One of the main goals with any fitness plan, no matter the combination of diet and exercise, should be to maximize the body’s physical potential. That means making it stronger, more flexible and more agile. In many cases, this requires a number of different workout routines. Most sports prepare the body for specialization, not overall fitness — except one: Parkour.
In the words of Cliff Kravit, instructor at the L.A. School of Gymnastics, “[Parkour is] the art of overcoming obstacles.” It is not, despite what The Office’s Michael Scott might think, an endless display of flips and spins with no real outcome. The essential idea is to get from point A to point B as directly and effectively as possible, using all the muscles in the body. Tricks can be incorporated, but at its heart, parkour is a minimalist discipline designed for effectiveness.
The core ideas of parkour are efficiency and constant progress. This applies to overcoming obstacles — do only what you can do, and the most effective move, while maintaining the momentum — and practicing the discipline. This isn’t a sport designed to burn out the body or to cause injury.
But what makes it so great is its functionality for exercise. It truly does work the entire body. Depending on the obstacles, any parkour outing can involve running, jumping, vaulting or climbing walls, balancing across rails and other activities. In essence, imagine a combination of cardio, plyometrics, pulling moves such as pull-ups and any sort of workout designed to increase flexibility.
And most of all, parkour’s roots are urban; the rails, walls, benches, hills and other obstacles often involved are found in cities, not suburbs or farms. And in a city like Los Angeles, these challenges abound. Plus, learning to get around quickly on foot can be an incredibly useful skill.
Colleges like USC are great for parkour.
We’ve all run late to class, having to weave through crowded streets on campus to a building. Any chance to get around a small wall and out of the slow-moving crowd helps.
Parkour is a discipline based entirely on situation, personal decision and environment. There isn’t a set of routines to do that solves every obstacle or problem. After taking a few training sessions, however, it was clear there are a few core concepts that are heavily utilized. Learning to absorb impact when landing, whether from jumping down from a wall or elsewhere, is key; land on the balls of your feet, bending the knees and body to avoid injury. It’s harder than it sounds, but when mastered, it’s incredibly fun and safe too.
Other common concepts are rolls, vaulting and climbing. It seemed odd to have to learn this, but put into practice, I saw its use. It took a few tries, but then the method was clear. When going into a roll, again land on the balls of the feet, bending forward with hands out. Let one slide across the ground beneath the body, bending the torso so it pulls your shoulder and body into a roll. The idea is to avoid injury to the back or knees, and compared to rolls not done in this style, this way is much more comfortable.
“I don’t like telling people to do certain moves as it has the effect of limiting what people think they can do,” Kravit said. “They lose their creativity. It’s that creativity that really helps people figure out the ‘right’ way to get over an obstacle to best suit their individual level of progression and ability.”
That said, there are many ways to train for parkour. The idea is to work the entire body. Plyometrics like clap push-ups and box jumps are extremely effective — the former especially, as it helps with wall jumps. Running or playing soccer can help with building and handling momentum. The idea for this is strength and endurance. Even crabwalks are a useful exercise, as they work the entire body, especially if the abdomen is kept lifted the entire time.
And these definitely work. The day after your first workout, expect to be a little sore — especially in places you didn’t think you would be. Even if you’re doing a full body fitness routine throughout the week, this will test your physicality, both muscular and cardiovascular endurance.
Parkour even helps sharpen problem-solving skills by training the mind to approach obstacles in unconventional ways. Instead of looking at a wall and having to go out of your way to get around it, vault it. It destroys functional fixedness, or how the mind links certain things with only one solution or use.
“The mindset that is instilled by parkour teaches us how to approach obstacles in life and make choices to handle them,” Kravit said.
At first glance, parkour might seem like a spectacle, not an effective, practical workout. But it’s probably the most unique and flexible of any workout plan, and infinitely practical in an urban environment like Los Angeles. So go outside and do it. Find some rails, walls, anything. Go out and be active.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Way of the Body” runs Tuesdays.