Parkour is the art of moving from one place to another in a fast, fluid, efficient, and dynamic manner with nothing but the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet — and even those are optional. Practitioners of parkour work to perfect their ability to leap, grasp, swing, roll, and stride under, over, around, and through any kind of obstacle. Though parkour is primarily practiced in urban environments, the art form is equally applicable in the woods and mountains.

Parkour in between buildings

Photo: Thor/Flickr

Parkour was developed in the 1980s by father and son Raymond and David Belle and Sebastien Foucan. Raymond Belle was a French soldier and firefighter who was well-known for his physical fitness and gymnastic prowess. He was a member of an elite team of firefighters who undertook all the most difficult and dangerous rescue missions. The elder Belle was a follower of Georges Hébert, a French physical fitness instructor who believed that the best way for someone to get fit was to engage in well-rounded, holistic exercise — running and jumping and diving and swimming and rolling. Mr. Belle tuned his training around this philosophy and inspired many younger firefighters, including his son David, who more formally organized his movements into what is today known as parkour.

Parkour also involves a lot of leaping over things

Photo: Fabio Aro/Flickr

We are big fans of parkour here at MNN, having included it in our list of seven ultra-green extreme sports, and wanted to share more about it with our readers. Enjoy!

The roots of parkour

The movements of parkour are probably as old as the human form itself. At its most basic level, parkour is simply a string of efficient and athletic movements that have been practiced, in one form or another, by athletes, warriors, monks, and entertainers stretching back millennia. Hébert, who could be called the grandfather of parkour, based his exercise philosophy on indigenous tribes he observed in Africa. There’s this film from 1930 showing a daring young man performing moves that would not be out of place in any modern parkour video:

The philosophy

Parkour is move than just running around the city and swinging on bars —  it's as much the movements as it is the ideals. Parkour traditionalists stress the importance of physical self-reliance and freedom of movement as well as overcoming both physical and mental barriers. Personal growth is paramount. David Belle sees it as training fit for warriors and emphasizes mastering control and focus so as to be able to perform with force and precision. Competition is frowned upon, with some adherents saying that the inclusion of any competitive elements strips the movements of the parkour label.

Belle gets the credit for formalizing his father's athletic style into what is known as parkour, but like many good philosophies, the tree that began with Belle's parkour has branched out. Belle' friend Foucan developed his own offshoot of parkour known as freerunning that involves more flips and other acrobatic moves. Foucan merged elements of parkour with certain tenets and ideas from martial arts into his philosophy, which he says puts more of an emphasis on the goals and abilities of the individual.

The 2013 documentary "Breaking The Line" does a good job exploring some of the philosophy of parkour as it follows traceur (or parkour enthusiast) Dan Edwardes.

Woman doing parkour near a colorful wall

Photo: Marco Gomes/Flickr

Parkour moves

Parkour is no different from any other style of movement in that it has its own vocabulary of moves. In karate, you do chain kicks, punches, and blocks together to defend against attack. In parkour, you use rolls, vaults, leaps, wall runs, and swings to smoothly make your way over a landscape, urban or otherwise.

The Internet is awash with instructional videos and guides on how to practice the physical parts of parkour. As with any new athletic pursuit, it’s important to work up from the basic moves, pushing your expectations and abilities without going to far and injuring yourself.

Ryan Doyle created a couple of good parkour tutorial videos that cover the basic roll and the far more advanced Webster flip and handspring.

How to roll:

Webster flip tutorial:

Here’s the wall run:

The cat leap:

The cat balance:

The Tic Tac:

It should go without saying, but BE CAREFUL DOING THIS STUFF. You can get hurt really badly (or even die) if you push too far beyond your abilities in parkour. Take it slow and don’t get hurt. Seek out more practiced practitioners and learn from them.

If you need any more convincing on that count, watch this compilation video of parkour fails. A quick warning: there are occasional swears sprinkled throughout all the falls and bails. Anyone sensitive to that sort of thing might want to watch this one on mute. Also, if you have trouble watching people, mostly young men, smack their heads and bodies on hard surfaces, you should also sit this one out.

Parkour move in mid air

Photo: Thor/Flickr

A collection of the best parkour videos

District B13:

Best of David Belle:

Damien Walters 2011 Official Showreel:

"Assassin’s Creed" meets parkour in real life:

The world’s best parkour and freerunning

The Amazing Spider-Man Parkour:

Parkour, literally:

Parkour guy balances on a rail

Photo: Joris Louwes/Flickr

Traceurs to know

There are a lot of amazing people in parkour (and freerunning), each with their own unique form and style. Ubiquitous cameras, easy editing software, and Internet video make it easier than ever for skilled practitioners of parkour to compile large and impressive video libraries followed and viewed by millions of fans.

Here are just a handful of the top people in parkour. If I missed one of your favorites, please post links to anyone good in the comments.

David Belle

Damien Walters

Sêbastien Foucan

Yann Hnautra

Daniel Ilabaca

Ryan Doyle

Tim Shieff

Daniel Arroyo

Chase Armitage

photo montage of a parkour move up a tree

Photo: Serzhile/Flickr

Want to read more about parkour? Check out these posts here on MNN:

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