How many people do you know who have broken a bone, twisted something, or sustained some other form of injury because they tripped or slipped or missed a step during regular activity?
It’s quite common, and while not always avoidable, someone with a good understanding and awareness of where their body is in space, along with tools for dealing with those missteps in a safe manner, is far less likely to sustain a serious injury in the process.
In this guest post from Ryan Ford and Ben Musholt, authors of Parkour Strength Training, they show how the core skills they teach in parkour – ascending and descending – will help protect you from those inevitable mishaps.
“Parkour” Isn’t What You Think – Here’s How Some Simple Skills Can Protect You From InjuryWhen you hear the word parkour, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
- Do you see a group of youth running across rooftops? You probably cringe when imagining soaring over the gaps between those buildings.
- Maybe you envision someone dropping from a fire escape into a somersault on the concrete below. How does he not blow out his knees or crack his head?
- How about someone throwing a tornado-like flip from the edge of a retaining wall? That can’t be good for your body!
Whatever you imagine, my guess is that it probably entails risk of physical harm. And, that is a shame. The association of parkour with dangerous behavior undermines how useful it is.
Parkour is a life skill that helps you negotiate through your physical environment with greater ability. The more efficiently you can haul yourself over a barrier, safely drop from a low height, or confidently balance on a narrow ledge, the better your readiness to face the world.
Mastering how you interact with your immediate environment is not an extreme sport. It is common sense.
So, from here on out, when you hear a reference to parkour, think of it as the physical training regimen that prepares you to overcome obstacles with speed and efficiency.
As a distinct discipline, it entails quadrupedal movement, landing, rolling, balancing, jumping, vaulting, wall running, brachiating, and climbing. While advanced practitioners work to refine their power and precision, newcomers focus on simpler things, like how to fall safely, as well as how to condition their bodies to avoid injury.
Essential Base Skills for ResilienceIn this article, we’ll be looking at the two most fundamental skills that will help protect you from potential injury from falling or climbing: skills to help you ascend and skills to help you descend.
The purpose of this post isn’t to provide a tutorial on the entire spectrum of parkour movement. Instead, we would like to give you a taste of a few fundamental skills to whet your appetite.
Understand though, that this is a simplified breakdown. Everyone comes to parkour with a unique athletic background. Some of you may be relatively new to bodyweight fitness. Others may come from years of gymnastics or martial arts training. If you are of the latter group, the skills below might seem easier than getting out of bed in the morning.
For a taste of how nuanced and deep parkour development can be, take a peek at Ryan’s YouTube channel. Better yet, pick up our new book Parkour Strength Training, and get ready to be immersed in a torrent of information and challenging drills.
The Two Most Fundamental Skills You Need for Survival – Mastering the Ascent and the Descent
Ready to get started? Let’s begin with a thought experiment. When you are faced with a survival situation in which your best option is to flee from danger, what are the two skills most likely to save your life?
If that seems like too broad of a question, try narrowing it down to the following examples:
- Escaping a fire on the second story of an apartment building
- Scrambling to high ground during a flash flood or tsunami
- Evading a rabid dog or a mob of bloodthirsty zombies
Whatever the situation, putting some vertical separation between you and the danger is probably a smart idea. From successfully down-climbing or scaling up a wall, the ability to quickly descend or ascend a vertical surface is crucial.
Parkour is often thought of as the counterpoint to martial arts. When you are faced with a fight or flight situation, you can either stand and fight your ground, or you can run like hell to ESCAPE to safety.
It’s a solid analogy, but it misses the other main application of parkour: the ability to help you REACH something.
Imagine the scenarios listed above from the perspective of a first responder, like a firefighter or a search and rescue agent. To help people in danger you need the skills to reach them quickly and efficiently.
- How rapidly could you scale the side of a building or a cliff face to reach someone in peril?
- What about if you needed to navigate some urban obstacles in order to catch a thief?
The faster you can do it, the better.
Those are obviously extreme examples, but the ability to reach a target can have a much more mundane application. Think about climbing up a gutter to reach an open window because you are locked out of your house.
Thus, if there is one thing you gain from this post, it should be to get you thinking about how parkour training can help you get above or down from an obstacle confidently and without injury.
Sounds simple, right? Good. Time to dive into the fun stuff.
Essential Resilience Skill #1 – Getting Down from a Surface Safely (the Descent)
First, let’s explore what is needed for you to descend/land on the ground safely.
1. Start with the Basic Squat
There are a couple prerequisites for learning the basic skills for a safe descent. The first is the flexibility to sit comfortably in a full squat position.
Without adequate range of motion at your spine, hips, knees, and ankles, you’ll have a hard time absorbing the force of gravity. Going into a detail about how to achieve an ass-to-grass squat is beyond the scope of this post, but there are plenty of good resources available. GMB Fitness has an abundance of material to help you out.
Editor’s Note: See our full squat tutorial here.
Next, you need the strength to control your bodyweight through a full arc squat. This should be easy for most people, but before going on, be sure to demonstrate that you can do at least 10 perfect air squats in a row without difficulty.
2. Get Your Vertical Jump Down
After making sure your squat is up to snuff, you must prove that you can arrest your motion from a standing vertical jump. What that means is you should be able to do a strong upward jump, and return to the ground silently and safely.
- Swing your arms overhead as you jump to help you float off the ground, but then lower back down as gently and gracefully as a cat.
- Don’t bottom out, like a car sinking into a pothole. Ease into a gentle squat before standing up and repeating the movement.
The more advanced athletes among you can make the jump a little more challenging, by adding a tuck at the apex of your leap. Lift your knees as high as you can, creating greater clearance from the ground.
Again, before moving on, show yourself that you can tuck jump and land with good form. If the movement is loud or painful, back off to an easier progression before moving on to more challenging skills.
Integral Strength will help you build the strength you need for everyday life – and for any activities you wish to pursue, including parkour.
The next drill involves greater impact, and you really need to be prepared for it.
3. Put the Squat and Jump into Action with the Depth Drop
If you feel ready for it, what you are going to do next is take a step off a low obstacle, like a park bench, and land softly on both feet. The motion is known as a depth drop, and it is one of three basic skills that you should understand at the end of this tutorial.
Time for a disclaimer: Dropping repetitively from any height may not be a nice thing to do to your joints, especially as you do it higher and higher off the ground.
Depth drops are no exception.
You should be comfortable with this movement as a life skill, but it need not be something you train for many repetitions on a daily basis. Moderation is key.
- Start with a really low obstacle, like a curb.
- Lead with one leg as you step and drop off.
- Land on both feet, absorb your impact gently and quietly, and stand up.
- Assuming you have no pain or other difficulty, progress to trying it off a higher surface, like a park bench.
Notice that you aren’t supposed to jump off the bench. Just take a small step and drop off. Be active through your feet, ankles, and knees, preparing yourself for impact.
Another crucial cue is that you need to be aware of your knee alignment. Don’t let them collapse inward or shoot excessively forward past your toes! Try to keep your knees stacked relatively right above your toes.
Athletes with good prior conditioning may try depth drops from taller heights, but unless you have been training this for many months, don’t try it above knee-height yet.
In Parkour Strength Training we go into detail about the differences between a hard and a soft landing.
Without going into a long explanation, know that depending on the circumstances of a drop, you may want to stay stiffer and taller in order to rebound quickly (hard) or you may want to absorb fully and silently (soft).
The higher the drop, the greater the need for full compression with your knees flexed beyond 90-degrees. Sometimes you will even need to put your hands down in front of you — between your legs, not outside — for extra support. A good rule of thumb for beginners to follow is to try to arrest your squat depth during a landing before you break a 90 degree angle with your upper and lower leg.
Advanced athletes will likely have the strength, mobility, and control to safely absorb past 90 degrees, but beginners may not yet be ready.
To see a beastly depth drop in real life, watch this video of APEX Movement pro Dylan Baker taking a two story fall:
Parkour Thug Life ft. APEX Movement Pro Team member Dylan BakerWhile filming a commercial for VIVOBAREFOOT, Dylan takes a massive drop but executes a perfect recovery and landing. ► Follow Dylan Baker: https://www.facebook.com/DylanBakerParkour► Follow the APEX Pro Team: https://www.facebook.com/apexmovement
Posted by APEX Movement on Thursday, March 5, 2015
Before you go and try anything remotely similar, you should know that Dylan has been training parkour since 2007. That fall would have killed many people. Because of his prior training, he was able to walk away unfazed. Pretty amazing.
Make it your goal to master a high-quality depth drop.
Bad landings don’t always hurt you in the short run, but they will add up and destroy your joints over time. Whether you are jumping out of your truck, playing with your kids at the park, or enjoying a game of pick-up basketball, aim to have good landings in everything you do.
The skill might even save your life one day.
Essential Resilience Skill #2 – Getting Up and Over Barriers (the Ascent)
Moving on, let’s talk about two exercises that are crucial to helping you get above an obstacle with confidence.
1. Get the Hang of the Cat Hang
The cat hang comes first, and it should be thought of as a spring-loaded rest position below the lip of a wall.
Whenever you climb a vertical obstacle, you would likely find yourself in this position right before trying to “mantle” up and over the top. Scaling over the lip of anything is often the crux — or hardest part — of a climb, so in that sense, the cat hang is the key building block that sets you up to finish the ascent of an overhead structure.
To perform it:
- Grasp the top of a head-height wall and press your feet into the vertical surface, with your butt at the same level as your ankles.
- Your arms should be extended and your lower body should be compressed into a tight ball.
- The downward pressure from your fingers combined with the inward pressure of your feet against the wall provides the friction to keep you in place.
See how long you can hold this position. Five seconds? Ten seconds? Test yourself. Ideally, you can work up to holding this position for at least 20-30 seconds.
However before that, here are a few pointers for the cat hang:
- Your hands should be stacked directly over your shoulders. Use too wide or too narrow of a grip and you will have difficulty transitioning above the obstacle. Also, be sure to get as much of your fingers over the edge as possible. Hanging on by the tips of your fingers will make things more difficult.
- Your feet need to really press into the wall along a horizontal line of force. If you are pressing downward against the wall, you will slip. People who struggle with a full squat might have a hard time compressing their bodies tight enough to hold the right amount of tension. Go back and work on your lower body mobility.
- Split your feet apart so that one sits a little higher than the other. This split-foot position provides a better platform to step into the wall once you begin training the climb-up.
2. Get Comfortable with the Wall Support
The next mandatory skill for getting above an obstacle is known as a wall support. Without a good command of this position, it is impossible to progress to more challenging exercises like a wall dip or the top-out.
To perform a wall support, you must find a wall that is at least waist high. A loading dock or low wall at your local park are probably your two best options.
- Place your palms flat on the top of the obstacle and hop upward so your torso is positioned above your hands. Your hands should be spread shoulder-width apart and your fingers should be pointing straight ahead, rather than rotated outward. Wrist tightness can be a limiting factor here, so be sure to check out the GMB blog regarding wrist mobility drills.
- Now, lock your arms in extension and push the obstacle beneath you, staying active across your shoulder girdle.
- Don’t sag through your waist. You should actually be flexed at your hips, sticking your butt out a little. As a corollary, think of how it feels to hold the hollow-body position of a good plank or the top of a push-up. The wall support hold is like that, but applied to the top of an obstacle with the rest of your body beneath you.
- As for your feet, flex your ankles so that your toes are pressed into a vertical surface. Keeping your feet flexed like this is a good idea to avoid slamming your shins, plus it will help you kick off the obstacle for other movements.
Again, see how long you can hold your wall support. Ideally, shoot for at least 20-30 seconds of good form, with your arms straight and your body slightly piked.
Assuming you can do that without difficulty, play with shifting your weight from one arm to the other. Likewise, see how it feels to lift your torso up and down between your shoulders via a scapular dip.
The wall support is a gateway skill to a huge selection of other movements, so be sure to perfect it.
By the way, although the cat hang and wall support have been presented as important to help you get above an obstacle, it should be mentioned that they are valuable for descending too. If you had to lower off the edge of an overhead surface you would likely first support yourself on your arms, and then sink into a cat hang before dropping to the ground below.
Prepare Yourself for Overcoming Obstacles
So, there you have it. Parkour isn’t that scary after all, is it?
Start with a couple of stripped-down basics, and build your skillset from there. We encourage you to explore the other ways that this discipline can help you negotiate your physical environment. Besides being a fun and challenging pastime, remember that parkour is also full of important life skills that you may have to use one day.
For a complete resource about the physical preparation needed to overcome a variety of obstacles, pick up our recently released Parkour Strength Training.
About the Authors
Ryan Ford is an athlete, coach, author, and entrepreneur. In 2006, Ryan established the first formal parkour classes in the Western Hemisphere while also becoming one of the first professional parkour athletes in North America. He has performed and coached worldwide for various organizations including the New Yorker, TEDx, ESPN, and the U.S. Embassy.
In 2009, Ryan opened his first parkour gym, APEX Movement in Denver. Since then, APEX Movement has grown to five locations with more on the way. After establishing APEX, Ryan founded ParkourEDU, which is a coaching certification and online platform dedicated to teaching the best parkour methods.
Ben Musholt is a physical therapist and a ParkourEDU certified coach in Portland, Oregon. He competed on American Ninja Warrior in 2012 and he published the Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia in 2013.
Ben loves to move and enjoys helping others become better athletes. Whether conducting injury prevention seminars, leading garage workouts, or romping around the park, he is always in motion. His goal is to do three fun physical activities each day: Try to keep up!