How Parkour Works


Extreme Sports Image Gallery Urban Freeflow's Ez leaps across a gap 45 feet above the ground. See more extreme sports pictures.
Image courtesy Urban Freeflow

Recreational running is­ pop­ul­ar enough­ to warrant millions of dollars in advertising every year and more in consumer purchases, yet many people still find it boring. But what if taking a morning jog didn't mean training for a marathon or wea­ring short shorts?

What if it meant creative, individual expression through acrobatic moves like leaping from walls and over gaps, ground rolls and precision jumping? Instead of running laps around the community park, you'd navigate through the city, making the urban landscape your personal obstacle course, a playground for strength, freedom, courage and discipline.

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That's the basic idea of parkour. And it can be just as exciting and glamorous as it sounds, especially when performed by professionals. But its practitioners, called traceurs (males) and traceuses (females), because of its French origin, see parkour as much more than that.

In this article we'll take a closer look at what parkour is, the philosophy behind it, how it got started and where it's going in the future.

Parkour is an international discipline, sport and hobby that is best described as the art of forward motion in spite of obstacles, or to put it simply: the art of movement. Parkour's chief aim is never to move backward but instead to overcome obstacles fluidly, with strength, originality and speed.

The History of Parkour

Sébastien Foucan clears a gap on a stadium roof for Jump Britain.
Sébastien Foucan clears a gap on a stadium roof for Jump Britain.
Image courtesy Urban Freeflow

Parkour's development into a cohesive discipline first began in 1988 in Lisses, France, when David Belle was 15 years old. Belle was greatly influenced by his father's experiences as a renowned rescuer and military firefighter in the Paris regiment of the sapeurs-pompiers. As a highly skilled and talented athlete, Belle's father, Raymond, adapted well to the training philosophy of physical education expert Georges Hébert, a former naval officer.

While traveling through Africa with the French Navy, Hébert witnessed the indigenous peoples' remarkable athleticism and how they achieved it by interacting with their surroundings. He said of them, "Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skillful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in Gymnastics but their lives in Nature." This led him to develop the Natural Method, or méthode natural, which uses only the body and its surroundings for physical development. Hébert believed the purpose of physical education is to create strong, able-bodied individuals who are useful to society.

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The holistic training method Hébert developed emphasizes the integration of the human mind and body to overcome obstacles through running, jumping, leaping, walking on all fours and climbing. His efforts directly contributed to the military obstacle course, or parcours du combattant. The military obstacle course, still used by the French military today, consists of different stations like rope climbing and swinging, balancing on wooden beams and climbing ladders. Through these activities, trainees gain victory over their fears and physical weaknesses through repetition.

It was Belle's love for martial arts films, especially the work of Bruce Lee -- and the scenarios he imagined, often themed around rescue, escape and pursuit -- that inspired him in the early stages of parkour, and remains a source of inspiration for others. Lee's approach to martial arts stood in stark contrast to that of his contemporaries. Instead of rigid structure, his approach embraced adaptability and evolution -- each central to the heart of parkour.

Though Belle initially developed parkour with friends, his exceptional athletic ability propelled him onward as the discipline's leader, eventually putting him into the spotlight where he remains today, though reluctantly. Other contributors to the development of parkour include Sebastien Foucan, Kazuma and Stephane Vigroux. Parkour is often compared to skateboarding, mostly because it uses urban terrain to perform "tricks." However, most traceurs reject the comparison, finding comparisons to the negative public image of skateboarding (that of rebellious and misguided youth) inaccurate and unfair.

Blue, from Urban Freeflow, performs a Kong vault.
Blue, from Urban Freeflow, performs a Kong vault.
Image courtesy Urban Freeflow

Parkour emerged in the greater public's consciousness with the help of "Rush Hour", a short promotional film for BBC ONE. The film features parkour's founder, David Belle, running across the rooftops of London, leaping from building to building to avoid the gridlocked traffic below. The film caught the public's imagination, and soon budding traceurs showed up everywhere. Unfortunately, because parkour had not been organized yet, these new traceurs (mostly teenage boys) had no proper instruction and a complete lack of context. Belle and his associates had attained their level of skill through strictly regimented training over the course of more than a decade. What followed were injuries and, in the case of two unfortunate boys in France, death.

Sébastien Foucan completes a cat leap.
Sébastien Foucan completes a cat leap.
Image courtesy Urban Freeflow

When parkour hit the English-speaking world, it was given another name: "free-running," mostly for the ease of use and memory. Now the two terms represent an unfortunate schism in the parkour community. Purists argue that, while very similar to parkour, free-running is more liberal when it comes to the rule of not moving backward. On this side of the argument, parkour in its purist form is meant to be only practical and efficient, but free-running allows moves to be purely aesthetic.

Groups like Urban Freeflow are lambasted in online forums for "prostituting" the art of parkour through their participation in high-profile media projects, like television advertisements, film projects and corporate events. However, in light of David Belle's contributions to television and film, and those of parkour's other founding fathers, this position is difficult to support. Other arguments against the purists' position use other sports as examples, arguing that commercialization and competition doesn't diminish individual experience, but rather it's what one makes of it.

To date, official parkour competitions don't exist. If purists have their way, they never will. Urban Freeflow's principal writer, Dan Edwardes, argues that "competition already exists on many levels within the free-running community: friends challenge each other to improve upon their most recent efforts; training partners push each other during sessions, even involuntarily; members of the same crew feed off each other's energy and achievements as they seek new boundaries to break. This is competition, even though it happens within a loose and perfectly amicable framework."

Next, we'll look at some parkour moves and training programs run by Urban Freeflow.

Moves and Training

For many traceurs, parkour is a gateway to freedom from social constraints as they "free their minds" from society's messages of how public spaces and their body are to be used. Ez, the director of Urban Freeflow, an international parkour organization based in Surrey, England, says, "I like to view it as a discipline that provides absolute freedom and something that, through lots of practice, can put you in a position of being able to move in a way that is animal like, fluid, explosive and graceful. But I also like to use it as a means to keep fit, to build upper body strength and to keep my mind sharp. The fact that no equipment other than a pair of trainers and an open mind are needed makes it all instantly accessible." Parkour is as moldable as a traceur's creativity and physical capabilities allow. With that said, the number of possible movements is endless, but here are the basics:

While parkour celebrates the individual's journey toward freedom and overcoming fear, it still remains largely an activity practiced in community. Read more about the parkour community on the next page.

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For more common questions and expert answers on sports and athletic performance, visit Sharecare.com.

Parkour Crews & Community

Forrest from Urban Freeflow performs a precision jump for a "Discovery Channel" shoot.
Forrest from Urban Freeflow performs a precision jump for a "Discovery Channel" shoot.
Image courtesy Urban Freeflow

The parkour community not only provides safety but is instrumental in a traceur's growth. Parkour crews hit the city together and participate in what they call "jams" or "sessions," which consist of different drills or games like follow the leader where each traceur does the same move as the one before. Community learning is vital to parkour because it provides an appropriate context for the ability of non-professional traceurs. This takes away the pressure to perform movements outside of one's abilities and minimizes the possibility of injury.

As it stands, parkour is still too new to have any literature printed in book form. Most information is hosted online by parkour organizations and crews around the world. Urban Freeflow is at the center of the global parkour community, always aiming to give back to the discipline and help those pursuing it. Through online message boards, an ample library of Web articles, photos and videos, Urban Freeflow works to provide much needed education to those practicing parkour.

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Image courtesy Urban Freeflow

Whether purists like it or not, parkour is in the media and people everywhere are trying it. These people need to be educated. Urban Freeflow runs two academies for parkour training: one is designated for youth (ages 8 to 19) while the other is open to the general public. In what they consider a monumental step forward, as of April 24, 2006, Urban Freeflow teaches an AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) accredited course on the fundamentals of parkour to schools in the Westminster area of London.

As parkour gains media exposure through advertising, films and television, commercialization is inevitable. Only time will tell what the future holds for it, but one thing's for sure: parkour will always be what you make of it.

For more information on parkour, check out the links on the following page.

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Sources

  • Belle, David, et al. "David Belle." April 19, 2006. http://parkour.net/modules/articles/item.php?itemid=2
  • Brumback, Kate. "Americans Jump, Roll and Leap Into 'Parkour.' April 19, 2006. http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2006-02-28/brumback-parkour
  • Edwardes, Dan. "History: The Birth of (a) Movement." April 19, 2006. http://www.urbanfreeflow.com/the_core_level/pages/archives/history.htm
  • Edwardes, Dan. "Competition and Freestyle Parkour: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?" April 19, 2006. http://www.urbanfreeflow.com/the_core_level/pages/archives/competition.htm
  • Edwardes, Dan. "Georges Hébert and the Natural Method of Physical Culture." http://www.urbanfreeflow.com/the_core_level/pages/archives/methode_naturelle.htm
  • Ez, Urban Freeflow. "Sébastien Foucan Interview." April 19, 2006. http://www.urbanfreeflow.com/the_core_level/pages/archives/foucan_interview.htm
  • Feraess. "The Benefits of Parkour." April 19, 2006.http://parkour.net/modules/articles/item.php?itemid=11
  • Gleyse, Jacques. (2001) "The Body and the Metaphors of the Engine." Université de Montpellier III. http://recherche.univ-montp3.fr/cerfee/article.php3?id_article=191
  • "Raymond Belle, David's Father." Originally in "Allo Dix-Huit." http://parkour.net/modules/articles/item.php?itemid=3
  • Urban Freeflow. "Fundamentals." April 24, 2006 http://www.urbanfreeflow.com/fundamentals/fundamentals.htm