How to Start Parkour: A Beginner’s Guide

FOREWORD: 2014 is my tenth year of parkour. As I reflect on this milestone, it’s incredible how much I’ve seen parkour grow. Unlike when I started, there are now many fantastic leaders and resources for new people to guide you and learn from. I’m happy to share my knowledge with you so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did as a beginner in parkour.

In this article, you’ll find a collection of information to help jumpstart your parkour journey. While this article was written to be highly educational, it is also intended to be concise. Want to know more details about the topics I summarize? Take some side adventures by viewing the links and videos I’ve included.

Are you ready to take the red pill? There’s no turning back. Welcome to the world of parkour, where you will tap into your inner child and accomplish things you never thought possible.

What is parkour?
History of Parkour
Who can do parkour?
What equipment do I need?
Where do I go to practice?
How do I get into shape?
Basic Parkour Movements
Intermediate Parkour
Additional Inspiration

What is parkour?

Parkour is a method of training your body and mind to overcome obstacles with speed and efficiency. However, the practice of parkour also includes many challenges that need adaptability, creativity, and strategy. Parkour athletes, known as traceurs and traceuses, use movements such as vaulting, running, climbing, swinging, and balancing to pass over, under, and through obstacles. While parkour can borrow movements from other disciplines, extraneous or purely aesthetic such as flips and twists are not typically considered parkour. Requiring you to see the environment in a unique way, parkour will teach you to face fear, set goals, and think critically to develop gradual plans of progression. As a physical discipline, parkour teaches respect for the environment and development of the body.

Originally intended as a synonym for parkour, freerunning evolved into a style of movement similar to parkour that also incorporates acrobatics and extraneous movement for fun, creativity, difficulty, and aesthetics. Freerunning allows an individual to express themselves by overcoming mental and physical obstacles without being limited to traditional parkour’s ideals of efficiency and utility.

Most practitioners of parkour and freerunning nowadays are not concerned with the names or labels of their style of movement. It is good to know the definitions and differences between movement arts like parkour and freerunning, but the modern trend is to experiment with and blend both. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I am going to refer to “parkour and freerunning” as simply, “parkour.”

Because parkour tends to be sensationalized in the media with roof gaps and flips from monolithic heights, the public has many misconceptions of what parkour truly is. Most importantly, parkour is not reckless risk taking or Jackass type stunts. Parkour is practiced with a sense of sustainability, respect, and discipline. Practice with a sense of sustainability so that your body is capable of moving well for your entire life. We should all respect the environment and people around you so that we can all maintain good relationships with the places we train at and the people we train around. The irresponsible actions of one person or group can negatively affect parkour for everyone. Lastly, pay attention to the original philosophies and ethics that helped shape parkour early on. Even if you have other main reasons for training parkour, there is plenty to be learned from traditional parkour mantras such as être et durer (to be and to last), être fort pour être utile (be strong to be useful), perpetual self-improvement, and developing a warrior-like spirit.

Other Movement Arts
Tricking is another discipline that is commonly mixed up with parkour and freerunning. Tricking is a free-form, modern offshoot of martial arts that incorporates kicks, flips, and twists into long sequences purely for creativity, aesthetics, and increased difficulty. In tricking, the only obstacle is gravity which means that it is typically practiced in large open spaces like grassy fields and gymnastics floors.

Bboying, often referred to as breaking or breakdancing, was developed as a street style of dance in the 1980s. The dance consists of four main elements: toprock, footwork, power moves, and freezes. As breaking has evolved, elements from tricking, gymnastics, and martial arts like capoeira are often mixed in to the dance.

Climbing is a physical discipline in which participants climb natural or artificial rock walls. There are many types of rock climbing including free climbing, aid climbing, and free soloing. Other variations include bouldering and buildering which require no special equipment because climbers typically don’t go higher than ~15 ft. off of the ground.

Gymnastics consists of acrobatic movements and bodyweight exercises that test all of an athlete’s abilities such as strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. Tumbling is an acrobatic offshoot of gymnastics that has also been extensively studied, adapted, and modified by cheerleading and martial arts.

Martial arts consists of thousands of different styles and practices of combat learned for self-defense, health and fitness, or mental and spiritual development. Some martial arts like capoeira, ninjutsu, and kung fu have been instrumental in the evolution of other movement arts.

As the traditional practices of dance, gymnastics, and martial arts continue to evolve, more movement arts arise that combine familiar movements with original ones. Recently, other movement arts such as circus arts, street workout, pole fitness, aerial dance, and slacklining have permeated mainstream culture and provided inspiration to parkour practitioners. Gyms such as APEX Movement aim to provide a place where movement artists of all types can train alongside and collaborate with each other.

History of Parkour

It could be argued that parkour was inspired by Jackie Chan, cavemen, or even the first primitive animal that slithered or scampered its way over rocks and plants to evade a hungry predator or chase after prey. However, the roots of the conscious practice of parkour can be traced back to two main people, George Hebert and Raymond Belle.

Georges Hébert (1875-1957) was a naval officer and physical educator who traveled the world. Hébert observed the physical prowess of indigenous people in third world countries despite the absence of a workout regiment. It was noted by Hébert that their daily survival activities resulted in highly functional, well rounded athleticism. Based on this idea, Hébert developed the Methode Naturelle (Natural Method), a training philosophy centered around natural movements that could be done anywhere such as swimming, climbing, lifting, and self-defense. Hébert’s physical education ideas were soon adopted into France’s schools and military obstacle courses known as parcours du combattant.

One of the soldiers who trained on the parcours du combatant during the Vietnam War was Raymond Belle (1939-1999). Renowned for his courage and selflessness in the military and as a firefighter, Belle’s greatest contribution may have been the knowledge, ideals, and inspiration he passed on to his son David. Raymond Belle’s legacy was created in the form of parkour and l’art du deplacement (art of movement), disciplines that were shaped indirectly by his lifestyle and teachings.

Growing up in the suburbs of Paris (Lisses, Evry, and Sarcelles) was a group of young teens who began to experiment with alternative forms of moving through their urban environment, labeling their name as the Yamakasi and their practice as l’art du deplacement. Early on, the group included David Belle, Yann Hnautra, Châu Belle Dinh, Williams Belle, Sébastien Foucan, Laurent Pietmontesi, Guylain N’Guba Boyeke, Malik Diouf, and Charles Perriére. Directly inspired by Raymond Belle’s teachings of the Methode Naturelle and his own firefighting experiences, and values such as altruism and self-improvement, the group of boys began developing the fundamental movements and ideals of l’art du deplacement. As childhood games progressed to casual training and eventually, death-defying jumps and acrobatics, the media began to take notice and a world of new opportunities was opened.

One of the first prominent media opportunities for the Yamakasi was Luc Besson’s 2001 film entitled “Yamakasi”. While some members of the group took part in the movie, others including David Belle chose another path. David’s group eventually coined the names parkour and traceur, meaning “bullet,” to describe their fast, efficient movement style. That same year, David Belle was featured in a BBC commercial and two years later, Sebastien Foucan, Jerome Ben-Aoues, and the Vigroux brothers were featured in Jump London, an award-winning documentary produced by Mike Christie. Jump London aired on national television in the UK and was later shown internationally, exposing a global audience to parkour for the first time. Interestingly, the word freerunning was originally created for Jump London as an English sounding synonym for parkour. Over the next few years, freerunning became known as the creative, aesthetic version of parkour and Sebastien Foucan was credited as the founder. In 2005, Jump London was followed up by a sequel, Jump Britain, that focused on Foucan and the rise of the parkour scene in the UK and around the world. Through the two Jump documentaries, parkour received exposure as a legitimate practice and gained a valuable launching pad that would help parkour become featured and practiced around the world.

Additional Resources
“No Obstacles” by Alec Wilkinson (New Yorker Magazine)
Pronunciation Guide to Parkour Terminology (part 1)
Pronunciation Guide to Parkour Terminology (part 2)

Who can do parkour?

Anyone can do parkour. If you think parkour is only for shirtless and athletic teenage guys, I don’t blame you; parkour videos on YouTube are definitely dominated by a young male crowd. But don’t let that fool you, I have trained with people of all ages and abilities. The two most common excuses I hear are, “Maybe if I was younger” or “I’m too out of shape.” Even if you think you are too old or too fat, parkour will help you shed the pounds, revive your health, and make you feel young again. Whether you are working on stepping over a bench or doing a double backflip; parkour is all about exploring and improving upon your own capabilities. Some of the most inspiring traceurs are overweight, female, 45 years old, or living with cerebral palsy (see below). Through parkour, anyone can learn to overcome all types of obstacles ranging from actual walls and barriers to gender stereotypes and disabilities. If you still are unsure if you can do parkour, check out my other blog post, Too Old, Too Fat, Too Weak for Parkour? NO, You Are NOT! Start With These 5 Basic Exercises


What equipment do I need?

One beautiful thing about parkour is that you don’t need any equipment to do it. However, if you aren’t a nudist and you practice in an unpredictable, outdoors area, you will want some athletic clothes and shoes to wear for minor protection. Conversely, we do not recommend gloves, helmets, or pads in your practice. It is possible to do all the basics of parkour safely without pads or helmets, so you should strive to learn good technique rather than relying on equipment. Even though parkour will eventually result in blisters and callouses on your hands, over time, your hands will become tougher. Gloves can reduce hand sensitivity and ultimately make parkour more dangerous.

Clothing
At first, parkour clothes should be whatever athletic clothes are most comfortable to you. Many people sport long pants because they add a thin layer of protection for when you inevitably bang your knee on a wall. Similarly, some people like to wear hoodies or long sleeve shirts to protect against rough surfaces and arm scratches during some falling and climbing movements.

Shoes
Parkour shoes are a complicated subject. If you ask 1000 experienced traceurs what their favorite parkour shoe is, you will probably get 100 different answers. As a beginner, your primary focus should be low-impact movement with good form. Shoes with minimal padding will promote better technique because of the instant feedback they provide. You will be less likely to do jumps or drops outside of your limits because if you do them wrong, you will get hurt! Training in minimalist shoes will also make your feet and entire body stronger in the long term. I’m not saying everyone should train barefoot all the time, but you should slowly try to fix the problem of weak and inflexible feet, not simply treat the symptoms by wearing a ton of padding and support.

If you have been wearing heavily padded shoes for your whole life, your feet are probably de-conditioned and not ready for a sudden switch to minimalist shoes. In this case, I recommend getting a pair of minimalist shoes that are only for non-athletic activities at first. For parkour and other sports, you can use padded shoes with the intent of switching to a slightly less padded shoe every few months. As you get stronger and more used to less padding, start doing warm ups and/or light parkour with minimalist shoes. The eventual goal is to do the majority of parkour training in minimalist shoes. For occasional training sessions, competitions, or performances that are more impactful than normal, it’s ok to wear padded shoes for extra protection.

There are a few other general things to look for in a good parkour shoe. Even though good technique can make up for a lack of grip, look for a shoe with a flat sole because it generally has more surface area and better grip. Some rubber compounds are grippier than others and you can usually determine this quickly by feeling it and testing out the shoe. Avoid hard, plastic materials on the sole of the shoe (usually the arch). For obvious reasons, it is good to have shoes that are lightweight and flexible but also durable. Lastly, it is important to find a shoe that does not have an elevated heel because it puts the Achilles tendon in a shortened position that limits performance and flexibility in the long run. Additionally, an elevated heel creates a longer lever out of the foot/ankle which means ankle sprains can be more severe.

Where do I go to practice?

Another amazing thing about parkour is that you can practice it anywhere (natural and manmade), as long as there are obstacles to interact with. A common complaint that I hear from new practitioners is, “I don’t have any good spots to practice at.” Even though spots that are dense with obstacles are usually considered better, limiting yourself to a single obstacle or “bad” spots can be just as beneficial. Don’t go searching for places to do a particular trick you saw in a video; the true spirit of parkour is to adapt to the obstacles at hand. Even a simple rail can provide plenty of opportunities for practice (see below).

Parkour is a global phenomenon so you have a good chance of finding other traceurs in your area to practice with. The best way to find the local parkour community is to search the Internet and Facebook for websites and groups in your area; start by checking out this map directory. Once you find your local hub, you’ll be able to keep up on community events and informal training meetups, sometimes called jams. Nowadays, you may even be lucky enough to have a parkour gym in your area. These are typically great places to get started, learn from qualified coaches, and train in a safe and controlled environment. If you don’t have a parkour gym near you, you may be able to find a gymnastics, climbing, CrossFit, or martial arts gym where you can learn some of the basic moves. However, try not to limit yourself to these “safe” feeling indoor facilities. Real parkour is done with hard, real world type obstacles like trees, scaffolding, walls, and rocks. A gym full of safe progressions and dense obstacles is ideal for training, but you should also test your skills and creativity in other environments.

How do I get into shape?

The best way to start getting into shape for parkour is by doing parkour. Because everyone begins at a different level, there are no pre-requisites for parkour. You don’t have to start out with anything difficult or high impact. In fact, you should play it safe at first and stick to simple movements while you build up your levels of fitness and body awareness. Balance along curbs, step over benches, or play a rousing game of “Don’t touch the ground, it’s made out of lava!” Try to play for 30 minutes a day and you will naturally start developing many of the basic skills of parkour.

If you are still worried about hurting yourself or you want to start out with something more basic or organized, add jogging, stretching, and the basic bodyweight exercises to your workouts. Focus on good form in order to safely develop strength through exercises like squats, pull ups, and push ups. Be sure to try new movements frequently, such as my top 10 exercises for beginners in parkour, so that you don’t get bored or run into plateaus.


Basic Parkour Movements

There is no exact formula for learning the basics of parkour. Everybody comes from a different background and will have their own strengths and weaknesses. The most important thing is to be safe. The second most important thing is to have fun! When you start out, push your limits very slowly, be creative, and experiment with all types of movement. If you are looking for a bit more structure during the beginning of your training, begin with simple techniques and slowly build up to more complex ones. Similarly, start out with the most low to ground techniques, and carefully work your way up to ones that are higher off the ground. Keep reading below for ideas on how to progress through the various types of movement.

Quadrupedal Movement
The first parkour movement that you should learn is how to move low to the ground on all four limbs. The weight transfer skills, coordination, and full body conditioning gained from quadrupedal movement are valuable foundational skills for other movements including landing, falling, and vaulting. While moving quadrupedally seems simple, the challenge it can provide for all ability levels is a testament to it’s importance as a fundamental skill for all practitioners. In addition, quadrupedal moving has many practical applications including moving low to the ground, under obstacles, over highly irregular surfaces, and up or down steep, uneven terrain.

Landing
Another movement that is important to learn is how to land. However, it should be noted that squatting and standing are prerequisites for good landings. Once you understand proper standing posture and squatting technique, you are ready to learn how to land. It is important not to lose yourself in the guts and glory of flashy flips and gigantic jumps. Gentle, quiet landings make parkour sustainable. Anyone can throw a flip or a big jump, but the landing reveals true skill. Once the symmetrical, bipedal landing is learned, falling techniques become an extension of the landing.

Falling
At some point, early on in your parkour journey, you will fall, fail, or bail. Rolls in all directions are important for you to master because they may be used intentionally as a landing method or accidentally as a falling technique. Being familiar with movements such as handstands, dive rolls, cartwheels, and full turns will further reduce the risk of injury in a falling scenario. Ukemi is the art of falling in martial arts but it can be applied to parkour as well. A solid understanding of these skills will help prevent serious injury while also increasing confidence, skill, and longevity.

Balancing
Once you have learned quadrupedal movement, landing, and falling, you are ready for balancing. The basics of balance should be learned before jumping because jumps may begin and end in unbalanced positions. When balance is coupled with landing skills, jumps can be performed safely. At this point, you will be prepared to land, roll, or fall if something goes wrong. Balance plays a role in nearly every movement in parkour so if your balance improves, so will everything else. One of the best ways to improve balance is to practice moving along challenging surfaces such as lines on the ground, curbs, or rails.

Jumping
Once you have a basic understanding of balance, you should learn proper jumping form at ground level, starting from a stand. As you begin to understand all parts of the jump, try a standing precision jump at ground level. As the standing and precision jumps are mastered, running jumps are next. Countless techniques in parkour incorporate a jump so it should be practiced in all kinds of ways; taking off 1 or 2 feet, landing on 1 or 2 feet, with a run, from a stand, across a gap, at a weird angle, before a vault, into a flip, and so on.

Vaulting
A good next step after learning to jump is to practice vaulting. Vaulting typically consists of overcoming low-level obstacles (2-4 ft. high) with the use of arms and legs. Broken down into parts, a vault begins with a run up followed by a jump. As the hands contact the obstacle and you pass over the top, you are essentially doing a variation of quadrupedal movement. For example, ground kongs are a great progression for kong vaults and the arm position of a lazy vault resembles that of a crab walk. Depending on the outcome of these movements, the vault will end with a landing, a roll, or a fall, all of which you should be familiar with at this point. There are many types of purposeful and flashy vault variations, so experiment and see what you can come up with!

Wall Running
Wall running is the next movement skill to learn and includes any technique involving a run up with a foot strike on a slanted or vertical wall. Wall running techniques, which include wall runs, tic tacs, and pop vaults, are used to change directions, move over low-level obstacles, and grab high-level obstacles (4-12+ ft.). While vaulting and wall running variations are numerous, they almost always combine running and jumping with several other foundational movements.

Brachiating
As more techniques are mastered, movements begin to apply to increasingly taller obstacles. With all the basic ground level techniques out of the way, the next skill you should learn is brachiating. Brachiating consists of swinging or shimmying along overhead obstacles like bars and branches. There are many brachiation techniques in parkour including kipping, muscle ups, under bars, sloth shimmy, monkey bars, laches, and tap swings. These techniques usually rely on the arms and methods to harness the power of gravity, conserve energy, and preserve momentum.

Climbing
As you get stronger and become comfortable relying on your arms, climbing should be introduced as a means to conquer the tallest, most difficult obstacles that other techniques cannot. There are many types of climbing ranging from cat leaps, climb ups, and climb downs to crack climbing, laybacks, and stemming. Vertical movement is a huge part of climbing and so the risk inherently increases with height. To climb safely more than a few feet off the ground, you should possess good strength and skills in landing, falling, and brachiating.

Flipping and Spinning
Now that the basics of safe and efficient movement have been addressed, you will be better suited to contend with the challenges of flipping and spinning. While these techniques are typically for aesthetics only, they bring a higher level of understanding to movement. Most of the previous skills learned were natural to our childhood development and evolution as a species but flipping and twisting techniques served little to no purpose to our survival, and are typically more unnatural for us to learn. There are infinite ways to mix flipping and twisting techniques into movement but the basics of flipping and twisting include techniques like wall spins, front flips, back flips, and side flips. Flipping and twisting will also further increase body awareness and falling skills so that the risk of injury from falling is even further reduced.


Intermediate Parkour

Once you have mastered the basics of parkour, there are infinite ways to expand upon your movement arsenal. Depending on what you like about parkour, you may choose to focus on acrobatics, strength moves, big jumps, or something else. It is a good thing to be well rounded and address your weaknesses, but it is also important to develop your own style that you excel at.

With so many new things you can choose to learn at this point, I’m not going to give you much guidance. Just experiment and see what you can come up with on your own. Or if there is some move in particular you want to learn, ask for help or look up some videos and tutorials on YouTube. More importantly, at this point in your practice, think less about training single moves and more about applying your skills to longer sequences of movements, obstacle courses, and less structured, playful games like add-on.

Parkour Jazz
Even though parkour is typically thought of as fluid and fast movement without any stops, the nature of learning a new art or sport requires you to isolate, integrate, and finally improvise. Parkour is a lot like jazz. First you must learn to play the notes and chords (single moves), then you should learn to put them together into bars, measures, and songs (combinations and pre-planned lines), and finally, you should forget everything you know and just improvise (play, compete, or perform). This state of thoughtless flow, also known as “the zone”, is obtained through years or practice and is the ultimate goal of athlete’s in all sports.

As a total beginner, a large amount of your time spent practicing will be dedicated to learning and repeating single moves. Some movements might even need to be broken down into smaller parts in order to be mastered. For example, somebody who is having trouble learning a vault may need to break it down even further and simply practice the run up and take off. In order to commit movements to muscle memory and be able to perform them in thoughtless succession, you must first isolate the individual moves.

Once a beginner has mastered several movements, they can work on the ability to integrate these movements into short combinations, pre-planned lines, and courses. Many times, it is not the single tricks and moves that defines their skill, it is the ability to link the moves together with speed, grace, and creativity. While an expert can put together a long string of movements that blend together, a beginner may link a similar string of movements punctuated with stutter steps, hesitations, and a lack of planning that puts them in poor position to move into the next technique. Stutter steps are typically eliminated when students learn to take bigger strides when they enter and exit a movement. Additionally, the ability to judge distances and foot placement as you navigate obstacles will help you link everything together. Hesitations are eliminated with confidence through repetition and experience. The more perfect repetitions you do, the more confident you become and the less likely you are to second guess yourself during a movement. Experiencing all kinds of movements and obstacles will help you adapt to new scenarios. The last important thing to consider for linking movements together is planning. A quick survey of the line or course at hand will tell you a lot about how to link things together. While a beginner might not be able to react to mistakes or misjudgments on the fly like an expert, thinking before moving will help you link things together more smoothly.

As a parkour practitioner transcends an expert skill level, they will have such a big arsenal of movements committed to muscle memory that they are capable of executing and linking movements without thinking. This practitioner is highly adaptable and can make almost instantaneous adjustments to preserve unbroken movement. This ability to improvise is what will make you successful if you ever have to use parkour in an emergency situation. Even if this never happens to you, these skills are still invaluable as a performance or competition athlete. Performances and competitions are like simulated, high-pressure emergency situations. Even choreographed performances and the carefully planned course-running strategy can go awry. Your ability to improvise determines whether or not you overcome this adversity. Another form of improvisation is play which can be developed through creative movement and drills like 10 second drill. Improvisation is not just for experts. Parkour practitioners of all levels can work on improvising at different scales using the movements that they have mastered.

Intermediate Strength and Conditioning
As you get stronger, it is important to keep challenging yourself with tougher strength and conditioning as well. There are tons of exercises, for the upper body especially, to challenge even the strongest athletes. To get some more ideas, read my article about the top 10 bodyweight exercises for intermediate parkour practitioners.

Once you have mastered basic bodyweight exercises such as squats, pull ups, and push ups, it is also time to start considering the addition of weightlifting to your workouts. In some ways, weightlifting is the antithesis of parkour. Weightlifting requires special equipment, lacks creativity, and is mostly limited to specialized gyms. However, there is no denying the fact that weightlifting can increase strength and power like nothing else. When done right, weightlifting is a powerful supplement to your parkour and plyometric training; it will increase your jumps, fortify your landings, and boost your climbing to new heights. If you want to learn more, read my article about the top 5 weightlifting exercises for parkour athletes.

Additional Inspiration

About Ryan Ford (15 Posts)

Ryan graduated in 2009 from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ryan is known internationally as a top parkour athlete and coach, having performed around the world for organizations such as the U.S. Embassy, Hewlett-Packard, and K-Swiss. Also, Ryan has been featured by media giants including the New Yorker and ESPN. In addition to founding APEX Movement, Ryan also has a parkour channel on YouTube with over 5 million views. Although Ryan’s specialty is parkour, he has continued his movement education through certifications such as CrossFit, pole fitness, and barefoot running. One of Shape.com’s 50 hottest trainers in 2013, Ryan is an alumni of YouTube's prestigious Next Trainer program and a FitFluential ambassador.


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