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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Concrete Gymnastics

Gymnastics performed on concrete in urban jungles. No, you did not misread that.  What you just read was a description of a non-competitive French extreme sport called parkour, also known as “free running” and it is beginning to take hold here in the U.S. as well.

Originating in the suburbs of Paris, the word parkour has its roots in the word “route” and its practitioners are known as "traceurs" who trace the route…of Parkour founder David Belle.

Asked for their definition of parkour, American Parkour participants felt a need to ask the entire national community for their personal definition of the sport. The final version, by a committee of American Parkour employees and also by people outside of American Parkour, was truly a community effort (this sport really takes things seriously!):

“Parkour is the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movements to the environment.” Below you’ll find an even more detailed description of what Parkour is-and is not.

Parkour's modern history began in the 1920s, though similar movements can be found in the Eastern martial arts ninjutsu and qing gong.  Georges Hébert began teaching the fundamental movements related to Parkour during this time period, and eventually the training became the standard for the French military. David and Raymond Belle expanded on Hébert's work, with David eventually founding the Yamakasi group, the first group dedicated to Parkour.  Belle collaborated with French filmmakers to create several French language films featuring the Yamakasi troupe.

The main purpose of the discipline is to teach participants how to move through their environment by vaulting, rolling, running, climbing, and jumping.  Traceurs can be found leaping over rooftops, somersaulting off of two story buildings, and tumbling over railings on the streets of suburban Paris, Russia, and now, in the U.S. Parkour requires:

  • Consistent, disciplined training with an emphasis on functional strength, physical conditioning, balance, creativity, fluidity, control, precision, spatial awareness, and looking beyond the traditional use of objects. 
  • Movements typically include... running, jumping, vaulting, climbing, balancing, and quadrupedal movement. Movements from other physical disciplines are often incorporated, but acrobatics or tricking alone do not constitute parkour.
  • Training focuses on... safety, longevity, personal responsibility, and self-improvement. It discourages reckless behavior, showing off, and dangerous stunts.
  • Parkour practitioners value... community, humility, positive collaboration, sharing of knowledge, and the importance of play in human life, while demonstrating respect for all people, places, and spaces.

Founder David Belle has said the philosophy behind parkour is simple: “You want to move in such a way as to help you gain the most ground on…something, whether escaping from it or chasing toward it.”  This philosophy lends itself perfectly to the narrative structure of a great action film or commercial; (of course it does!)  Here is a sample of some of the best Parkour moments in films and commercials:

  • In 1997 Belle created a group of traceurs (parkour practitioners), free-runners, and street acrobats called Yamakasi.  Yamakasi:
Finally, though not technically parkour, here's a commercial featuring a particular type of street acrobatics known as Capoeira. Capoeira originated in Brazil and is distinguished by its fluid kicks, sweeps, and headbutts. While some of the ball-passing has probably been executed in CGI (computer generated images,) the acrobatics themselves are nevertheless impressive and beautiful to watch.  Parkour soccer:

Landing and rolling- A body in motion tends to stay in motion.  Isn’t that psychics 101? So how then, is a free runner’s motion stopped, especially in a human being, so that the impact to the joints of the ankle, hip, knees and lower back do not experience severe trauma, (like getting crushed?) The motion, actually, is not stopped. Momentum, velocity and acceleration using potential and kinetic energy are the physics concepts involved in parkour movements-applied to the human body.  Landings appear to be light as a feather with participants exhibiting incredible strength and body control.  Traceurs learn to land movements using this type of control by absorbing the shock and actually utilizing that energy to propel them into the next movement.  This concept is known as the stretch-shortening cycle. Though not fully understood, it is hypothesized that in the first part of the cycle, something known as the series elastic component, when stretched, stores elastic energy that increases the force produced; much like a spring does.  The body’s involuntary response to the external stimulus creates a rapid stretch that causes a reflexive muscle action which produces force.  Strength coaches are familiar with this neuro-physiological concept and the truth is that without this ability to absorb shock and carry that momentum and energy immediately into the next movement, joints would be shattered upon impact.

The closest thing to parkour that I have seen in this country has been on T.V.  The American Ninja Warrior reality show airs on G4 TV (an American television network program (NBC Universal is the parent company.)  Originally based on the world of video games (they have their own station now!?), the channel has a male oriented focus, although video games are still represented by the channel.  Strangely enough, a proficient traceur actually seems to be gliding through a video, his stunts are so natural and athletically executed. The show is in its third season (although I’d never heard of it until very recently.)

Don’t look for a local Parkour coach in your neighborhood. It is not quite that widespread-yet.  Mark Toorock (AKA "M2") is the founder of American Parkour (APK) and  is the voice of parkour here in the states. He is the owner and trainer at the world's first Parkour gym, Primal Fitness, in the Washington DC area “where ordinary people do extraordinary things every day.”

No kidding.  


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