Parkour for the physically challenged

Parkour TutorialIs Parkour an elite discipline, reserved to the young, male and athletic? Can I train my weak body without hurting it? What does it take? Well, effort AND time AND care, unfortunately. No shortcuts, no miracle two-week program. A lot of dedication, and maybe keeping in mind the four points below. Read More for the rest of Pilou's article.



To give you some background, I started training Parkour two years ago after 33 years of no physical exercise. I was in good health (read: thin) for my age, but had no muscles, no experience in martial arts or climbing or gymnastics or fitness, pretty much a blank slate. Since then, I have worked hard to reach what I consider a decent level, learning the theory behind the moves and getting more and more involved in training newcomers at Primal, the Parkour gym in DC. Working in a gym, I had the opportunity to see many different types of people in action, young and old, male and female, heavy and light, strong and weak, flexible and stiff. So here's a few observations, derived from my experience, about what can make training Parkour easier for people who, like me, are physically challenged.

1. Condition your joints first

What do traceurs complain about? pain in the knees, ankles and shoulders, mostly. See a pattern? Parkour training is very demanding on the joints, no doubt about that. And yet, we tend to condition first our major muscles - biceps, triceps, hamstrings, then abs and lats... rather than improving the strength of the smaller muscles around our joints and our flexibility. I was surprised to note that Georges Hébert recommended as elementary conditioning exercises to do shoulder rotations, leg balancing, squats and stretches rather than strength exercises. And here's another idea: when we build up our larger muscles, we tend to increase our muscle mass and thus our body mass. All of a sudden, our articulations have to cope with increased mass to move around at high acceleration, resulting on much more force upon them. So maybe doing ankle and shoulder circles looks funny, but maybe not doing them ultimately throws your body out of balance, where your joints cannot follow what your muscles ask of them and complain.

2. Increase your flexibility

Another under-appreciated thing to train is flexibility. When I started, I was stiff as a board and hating to stretch. Well, I quickly discovered the down side: if your not flexible enough, you will overburden your more flexible (and usually weaker) articulations to compensate. If your hips are nice and flexible, you can bend them more upon landing, and not bend your knees and ankles (and use tendons, ligaments and bones to absorb the acceleration) as much. Flexible shoulders and core also increase your range of movement, so stretch!

3. Pain = bad, part I

We often dismiss or show off our scratches and bruises, and expect to go through some suffering in our daily training. "no pain, no gain", right? right. Our bodies are reactive, in the sense that they build up muscle in response to physical activity. You can't get the strength to do a climb up by just looking at your arms and shoulders, and think "grow". Sore muscles are inavoidable, and even welcome to a degree, as they are the sign that the body registered a need for extra strength. But you have to let it work! Especially for older people like me, this process is slow, and over-exercising a sore muscle will not accelerate it, and rather weaken you to the point where you start hurting yourself. After a hard workout, ever had insomnia? felt nauseous? had poor digestion? these are some signs of exhaustion taking over your body. Ignoring all these signals (soreness, muscle and joint pain, exhaustion) may allow you to keep training and improve your skills, but it also prevents your body from fully benefiting from your work, and ultimately weakens it. Alternating heavy conditioning and skill training with lighter workouts focused on improving form, balance, flexibility and joints (it fits nicely together, doesn't it?) will let you rest your ailing muscles while staying active.

4. Pain = bad, part II

Bruises and scratches happen often as a result of attempting a harder move, going over a new or more difficult obstacle, sometimes loosing our focus. And they also are signs, signs that our technique is lacking or that the obstacle we train is too ambitious. They are the marks of our failures as traceurs, our inability to clear the obstacle well, accomplish the move smoothly and efficiently. We should acknowledge them, and hear what they tell us: that we need to train more repetitions of the move at a slightly lower level, to think back about where and how and why we lost the full control of the move and pay attention to it. Bruises are the slap on the back of the head our invisible teacher gives us when we're not doing well enough.

So in the end, it all boils down to listening to your body, and training it patiently and respectfully. All the more if you're old, fat, weak or stiff, as you're coming from a lot further away than the young athletic traceur whose body is (sometimes, but not always) ready to take on the challenge. Sure, it takes much more time to train with such care, and it is often frustrating to waste time on silly exercises when there is still so much else to learn. But if you want "to be and to last", to develop a strong and durable body at the same time, you will need patience. With determination and humility, I think anybody can learn Parkour and become a traceur, even the physically challenged!

Curious about keeping healthy while practicing parkour? Check out these other great sources!


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