. Box jumps, broad jumps, and even muscle-ups for your upper body, should be worked on relentlessly.”

The good news is that plyometric training places a heavy burden on your Type II, fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones most prone to growth. Combined with your regular array of squats, lunges and deadlifts, jump training can help you get bigger, stronger legs.

3) Flexibility

The most overlooked aspect of any training program is one of the most important for parkour athletes. 

“Flexibility is important, as you’ll likely find yourself in some awkward positions,” says Musholt. “Full spinal motion, good hamstring length and unrestricted shoulder range, are needed to avoid injury.”

Athletes in the 30-plus age category, in particular, need to take care to ensure that muscles and joints are properly warmed up prior to activity and stretched afterwards.

4) Balance

Since parkour athletes don’t often have the luxury of planting their feet and executing reps in one spot, training for balance is essential. 

“Honing your balance and getting comfortable hanging, swinging, and climbing with your arms will help further prepare you,” Musholt says. “Find a playground and challenge yourself to move with efficiency across the balance beams and jungle gym structure.”

Next: Train for Parkour >>

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THE MECHANICS OF TRAINING

Now that you know a little bit more about the basic physical requirements of parkour, we can get into the nitty gritty of the training execution.

“As with any athletics, gym-based strength and conditioning is beneficial for improving your general physical preparedness, but skill development ultimately comes from your training out in the field,” Musholt says. “Football players and MMA fighters spend time in the gym to build muscle, yet it is the time they spend practicing individual technique that makes them into more effective athletes. The same thing goes for parkour. Having a foundation of weight-room strength will certainly help your training, and muscle bulk has the added benefit of acting as natural padding for when you fall!”

>> Weight Room

So the basics of parkour, then, are more or less the same as they are for any other athlete. In addition to mastery of their bodyweight, parkour athletes have to cozy up to the barbell and other gym implements.

“Fundamental strength skills like barbell deadlifts, squats, and shoulder presses should be done in a gym. Motions like dips and pull-ups can be done wherever it’s convenient.”

Musholt says that a good strength session every 2-3 days – within the context of a normal skill-based workout schedule – should suffice. Those who have been less active may want to weight train a bit more often initially to strengthen muscle and connective tissue for the rigors of parkour.

>> Conditioning

“Getting out and learning basic parkour skills like vaults, leaps, and climb-ups will naturally build strength, but it is always a good idea to do supplemental conditioning at the end of your workout. If you don’t have access to a gym, don’t sweat it. Just wrap up your day of training with classic calisthenics–squats, push-ups, sit-ups, etc.–in the park. Many cities now have parkour-specific gyms, where you can do it all under one roof.”

TOTAL ATHLETE PREP

Parkour isn’t some far-flung fitness fad. If anything, it is the next evolution in modern physical development where athletes build muscle that is not only aesthetic but wholly functional. It combines many of the aspects of traditional weight-room training but adds dynamic elements that pull you out of your comfort zone, while keeping you strong, lean and muscular at the same time. You don’t have to forego your normal array of exercises. In fact, they’re a key part of skill development for parkour. 

Don’t just tell people you’re an athlete. Train like one. If you do, we guarantee you’ll be able to hurdle any challenges thrown your way with the ease and style of a furtive ninja assassin. 

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